Thoughts on To Save Everything, Click Here (and Higher Education)

Audrey beat me to reviewing Morozov’s latest book, and as is often the case when Audrey digs deep into something, there isn’t a whole lot left to say. I encourage people to read her exhaustive analysis.

To me, the book ended up being a systematic treatment of an issue that I have been struggling with for a number of years now, ever since getting a bit freaked out at an ed-tech roundtable I participated in Spring of 2009, during which I remember Jeff Jarvis exhorting us to “shut down the prisons” — by which he (a fairly wealthy individual with resources to home-school) apparently meant we should scrap the entire K-12 enterprise and replace it with some — oh, who knows what. It was Jarvis, after all. Probably a search box and a packed lunch.

It struck me in that moment how many functions of public school Jarvis was blissfully (or perhaps willfully?) ignorant of. The child care function that fueled the growing workplace equality of women. The school breakfast and lunch programs that reduced child poverty. The civic education functions, which are not a consumer good, but a public one. The transmission of cultural norms and wisdom to the next generations.The use of schools as centers of community life.

All of these functions, and many more, are expected of our system of public schooling. It’s a system that is a product of democracy, and one that simultaneously expresses multiple competing (and often conflicting) visions of what education is supposed to do. Lawrence Cremin, late in his life, talked about these multiple responsibilities we have pushed into our schooling system (one of the few common collective experiences in our culture). And the conclusion he came to was that school was not broken at all, but was doing exactly what we were expecting of it. On any given single axis (say math scores, child nutrition, cost per student, civic education) we could probably do substantially better. But the gain in one area would be offset in others. If you want to see Exhibit A of this in practice, just look at what a focus on math scores has done to arts education over the past decade. But, hey, math scores are up, just like we requested. Success, right?

The situation is no less complex when we come to higher education. Here the goals are often in direct conflict. Legislators want us to commit (at least in the state system) to success for all. Certain employers, on the other hand, want us to act as a filter, flunking out the weaker potential employees. Students are consumers in one respect (purchasing education) but in questions of assessment look more like the product by which we are judged (what does Anywhere State’s degree actually mean?). Alumni (who are, after all, your former students) want to increase the prestige of their institution, which ultimately involves reducing student access. In this complex web of interdependent functions, what does it mean to “execute your mission”?

***

This is where Mozorov’s book shines. What Morozov demonstrates brilliantly is not only are we are often solving problems with inappropriate solutions, but in our rush to find solutions for these problems we are short-circuiting debate on what the problems actually are, and  addressing things as problems that might in fact be features or compromises that make the  system work. According to Morozov, what technocracy brings to the table here is a particularly virulent form of “solutionism”. The solutionist society does not seek merely to improve society, but to fix it. And it is that distinction that which informs much of his book.

***

The metaphor of “fixing society/school/welfare/government/health care” imagines society and its institutions as a sort of machine, built to achieve narrow, predefined, immutable ends. When these ends are not reached, or are achieved at less than desirable levels, that institution is “broken”, and technologists are assigned to fix it. And when the ends are met, and the outputs are up to acceptable levels, the problem is solved. Society is fixed.

Such a vision is antithetical to the vision of a society guided by moral judgement. A moral society makes changes to achieve defined ends, but then engages with the results of those efforts to not only debate new methods for achieving those ends, but often to redefine whether those ends are what we want after all. What we find is that many of the inefficiencies and “bugs” of the system are actually important pieces which help the system function.

The inefficiency of offline communication, for example, made it incredibly difficult to pry into a potential employee’s personal life. Today, through the massive efficiency of Google, we  can find out if candidate Jane Smith has a history spending her weekends drunk and bitching about her work life at the touch of a button. This is all through the effort that Google has expended in “making the world’s information more accessible.” And to the solutionist, if accessibility of information is a good, then turning accessibility up to eleven is a godsend.

Except the world doesn’t work like that. Morozov’s explication of this brings to mind Justice Souter’s comments about the Constitution in his commencement speech at Harvard:

[T]he Constitution is no simple contract, not because it uses a certain amount of open-ended language that a contract draftsman would try to avoid, but because its language grants and guarantees many good things, and good things that compete with each other and can never all be realized, all together, all at once.

What is true for the Constitution is true for society and technology in general. Dial up accessibility of information and you flush privacy down the toilet. Dial up privacy and you harm accessibility and free exchange of information.

Google will tell you that you’re wrong, that there are no “competing goods”. Privacy, long regarded as a good, they will tell you, is actually an evil. It’s outdated, so suck it up and deal with the new era of openness. The problem, as Morozov deftly points out, is not that when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail; but rather that there are some nails left up for a reason.

***

To explain how this applies to education, I want to go deep enough into this to upset people that are normally my allies. Because we need to upset each other a little more.

The one thing we can agree on is that education should cost as little as possible, right?

Except removing cost of attendance as an indisputable good ends up not being simple. One would think that we want education to be “as free as possible.” The word you’ll hear thrown around a lot when “edupreneurs” get together is “marginal cost of zero”. We can use technology at scale to make a college education free — isn’t that a good thing?

How technologists jump from “Education costs too much” as a problem to “Education is not completely free” as a problem is a mystery. But they do. But is the fact that education costs something a problem? Or does the cost of education act, in many cases, as a desired feature of the system?

Whether you agree with the aims or not, paying something for education has effects that many stakeholders desire. Students who pay something for a course are more likely to complete it than students who don’t. This may, on net, be a benefit for both society and the student. We also know that people experience services they pay for differently than services they don’t. Experiences that are paid for are heightened, and attention to those experiences is more focused (and in education, possibly more productive). The fact that a student paid for a course is also an important part of economic signalling to potential employers that a student is serious about entry into a profession. Employers are about to invest in you; the fact that you put money into your education (rather than stayed home and watched YouTube videos for free) is perceived as demonstrating a level of seriousness about the position, and a belief in your own ability to succeed.

Obviously there are many situations where these benefits do not apply. But at least in the context I work in, students derive very real benefits from paying something for education. The problem is not to reduce payment for education as much as possible (ala xMOOCs). The problem is more complex, and involves reducing median levels of student debt while making the amount students pay for college highly dependent on their family’s ability to pay.

And even there, that’s my version of the problem. Whatever we land on in a democracy will likely be a Frankenstein-like combination of my social justice aims with the wildly opposed aims of the “education as meritocracy” crowd.  The fact that neither of our ends are obtained absolutely is not a result of a broken system, but of a functioning democracy.

***

I could go on. I probably will over the next few weeks. But I would urge everyone who currently works for an abstract concept such as “openness”, “transparency”, “freedom”, “access”, or any one of a dozen worthwhile goals in education to read this book. I’m not sure if the core work of the people who read this blog will dramatically change as a result of reading this book, but the way you talk about and conceptualize that work might. What you prioritize might. I continue to believe that it is vital that we work to improve our educational system without succumbing to the rhetoric of crisis and plague of technocracy. If nothing else, this book will show you just how important that is.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on To Save Everything, Click Here (and Higher Education)

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on To Save Everything, Click Here « Mike Caulfield

  2. I’m glad you clarified toward the end because while you are, to my mind, spot-on, anytime I hear “*the* problem” or “*the* solution” I begin to suspect things have already gone awry.

    And while I agree with Morozov much of the time–his takedown of Jarvis was a beautiful thing–it’s ironic (in the Morissettian sense) that he says Jarvis’s book “should have remained a tweet” when his own books might be rightly criticized that way. His thesis is simple and expanded to absurd lengths because it’s just as easy (perhaps easier) to make a reputation and get on the speaking circuit as a gadfly as it is to do the same as a cheerleader…and both are far easier than actually proposing or pursuing solutions which, as far as I can tell, Morozov never even tries to do.

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