The Banal Uselessness of the Utopian Binary Critique

I was watching Jesse Stommel at NWeLearn this past week give an excellent presentation on grading. In it he suggested a number of alternatives to traditional grading, and outlined some of the ways that traditional grading is baked into the system.

And the end of the talk, the inevitable hand: “Your presentation seems so BINARY,” says the questioner, “Why is it so either/or? Why can’t it be both/and?”


I outlined my vision of a different approach to networked learning last week to a number of people at dLRN, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. But the negatives were very negative.

“I think it’s utopian,” they said, “You’re not going to eliminate all online nastiness with a different software format.”

I looked over my presentation to try to find the spot where we reached the Age of Aquarius via some Node server installs. I saw a lot of places where I said we could be doing much better, but couldn’t find the places where we cured all ills.

I was watching someone give a presentation on the struggles of the non-traditional student. After the presentation people were talking. I’m worried about the binaries here, they said. Why do we talk about non-traditional vs. traditional? Why can’t we just talk about STUDENTS?

I got some great feedback at dLRN. And I love cynical feedback more than anything. My favorite comment was from Justin Reich who said “So you show how this different, older, way could preserve complexity. But maybe we abandoned it because we hate complexity, right?”

That’s a great comment. I actually can’t get it out of my head it’s so good.

You know what’s not a great comment?

  • “How does this solve world hunger, sexism, and inequality once and for all?”
  • “Why is this so either/or?”
  • “Why is this so utopian?”
  • “We need to get past these binaries.”

These aren’t really useful questions, and I’ve come to realize they aren’t meant to be. The issue with Jesse’s call to action and mine is the same — we’re both arguing for things which are so far out of the mainstream of practice you have to squint to see them.

Saying “Why is this so binary?” when presented with an alternate, minority vision is simply a way of supporting the status quo, by not engaging with the reality that the dominant paradigm is NOT “both/and” but rather “almost entirely this”. The world of the person making the “utopian binary” critique is one where they get to ignore the existing disparities the binary calls to light — a trick most recently seen in the ridiculous #alllivesmatter hash tag: “But why single out *black* lives?”

The “utopian” critique is very similar —

Them: “If this cannot solve all problems, then how can we be excited about it?”

Me: “But I didn’t say it solved all problems!”

Them: “Aha! So you admit it doesn’t solve anything!”

Me: “Um, which one of us is utopian again?”

This approach suffers the same affliction, assuming that we must compare a proposed solution against the standard of an imagined perfect world rather than a screwed up current state.

I’ve come to realize that, no matter how many caveats you add to your writing, people for whom the status quo works will always reply that your ideas are interesting, but why are they so binary, so utopian? I used to take these critiques seriously, but I don’t anymore. It’s simply a rhetorical move to avoid comparing your solution with a status quo that is difficult for them to defend.

It’s like replying to a presentation on solar-powered cars with “But why can’t we have both solar powered cars AND gasoline cars?” Or with “But there will still be pollution from BUILDING the cars so you haven’t solved anything!”

It’s like replying to a presentation on scaling down the American military in favor of increasing foreign relief aid with “But why can’t we have both the American military AND foreign relief aid?” Or with “But foreign relief aid STILL doesn’t always reach the most vulnerable, so you haven’t solved anything!”

It’s like replying to a presentation on Global Warming with “But why can’t find a balance between controlling global warming and protecting business interest?” Or “But global warming is going to happen anyway, so you haven’t solved anything!”

There’s as little chance that the world is going to go overboard on Jesse’s Peter Elbow inspired grading models as there is that we’re going to veer too much toward addressing global warming or decreasing U. S. Military funding (appx. $2,000 per capita) relative to our foreign aid (about $70 per capita). There’s as little chance that our “Pull to Refresh” obsessed culture is going to go overboard with wiki as there is that solar-powered vehicles will result in a war against gas-powered cars.

People who make such objections are not serious people, or in any not case serious thinkers in that moment. The reason we make binaries in our comparisons is to show how unbalanced the status quo is. The “binary” of pitting military spending against foreign aid is to show how out of balance out priorities are, just as the “binary” of Jesse’s holistic grading against more rigid models is to show how little time we spend on the whole student. And the reason we posit the binary of the “nontraditional student” against the “traditional student” is that 90% of policy and conversation right now is directed at the latter, and separating these details can show this.

The Garden approach I outlined at dLRN might not work, and holistic grading might fail at the scale people need to use it at. That solar car may run up against physical and environmental realities that make it unfeasible. Our policies to help the nontraditional student may solve the wrong issues, or assume a political climate we don’t have right now. Foreign aid may be better directed at world hunger or medical research, or perhaps there are good reasons for spending $800 billion on a military. Perhaps, far from making things better,  a set of proposals would make things worse in ways the historically literate can predict. All these are interesting points, and great follow-ups to presentations outlining potential courses of action.

Additionally, some binaries are ill-formed, and give a distorted picture of reality. That’s an interesting point as well. Is androgogy/pedagogy a more helpful lens on a particular issue than first-generation/nth-generation? Does the research support a division like “Digital Natives/Digital Immigrants”? (hint: it doesn’t).

These are great questions too.

“Why so utopian?” and  “Why so binary?” Not so much.

Here’s my pitch to you, and it is always the same.  I think we can do substantially better than we do now, in a way that benefits most people. I think it requires rethinking some assumptions about how we teach and how we tech. I think the positive impact is likely relative to how deep we’re willing to go in questioning current assumptions.

So, if you like the status quo, or think it’s better than what is proposed, then defend it! If you think my ideas will not be adopted or will make things worse, then show me why!

But to the Utopian Binary comment crowd: Stop pretending people like Jesse and I are making utopian, either/or arguments.  It’s a lazy rhetorical move, I’m tired of it, and you’re taking time from people with real questions.

10 thoughts on “The Banal Uselessness of the Utopian Binary Critique

  1. All through NWeLearn I was thinking on a connected yet tangential track: I kept asking, and wondering, where are the more radical positions? Where are the more utopian positions? Such positions are valuable in that they can promote radically different alternatives and treatments of the world. For example, Octavia’s Brood and Walidah Imarisha’s work to promote alternative visions, even prison-free worlds, by exploring and establishing different perspectives, value systems, and alternate realities through speculative fiction. I’m not sure where speculative fiction and #EdTech will meet, if ever, but I do keep looking for those extremes or edges. And I’ve not really found them.

    And as a note, binary just seems to assume that reality is a line instead of a plane or a space and completely ignores the world around us. Thus binary is such a comfort: it’s me or not me.

    Thus, I find it astonishing that people would find your work or Jesse’s work, or even most social justice work, as some form of extremism or promoting binaries. These things are not about binaries; they are about not being a tool, about treating people with respect, about engaging curiosity and care. There is no other acceptable way to be.

    I realize my views my be niche or limited, but it’s disturbing that so many educated people would respond to your work as utopian. In fact, all it’s really doing is trying to bring back the humane and community. How is that extreme? Is that what’s really threatening? Is choosing to be civil and share an extremist perspective? If that’s the case, then the world is sad.

    I guess this is how hegemony responds now to even the slightest provocation. Even if FedWiki had radically wild success of 300,000 users and 25% of all educators dropped LMS grade books, the world would still look very similar. They won’t smash capitalism, but at least they would reduce pain and increase joy in the lives of many people.

    Curious why people can’t see that.

  2. Hi Mike,

    Not sure I’ve ever made my way to your blog before. I enjoyed this post. I too struggled with the talk around the false binary at dlrn and blogged a little about it myself but maybe not as clearly as you have here.

    I have to wonder if throwing false binary up against the Truth is, in itself, a false binary.

    Ah… informal fallacies all the way down.

  3. Interesting. I was at your presentation. Thought it was great. And never would have thought to levy a “it’s too binary” criticism. You presented two options then argued for which one was the better one.

    But I was at another dLRN presentation where a binary was presented and my comment was precisely “Isn’t there a middle position which you’re missing?”

    Now I am trying to figure out what the difference was, if any.

    Because I think you’re right — that those sorts of comments are generally not very useful. They are a lazy way to dismiss radical alternatives and not really engage with the ideas present.

    • If people are truly presenting an all or nothing position it could make sense. One classic case is some libertarian arguments where they claim that, for instance, a little liberty around guns may kill more people, but if we absolutely legalized EVERYTHING then there would be less homicide. This “you have to follow me all the way to the pole to see any benefits” is usually more religion than science, and I would completely support calling that out. It’s just that usually people aren’t saying that. 😉

      But interested in your thoughts….

      • I think in my particular case in the other presentation, it was really an issue of disputing the accuracy of one of the poles. In your presentation, I thought you gave us a nice conceptual binary to work with, one that accurately captured two ways of thinking about online spaces. The fact that they were metaphors helped as well.

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