People with broadly similar goals often operate under different theories of change. Some people believe change comes from moving fast and building things, and a lot of it does. Some people think it comes from laying the intellectual and policy foundations that nurture desired results, and that’s true too.
Most massive changes require approaches at a variety of levels. I’m not a fan of the conservative revolution of the 1980s and 1990s in the U.S. but I am a student of it. And what you see if you look back to the 1970s is an unlikely alliance of rabble-rousers, charming demagogues, and eggheaded think-tanks all working in ways that the others don’t necessarily appreciate, but all ultimately pulling in the same direction until the perfect storm is launched with the election of Ronald Reagan.
What we are watching now on the Republican side of this American election is largely the fraying of that alliance. The policy wonks are disgusted by the activists, the activists are disgusted by the policy wonks, the politicians are loathed by everyone. And while this has been true a while, the new twist is de-legitimization. You saw this in the de-legitimization of Obama (he’s not really our president, there is no birth certificate, the election was rigged). But once Frankenstein’s monster is put together it doesn’t do your bidding for long.
Over time the differences in the theory of how progress gets made began to seen be through the lens of de-legitimization. Republican legislators who believed that a government shutdown was not the best way to overturn Obamacare — well, it wasn’t that they had a different theory of change or sense of what was possible. It was that they were corrupted, indistinguishable from the Obama establishment. They’d been bought out, co-opted, charmed by Satan’s silver tongue.
The circle of who was considered a legitimate actor began to narrow to only those who compromised nothing, and the pressures of this process intensified expectations of the base while cutting off the opportunities for compromise that might make true progress possible. The lack of progress then only confirmed the base’s feeling they we being sold out by those above them.
The odd alliances of the past 40 years were held together by winning, and without wins they began to deteriorate. The circles of the legitimate activists shrunk, as they positioned themselves not only against Obama, but against the establishment, purging first the RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and then those that refused to adopt obstructionism. The “elites” began to lash out at the base, confused that they were suddenly outside the circle that they themselves had helped draw.
In short, they had created the perfect Perpetual Disillusionment Machine: unrealistic expectations fueled rigidity which sabotaged results which convinced the different actors that there was even more corruption than they had thought, leading to further purges, which led to expectations being even higher, and so on.
I suppose I should get to my point.
The Open Education Movement (if it is a movement) is not the Republican Party of 2016. On that timescale I’d actually place us somewhere around 1978. We’re young. We’re starting to win. It feels like something big may be coming down the road. This is an incredibly good place to be, especially when your mission is making education more responsive to the needs of students and educators, more liberating, and more suited to our networked age.
We all have different theories of change. Unsurprisingly, most people’s theories of change support the contention that their unique gifts (whether those are policy analysis and engagement, building things, designing good UX, or promoting the heck out of existing technologies) are the lynchpin of the movement. It’s funny how that works out like that!
And so we argue over where we should spend our effort. Why? Because there are limited resources. You can put a builder or a thinker in a keynote. You can fund open textbooks or open pedagogy. We notice that some parts of the movement get more press and some get more money. We notice that open textbooks are taking off while open pedagogy is still mostly below the radar. We get upset, maybe, at these divisions. And all this is good and right. You can operate for decades like this and most movements worth anything do.
Where it falls apart is at that line of legitimacy. You have to assume your allies have good intentions and are being thoughtful and reflective about their practice. You have to treat differences in approach as differences in personal theories of change, not as tests of moral fiber. That means engaging respectfully with the person’s underlying assumptions instead of challenging their motives or character. And not only engaging with those assumptions, but doing it with the understanding that they have thought as long and hard about about their chosen path as you have about yours. I know a lot of people in Open Education. Navel-gazing is our national sport; I don’t think we’re in danger of being too un-reflective anytime soon.
At the risk of offending nearly everyone in the community and ending up horribly alone let me stop sub-blogging for a moment and name names. Things that Jim Groom has tweeted in the past couple weeks have implied that George Siemens has engaged in ethically dubious action by speaking to people in China about his very human and anti-authoritarian take on analytics (Release the Transcripts, George!). George responded by writing some lines in an otherwise lovely tribute to Gardner Campbell that were taken to imply that Jim Groom’s particular knack at generating enthusiasm around difficult to understand concepts was really a form of self-aggrandizing limelight stealing. (UPDATE: George says in comments that he had no particular individual in mind)
I can’t say this was what either intended, but that’s how most people read each.And it’s indicative of a tension that’s been brewing for a few years in the community, and seems to be boiling over more and more frequently.
It’s fun to believe that the activity we engage in is the center of the universe or the lynchpin of the movement. I “know”, for example, that Wikity is going to change EVERYTHING because all you peons are thinking TOO SMALL. I have to “know” that, because that precious delusion helps me rationalize the Saturdays I spend at Starbucks trying to get my spaghetti PHP code to work when I’d rather be home making music with the new Reason 9 beta. I have to delude myself, at least a little bit, to get it done. We all do.
And that’s fine.
But we don’t have to bring that delusion into our work together, and we certainly don’t have to see people working problems from a different angle as ethically dubious or narcissistic agents. We can’t call allies sell-outs and then wonder why our movement is so ineffectual or fractured. And we can’t treat people racing ahead as bomb-throwing proles. Because the truth is that none of us is the center of this thing. We need all the talents, we need the multiple approaches. We need people who make change possible, and we need people who provide the intellectual and policy substrate to make that change last.
In closing Gardner Campbell is awesome and love to see him getting his due, everyone else is a genius too, if you don’t like George’s list of people promote your own list because a lot of people don’t get their due in this industry, but for the love of God stop trying to attribute different tactics among allies to questionable ethics or self-interested motives.
Also, if you need a boost of idealism, read this extended Washington Post article on how Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. recorded “Walk This Way” and changed what got played on the radio forever. I’ll let you draw your own analogies.
UPDATE: As noted above, George says he didn’t intend to single out Jim. I take him at his word there. I do think, however, that underlying story here is still the same. These flare-ups happen against a background of tension that seems to have been growing in the past few years (just look at the tenor of Open Ed year over year).
The solution is not that fucking hard. Assume good faith. Attack people’s theory of how things change, and even their actions, but stay away from motives and character unless you are sure you know the motives (you don’t) or truly believe their character is the root issue (it probably isn’t).
And yes, implied counts as much as said, so cut a broad swath.