All of my writings here should be taken with a grain of salt. So let Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall wash over you as I take a hypercritical approach to this week’s authors’ myopic problematization of education.
Education is a loaded word, but I think we get some kind of consensus on its meaning from Michael Wesch and Tim Hitchcock: self-improvement. But for me, the three words that come to mind when I think of education are eschatology, meritocracy, and techno-optimism. This is especially the case after watching and reading Wesch and Hitchcock because they ascribe to the impact of blogging without regard for how these three biases might negatively shape education.
Eschatology brings to mind doom and gloom, judgment--the end of the line of what philosophers might call teleology. Think of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “motivational” quote, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Yea, well, Romanticism is perhaps the opposite of teleology (at least in this instance). Eschatology is really concerned about the destination: the future really doesn’t look to good. In fact, life’s journey should be so fixated on preparing for the destination that you need to find some sort of salvation before getting there. If you’re not scared enough to come to Jesus, than you’re not aptly anticipating the destination’s severity.
For most people, life itself presents people with any variety of doom and gloom destinations. We can call these societal pressures, self-imposed challenges, or familial expectations. Most people might agree that some combination of financial stability, job security, and relationship satisfaction makes up what we might call “the meaning of life.” #eudamonia To achieve the optimal rankings in those categories (as well as others not listed here), you need to have been dealt a good hand in phenotypic, physical, and ideological identities. That is, if you weren’t born a White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, Heteronormative, Abled-bodied, “Middle”-classed individual, then you are starting life’s rat race from a deficit. In an “ideal” world, if you are born a WASP-HAM, then all you need to do is just play the the game of life “straight up.” Go to school, get educated, and reap the benefits of “working hard.”
That expectation of playing the game well by education and the consequent employment is textbook meritocracy. But I want to discuss a more insidious type of meritocracy. When you’re not born a WASP-HAM, how do you approach the game of life? Is playing a matter of looking past how the game is rigged against you? Is it sticking it to “the man?” Is playing the game a way to defy stereotypes? (Should we try to find our inner hero, like Dr. Wesch suggests, in these pursuits?) Assuming that everyone wants financial stability, job security, and relationship satisfaction, what’s so wrong for non-WASP-HAMs to buy into the promises of meritocracy, to play the game, to buy into education?
Perhaps the problem is making the assumption that meritocracy is a one-size-fits-all solution to self-improvement. Meritocracy works really well if you’re a WASP-HAM; just work hard and climb life’s social ladder. But if you’re not a WASP-HAM, how high can you truly rank in social hierarchies--even when you buy into meritocracy? Glass ceiling much? In other words, can education ever be free from meritocracy? If education is self-improvement (to one degree or another), is that improvement ever free from social realities like racism, sexism, genderism, ableism, classism? Is the education process itself free from biases? Is the end result of education free from biases? Education is something that you quite literally buy into, philosophically and monetarily. There’s the expectation that the doom and gloom destination can be altogether avoided (for WASP-HAMs) if you just work hard enough. Education is a part of that process; pay for that piece of paper and everything will be fine. But for everyone else, the everyday doom and gloom like sexism, racism, and ableism isn’t simply earned by getting educated. Nor are the long term doom and gloom destinations improved through education.
Unfortunately, this salvational characteristic of education is exacerbated by techno-optimism. While I want to add the (obvious) caveat that there are certain technologies that can be of great use to some populations, there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to any type of technology. Nor should there be an expectation that technology unilaterally improves, or saves, us from the impending doom and gloom of life. While I don’t think that Seth Godin and Tom Peters should be accused of suggesting that blogging is a universal good for self-improvement, highlighting the fact that two white men who have played the game of life very successfully are telling us to buy into blogging should warrant some skepticism. We shouldn’t be skeptical of blogging itself. Rather, I find it difficult to view blogging as something outside of the scheme of self-improvement masked as self-expression.
I can hear someone saying that blogging is “about the journey, not the destination.” While this may be true, the Internet as a whole has evolved from its “simple” beginning. Take Ben Schmidt’s blog, Sapping Attention, as an example of skepticism. Hitchcock claims, “[Schmidt] has crafted one of the most successful academic careers of his generation – not to mention the television consultation business, and world-wide intellectual network.” Well, allegorically, we might say that the internet no longer remains as innocent and simplistic as Blogger’s interface--the template that Schmidt still uses today. That is to say, the list of -isms that exist IRL unsurprisingly exist on Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter alike. (Anonymity may lead to an increase in the severity of -isms, but anonymity isn’t mutually exclusive to social media). Nothing published on the web goes unnoticed...
Hitchcock writes, “By forcing students to write ‘publicly’, their writing rapidly improves.” This blind, naive optimism placed on technology’s educational (and social) impact might have been appropriate during Blogger’s heyday over a decade ago. But Hitchcock’s 2014 publication date mirrors the blind trust that’s placed in meritocracy: there’s no regard for the people who don’t fit into WASP-HAMs one-size-fits-all online. Despite the internet’s invitation for faux-sense of individuality and accessibility on social media sites, we’re never really free from the social biases that tell us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. I mean, what’s the point? #slacktivism
So, maybe we should listen to Pink Floyd’s lyrics: we don’t need education. But on the other hand, if education is self-improvement, then look no further than Socrates: “Know thyself!”
(And yes, I know that ironically, I have to be in a position in education to name drop Socrates…and write everything above).