some of us are brave
The answer may be no* but it is the question that I would like to focus on for right now.
The question came to mind today as I was thinking through my position on higher education innovation and access. Both are wrapped up in language of justice, equality, and fairness — all things about which I care deeply, passionately even. Despite researching education and despite my irrational belief in the power of education to do all kinds of radical, wonderful things and despite having my own spotty history with traditional education organizations, despite all of these things I continue to carefully navigate the waters of recent debates around higher education disruption and innovation.
I had to ask myself, why is that?
I mean, I am one of those Roaming Autodidacts for whom so much of the current online delivery disruptors seemed to be geared. I actually can learn many things alone and through reading and writing. I actually hate group work with a passion and I would rather gnaw my arm off than have my classroom flipped. A nice, narrow delivery method of education — say, a video and some books and the email of some distant professor — actually would appeal to the kind of learner I am.
That could be why, despite having a few abilities, I zoned out on sudafed for most of my middle school years. I coasted through high school save but for a challenging calculus and english class or two. And college was so much of a joke that one exasperated professor told me not to bother coming back to class, I had an A and I wasn’t worth the trouble I started in class discussions.
I was not a stellar student.
So, when debates about the rigidity of traditional higher education are had I sympathize a great deal with the message. But there is something about the messenger that complicates the whole thing for me.
And I had to ask myself, again, why is that?
My enthusiasm for change is tempered by the reality of those who are doing the changing.
Why are so many of them white?
More specifically, why are so many privileged, white, upper middle class children born to wealth, access, and all of the goodies that buys you so hellbent on disrupting a system from which they disproportionately benefit?
Why can’t I bring myself to trust that this homogenous group of disruptors isn’t thinking of me when they go about the business of disrupting?
All of the personal enthusiasm I feel for solutions that would mesh so well with my preferred learning style and anti-authoritarian disposition is significantly tampered by the reality of my shared group position.
No way around this: I am black.
That might still mean something. It certainly seems to statistically. Black children are more likely than white children to attend underfunded schools. Even when they are in well-funded schools with advanced courses in math, science and English that colleges so very much like to see on applications they are more likely to be tracked into remedial courses. Black children benefit most from the status of attending an elite college but the gauntlet to get to the point of admissions at an Ivy League or small liberal arts college with selective admissions is so riddled with social and economic pot holes it may as well be an epic poem.
All of the promised disruption is said to create more access, particularly for “marginalized” students. I think they mean people like the student I was when they say marginalized. The thing is, my marginalized status was derived more from my group position – being black and low-status – than it was from my individual merit, gifts and ability. Somehow disrupting the marginalization for the individual me without disturbing the shared social position of people like me seems to be only half the equation.
As I have argued before, the first step in all this disruption is the transfer of credentialing authority from institutions to individuals. Again, I chafe under authority. I dream of burning bureacracies to the ground. The individual me is thrilled by the promise of controlling my own data, shaping my curricula, designing my own intellectual tradition, rising and falling in the choppy waters of labor market competition based on merit and grit. I mean, that would be nothing short of the gotdamn American Dream. And I am an American, after all. How could I not want that?
But the other me, that dual inner self so beautifully captured by WEB DuBois, that side of me can never forget what many who have never engaged systemic, institutional marginalization do not always realize: that this is no meritocracy. Some people are lucky and some people are more lucky than others. And those that are the most often lucky tend to have a lot in common with each other. In the American Dream I am an individual. In the American market I am my group. I can never completely disentangle my individual fortunes from my group position because my group is how I become labeled marginalized to begin with. In the solution lies me, the problem: the group that must be defined, worked with or worked against. Either way, I am a group.
What for me, the group, does all this disruption mean? When we disrupt education do we also disrupt group positions? Now that could be truly innovative. It could also be terrifying but it would at least recognize the reality of who and what I am, who and what millions of “marginalized” people are in relation to each other and in relation to the education we would disrupt.
If all of your disruptors are white, the same kind of privileged white, can they see that persistent, pervasive institution that would make me a group even when I stand alone? If we disrupt all the institutions and we become all a collection of individuals, to whom do I appeal when my individual-ness doesn’t operate like everyone else’s? Put more concretely, when individual black children continue to share remarkably similar piss poor shares of luck, how do they mobilize as a group for redress? Do they call the disruptors when there are no schools with authority? No institutions with a cursory commitment to seeing the group?
I don’t have the answers here but at least I am asking the questions. Questions like, how does this disruption work beyond the scope of education, out there in the rest of the world where that education becomes a commodity? How does this disruption challenge the privilege of all the sorting that has already happened before a kid makes it to college? How does this disruption make black me an individual in the same way it makes an individual of white you? Trust me, I want to see this vision that would so work for me, the individual me that I was and that I am. But I have questions about the scope and limits of that vision for the rest of me, the other me, the me that is always my group, my history, a people. That’s what a few disruptors that aren’t all white, all the same kind of white can bring to the table: some new questions.
Sure, that makes things more complicated but it also makes your disruption more possible, more plausible, more like actual innovation instead of innovation lite, the marketing plan.
* And the first comments are that the answer is no. Someone points out that 4 of 5 leaders of higher education companies in the news lately are not white males (Khan, Ng, Agarwal, and Koller). I think that is narrowing the question to five companies when I perceive there to be a status group that has grown up around the professional discourse on higher education disruption. Groups like the 20 Million Minds and Technomy have conferences, publish papers, are cited in Op-Eds and become faces of this status group. That group feels overwhelmingly white to me, particularly considering so much of the debate is about more access to an implicitly group of marginalized students who are generally much more diverse than the status group.