Category Archives: on education, comprehensively

comments developing the discussions of education, understood as a comprehensive and ubiquitous activity of all human beings in all their settings, which have gotten to understand me since 2005.

The message “this is therapy,” with a horse

Our regretted colleague, George Bond, insisted that our doctoral students start their apprenticeship with us by struggling with Durkheim’s Rules, and particularly with the argument that, when individual human beings come together, what they do is other than what they could do by themselves, and that special tools are needed to study collective action and its productions, that is “social facts.”  Last week, Jennifer Van Tiem brilliantly defended a path-making dissertation that appears to fit within contemporary research on “human-animal communication,” but is actually about what can happens when two or three humans and one horse do something together, for example “therapy,” that neither humans nor horse would do by themselves.

The same week, I read something in Discover Magazine (my quick source for news from the hard sciences and what seeps of the social sciences into such a popular magazine) that should make all Durkheimians feel vindicated.  In an interview with Bonnie Bassler (June 2014 issue), the Princeton biologist explains how she established (think Latour) that bacteria, these most simple of life forms, tell each other that “I am here” (as well as “who are you?”) .  When the bacteria find out that they have something the biologists now call (metaphorically) a “quorum,” then they change state and produce something that will be experienced, by an outsider, as different from what this outsider might have experienced before (together, some bacteria become luminescent, others produce a film in an animal’s lung that might create life threatening problems, etc.).

The bacterial communication phenomenon that we study is called quorum sensing, which is a process that allows bacteria to communicate using secreted chemical signaling molecules called autoinducers. This process enables a population of bacteria to collectively regulate gene expression and, therefore, behavior. In quorum sensing, bacteria assess their population density by detecting the concentration of a particular autoinducer, which is correlated with cell density. This “census-taking” enables the group to express specific genes only at particular population densities. Quorum sensing is widespread; it occurs in numerous Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria. In general, processes controlled by quorum sensing are ones that are unproductive when undertaken by an individual bacterium but become effective when undertaken by the group. For example, quorum sensing controls bioluminescence, secretion of virulence factors, sporulation, and conjugation. Thus, quorum sensing is a mechanism that allows bacteria to function as multi-cellular organisms. (my emphasis . Bassler, retrieved on May 19, 2014)

Note that the bacteria themselves do not change as far as what we might now call the “affordances” of their biology.  It is this biology itself that allows from a transformation that, yet, cannot happen apart from the quorum.

My readers will recognize here a perennial theme in my work.  So I will not develop this further, except to react to one of Van Tiem’s critique of much of the work of the conversational analysts which, I do teach, revolutionized not only linguistics but also all the social sciences.  They did reveal how human beings coordinate their activities, particularly when they do it through natural languages and in direct interaction.  The focus on adjacency pairs, indexicality, ongoing assessment (feedback), etc., was a major breakthrough.  But, as Van Tiem argues, much of this research is based on propositional language and thus not very helpful when the interlocutor is a … horse (or the human cannot speak Goodwin 195).  Humans, of course, do not only speak.  They also point and qualify with fingers, eyes, heads, etc..  Horses do not have fingers they can use, but they also have ears as well as tails that can serve to point, qualify, and otherwise make something that responds to an earlier movement as well as possibly triggers further movements.

But the issue is not the affordances of peculiar biological bodies and how they can be used to maintain sequentiality within a conversation and thereby the conversation itself.  The issue concerns the organization of the particular conversation itself as this kind of conversation, rather than another one. (With thanks to Juliette de Wolfe (2013) who insisted on separating the peculiarities of the autistic body from the particularities of the institutionalization of autism)

The issue concerns what can happen when bodies, given their affordances, find themselves in a “quorum.”  This, I would say is the issue about which Durkheim started us wondering when he pondered stabilities and variations in suicide rates (1897).  In the process he gave us all a problem a version of which is implied in Bateson’s concern with the message “this is play.”  Ethnographically, the issue may be best exemplified in a related message Sacks investigated “this is a joke.”  The issue is that “this is a play” (or “a joke,” “a classroom,” etc.) frames a long (“length” is, of course, another problem) sequence within which everything must (be made to) fit the ‘play’ frame.  Every statement or move must (be made to) “make sense” (McDermott 1976), “be suitable” as Boas would say.  Every statement must fit but it does not have to index, in its own performative organization, the frame.  Indeed whether a statement fits (or not) is controlled by the quorum (a.k.a cohort, staff, congregation, set of consociates, endogenous population, plenum, etc.), rather than by the individual speaker.  The quorum can overrule the individual  about the consequence of the statement.  Van Tiem quoted Garfinkel’s wonderful experiment with the message “this is therapy” (1967: 79ff).  The experiment was so set up as to lead people to act as if random answers made sense thereby actually making the answers sensible and the whole event “therapy” (actually, in this case, “research into therapy”).

Van Tiem is exploring the message (“this is therapy”) when one of those who staff the therapy is horse.  A horse is anything but random in its responses.  But there is no strict way to access its motivations (though human participants routinely discuss them and thereby make statements-about-the-horse’s-motivations one aspect of this therapy).  This, for our purposes is good since the trick here is precisely not to speculate about individual motivations but to figure out how the quorum is maintaining its particular frame—whatever any individual’s motivations, or lack thereof.

Much research has hinted how this might be done.  Bacteria do it through various molecules.  How do human beings do it with horses? Van Tiem brings back to relevance Paul Byers work on biological rhythms.  Goodwin has written about gaze,  Garfinkel about ongoing instruction.  But maybe we can also learn from bacteria, or least take heart that we have been onto something worth pursuing.

on expert ignorance

A visit from Gus Andrews is always refreshing and invigorating as we explore some of the intellectual links in our mutual networks.  So, last Wednesday, February 12, we talked, among other things, about the efforts of the organization where she works (she will have to provide the link…) to convince people around the world to use encryption to communicate in ways that, perhaps, governments and other cannot listen in.  One of the problem is that it is hard to identify who are these people and, when members of plausible audiences are identified, convince them that this encryption is the solution to a problem many do not know they have.  Some already use VPN (whatever that is, and however it works–it will advertise my ignorance here) and tell representatives of the institution that this works well enough for their purposes.

Now, this is a classic problem in adult education when potential teachees cannot be caught and wittingly or not, transformed into students whose knowledge can then be assessed.  It is of course also a problem in the mandatory public education of children and young adults in schools and colleges.  But there it is more a matter of sub-rosa resistance.  Adults may listen to experts and accept being taught by them but expertise, as such, is rarely enough.  One can coerce adults to take mandated courses in various forms of what used to be called “re-education” (safe driving, sexual harassment, etc.) but state coercion can only go so far.  There actually is an academic field of “adult education” in schools of education where courses with titles like “How adults learn are” taught.  I am not specifically in that field but, of course, most of what I, along with many my students of the past decade or more (including Gus Andrews, of course), have been concerned with.

Mostly, though, we have been concerned with collective self-education when adults seek new knowledge and devise new ways to gain it.  This is what Jacotot’s students did when they taught themselves French by reading a French-Flemish version of Fenelon’s Telemaque.  What Gus’s institution is trying to accomplish is more akin to what experts upon experts keep trying to accomplish when they tell whoever will listen that one should not smoke, eat more vegetables, devise stronger passwords, etc…

The questions that came to my mind later in the day of Gus’ visit concerned the experts’ ignorance about a whole range of issues:

  •   From the exact location of the people to teach: how are “we” to find them? Where should we look?
  • to the extent to people prior knowledge and or experience with the experts’ expertise;
  • to the exact nature of the ignorance the experts’ teaching might alleviate;
  • And so on and so forth.

The big issue is that experts are not always (mostly?) not aware of their own ignorance about all these matters and are more likely to blame (or patronize) the people for the inability to listen to the expert and learn from them.  In medicine, this produces a whole literature on “patient resistance.  In field of adult education, it produces much discussion of the properties of adult and their learning.

We need to convince the world of experts, and particularly those who fund research, that they need to find out about their own ignorance and its consequences—particularly when what the experts have to offer is ostensibly valuable.

While reading Rancière’s Althusser’s Lesson

Last week, I read Rancière’s tract against Althusser (Althusser’s lesson [1974] 2011) and Karen Velasquez’s first full dissertation draft.  The first has almost mythical status in the scholarship on Rancière.  And I looked forward to the second for its promise (now about fulfilled) of giving us more of the kind of work we need to produce what Rancière started calling for in the late 1960’s and throughout his career as philosopher and polemicist.

What struck me most in Althusser’s Lesson is that it is a kind of time capsule of a time when, as a 20 year old, in May 1968, I looked in much bemusement at the antics of my fellow college students and their impenatrable marxiscist discourses.  Soon most of us went on vacation; I left for the University of Chicago; and I about forgot about “Mai ‘68″ as it faded into myth.  It took me a long time to realize how much of an event the two or three years that led to the riots, strikes and evaporation of whatever it had been, had been for many of the elite French intellectuals of the time.  As I kept reading “May ‘68 established that Sartre bested Lévi-Strauss in the debate the latter had waged in La pensee sauvage.”  What reading Rancière (very long after the events have receded) has given me is an opening on another debate that raged in the late 1960s and early 1970s among the Marxist intellectual elites between, to simplify following Rancière, those who wished to work through the Parti Communiste Francais as aginst the Maoist “gauchistes.”  As Rancière wishes us to see, this was a fight among the elite of the intellectural elites about another fight (that of the students and the workers of the time) about which this elite knew very little–given that all their practical knowledge was designed to produce … future readers of Marx in elite universities! (Reading Capital being, of course, the title of the book by Althusser to which Rancière contributed as a student).  This elite was produced by the series of famously difficult examinations that lead to admission to the Ecole Normale Supérieure.  The list of famous alumni (Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Bourdieu, etc.) is altogether astonishing: I do not think there is anything like it in the United States and perhaps the world.  How can one institution be so powerful?

The debate was also conducted in a particularly abstruse language which only advanced students in philosophy and Marxism could decipher.  Reading 1974 Rancière reminded me why I was so relieved and satisfied reading ethnography at the University of Chicago in September 1968.

What then struck me—and it is deeply buried—are Rancière calls to pay attention to what the workers and students were actually saying in the 1960s, in the sites and at the times of their struggles.  The whole weight of Rancière’s argument is brought to bear against Althusser’s stance that they could not possible know what produced their struggles, that their discourses revealed their misconceptions, and that only the “scientific” analysis that intellectual Marxists would conduct could reveal conditions and the appropriate discourses.  There, of course, is the Rancière who, later, uncovered Jacotot—and could finally write without tiresome disquisitions about bourgeois sociology (the worst insult he hurls at Althusser is that he was just another Durkheimian!).

Two quotes:

In Besancon, however, when Lip workers began to speak, what they put forward was a coherent discourse about their practices.  There were none of the words, cries of indignation or formulaic sentences that leftist practice cuts from the discourse of revolt and pastes onto the discourse of the spokesperson for the universal proletarian.  What they gave us, instead, was a veritable theory of what they were doing, a theory where the ideas of May 1968 joined hands with the syndicalist tradition, but also one where we recognized a new kind of ‘fusion’: that of the experience of the workers’ struggle with a Christian ideology that yearns, it seems, to be something other than ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature’. ([1974] 2011: 120-1)

‘When the prisoners begin to speak’, Foucault says, ‘they possessed an individual theory of prisons, the penal system, and justice.’  It will be pointed out, certainly, that prisoners are in a privileged position to theorize their condition. ([1974] 2011: 120)

{Note that the quote from Foucault conversation with Deleuze (1972) has a somewhat different tone from his discussion of the Panopticon in Discipline and Publish.}

Of course, I take the comments about the striking workers of the Lip clock factory as a call for detailed ethnographies of workers discourses in the sites of these discourses. Rancière, of course, never said that (that I know) and may have been skeptical of any activity that smacks of social scientism—including ethnography, I’d bet.  This is a frontier we need to explore.  This is where Karen Velasquez’s dissertation comes in.  As some of you know, it is about people from Latin America and Korea getting to work together in Queens restaurants.  What is wonderful about the work—and I do not want to steal her thunder—is her revealing, in detail, what Rancière assumed we would find: complex analyses of conditions, of what can be done about them and with them—in the here and now of various difficulties, in the short and perhaps even longer run.

Trying to make it a good day when things fall apart

I hope that everyone left the conference last Saturday as invigorated as I was.  It was worth all the efforts that went into from so many.

Two moments were particularly salient for me.

Early on, Michael Scroggins read a passage from Cremin that I have read many time but which struck me as if I heard if for the first time.  The passage closes the section of the “definition of education” in his Public education but it goes much further.  Cremin wrote:

”Everyday in every part of the world people set out to teach something to others or to study something themselves. . . They deserve a theory specifically addressed to their problems and purposes, one that will assist them to act intelligently, ever hopeful of the possibilities but fully aware of the limitations and risks that attend their efforts.”(1976:30)

I take this as further evidence that Cremin was indeed part of the movement that keeps renewing what anthropologists of education are doing.  He wrote this at about the time when Ray McDermott was watching Adam and heard him say “Anybody who wants to try to make it a good day today, say ‘Aye’” (Varenne & McDermott 1998: 39).  Adam did not have a good day that day, but he was “ever hopeful,” and McDermott has been looking for the theory of education that people like Adam deserve.

The other salient moment for me came during the last session when Jill Koyama talked about her research into things that fall apart—particularly policies by institutional actors (in Latour’s sense) that stresses other actors to the point that everyone involved will have very bad days.  For Adam, it had been enlightened researchers attempting to undermine the grounding of intelligence testing and, in the process, making a space for the enactment of “education as race” with winners and crying legitimate losers.

Cremin was an optimist.  Koyama presents herself, I’d say, as a pessimist.  McDermott insists that kids (teachers, assistant principals, etc.) “make sense.”

But both Cremin and Koyama, like McDermott and all those I recruit into the “movement,”  insist that we build theories that will “assist” (note the verb) people “act intelligently.”  McDermott may have written “act ‘sensibly’” reminding us of course that people always make sense even when (particularly when?) their conditions are made difficult.

So, things fall apart (why-ever).  As Garfinkel once put it “when you screw around, then you get instructed” (2002: 250). That is, if a cafeteria line falls apart then everyone starts working on telling everyone what they should do next so that they can make it a good day (and not have to repair what ought not to be broken so that, perhaps, more complicated matters can get repaired).  The cost of that repair work is what Garfinkel was not concerned with.  Nor was he quite concerned with the work of those who dis-order (why-ever again; intentions is not the issue).  Not with the possibility that re-orderings (through instruction, etc.) might also producing dis-orderings (resistance, etc.).

A theory of education that may help us assist people as they educate themselves, will have to take into account these matters too and many of the papers presented at the conference are a step in that direction (as well as a demonstration indeed that data-driven research cannot possibly shed lights on these matters!),

Spontaneous masses and the consciousness of the “educated representatives of the propertied classes.”

Last week, a discussion of Bourdieu in my doctoral seminar led me to recall something I must have learned as a spectator in the French politics of the 1960s.  I remembered rather vaguely as concerning the leadership position of the Communist Party in the struggles of the working class and, particularly the position of intellectuals in the Communist Party.  I am not much of a scholar of Marxism, but I remembers something about the “leading edge,” but could not come up with a citation or an author.  Later in the week one of the students, Laura Bunting, challenged me and I turned, as we intellectuals now do, sometimes with some shame, to Google.  In three or four steps ‘“leading edge”’, ‘communism’, ‘proletariat’ led me to a discussion of the following passage from Lenin:

“We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. In the very same way, in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia. In the period under discussion, the middle nineties, this doctrine not only represented the completely formulated programme of the Emancipation of Labour group, but had
already won over to its side the majority of the revolutionary youth in Russia.”
(Vladimir Ilyich Lenin What Is To Be Done? 1901)

I suspect that Bourdieu’s readers could be assumed to be so well versed in Marxist scholarship that he did not have to quote Marx or Lenin when he started writing about “méconnaissance,” and the role of the sociologist.  For another systematic critique of the stance, look at Rancière’s The philosopher and his poor (2004 [1983]).

Where do (psycho/socio)- metricians fit?

Recently, March 28 2012, I spent the afternoon at the plenary session of an “International Conference” on “Educational Assessment, Accountability, and Equity: Conversations on Validity around the World.”  The plenary speaker was Michael T. Kane, “The Samuel J. Messick Chair in Test Validity” at the Educational Testing Service.  He talked about validity as measurement scientists deliberate about it, and about some of their soul-searching when they consider the impact of their measurements.  Or, as I would put it, wearing my “anthropologist of Nacirema” hat, he talked about the misgivings of an obscure priesthood specializing in an abstruse numerology few understand outside their rarified convents.  Kane, as a master in this polity of conjurers of numbers, gave us, the uninitiated or very peripheral, a glimpse of his doubts and those of other masters as they discover that they are now at the very center of political storms where their more abstruse spells are thrown at opponents for all sorts of reasons having little to do with numerology.
NYC value added model for teachers

To the extent that I understand it (and I am very far at the periphery of numerology, or rather, I am at the periphery of the gravity well that might have made me, at some point in my career, a legitimate peripheral participant), it all has to do with the “interpretation” of the test that leads to its being used in a particular case.  But Kane and his peers are not quite where Geertz and his peers have been.  For one, Kane is deeply concerned with specifying and justifying the interpretive steps.  For another, he and is peers have, precisely been thrust into the center, while symbolic anthropologists are pushed even further away from it.

This occasion was the second in recent weeks when I heard thoughtful (psycho-)metricians wonder about the public face of their craft.  I had not suspected how much debate do happen among the scientists of the measurement of individual behavior about what happens with the measurements when these measurements are used outside the world of measurement.  Kane taught me something about the relationship between the “datum” (an answer on a test question) and the inferred “claim” (that Johnny failed the test) and the “warrant” that allows on to make the claim based on the datum.  The warrants themselves are “backed” by empirical studies.  Thus, everything depends on the quality of the studies which back the warrant that allows for the inference.  Things are even more difficult since the various inferences that can be made about the individual as this_test taker can be transformed into inferences about this_field (that is, that Johnny who failed this reading test do not know how to read), and then transformed into even more general properties of the individual as performed in any_field (that Johnny is “with” this or that syndrome), and then transformed into properties of a population (White vs. Black, poor vs. prosperous, American vs. Chinese).

As I listened, I was particularly struck by his discussion of “warrants” in the making of inferences and the place of various logical and mathematical ways of explaining how one gets to the inference.  Listening to this, I understood better why ethnography is looked askance by measurement scientists: we, anthropologists, could be said to be “warrant-challenged” when we watch a cock-fight and then make inferences about humanity…

And then things became truly interesting.  Kane started to talk about a particular type of inference that shift from identification (Johnny is with X or Y) to the meting of high stake consequences (that Johnny should be shifted to a special education classroom, that he should not receive a degree, that he should not be hired or promoted).  He illustrated the difficulties by reminding us of the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Griggs v. Duke Power where the issue was the use of a test (or more precisely inferences about the people who had taken the test) for employment, that is as a step in the making of a high stake decision that could have heavy negative consequences.  In effect, the Court extended the notion of validity to include the impact of the test on the life of the taker.

I am about sure that no inference from anthropology has ever been debated in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Thus, the Court also, and by implication of course, definitely placed (in the Garfinkel sense) testing as the proper instrument of high stake decision making and the testing scientists as perhaps the most powerful engineers of social structural production (along with the professional in charge of diagnosing decease and its legitimate political implications).  That is, by requiring that tests be “reasonably related” to the job for which the test is required, the Court fully legitimated a process of assembling people and practices that had fully flowered with Thorndike and other measurement specialists when they convinced school people that psychological testing might produce what Dewey and others had appeared to call for: a democratic educational system where the real properties of the child were the sole criteria for the advancement of the child through the rewards of that part of social life (for examples being hired for a job) that the state, through its courts, can regulate.

Thus, the Supreme Court, and by implication of course, placed ETS at the core of the political process and thus made a particular class of scientists the arbiter of this process—all the more so that only they fully understand the means they use (regression formulas and the like) to produce something that later allow human resources personnel, or college admissions officers, make decisions without appearing to have made them.  When I talked about terminating Skynets in my last entry, I did not yet know that I was echoing was some measurement scientists have actually said:

Quantification is a way of making decisions without seeming to decide (Porter 1995: 8).

 

Porter, T.
1995 Trust in numbers: the pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University press.

On Political Deep Play – a coda on experimentation

My entry from March 2 played, very seriously, with the kind of deep play policy makers in the world of schooling engaged in when they released invalid scores purported to tell how well individual teachers taught.  On March 9th, James B. Stewart of the New York Times, asked “Would Americans be better off if General Motors and Chrysler had simply gone bankrupt, without benefit of taxpayer assistance?” and he raised the question of the kind of evidence one could use to answer such a question.  What picked my curiosity is the following comments:

Unlike a science experiment, in which variables can be changed and the experiment repeated, we can’t turn back the clock, let the auto companies go bankrupt and compare the results with what we have today, which is an American auto industry that is, by nearly all measures, healthier than it’s been in many years. G.M. and Chrysler, not to mention Ford, which didn’t get taxpayer money but benefited indirectly, are profitable, hiring more workers, competing more effectively, gaining market share and building better cars and trucks.

He then proceeded to make comparisons with other companies that were, or not, helped by the government when they face bankruptcy.  Essentially, he was using history rather than “evidence-based” empirical research to argue in favor of a political decision.

Now, of course, history, like anthropology, is precisely not an experimental science and yet it may more useful to “politic” makers, that is politicians, as actors, rather than “policy” makers as advisors to the actor.  The very small group (Obama, Geithner, ??) who decided to bail out General Motors could not rely on “evidence.”  They had to rely, in the best sense of all these words, their ideology, their common sense, and the conversations they must have had.

In other words, they placed a major bet.  It looks like they won.  But this was about the deepest of deep plays.  The only deeper I can imagine is Roosevelt or Wilson getting America into World Wars.

Back in New York, it is probably the case that Bloomberg made a similar bet when he had the test scores released.  He could not wait for the “evidence” that this release would lead to better teaching.  By the time this evidence was in, then the political problem would probably have been moot.  We can disagree with his decisions.  We can note the irony that people who have prided themselves on being “data-driven” made a major decision in the absence of data.  But we see the decision for what it is, a political decision, not a policy decision.  And as one approaches political decisions, history, and anthropology, may be more useful than “experimental” social sciences.

How can we convince policy/politic makers that evidence-based research is not the way to a better democracy?

MOOC: Education, degrees, careers?

I ended a recent paper for the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment with comments about the possible disassociation of schooling from assessment.  My argument was that the association between the two has been 1) good for schooling in that it has massively increased its reach and claim on resources, and also 2) terrible as it makes it less and less relevant to education.  The recent, and ongoing, controversy about publicizing teachers’ scores on invalid measures is a case in point: teacher-ing, with ever more symbolic violence (a.k.a “accountability”), is made into a skill for putting measurable bits into students’ head.  That teacher-ing might be about participating in shaping a mind is left aside as not a concern for the State.  But why, may we ask, should the State be concerned with education?  Well, of course, because

the tests
…..that lead to the degrees
……….that accredited  schools grant
……………that employers use to open or close doors to careers

are essential for the representation that a political system is indeed “democratic” and that state rewards are indeed distributed on merit rather than birth privilege (in its racial, ethnic, class, gender, etc. forms).

In many ways, as the people of the School have been saying, focusing on tests leading to degrees is a radical narrowing of what was the mission of schooling.  Arguable, the battle has been lost as much (most?) of what was included in this mission has now been distributed out to the family, the media, religious institutions, etc.  But schooling, as an institution, appeared to remain central because it has kept its monopoly on the granting of degrees.

What if this changed?  What if a successful challenge was mounted to legitimize other doors to adult careers than those controlled by the current schools, colleges and universities (and their teachers or faculty)?

In the past week, the New York Times published evidence that this challenge has started.  One is an opinion piece by Charles Murray asking an “energetic public interest law firm” to challenge “the constitutionality of the [bachelor’s degree] as a job requirement” (March 8, 2012).  The Supreme Court, I did not know, has made it unconstitutional to make test scores the key to employment unless there is a tight link between the test and the job.  Demonstrating the link between almost any college degree and almost any job might be difficult.

The other report may be a more immediate and less ideological challenge, and possibly much more difficult for school people to block (particularly since some of them are profiting from this challenge).  I am talking here about “Massive Open Online Courses” (MOOCs).  Stanford offered a classes for 160,000 students in 190 countries!  Another class, on Machine Learning, was given for 104,000 students with 13,000 completing the course.

The figures are astounding.  They are about something that is happening now and will have social and political consequences.  Of the 13,000 who complete the course on Machine Learning, most of them must have learned something but none got a State recognized certificate or a degree.  So, at this point, they completed the course “for nothing”–that is just for the education of it.  Some of them may also perform their professional tasks better.  I suspect those will not accept for very long to be passed for promotion by people who have a degree.

If the State finds ways to accredit (“give credit for”) the taking of MOOC (perhaps by asking a company like ETS to give an independent and controlled test), the implications for universities and their faculty are staggering.  The New York Times quote one of the Stanford professors who taught one of the MOOC as saying that he does not want to go back to teaching just twenty students in a small classroom.  When Stanford has found a way to charge people for the course, and reward the faculty member in commensurate fashion, the whole economic basis of colleges is transformed.

We may be seeing the end of schooling as we have known it (and for people of my generation profited from it).  It is going to be quite a ride.

On the archaeology of action networks

This morning, Gus Andrews sent me the following link: http://wrttn.in/04af1a.

There, in anonymous fashion, someone who signs “An engineer” gives a brief history of a case when “institutional archaeology” was needed because of the loss of “institutional memory” in a large corporation that required “reverse smuggling” of forgotten secrets by a person who knew the secrets but could not have the secrets told him.  Specifically, the corporation and its engineers had become ignorant of how one of their factories worked—even though it did work, and actually worked so well that they wanted to expand it!  But expansion required a knowledge that had been lost through several generations of reorganizations, partial digitization, retirements, etc.  So the corporation brought out of retirement one of the engineers who had designed parts of the machines.  The author of this brief case study has a good sense of all the ironies involved as the business, legal, and engineering parts of the corporations worked together, though in ways they could not mutually acknowledge, to keep the whole working (which it never ceased doing).  As Sacks would say “everyone has to lie” (1975).

This case is another nice demonstration that:
1) “things have agency” (Latour 2005);
2) writing instruction manuals is impossible because, as Garfinkel pointed out one cannot imagine all the settings within which the manual will be read (2002).  One has to add a temporal dimension to this: one cannot imagine which is the part of the manual that will become inaccessible as the manual, as object, disintegrates;
3) Terminator-like, the machines keep working, industry hums along, the humans scratch their head (that this is mostly the case is what Durkheim tried to capture that Latour and other critics cannot quite explain unless they join him in accepting that complex systems have a life of their own, that is they have “agency as things” and there must be mechanisms through which the machines “tell” or “instruct” the humans about what the machines need in order to keep functioning);
4) as the live humans scratch their heads to develop a meta-knowledge about the machines (above the everyday knowledge they may gain by interacting with the machine), they find ways (à la Rancière) to develop a new kind of situated knowledge (since the new version of how the plant currently works is not the same as the earlier version of how the plant would work).  For example, they hire retired engineers as consultants who themselves figure out where they put in their garage partial blue-prints they were not supposed to have taken out of the factory, and how to smuggle them back into the factory …);
5) those who read Lévi-Strauss (1966 [1962] ) must be told again that the distinction bricolage/engineering is a critique of rationalism: real engineers are always bricoleurs.

Latour, Bruno Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network theory. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005

Sacks, Harvey “Everyone has to lie.” in Sociocultural dimensions of language use. Edited by M. Sanches and B. Blount, 57-79 . New York: Academic Press 1975