Category Archives: on education, comprehensively

Posts developing the approach to education, understood as a comprehensive and ubiquitous activity of all human beings in all their settings, which I have been developing since 2005.

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:

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

Putting 2 and 2 together, and following up

Here is an addition to my gallery of educational events.  Here is the story of someone(s) who figured out that plastic bottles can provide lighting…

bottle in roof to be use as lighting

The link came to me through my son who got it from …. (probably a long list of referrals with mention of “amazing video”–and this is also an educational event)  Here is the link:

The story is told as one person coming up with an idea, refining it, and then convincing people in his “squatter area” (in English in the local language) to use it.  There was here a hint of network that transformed an individual act into a communal educational event.  And this, of course, is what is wonderful about the event. The editors of provide a link to Isang Litrong Liwanak, a web site for the project.

This link reveals that, not so surprisingly anymore, the network has wildly expanded.  And that of course, suggest more educational events by more and more people.

This another case that would make a delightful research project.  Who did what when, for the first time, using what machines, and, most importantly, with whom?

detouring the internet and making it legal

Two news items caught my eyes recently as more examples of the kind of activities I deem “educational” and that I encourage doctoral students to investigate.  Here is another set of “free dissertation topics” to expand our collection of case studies of what so many of our colleagues ignore.

The first item is from Afghanistan, the other from Guinea by way of New York City.  Both deal with people in serious trouble figuring out what are their conditions and trace a path through them (“enunciate their landscapes” to cross-reference Merleau-Ponty/de Certeau’s jargon).  In both cases the people are caught in mid-stream, successful-so-far in surviving, but with no guarantee that the future will be less difficult than their recent past has been.  Watching them struggling can teach us much about the world we, ourselves, also face–for it is the same one they do face.

Afghans working on laptop
Volunteers have built a wireless Internet around Jalabad, Afghanistan, from off-the-shelf electronics and ordinary materials (NY Times, 6/12/2011)

On Sunday June 12, the New York Times reported, on page 1 no less, that “U.S. underwrites internet detour around censors.”  The subject of this headline, not surprisingly is “the U.S.”  The subject is further specified in the first paragraphs as “the Obama administration,” “the State Department,” “a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington.”  It is, by the Time standard an “American effort.”  The picture that accompanies the piece, placed smack center at the top of the page, is of two Afghan men and an Apple laptop.  The laptop is set precariously on a chair on a roof.  It is tied to some machines.  One man sitting on the edge of the roof is peering down at the screen, one hand to his mouth, in the classical pose of the person who waits for a computer to complete an important task, or who is trying to interpret what the computer has provided.  The other man is peering into the distance through binoculars.  The legend below the picture says: “Volunteers have built a wireless Internet around Jalabad, Afghanistan, from off-the-shelf electronics and ordinary materials.”

Who are these “volunteers”? How were they trained? By whom? What exactly does it mean to “build a wireless internet”? Who else might also be building wireless internet that bypass state controls?  What are the other controls that may not be bypassed? How does one get an Apple laptop to Afghanistan (and the power to recharge it, etc.)?  (According to Google, there are Apple stores in New Delhi and Lahore, but apparently not in Kabul.)  There are many other subjects there than the “U.S.” and probably a lot of “fifth-floor shops” where the actual possibilities made available to local “volunteers” are explored, exploited, transformed.

The other story implies the existence of other kind of “fifth-floor shops,” this time in the Bronx “where many in New York City’s small Guinean population have blended in among other West African immigrant groups in neighborhoods like High Bridge, north of Yankee Stadium, Claremont and Morrisania” (NYT June 15, 2011).  The story is brief biography of the woman who is accusing Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexually assaulting him.  The details that struck me is the following:

It is not clear how the woman gained entrance to the United States. In the 12 months ending in September 2002, the United States issued 4,410 visas to Guineans, a vast majority for business trips or tourism, officials said.  But by the time she began her job as a housekeeper at the Sofitel in 2008, she had legal status and working papers, her lawyers said.

village in Guinea
The village of Thiakoulle, Guinea, where the hotel housekeeper who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault grew up (NY Times 6/15/2011)

How does one get legal status?  How does one do that, in the details of the peoples, bureaucracies, financial resources that must be involved?  How does one figure it out?  One can imagine the moment when it becomes clear that there are routes that can be followed to go from the village of Thikoulle, Guinea, to New York City, the efforts to find these routes among the maze of other routes that would take one elsewhere, and then the struggles to do whatever it takes to actually follow the route, and then, as is still going on for this woman—for there is no end to all this—, to recast one’s plans as one faces new obstacles and new possibilities.  At every moment and point the woman “learned” something and this something became almost immediately moot since the task that had been accomplished would not repeat itself, while new tasks appeared.

In this case, the one matter that would be worth investigating closely is the network of people who are involved in getting “legal status and working papers,” and to sort out what exactly one has to do.  I am sure that the State Department (or is it the Department of Homeland Security…) has web sites with instructions to follow.  But we also know (as per Garfinkel 2002) that these instructions cannot possibly be enough.  The bureaucratic rules have to be translated though not exactly into a different ‘language’.  Rather, they have to be re-written to become useful at the particular moment when a particular person has to perform whatever it is the rule says this person should do next.  Even more important to investigate are the processes when one finds out that the rules exist, and which of the millions of rules is the one a person should pay attention to now whether to imagine a possible route, or to get through the next gate along the way.  Doing something may just be secondary to finding out that it has to get done.

On ecologically valid assessments

At some point during the mini-conference on the future of assessment (held on April 11, 2011), Ray McDermott raised questions about the validity of the kind of tests the Educational Testing Service and such design.  He told of the work he conducted in the late 1970s as part of Michael Cole’s Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition.  Then McDermott, Cole and others wondered about the relationship between tests and the settings about which the tests were supposed to say something.  As they showed (1979, 1998: Chapter 1), the relationship between, for example, a reading test and baking banana bread by reading a recipe is tenuous, at best.  In the setting of a cooking club, so much else happens (from confused writing to interpersonal tensions) that ability to read is the least of the problem the children have to deal with.  The generalizability of these observations across settings and populations is now well established through repeated observations.

What has been left open in this work is the question of finding out what ecologically valid assessments would actually look like.

Soon after the conference, another participant, Katie Anderson-Levitt (U. of Michigan-Dearborn), suggested we look at Paradise and Rogoff’s recent paper about ongoing learning in families (2009).  In that paper, Paradise and Rogoff mention all the work done in the Cole tradition over the past 30 years with a new twist that fits well with my own sense of what I call ‘education.’  In everyday life, at home, “learning” is not a simple automatic matter proceeding below deliberation or symbolic expression.  In everyday life “teaching” (and assessing) is—probably—ubiquitous.

As I reflected on all this, I saw a route I have not yet quite explored and that could lead to further research expanding on the Cole, Lave, etc., traditions.  Starting with an expansion of the point Paradise and Rogoff made, I suspect that  the movement through publicized ignorance is accompanied by all sorts of speech acts, many of which fit in the paradigm of knowledge assessment.  Developing all this is also an expansion on Garfinkel, as I take him.

Garfinkel has kept arguing that maintaining any order requires ongoing work, including the work of figuring out what is going on.  Conversational analysts has given abundant evidence that this is indeed correct.  More recently, Garfinkel wrote about ‘instructions’ as a necessary aspect of this work.  The paper ends with one of my favorite quotes about screwing around and getting instructed (2002: 257).  What I do not think Garfinkel noted, and what I know I never noted myself, is that the instruction moments proceed either from an earlier assessment, or themselves constitute an assessment.  This is also an implication of Gus Andrews recent dissertation (2010) on blog comments when these are assessed as being “wrong” in some way that is specified by a later comment (“this comment does not belong here,” “you should not write your social security number here,” etc.).  In an interactional sequence (conversation?) utterance of the type “Do X differently!” are probably essential mechanisms for maintaining order, constituting emerging orders, moving participants into new positions, etc.

I am quite sure that such ongoing assessment is ubiquitous and should probably added as a function in Jakobson’s model of communication (1960 — though he might have classified it as an aspect of the metalingual function).  Much of the recent work on metapragmatics may also fit here.

In brief, and for our purposes, we could say that Ethno-methodology is at the service of ethno-science (what is the world made of?), and ethno-politics (how do we maintain the order within which we are now caught?), it also at the service of ethno-assessments. [or should we say that (ethno) Methodology is at the service of (ethno) Science, (ethno) Politics, and (ethno) Assessment?]

If this proves a useful direction for inquiry, it suggests that assessment is not an extra-ordinary task.  It also suggests how school assessment has drifted away from the ordinary [I am not sure that ‘drifted’ is the right work, but it will do for today].  The well known school-based QAE (Mehan 1979) model is formally equivalent to what might get known as the SARS model (Statement, Assessment, Re-statement) except that the former starts with the assessor’s question while the later starts with a seeker’s request that may then lead to an assessment (though this proposal may not have been presented as such).  In other words, the sequence starts with ignorance grounded in the here and now (“ecologically valid ignorance”?) and proceeds with statements of local knowledge that are themselves proposals for what it is that the seeker may plausibly not know (I am using the word ‘seeker’ rather than ‘learner’ since it will remain a question wether the subject whose ignorance is marked will learn anything out of the encounter).  This sequence is what I would now say my earlier statements about “productive ignorance” were about.

The question to designers of future tests is something like: how might you produce assessments that are triggered by acknowledgments of ignorance, whether generated by the subject (“I would like to know about X”) or by a co-participant in the polity (“you really should learn more about X”).  The challenge is to find the moment in the sequence of a life when the co-participant teachers will enter.  In everyday life it is a non-problem to the extent that co-participants or “consociates” have the built in or self-generated (legitimate) authority to assess (as siblings may have).  When social distance increases, that is when the network links between those who set what is to be assessed, what is to count as ignorance, and what should be done about include many persons in many institutions, then the problem gets acute.  It may even be unsolvable unless we find ways to reposition the official assessors within the network so they are closer to the performance in such a way that they can get a better sense, in real time, of the feedbacks that the seeker (learner) provides.

(More on what I am trying to formulate about network linkages later)

Practical assessments, perhaps

This is my third entry developing some of the points we discussed during the mini-conference on the future of assessment (held on April 11, 2011).  The first two entries (on audiences, and on utopias), and in my initial one before the conference (on political philosophy) were essentially analytic with a definite pessimistic lean.  (School) assessments are bad for the health, and yet they are here to stay given all the powers they serve—including idealistic ones.

Robbie McClintock re-started me on a different track I briefly explored in my last contributions (2010) to the series on Comprehensive Education Ed Gordon and I edited (2008, 2009, 2010).  There I mused about possibilities for forms of institutionalized education that did not proceed from schools.  I am convinced that adults gain their most significant knowledge (about, say, health, emerging scientific and engineering developments, trends in high and popular culture, etc.) from institutions (for example, journalists and television reporters or producers) that are not controlled by the State.  Most of these institutions do not present themselves as primarily in the education business.  But perhaps they should, and draw the consequences.

McClintock emphasized the Web as another source of an education that is not necessarily packaged as, precisely, “education” but perhaps only as “information,” “entertainment,” etc.  Some writers and producers for the Web may present themselves as educating but none, at this moment assess what one may learn by reading their offerings.  Yet, as McClintock pointed out, the new technologies, as they are evolving, afford for possibilities for ongoing, real time assessment that older technologies (for example the printing press) do not afford.

This is intriguing.  Time for a little science fiction.

Imagine a new Google service.  At this moment, Google answers questions of the type “where can I find about X?”  Whether the seeker is satisfied or not with the answer, whatever the seeker does with answer, Google remains silent after providing a list of possible answers ranked by Google’s best guess as to the seeker’s intent.  If the seeker is dissatisfied, he may ask again and Google will answer, but Google has no memory of what this seeker asked and Google’s answers will not evolve as answers do evolve when, say, a child ask a parent about X.  So, last week, while writing my preceding blog entry, I looked for the creationism museum I had read about.  I entered “creationism” in the Google box (search page saved on of 4/20/2011), clicked on the first of 3,150,000 results (a suspiciously ‘round’ number), and found myself in the Wikipedia entry that started, on that day, with “creationism is the religious belief …”  There are no links to the museum in that entry, and so I asked Google again, found that it was second in its list of possibilities (and I also found out, serendipitously, a “Conservapedia” with an entry on creationism that is close but interestingly different from Wikipedia’s.  I am, of course, on my way to educating myself about creationism—not so much as a belief but as an institution with, among others, curricula experts quite deliberately teaching that which School people are quite sure should not be taught.  But Google never intervened in my education.

Imagine that Google did intervene.  Imagine that Google, as run by some revolutionary government, traced my queries, adapted its answers to my renewed queries and, mor or less insistently started asking me about my beliefs and worked at correcting them.  Parents do this with their children.  And school teachers do this with their pupils.  Why shouldn’t Google?

I suspect that the technological infrastructure of such a service is already in place and that it would not take much tweaking of the various flavors of social software already available to make them serve the new function.

The challenge is multiply institutional.  Who is to start it? Fund it? Control it?  Who is to credential (authorize) the persons or software assessing self-sought knowledge in real time?  Who is to establish the curriculum and it goals to which seekers are to be brought back even as they explored far and wide?  Individuals, clubs, associations, etc., may already provide feedback in the sense that their web sites are less informational than argumentative.  For example, the fifth set of links to ‘creationism’ on Google mostly lead to “atheist” web sites specifically addressing creationist links and debunking the claims.

I have never heard of States getting into this as deliberately as States get in the business of setting school curriculum.

The libertarian and anarchist in me whispers: why would you want the State to get involved?  The school critic from the left and the neo-liberal from the right might ask the same question.  States have a wonderfully awful (or is it awfully wonderful?) track record of setting the curriculum for the mass populations they govern.  Why would they do better with real time ongoing assessment than they have with the usual forms of test or examination based assessments for which schools are (in-)famous?

The statist in me begs to differ.  Free, state regulated, public schools have done much that is good in transforming what is to count as the knowledge on which public and private lives should be based, as well as the means for the production of such knowledge.  Rationally based, modernist (?) expertise should probably remain at the core of what States support, propagate, and assess as, precisely, rationally based.  If Latour (1993 [1991]) is correct, “We may never have been modern.”  Modernism itself is a cultural construction that must be reconstituted on an ongoing basis to remain the order of the day.  True enough, but what else might we wish to build?

What ongoing assessment software should be now build?

Utopias and dystopias: Futures for education, technology, and the assessment of authority over knowledge.

When we met last Monday (April 11, 2011) for the mini-conference on the future of assessment, we, of course, talked a lot about the impact of the new technologies.  Without much prodding from Robbie McClintock we mentioned the oft celebrated opening of access to knowledge as well as the distribution of the production of widely accessible knowledge.  The new technologies open routes to knowledge that do not pass through the gate-keepers we are familiar with: universities, research libraries, newspapers, state-controlled curricula, medical institutions (not to mention the theologians and priests who, until recently appeared to be fading as gate-keepers).

Someone then mentioned that all this has a very dark side.  With the distribution of access and production comes a distribution of the authority to interpret and constitute knowledge so that it can guide practical action in the world.  This can be scary.

In brief, everyone, about, can read Wikipedia (and other sources available on the Web).  But Wikipedia writers cannot assess what people are doing with the reading, whether in real time or, in a posteriori tests.  Readers may learn, as individuals.  More significantly for us, they may then act publicly and practically.  Disagreeing with Darwin for religious reasons is one thing.  Building a “Creation Museum” is something else together (not to mention trying to enter creationism into the public school curriculum).  Doubting the efficacy of vaccines is one thing, not getting a child vaccinated is another one.

Can “democracy”—as Dewey might have meant it when he titled a book “Democracy and Education” (1916)—survive the full democratization of knowledge?  This, of course, is an old problem.

I will stay with the technical issues and keep the implications for political philosophy implicit.  The issue we must raise concerns the interpretation of two sets of now common observations about the entry of the new technologies into public common practices.

On the one hand there is the evidence for the power of crowd sourcing to establish, through communal self-correction, what is, for an intent, purpose, and polity, expert knowledge.  Much of Wikipedia fits here and there are reports that many fields are using crowd-sourcing for scientific purposes in the modernist sense.  McClintock’s own experiment with StudyPlace is a valiant attempt to use wiki software for more than the writing of encyclopedias.

On the other hand there is also evidence for the power of any number of other self-constituting polities to constitute, propose, defend, etc., forms of knowledge that other polities—says academics—will characterize as erroneous.  Post-modernists, critical theorists, performance artists may celebrate this anarchic blooming but the flowers of such blooming can be toxic.

In both cases one has “education” in my sense of “difficult collective deliberations” (2007) particularly as the various polities discuss and address each other.  In both cases one has evidence for collective ongoing “assessments” of earlier statements (Andrews 2010) by people who specifically claim some expertise, or who just proceed as if the assessment had been made by an expert.  And both cases leave state-regulated or controlled “public” schools in a difficult position.  For a century or two school people have been charged with developing knowledge (in research universities for example), deciding which subset of this knowledge is appropriate for what kinds of publics (through the setting of curricula), experimenting with methods (pedagogies) to impart this knowledge.  They have also been charged with vouching that particularly populations have incorporated this knowledge—through achievement tests for example.  In this arc of knowledge (re-)production, alternate forms of knowledge were either specifically discounted (“grand-mothers’ knowledge”) or just ignored.

For at least half-a-century, critics have protested this arc but they did it mostly from the safety of various ivory-towers (think Bourdieu blasting La Sorbonne from his post at the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales).  They rarely had to deal with the practical consequences of direct attack on academic expertise from putative experts who now have the tools to be heard.  It is only recently that the population at large has had the technological means to make fully public these alternate forms of knowledge.  It may be that finally, post-modernism is being institutionalized.

And so, those of us, particularly in anthropology, who see merit in the argument that constituted knowledge is founded on arbitrary institutional (political) means must confront the consequences of the mass distribution of constitutive tools, and thus the appearance of new forms of arbitrary political power (in all the sense of “arbitrary”—the political as well as the semiotic).

In a future that may already be here, schools may become irrelevant as producers, transmitters, or assessors of knowledge—though they could remain as essential baby sitting institutions, and as gate-keepers into the service industries.  This future may be wonderful, or awful.  Stressing the reality that the web makes public all knowledge and frees inquiry from the mediation of the institutions that limited access, can turn into technological utopia.  Stressing the reality that unmediated information can lead to all forms of altogether dangerous knowledge, can turn into technological dystopia.  It is probable that the 21st century will be a time when the classic debates about letting the Christian faithful read the Bible will be reprised (and will not, one hopes, lead to the kind of violence Europe experienced in the 16th century).

On the way home or, “When is m’I culture?”

Recently, I happened to watch Martin Scorcese’s documentary on Bob Dylan’s early career.  It is titled “No direction home” and starts with a soliloquy by Dylan wondering whether this would be an occasion for him to tell an odyssey of his return to the small town of his youth.  He concluded that it would not be because “I was born very far from where I am supposed to be.  So I am going home” in a future he had not reached when the documentary was made (in 2005).  In the same vein he also said at about the same time “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens.”

In my words, I exhort us, pre/post/never modern, intellectuals: do not explain Bob Dylan by calling on Robert Allen Zimmerman, Hibbing, Minnesota, or any other further “roots” in Judaism, Ukraine, Turkey—or even rock-n-roll, jazz, country, folk, “the 60’s,” … America.  An archaeology of Dylan’s songs will find them all there.  But to stop with the discoveries of a deconstruction is to blind oneself to humanity.  Robert Allen Zimmerman’s dispositions are not causes.  Hibbing … America are obviously Dylan’s resources, the raw material of what he is still cooking for ever renewed present (at the time of composition) constructions (that are now, of course, our enlarged resources for further construction—as for example this post).

I have said all this many times in recent years (20072011).  I’ll just sketch today another correlate by riffing on “home” and the direction there.  As I take him, Dylan makes of “home” a matter of eschatology, not history.

When I started thinking from Dylan’s statement, I was reminded of a paper by James Boon where he compared/contrasted  Lévi-Strauss and Geertz on what could be called the harmonics of the concept of culture (1982: 137-147).  Boon quotes Geertz “‘Without men, no culture, certainly; but equally, and more significantly, without culture, no men’ (1973:49).”  And then Boon continues:

If that bothers you, think how it would sound in French: Sans hommes, pas de culture [structure?], certainement; mais également, et d’une manière plus significative, sans culture, pas d’homme.  In English it sounds antiatomistic and almost optimistic (although Geertz himself—in this respect more Weberian than Parsonian—is pessimistic).  In French it sounds somehow pessimistic, even nihilistic. (1982:146-7).

{Note what may be a typo in Boon’s translation of the second “men” in Geertz’s quote: an ‘s’ is missing and Boon’s French would have to be translated back into English as “without culture no Man”—thereby directing us on other paths in classical musings about humanity vs. human beings}

In any event, Geertz’s quote evokes another classic statement I associate with Margaret Mead (but may be by someone else—I cannot locate it): “a child is born with the potential to live an infinite number of lives, and end up having lived only one, fully shaped by ‘his culture’.”  Every single human being is made by possible by “culture”—“without culture, no men” in a plural that would now be written, more corrrectly, as “without culture, no men or women.”

Whether this formula can be applied to say “without America, no Bob Dylan” would seem to be a question for anthropology (sociology, psychology, etc.) and it would seem to require a positive answer because, to simplify “Dylan is the product of America.”  This would be altogether “normal anthropology” on the relationship between history and career whether one is concerned with musical genres, political sensibilities, gender, age, religion, race, etc. Robert Zimmerman would be a white Jewish male born in … [add any aspects of his biography you wish].

But Bob Dylan challenges us to a different anthropology which I find quite congenial with what I have been trying to say these past few years.  One can start with the statement that “without Bob Dylan no America” (my initial America included Bob Dylan, along with big cars with fins, cowboys and Indians, Doris Day in “Pillow Talk,” and other miscellanea).  But there is more.  Bob Dylan, in his life, has kept producing a culture that was not quite there and about which we, his mass audiences, know altogether little.  Above all, his statements are universal: all human beings are born very far from where they are supposed to be, with wrong names and parents that are always in some ways wrong.

Dylan is often dismissed as being in some way a mystic whose insights are to be bracketed out by serious behavioral scientists.  Their task would be an incommensurable one and so, from Freud to Boasian anthropologists, from pragmatic philosophers to Parsonian sociologists (including, of course Bourdieu), the scientists of the past century or two, have explained adults careers in terms of what has happened, most particularly in the earliest years of one’s life, and most powerfully when one has forgotten what happened.  Merleau-Ponty, de Certeau, (Bob Dylan?), have tried to go in the other direction but exploring this direction systematically has been difficult—particularly given the difficulty of making the point that historically produced resources, and ongoing constraints, must be taken into account even as one follows the production process.

The one exception to my generalization about the social sciences if, or course, an ethnomethodology that has been modified to take into account the ongoing production of new orders—however minimally “different” they may be from earlier orders, and however these differences are disappeared by further constructions that ignore the potentialities of the preceding (thereby treating as allophonic what could have become phonemic [but I am getting ahead of myself here]).

In other words, my home is in the future of my ‘I’ and (continuing a riff on G. H. Mead) my culture is really “m’I” culture, that is an act, a word, that cannot be captured without collapsing it into other people’s cultures.

[all this being potentially related to soon-to-happen events prefigured by the two contracts we have signed over the past three months: a contract to sell our apartment and a contract to buy a house.  The—aptly named—“closing” on the apartment is now scheduled for January 5th, 2011.  What should be named the “opening” on the house should happen in February.  Then, my wife and I will go home on our ways to still future homes…]