Coursera Condescension

Daphne KollerYesterday I watched the video of Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, speaking at UBC a couple of weeks ago. After her presentation, three UBC professors who have taught or are currently teaching a Coursera MOOC contributed to a panel discussion.

In many ways, neither the talk nor the discussion were particularly illuminating. Koller gave a talk that, I understand, she has been giving for some time. It’s the basic schtick for Coursera: “The Online Revolution: Learning without Limits.” It begins with the mathematical sublime, stunning us with the sheer numbers who register or show initial interest in Coursera offerings. And it transitions smoothly through the prestige of the universities who have signed up so far (“30 of the top 60 universities worldwide,” represented by their logos) to the pathos of individual cases.

For the first of three “vignettes” that she provides, we dwell on Raúl Coaguila, a Peruvian who won a Fulbright, we are told, thanks to his Coursera expertise. Because the fact is, Koller informs us, there is “not very much computer education to be had in Peru.” Only Coursera could give him this opportunity, dedicated as the company is to “people whose lives have been transformed by education that they would never otherwise have had.”

As soon as I heard this, I wanted to call bullshit. Because I’ve been to Lima (and Cuzco and Trujillo and Huamanga…) and pretty much all you see are endless adverts for computer courses at the multitude of local colleges and universities. Try for instance, the Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas or the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería. Or even the venerable Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, which has been teaching computing for over seventy years. Heck, this October you could take part in the V Congreso Internacional de Computación y Telecomunicación, hosted at the Universidad Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.

What, did Koller think they live in mud huts down there?

In fact, if this is the same Raúl Coaguila whose user page you can find on the Coursera site (and it’s likely: 24 year old male from Lima, Peru, with a strong interest in computing), then in fact he did his BA in software engineering at (precisely) the aforesaid Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas. Indeed, his LinkedIn profile suggests that he has been teaching there for the past three years.

Now, none of this is to say that putting Coursera on his CV didn’t help Raúl in his Fulbright application. Nor that he isn’t a Coursera fan. On the contrary: he’s clearly heavily involved in the site, listing 21 courses from “Machine Learning” to “Introduction to Guitar.” (It’s not clear how many–if any–of these he’s completed.) And he’s satisfied with his experience enough to encourage his followers on Twitter to vote for the company as “Best Education Startup” in the 2012 Crunchie Awards. Sadly for Raúl, they only came second, losing out to Codecademy. But he’s also a fan of sky-diving (hardly a regular past-time of Lima’s urban poor), and who knows if that influenced his Fulbright assessors just as much, if not more, than his application’s mention of Coursera.

Let me stress that in no way do I want to suggest that Raúl Coaguila is an undeserving recipient of a Fulbright. I wish him well in his future studies (and hope he takes care with his sky-diving).

But I do object to the romanticized pathos invoked by Koller (here and increasingly as her talk goes on): the conceit that Coursera’s object is to lift up the impoverished in Latin America, Africa, and the Third World more generally. Or the notion that North American universities’ participation with her company is the best way to make up for lack of educational capacity in the global South. Beyond the immense condescension and ignorance that it betrays on her part, I bet she isn’t spinning this line to her venture-capital investors. And I’d rather she didn’t spin it to us.

Eric Mazur and the Suppression of a Utopian Past

Eric MazurThe past few days my institution has been hosting Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has made a name for himself in the world of “flexible learning” for his tweaks to the university lecture format to create what is sometimes called a “flipped classroom.”

His visit was much hyped by the university, and drew a large crowd. As he himself tells us, it was his fourth lecture in as many countries and as many days. Mazur is a big shot.

Essentially, his pedagogical tweaks involve the use of technology to incorporate student feedback and discussion. His technique is for the lecturer to introduce a concept, then pose a question. After responses to the question have been gathered, students discuss their answers among themselves before answering the question again; the lecturer goes over the correct answer and moves on. The point is that ideally students will have taught each other during the discussion phase, as will be demonstrated by their improved responses the second time they answer the same question. Not a bad idea per se, but hardly earth-shattering.

In short, Mazur argues for the inclusion of brief bouts of so-called formative assessment in what is otherwise a rather traditional teaching model. Mazur calls this “peer instruction.” He has a book on the topic. These days, more importantly, he also has a website he’d like to sell you. And so the product pitch is on.

Because otherwise there was little of any substance to his presentation. Yesterday, Mazur spent the first third of his uninterrupted two-hour spiel with some fairly jokey and anecdotal critique of the lecture format as a vehicle for student learning. The second third was devoted to selling us on the peer instruction technique. And the final third was a pitch for the product itself.

Pedagogy of the OppressedMazur’s thoughts on pedagogical theory were astonishingly superficial and, frankly, uninformed. Early on in the lecture, in response to a question, someone in the audience mentioned Paulo Freire’s “banking model”. For this indeed was precisely what Mazur was saying, that (in Freire’s words) in the conventional system:

Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.

But Mazur had patently never heard of Freire. Nor, it seems, was he aware of any other aspect of educational theory from the past fifty years.

It is not that one cannot criticize Freire (not least for a somewhat simplistic view of how banking works). But such criticism and dialogue with the past is impossible from Mazur’s position of total ignorance. An entire body of knowledge is being forgotten or suppressed. And this is rather convenient for the bevy of people who are trying to sell us their latest tweaks and gadgets.

For the point is that Freire was against the banking model in part because he was against banks: his argument is a radical critique of a hierarchical social structure and its economic underpinnings. His is a “pedagogy of the oppressed” because he believes that the current educational system perpetuates inequality, and he wants to do something about it.

Mazur’s aims are precisely the opposite: he wants to benefit from social stratification (leveraging his Harvard credentials) to make financial profit. A few weeks ago he sold his technology start-up to the corporate giant Pearson for somewhere between five and ten million dollars in hard cash (though he retains a position as consultant). For a company that’s less than two years old, that’s a quick buck indeed.

It is insulting on many levels to sit through a presentation such as Mazur’s: insulting to anyone who has spent any time reading and thinking about education; and insulting to be treated only as potential customers for a hard sell. But the broader issues are more concerning still.

For this is where we are at, with the current fuss about flexible education and the like. The radical educational proposals of the 1960s and 1970s are being rediscovered, now that their promise is finally realizable thanks to technological innovation. But their utopian thrust has been lost, their politics have been gutted, and everything has to be “monetized” as part of a massive round of enclosures in which for-profit start-ups and mega-corporations colonize the captive educational market.

The tragedy and the scandal is that universities such as my own allow this to happen. Driven by a desire to do what Harvard (and Stanford and the like) do, they lay down the red carpet, this week to Mazur’s shallow shill, last week to the founder of Coursera. They turn their backs on a whole field of educational theory and enquiry, in favour of the latest huckster with a fancy website. And they forget entirely what the university is supposed to be about, or what in the 1960s and 1970s we thought it could be about.

We have the means to make a previous generation’s utopian dreams real. But we have forgotten their vision, and want only to buy and sell the means as though it were an end of its own.

From Discipline and Discovery to Place & Promise

UBCIn a marvellous essay of a couple of years ago on the gutting of British academia, Stefan Collini compares the British Government’s White Paper Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System with the celebrated Robbins Report on higher education, which was published in 1963. (He had already reviewed the Browne Report, which lay behind much of the White Paper.) As Collini points out, the 2011 White Paper cites Robbins, but

It may have been unwise for the drafting team at [the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills] to remind their readers of the cadence of Robbins’s prose, since it seems bound to provoke some thinking about how far we have travelled from the assumptions expressed by that prose, how that has happened, and whether something valuable may not have been lost along the way.

Quoting at length from the 1963 Report, Collini observes that

what such passages display, and what the White Paper so lamentably lacks, is a considered understanding of the character of intellectual inquiry and of the conditions needed to sustain it successfully across a wide range of subjects and across many generations. Universities cannot be glibly said to exist ‘to serve students’: that neglects precisely ‘the element of partnership between teacher and taught in a common pursuit of knowledge and understanding’ which Robbins identifies. The language of these passages is well informed and accurate: teaching at this level is not simply the ‘patient recapitulation and explanation of the known’; university teachers ‘need time for reflection and personal study’ if they are to ‘keep abreast of new developments in their subjects’, and so on. Such phrases would stick out in current HiEdspeak precisely because they are modest yet confident, not all outer bluster and inner defensiveness.

It is not, Collini continues, that we should “indulge a nostalgic desire to return to the far smaller and more selective higher education system of 30 or 40 years ago.” Rather, he concludes:

To the contrary, we should be seeking to ensure that those now entering universities in still increasing numbers are not cheated of their entitlement to an education, not palmed off, in the name of ‘meeting the needs of employers’, with a narrow training that is thought by right-wing policy-formers to be ‘good enough for the likes of them’, while the children of the privileged classes continue to attend properly resourced universities that can continue to boast of their standing in global league tables. There is nothing fanciful or irresponsible in believing that this great public good of expanded education can and should be largely publicly funded. This White Paper and the legislation already enacted are not about finding ‘fairer’ ways to pay for higher education or, in any meaningful sense, about putting ‘students at the heart of the system’. Rather, they represent the latest instalment in the campaign to replace the assumptions of Robbins’s world with those of McKinsey’s.

Similar conclusions can be reached, if on a smaller scale, by comparing the language and arguments employed within my own institution to describe its educational ambitions (or lack thereof) in two key documents: first, from 1963, Discipline and Discovery: A Proposal to the Faculty of Arts of the University of British Columbia; and, from 2011, A Place & Promise for Arts: UBC Faculty of ARTS Strategic Plan, Fall 2011.

The point of such comparison, however, is neither nostalgia nor critique for the sake of critique. It might, by contrast, help prepare us better for the challenge we currently face. That challenge has only become more acute over the two years since the UK White Paper and the UBC Strategic Plan were published, as the dramatic expansion of the commons promised above all by digital and online technology is met by a ferocious drive towards enclosure and “monetization” on the part of for-profit enterprises from Blackboard to Elsevier, Taylor and Francis to (most recently and most insidiously) Coursera.

More, anon.

Margaret Thatcher, Scholarship Girl

form_photo_1hI was only nine when Margaret Thatcher came to power in May 1979, but I was among the first beneficiaries of her largesse. For one of her government’s earliest acts was to create the “Assisted Places” scheme, by which public funds were used to provide private education to a privileged few. As a result, under the Tories the state paid for my attendance at one of the country’s most academically elite secondary schools, which currently charges £10,545 a year in fees. As an added bonus, it even paid for my bus pass, with which I could roam the city. So much for “rolling back the frontiers of the state.” Thatcher was happy to use public money not only to subsidize private enterprises, such as the school, but also to lavish it on individuals such as myself if they were reckoned to be suitably deserving. At the same time, the 1980 Education Act cut funds to schools (and pupils) in the public sector.

Thatcher had first made her name as Education Secretary, so her interest in the issue was unsurprising. Long before she became the “iron lady,” she was Thatcher the “milk snatcher” when, in 1971, she undid the 1946 Free Milk Act and removed the right to free school milk from children over the age of seven. Consistently, then, she was against the principles of universal provision enshrined in the Welfare State. But again, she was not against state spending per se. She was in favor of what in today’s buzzword would be called “targeted” spending: the few would benefit at the expense of the many. But note that the “few” in question here were not those who were already elite: the point is that this is a form of class engineering; the “able” or “deserving” few were to be pulled from their surroundings and given a ladder to join the elite. Better: the effect of the Assisted Places scheme was to give those who were culturally but not economically privileged (the children of teachers, single parents, or in my case the clergy) the chance to entrench or even improve their middle-class status on a working-class salary. Only 7% of those who benefitted from the scheme were children of manual laborers.

And yet (ironically for someone who, as Education Secretary, created more comprehensive schools than anyone before or since) Thatcher did effectively reintroduce the category of the “scholarship boy” (or girl). This is the person that Pierre Bourdieu would call an “oblate”: who identifies with the educational institution rather than with his or her class, because it is the institution that has enabled him or her to gain or maintain their class position. The scholarship subverts class loyalty without subverting class. It enables class mobility apparently under the guise of “merit” alone, but on terms structured by entrenched hierarchies of both economic and cultural capital. It is social mobility without social change. Or as Raymond Williams long ago put it, what he called “the ladder version of society” both “weakens the principle of common benefit, which ought to be an absolute value” and also “sweetens the poison of hierarchy, in particular by offering the hierarchy of merit as a thing different in kind from the hierarchy of money or of birth” (Culture and Society 331). And yet it is precisely this vision of so-called “meritocracy” that the Labour government that eventually succeeded that of Thatcher (and her epigones) fully embraced–even though, in another apparent irony, one of its first acts on gaining power in 1997 was to abolish the Assisted Places scheme.

But the ideology of merit cannot so easily dispel the reality of class. Thatcher, a scholarship girl herself who famously made her way from a flat above a grocer’s shop in Grantham to Oxford and then married into money, always suffered from the condescension of those whose privilege could come to seem natural precisely because it was not so obviously dependent on any one institution. In some ways this woman who was so keen on asking whether a putative ally was “one of us” was always keenly aware that she was not “one of them,” if by “them” we mean both the grandees whose control of the Conservative Party she had so surprisingly usurped and indeed the men (and women) on the Labour benches whose sense of belonging was so much more secure. Thatcher was constantly derided for her provincialism and/or suburban allegiances, whether they were expressed in her choice of clothes (Marks and Spencer blouses!) or her accent and voice (hence the elocution lessons). In short, she stood out for her lack of cultural capital, her perceived inauthenticity; for the fact that she was neither to the manor nor the miner born. And it was precisely on this basis that she could articulate her populist revolt: against the “Establishment”; against the post-war consensus that had seemed to exclude an entire class of those who no longer believed in class, who felt their dreams of social mobility frustrated by entrenched privilege.

At root, however, she no longer thought (if she ever had done) that the educational system was sufficient to make real her dream of a world in which there were merely “men and women.” She preferred council house sales and privatization, the vision of a property- and share-owing democracy, as a more efficient vehicle to change the “society” that she wouldn’t or couldn’t bring herself to believe in. No wonder that the New Left, many of whom were scholarship boys and girls themselves (from Richard Hoggart to Stuart Hall), not-so-secretly admired and envied her ability to articulate what they saw as a “hegemonic” bloc that waged war (almost) as much against the elite as against organized labor. It helped that the establishment obligingly played into her hands: by snubbing her nomination for an honorary degree, for instance, Oxford University no doubt boosted Thatcher’s credibility among the many who never had a chance to go to Oxford in the first place, if not among her own front bench who were (as always) almost exclusively Oxford and Cambridge men themselves.

So Thatcher’s class war was double-sided, as populist insurgencies have to be: she was ruthless on the poor and the working class, but she was also serious, I think, about confronting those she had come to know, but never to like, as a scholarship girl at Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School, Somerville College, Oxford, and ultimately in the House of Commons. No wonder she was never particularly keen on the House of Lords, either as Prime Minister (when her government frequently suffered defeat in the upper house) or as Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire.

But in the end it was the grandees who brought her down. It was after all Geoffrey Howe (not Arthur Scargill) who, with his resignation speech, put the nail in her political coffin and forced her to resign. And perhaps here we also see her greatest political failure more generally. By the time New Labour came to power, its leaders had taken on the mantra of meritocracy but also effortlessly felt at home with the guardians of cultural capital. None more so than the Right Honourable Anthony Blair (Fettes and St Johns College, Oxford). And after a brief hiccup in the personages of John Major and William Hague, the current Tory party, stuffed with members of the Bullingdon Club, has returned to form. Which is why it’s hard to imagine another Margaret Thatcher coming along any time soon: now that the chances for scholarships have disappeared, in part because the idea of the school or university as “ladder” rather than simply requirement has effectively disappeared, an entire structure of feeling has gone with it, too. Among those who can imagine themselves rich and can read the right magazines to appear cultured, deference is the order of the day; among those who know that they have been excluded more viciously than ever, thanks largely to the legacy of Thatcherism’s attack on universal provision, the only reasonable affect left is anger.

Meanwhile, my old school claims now to offer “need-blind” admissions, boasting of a war-chest it has accumulated from constant fund-raising and appeals, often to former pupils like me. A few years ago its website used to feature a list of the postcodes from which its pupils came (and the numbers in each case), as a testament to the wide geographical swathe of Northwest Britain from which it could recruit. But I pointed out that the list was drastically skewed to the leafy suburbs of affluent South Manchester: over a hundred pupils commuted in from each of SK8, WA14, and above all (my own former postcode) WA15. I suggested then that the test of a truly need-blind admission policy would be if there were proportionately equal representation from the postcodes (and so the dilapidated council estates) that immediately surround the school itself, located in the inner suburbs: M12, M13, M14, and M15; at the time, there were no pupils at all from M12 or M15, and only a handful from M13 or M14. I said I would contribute money for their appeal when there were as many children admitted from M14 as from WA14. Strangely, that list of pupils by postcode has now disappeared from the school’s site.

Adiós Presidente!

Hugo ChávezHugo Chávez was perhaps the most influential figure in Latin American politics over the past twenty years. Not only did he have an immeasurable impact on his own country–to the point of changing its name, from the “Republic of Venezuela” to the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” He was also the first of the left-wing presidents that comprise the so-called “left turns” in the region. And to the end, nationally and internationally alike, he was no doubt the most divisive of figures. In the reaction to his death we see the intense popularity that he enjoyed among significant sections of the Venezuelan people, as well as the inspirational role he played for many as a standard-bearer for a fairer alternative to neoliberalism and US supremacy. But we also see Venezuelans celebrating his demise (albeit less openly in Caracas than at a distance, in Miami) and a more mainstream assessment of his legacy that stresses ambivalence at best if not outright hostility to Chávez’s excesses and idiosyncracies.

If nothing else, the Venezuelan President was also the most colourful figure we have seen in Latin America for a good long while. Literally as well as figuratively: in his bright red beret or his jumpsuits the vibrant shades of the Venezuelan flag, as well as in his political invective or his apparently impulsive gestures and mischievous antics. What other world leader would, from the UN rostrum in New York, describe the sitting US President (George W Bush) in these terms: “Yesterday the Devil came here. Right here. And it smells of sulphur still today.” Or who else would leap at the chance of an international summit to present the subsequent US Commander in Chief (Barack Obama) with a copy of that classic leftist history, Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America? Chávez was exuberant, unpredictable, tireless, and both charming and annoying in equal measure. As Lula puts it in a fascinating homage, “he didn’t allow people to fall asleep.” Many of us, however, like a quiet life and King Juan Carlos of Spain surely spoke for many when he asked in frustration: “Why don’t you shut up?” But where the King is now enmeshed in scandal as the Spanish monarchy’s ratings plummet, Chávez seems to have had the last laugh, with even former foes grudgingly paying him their respects.

The Venezuelan opposition hated and despised Chávez. They barely understood why anyone would vote for him–which is one reason why he beat them soundly in every election he fought. Despite coming late to the democracy game–famously, he came to public prominence with an attempted coup d’état in 1992–Chávez quickly got the hang of it. For all the criticisms that he was some kind of autocrat, it’s best to see his continual efforts at mobilization (of his base) and antagonism (of his opponents) as part of a permanent democratic campaign. Indeed, far from the anti-politics of either technocratic neoliberalism or traditional authoritarianism, Chávez is perhaps best understood as the most consummate of politicians. He thrived on politics, in its purest forms: he was energized by its spirit of antagonism; he separated friends from enemies and sought to expand the ranks of both. The middle classes who saw him as such a threat to their livelihoods took the bait all too easily. They’ll find they miss him.

For if anything unites the rancourous Venezuelan opposition–and little does–it is their visceral distaste for the Comandante. Now that their bête noir is gone, they’ll have to face up to the fact that chavismo without Chávez is a little more complicated, and perhaps a little more robust, than they have assumed.

More soon…

About Academia

About AcademiaLast week I went to a panel discussion organized by the curators of Antoni Muntadas’s current exhibition at SFU’s Audain Gallery: “About Academia”. The show itself is interesting enough–though its aesthetic aspects are obscure at best–consisting as it does of a series of interviews with figures such as Carol Becker, Noam Chomsky, David Harvey, and Doris Sommer, academics mostly based in elite institutions in the US Northeast who are asked to reflect upon the politics of the university.

The purpose of the panel was, in like manner but with a focus on the Canadian and specifically the Vancouver context, to pay “critical attention to the structure and function of the university, and [investigate] the complicated, often contradictory relationship between the production of knowledge and economic power.”

But I have seldom seen a more incoherent and disjointed dialogue of the deaf. Panelists variously told personal anecdotes, spoke in broad platitudes, and/or simply outlined their own research interests with little or no attempt to address the supposed themes of the discussion. Especially given what a small and self-selecting subset of the university was actually represented–more or less left-leaning Humanities professors; nothing from, say, the Sciences or the student body–the fact that it seemed utterly impossible to generate any kind of conversation was little short of pathetic.

Ultimately, the person who came out best was the one representative of management–a UBC Associate Dean, whose perspective was limited but pragmatic. But again, what was most of concern is that there was no conception of the university as an institution for the production, exchange, and dissemination of ideas. We saw rather a display of single-minded specialization, disciplinary fragmentation, and speech that expected no audience or response.

If this is the state of academia today, then it deserves all (the neoliberal corporatization, public opprobrium or dismissal, withdrawal of state subsidy, and so on) that it gets.

intentions

If Oedipus has a tragic flaw, then it’s surely beside the point to talk of “pride” or the like. Or at best it’s incidental.

For what’s striking about Oedipus’s predicament is how hard he has tried to avoid it. It’s not as though he ends up killing his father and sleeping with his mother by accident, out of some negligence or lapse. Rather, he’s spent the better part of his life trying to ensure that he never sees his parents again. All from the very best of intentions.

Oedipus is in every sense of the term (except the one that counts) a “good guy.” He works ardently for both public and private good, and is loved by all for his efforts. He wears his heart on his sleeve and never shirks responsibility: “Here I am myself [. . .] I am Oedipus” (7, 8). Called upon to resolve the trauma Thebes is suffering, to rid the city of the plague, he pledges to do his best in every way, and to put all of his formidable energy to work. He feels his people’s pain: “I have wept through the nights, you must know that, / groping, laboring over many paths of thought” (78-9). He’s no distant tyrant, savoring the delights of power and luxury. He feels personally invested in the search for the old king Laius’s murderer, even though it happened before he arrived in the city, even though it would be easy enough simply to blame the people who were there then for burying the trauma at the time.

In short, Oedipus is the very model of the ideal modern politician. Would that there were more like him. And not only because at the end he (almost literally) falls on his sword for something that was not really his fault, assuming responsibility for a disaster he never intended to bring about and circumstances that he could never have avoided.

Except that the irony is that if it weren’t for his impeccably good intentions, everything would undoubtedly have turned out very differently. It was only because he fled Corinth, seeking to avoid his fate, that he met Laius at the crossroads. And it was only because he solved the Sphinx’s riddle, so freeing Thebes from the monster’s malevolent presence, that he can marry Jocasta and taint her, too, with the blot of incestuous union.

In other words, it’s not just that his good intentions don’t save him. They are what get him into all this trouble in the first place. They are his tragic flaw.

All too often over the past decade or so, politicians have tried to cloak themselves in the defence of good intentions. Some years back David Runciman wrote a marvelous article about Tony Blair, who appealed always to his own high-minded humanitarianism and sense of conscience as exculpation for the disasters that ensued on his watch. Indeed, in part this was precisely his justification (for example) for the war on Iraq: yes, the people in their hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the streets against military action on such a shaky foundation. But the Prime Minister argued that the fact that he went to war anyway (whether or not he “sexed up” dodgy dossiers and the like en route) showed that he was not some populist swayed by the views of the many. He was a principled man who followed his own sense of right and wrong.

My colleague and friend Max Cameron at the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions would no doubt applaud this concern for morality and ethics amid–and against–the tumult of democratic politics.

There’s no need to doubt the intentions. We might even be prepared to admit that Blair was and is a “good” man. Precisely the kind of good person that some want to see more of in politics. But if Blair’s example alone isn’t enough, then Oedipus the King reminds us of the bad that good men do.

Or to put it another way: this is a further argument against meritocracy, our contemporary form of what the Greeks themselves called “aristocracy.”

memetic

The Wednesday quotation, part XVIII: More on TED, from a quite damning review of Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna, Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization:

I take no pleasure in declaring what has been obvious for some time: that TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas “worth spreading.” Instead it has become something ludicrous, and a little sinister.

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

[. . .]

Since any meaningful discussion of politics is off limits at TED, the solutions advocated by TED’s techno-humanitarians cannot go beyond the toolkit available to the scientist, the coder, and the engineer. This leaves Silicon Valley entrepreneurs positioned as TED’s preferred redeemers. In TED world, tech entrepreneurs are in the business of solving the world’s most pressing problems. This is what makes TED stand out from other globalist shindigs, and makes its intellectual performances increasingly irrelevant to genuine thought and serious action. (Evgeny Morozov, “The Naked and the TED “. The New Republic [August 2, 2012].)

promise

The BBC’s Paul Mason (to whom I’ve linked before) has a rather interesting post on “Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere”.

I’d underline the power of disenchantment, which I’ve discussed previously with reference to the protests against authoritarianism in Chile. At root is a series of broken promises.

Mason says:

1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future

[. . .]

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

This is also much like the reasons Bourdieu gives for France’s May 1968. As I put it in Posthegemony:

Bourdieu argues that the May 1968 student protests were the result of ethical self-protection in the face of the inadvertent effects of increased access to the French educational system in the 1950s and 1960s. The expansion of secondary and tertiary education had led to “diploma inflation” and the devaluation of scholarly certification, such that educational success could no longer be converted straightforwardly into social mobility. Yet “newcomers to secondary education [we]re led . . . to expect it to give them what it gave others at a time when they themselves were excluded from it.” Whereas “in an earlier period and for other classes, those aspirations were perfectly realistic, since they corresponded to objective probabilities,” in the wake of systemic expansion “they are often quickly deflated by the verdicts of the scholastic market or the labour market.” The social field had changed, shattering habitual expectation and provoking an ethical refusal that questioned the very rules of the game: “A whole generation, finding it has been taken for a ride, is inclined to extend to all institutions the mixture of revolt and resentment it feels toward the educational system.” Hence the “anti-institutional cast of mind” that “point[ed] toward a denunciation of the tacit assumptions of the social order, a practical suspension of doxic adherence to the prizes it offers and the values it professes, and a withholding of the investments which are a necessary condition of its functioning.” However much the events of 1968 drew “strength from ideological and scientific critiques,” they were not themselves ideological; rather they constituted a suspension of (practical, embodied) belief in the wake of an interruption to the smooth functioning of social reproduction. They were part of an ethical revolt that drew on habitual inclinations to confront the social order. (pp. 220-21)

The only thing I’d add, then, to Mason’s analysis is the importance of habit and conatus, the instinct for survival or increase. And it is conatus that builds the multitude.

dreams

I wonder whether it is the pressure of the Nobel prize acceptance speech itself, which marks the point at which the writer is thrust into a new form of public celebrity, or the burden that Latin American literature takes upon itself to be politically engaged where other literatures do not feel the same need, but it’s notable how little Mario Vargas Llosa has to say about literature in his recent Nobel lecture.

The speech is entitled “In Praise of Reading and Fiction,” an echo no doubt of Vargas Llosa’s own book, In Praise of the Stepmother, which is by chance one of his least obviously political books. But it might equally have gone by a title such as “In Denunciation of Authoritarianism,” for beyond some well-worn homilies about the power of fiction (“Literature is a false representation of life that nevertheless helps us to understand life better”), and a little bit of incidental autobiography, Vargas Llosa has more to say about politics than anything else.

In denouncing authoritarianism, the Nobel laureate takes the opportunity to launch pot-shots at Cuba (of course), but also Venezuela’s Chávez and Bolivia’s Morales, as well as indulging in a long digression whose main purpose is to denigrate Catalan nationalism.

Generally, it’s interesting how Vargas Llosa constructs and tries to balance his various audiences. He speaks in praise of Spain, the country of his current residence and citizenship, and presumably the comments on Catalonia are a function of his self-positioning as a specifically Spanish intellectual. But he also appeals to his Peruvian roots and tries to deflect the charge that he has in any way betrayed them by moving to Europe and taking up with the former conquistadors who did so much damage to Peru’s pre-Columbian cultures. And he further has to present himself as a fully cosmopolitan, global figure whose ties to any one particular place are necessarily weaker than his allegiance to the world republic of letters.

And yet, for all his purported praise of reading and fiction, ultimately his investment in the world republic of letters (that “false representation of life”) always has to cede to the greater calling offered by the res publica itself. Why, for instance, does he feel compelled to tell us that “Latin America has made progress”, that “We are afflicted with fewer dictatorships than before,” and that “if it stays on it, combats insidious corruption, and continues to integrate with the world, Latin America will finally stop being the continent of the future and become the continent of the present”?

He has, after all, much less to say about the state of Latin American literature; indeed, his literary references are all at least half a century old: to José María Arguedas and Juan Rulfo, to the Boom writers “Borges, Octavio Paz, Cortázar, García Márquez, Fuentes, Cabrera Infante, Rulfo, Onetti, Carpentier, Edwards, Donoso,” when not to figures such as “Balzac, Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Proust.” His literary narrative is soaked in nostalgia; but when it comes to politics he feels the need to renounce all lost loves (socialism, above all) in the name of a paean to democratic progress and a concomitant warning against the excesses of the contemporary “left turns.”

Literary dreams are, apparently, to be indulged; political dreams, however, are to be disparaged.

Finally, it may be a strange kind of false modesty (or justified by the fact that the prize itself presumably attests to his pre-eminence in the field), but Vargas Llosa make precious little reference to his own works of fiction. He says somewhat more about his love of the theater, and still more about his work as a journalist.

In short, it is as though the Nobel laureate himself shared some of the fear of literature that he projects upon those in power. He claims that “all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear [literature] so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it,” In fact, this is at best a half-truth: as many literary and cultural historians have observed, Latin American literature is a good a place as any to research the ways in which elites use the written word to their own advantage. From the privileged role of the church and letrados under colonialism, to the “foundational fictions” of the nineteenth century that continue to imbue the virtues of citizenship in contemporary school curricula, literature has historically been as much handmaiden of power as its opponent.

In sum, Vargas Llosa seems to want to confine sedition to fiction: literature, in his conception, invokes romantic images of the past, with sweet memories of big-nosed grandfathers and enthusiastic Uncle Luchos. When it comes to the present, however, he steps outside this literary role so as to curb the foolishness of those who have not followed his example in putting behind them their youthful dreams.