Wishing I Understood

Readers of my blog know how much respect I have for Stephen Downes. He’s a pillar of morality in our community, with a never-swerving dedication to his idea of what is right. I love him for it.

It’s that love and respect that makes me me sit up and want desperately to understand when Stephen says something like, “I’ve spent a lifetime pursuing this objective.” He clarifies this lifetime of work as follows:

But let’s be clear about exactly what this objective is. It isn’t about (as the OECD report was titled) “Giving Knowledge for Free“. That is, it isn’t about the wonderful rich people engaging in charitable work as some sort of civic duty (as though that somehow made they wealth OK). It’s about actually empowering people to develop and create their own learning, their own education. So not only do they not depend on us for learning, but also, their learning is not subject to our value-judgements and prejudices. We (those of working in MOOCs) have also been clear about the influences of people like Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. And it’s not just about ‘flipping’ courses. It’s about reducing and eventually eliminating the learned dependence on the expert and the elite – not as a celebration of anti-intellectualism, but as a result of widespread and equitable access to expertise.

None of this happens by magic. There isn’t some ‘invisible hand’ creating a fair and equitable education marketplace. The system needs to be built with an understanding that personal empowerment and community networks are the goal and objective.

I’ve been confused by similar statements Stephen has made in the past, but perhaps a little too embarrassed by my inability to understand them (due to some lack of sophistication or nuance on my part) to admit it publicly. Or maybe I have and just don’t recall confessing previously.

I fully agree that we want to empower people. That seems to me to be the purpose of education. However, I don’t understand Stephen’s remarks regarding experts. My reading of the last sentence in the first paragraph is that we will eventually eliminate learners’ dependence on experts by making sure they have more equitable access to a larger group of experts: “It’s about reducing and eventually eliminating the learned dependence on the expert and the elite – not as a celebration of anti-intellectualism, but as a result of widespread and equitable access to expertise.” I’m confused.

If we take as a very loose definition of expert “someone who has more exper-ience than you do,” it is hard to imagine any form of learning that does not involve an expert – except pure, unguided, trial-and-error discovery learning. Without reference to any person – or any artifact created by a person – of more experience than ourselves, all learning would be maximally inefficient. We would each be left to rediscover the entirety of physics from scratch. And the entirety of music theory. And the entirety of every other field, without a conversation or a textbook or a Wikipedia article to guide us.

I can’t believe that this is what Stephen is advocating for. I believe one of the core purposes of education is to help learning be more efficient than blind groping in the dark, and I believe Stephen does, too. Which is part of what confuses me so terribly.

Stephen also mentions the “elite” in connection with experts. Are these people elite because they have expertise, and because expertise is such a rare commodity? I fully support creating more equitable access to a larger group of experts. And I agree that the way to make this happen is to democratize expertise, not by debasing our definition or lowering our standards of what makes an expert, but by helping more people rise to that level of achievement. However, I don’t see how I would decrease people’s dependence on, say, water, by insuring more equitable access to a larger pool of water. Pollenating expertise far and wide doesn’t make it any less critically important to learners, it only makes it easier for learners to get access to what remains critically important to them.

Stephen writes, “It’s about actually empowering people to develop and create their own learning, their own education. So not only do they not depend on us for learning, but also, their learning is not subject to our value-judgements and prejudices.”

This seems like a turtles-all-the-way-down argument. If learners are to benefit from any expertise at all, they will inescapably be subjected to the value-judgements and prejudices of those whose expertise they lean on while developing their own. Simply removing an economics teacher from the front of the classroom does not spare learners exposure to the biases and prejudices of John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Milton Friedman, or Adam Smith work when they read works by these authors. How are we ever to gain access to expertise while avoiding the values that drove those experts to develop their own expertise?

He concludes, “The system needs to be built with an understanding that personal empowerment and community networks are the goal and objective.”

Personal empowerment is the goal and objective. Community networks are one means to that end. We should be careful not to confuse ends with means.

I find myself desperately wanting to understand Stephen’s characterization of his life’s work, but unable to. Stephen, or someone else, help please?