There can come a time when the chasm of misalignment between your day-to-day reality and your vision of what’s possible becomes unbridgeable without very intentional action. For the better part of a year, I’ve been slowly wandering into a dangerously self-deceptive construction of reality; one in which each day includes, at least in part, the turning of a blind eye to a progressively transactional and mechanized system of suppressed dishonesty, if not utter societal negligence. And while I know I’m only dancing on the early outer edge of a broader problem, I’m afraid to think what my life (the only one I get) might become if I were to stay the course and ignore what I know to be a brightly burning signal flare. It’s time to get out from behind my eyes and honestly acknowledge the rather ugly elephant standing directly in front of my current work as an education professional (and if these words resonate, I might consider you do the same).
My role as an educator and instructional designer has always involved a balance of boundless creativity and structured best-practice; entropic humanity and predictable technology; broad global networks and microcosmic communities, but with each passing day, these dichotomous and liminal spaces are ones I’m undeniably inhabiting with less frequency. Whether through outright inaction or bureaucratic inevitability (and perhaps to nobody’s fault but my own), I’ve slipped comfortably into the corner of a rather dark and heartless machine, one which (in my eyes) has historically been fairly explicit about what it wants to become — I’m reminded of Kevin Kelly’s exploration of What Technology Wants, and wonder in parallel, what the hell education wants.
I struggle to make sense of this evolved system in which students pay more, much much more, for an experience that, by design, increasingly views them as less. I’m part of the (make no mistake) business of education. Scale our administrative infrastructure, standardize processes, control quality, increase enrollment…but for what? So that we can forego all creative pedagogy, and in doing so, strip society of its beauty, nuance, and existential complexity? That’s not a system I’m inspired by, nor is it one I’m comfortable helping to advance. I want something different. Something Audrey Watters, in her forward for An Urgency of Teachers: the Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, describes with concerning perfection.
Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel teach towards a different future — one in which dignity is prioritized over efficiency, one in which agency and freedom are prioritized over compliance and control. It’s a future of education not enclosed by teaching machines but unfolded by teaching humans.
There was a time when I might have balked at writing so honestly (just as Audrey, Sean, and Jesse likely once did), but I’ve come to realize that there are only two potential audiences — the select few who might read what I write and do nothing about it, and a much larger faction of cogs who simply won’t read it in the first place. And as selfish and discouraging as this may sound, I actually view it as a very empathetic and liberating realization (ignorance really can be bliss, so I don’t blame those who choose to look the other way). And if the potential for unwanted shifts or kickback based on my open ideas and honest account of the current state of higher education is minimal, then the only concern I end up facing is internal, self-imposed, and more importantly, one I personally have the capacity to affect. By eliminating self-judgment, I’m suddenly free to stretch my wings and take flight into the vast expanse of human intellect and experience, and for me, there’s simply no place I’d rather fly. It’s in this freedom then, towards self-expression, that the potential to affect change, both within and for those around me, can truly be realized.
So now what? The elephant in the room has been exposed (sort of) and implications understood (mostly). Am I any better off having reflected upon the troubling state, both of higher education broadly and my place within it? Yes and no. While I know it’s a long road to shift my jaded perception of a broken system (and an even longer one to shift the system itself), it’s also in this honest acknowledgment that I find the courage and motivation to push forward towards meaningful change; towards a future that I truly believe can be otherwise. I’ve found that with honesty comes opportunity, and through opportunity, I’ve discovered and developed new lenses through which to view my proverbial elephant (and its relation to the greater herd). And while it would surely be easier to turn and run from the impending stampede, I choose to stand and fight. I choose growth through difficulty. Besides, it’s impossible not to fear the regret that would accompany turning my back on a system I deeply believe in; one I’ve worked so hard to slowly make sense of.
So with that, and once again inspired by the words of Sean Michael Morris in his post, Wide-Awakedness and Critical Imagination:
I encourage you all to step into our work today with open arms, with insistence and care, with imagination, and with the idea that things can be otherwise.