Utopians, Survivalists, or Both? – A Response to Lisa Lane

My Twitter feed today has had quite a bit of buzz about Lisa Lane’s The Unhelpful Dichotomy.  Lisa suggests the beginning of a polarization between what she calls the “edu-techno-utopians” and the “cautious majority.”

Although I didn’t notice it on first reading, when I went back to make sure I was responding to what Lisa actually wrote instead of what I imagined she wrote, her choice of labels and their connotations grabbed my attention, and I wondered if she had framed the discussion in a fair way.

On the one hand, there’s “edu-techno-utopians”.   It’s hard for me to think of an example of calling someone a utopian that didn’t imply that they were not quite grounded.  Utopians are idealistic — to a fault.  They won’t let anything (human nature, the laws of physics, etc.) stand in the way of their vision.  At least that’s the way I often think of the word utopian.  Maybe it’s just me.

On the other hand, “cautious” is a word, as opposed to “recalcitrant” or “change-averse”, that has a generally positive connotation.  We want our bankers, police officers, and doctors to be cautious.  Who that you interact with regularly do you want to be a daredevil?  — maybe your interior designer, but the list is short.

Lisa explains why she thinks the cautious majority are cautious, and why the utopians are as they are, but I think there a couple of things she misses.  The zeal, and perhaps occasional stridency of the utopians has quite a bit to do with the fact that they realize what a minority they are.  When you’re travelling against the curent, you have to paddle  much harder.

In the last decade, we’ve seen information technology and the Internet bring sweeping disruption to the music, news, and publishing industries.  Most edu-techno-utopians I know believe the disruption tsunami is coming for higher ed.  Caution has been a mark of how education adapts to change.  While that caution has served education well for a long time, a concern of those on the more utopian side of the spectrum worry, that by the time traditional institutions acknowledge that change is needed, those less constrained by caution (Degreed, Udacity, etc.)  will have swept in and moved the center of the education universe away from nonprofit, largely public, institutions that focus on student needs and educating the whole person to for-profit entities that place investor return first,  alumni employment rates second, and don’t worry themselves overmuch about whether their students become well-rounded people and citizens.   In that sense, those who advocate for change might be as much edu-techno-survivalists as utopians.

A hundred years ago, the ability to drive a car was not a vital skill.  In 2012 in most places in the USA, those who try to be a functioning member of society without that ability are at a profound disadvantage.  Consider that, in the future, those who can’t manage their own digital identity will be at a similar disadvantage, but instead of taking a century to come to pass, it will take a generation, at most.

(If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m one of Lisa’s edu-techno-utopian-survivalists, and I have the shelf full of programming books to prove it.)

So, to turn the tables on Lisa’s last paragraph, I think the edu-techno-utopian-survivalsts are very willing to help people close their knowledge gaps, but are as frustrated by those who don’t want to close those gaps and believe we can continue to do things essentially the way we always have as the cautious majority are when their resident tech expert channels Nick Burns.

 

 

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