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Caring doesn’t scale, and scaling doesn’t care

Last night I had a really enjoyable dinner and thought-provoking conversation with Sirkku Nikamaa, her husband Mark, and Dr Mike Martin. We talked about many and varied things, including social reproduction, elite performance, and the current state of the English education system.

On my way home, I saw that my former Mozilla colleague Geoffrey MacDougall had tweeted a question which led to a short exchange:

Both the conversation over dinner and the subsequent Twitter conversation reminded me of a short video clip that Graham Brown-Martin shared featuring Prof. Keri Facer:

The problems we face in trying to change the education system are at least threefold:

  1. Parents want the best for their kids and they often believe this is through gaining credentials that are the results of high-stakes testing.
  2. Politicians want to impose their worldview on the next generation of the electorate through the education system.
  3. The filters we use (e.g. elite university admissions) to separate out people into social roles are extremely narrow and confining.

I was struck that I didn’t really have an answer to Geoffrey’s question about teaching subjects and skills that I usually equate with a private school education. Nor did I have a response to Mike’s question about how to scale something like the Oxbridge tutorial system.

At the end of the day, it’s difficult to scale almost anything that makes a really profound impact on people’s lives. I’m the person I am today because of supportive parents who are my biggest fans, because of a really interesting History teacher I had growing up, an inspiring university lecturer, a former boss who believed in me. The list goes on.

The purpose of this post isn’t to provide answers, but to point out that I’ve now come across a number of people who have had an elite education who are genuinely interested in how others can receive the same. The problem is, of course, that caring doesn’t scale, and scale doesn’t care.

Image CC BY-NC Macroscopic Solutions


The title of this post comes from an O’Reilly article. It’s unrelated, unless you’re a developer.

Cashing in on your privilege

Earlier this week I came across Seth Godin writing on the truth about admissions to elite universities. I’m not sure where he got his data, but it would be difficult to argue against his central point:

What would happen if we spent more time on carefully assembling the pool of ‘good enough’ and then randomly picking the 5%?

[…]

It’s difficult for the picked, for the pickers and for the institutions to admit, but if you don’t have proof that picking actually works, then let’s announce the randomness and spend our time (and self-esteem) on something worthwhile instead.

Entrance to many professions and walks of life is far from being the result of a strict meritocracy. I think we’d all accept that.

Thinking about this further, I remembered a Twitter conversation I’d had with Mozilla contributor Stefan Bohacek. Over a series of tweets he took issue with a short post I’d written entitled $1 for the X, $9,999 for the expertise. In it, I’d quoted a (probably apocryphal) story about Tesla and Edison.

Well I just totally disagree with what the person is saying. Just because you cashed in on your privilege and spent a few years in college, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should make more than people who didn’t. Salaries need to be completely rethought. Do sports player and actors deserve vastly more money than teachers? If I want to have a comfortable life, I have to become a brain surgeon or start my own company? Who is going to bag our groceries and cut our hair once everyone is a lawyer? I agree — value is hard to measure. But the way it’s usually measured nowadays is completely wrong.

I still have reservations about salaries being centrally controlled via some kind of planned economy. However, the phrase ‘cashing in on your privilege’ has haunted me these past few months.

The phrase has stuck with me and been nagging at the back of my mind as it explains a lot of what I’ve seen as a teacher, as a parent, and as an participant-observer in our society. It’s the reason why, even as a political ‘centrist’  I oppose private schooling and believe that inheritance tax should pretty much be set at 100%. Like the proverbial goldfish noticing ‘water,’ privilege is something that’s not usually observed by those enjoying it.

But the thing is, we’re all privileged in the West / global north. I was struck this week by some research Mozilla has been doing in Africa about mobile phone usage. There’s many excellent (scary) points in that report, but something that stands out is how careful people have to be about their data plans. Yet here I am walking down my local high street, able to get a free wifi connection via around 40% of shops I walk past. I don’t think twice about some of the things that people have to obsess over.

It begs the question: what would it like to do the opposite, to divest oneself of privilege? Would it be a life similar to elf Pavlik, someone (intentionally) moneyless and stateless for the past five years, working for the good of the world (and most certainly not profit)? Would it be to spend as much time as one is able volunteering to help those least fortunate in society? What about reverse-tithing your salary?

I have no answers here, only questions. In my head I’m a lot more radical, consistent in my views, and morally upstanding than I actually must appear to others. Perhaps we’re all like that, I don’t know. What I think we all need to do is to think carefully about what constitutes privilege. We’re always going to be less well off – financially, socially, emotionally – than others, but then to another group of people, we’re the ones who are well off.

Final point: it’s easy to give money. What’s really missing in the world is time, attention and care. There are thousands and thousands of people out there who didn’t have the parents or the education to build networks of people they can rely on and use reciprocally to build cultural capital.* That’s why I was so impressed with Bryan Mathers when I interviewed him recently. He’s providing a bridge for young people to do things they’re good at but otherwise wouldn’t have been able to achieve due to the obstacles unwittingly placed in their way by society.

So I’ve no real conclusion other than I’m going to try and find ways to help others in non-material ways. I’m not sure what that will look like but feel free to ask me in a few weeks/months what I’ve done to further that aim. Please.

Image CC BY-NC Dave Wild

* Listen to this excellent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed.

Anarchy in the UK? The reasons behind the breakdown of social order.

I wrote this for another website with a mainly US-centric audience. They felt (quite rightly) that the following was a bit too ‘political’ to go on their site. Although there’s much in it I’ve said before about the riots and social justice, I didn’t want to let it go to waste…

Shop Fire

For four nights between the 6th and the 10th of August this year riots broke out across England. Now that the dust has settled on the violence and looting which spread from London to other major English cities many have been asking the question why did rioting break out?

BBC News magazine ran an useful  article on the various explanations that were given for the rioting. The ten they listed were:

  1. Welfare dependence
  2. Social exclusion
  3. Lack of fathers
  4. Spending cuts
  5. Weak policing
  6. Racism
  7. Gangsta rap and culture
  8. Consumerism
  9. Opportunism
  10. Technology and social networking

The trouble with these explanations is that they place most of the burden of responsibility and blame upon the rioters rather than understanding people as being (at least partly) the product of their environment.

As a Philosophy graduate, a former History teacher and a researcher into Digital and New Literacies the riots interested me greatly. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment behind this article in the Economist, for example, that we should “avoid moral panic and a rush to historically-illiterate judgement” as concern about the ‘youth of today’ is far from a (post)modern phenomenon.

But there is something wrong with England. As a friend confided, “people who are happy tend not to riot”. He has a point and I’d like to explain why, from where I stand, the riots broke out. The ten explanations highlighted by the BBC are, of course, all factors but I believe there to be one, underlying, cause: systemic injustice. Let me explain.

England is part of the United Kingdom, a constitutional monarchy making the entire population subjects of the Royal Family. Executive power is exercised by the government on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen with politicians elected through the First Past the Post system. This means, historically-speaking, that governments are more likely to gain a clear majority but also means that they (for a variety of reasons) are more likely to be formed from centre or centre-right parties.

This background is important when it comes to understanding the systemic injustice engrained in the political system. As subjects of the Royal Family we have no US-style fourth amendment rights, although we do have recourse through the Human Rights Act to the European Court of Human Rights (apart from Protocol 12 on discrimination). Interestingly (and worryingly) Prime Minister David Cameron has blamed such human rights for the riots, claiming that they “fly in the face of common sense, offend our sense of right and wrong, and undermine responsibility.”

The problem with England is not too much democracy or Human Rights, it’s not enough. The implicit social contract between the government and its people has been broken: young people can be imprisoned for up to four years for starting a Facebook group, whilst bankers in state-owned, bailed-out banks who precipitated the financial mess we find ourselves in still receive bonuses.

To blame rioting on social networking, then, is to completely miss the point. In a country where we now have over 20% youth unemployment (some of whom are subsequently forced to work for large multinationals for no pay), increasingly high-stakes testing in schools, and a new (expensive) university fee regime, young people are, perhaps, wondering what stake they have in this elitist society?

So, do I condemn the rioters? I condemn their actions, certainly, but I would ask just how an increasingly marginalised populace, young people who have seen the failure of peaceful, intelligently-run protests against the rise in university fees, can and should respond. The government wouldn’t take notice of them before. They’re certainly taking notice now.

What we have to guard against, after the opportunism of some rioters, is the opportunism of a right-wing government intent on pushing through reforms likely to increase structural inequality of our country. Evicting marginalised people from their council houses who were embroiled in the rioting, for example, may exact retribution but it is not in the long-term interests of the individuals themselves (or of communities and taxpayers, for that matter).

This is not a broken country, but it is sick. The way towards a cure it is not through reactionary, top-down measures that increase structural inequality and prevent social cohesion. The cure is through investing in people, by reducing the gap between the richest and the poorest in society, and in encouraging grassroots, horizontal ownership of communities. Only by doing this will we prevent another outbreak of what we saw earlier this month.

Image CC BY-SA AndyArmstrong

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