“Tell me Michigan isn’t crooked . . .”

Image credit:  Pixabay under Creative Commons CC0

. . . said one resident.

The Cyborg metaphor offers an alternative, if partial, explanation for reprehensible conduct by public officials.

Socioecological issues at the intersection of environmental justice concerns and tensions over racism, sexism, classism, ableism (among others) are emerging in public and academic discourse.  The collision of interests along hierarchies of power plays out vividly in Flint, Michigan, where conflicting dialogues about safety of the public water supply pits public officials with authority and responsibility for promoting and protecting safety and sustainability against ordinary citizens. Controversies surrounding land use and gentrification further muddy the water.

Enter the Cyborg.

Sara Louise Muhr (2011) used the classic “cybernetic organism” metaphor to unpack the challenges and consequences of rising above the limits of gendered leadership stereotypes (Clynes and Kline 1960). In Haraways’s Cyborg Manifesto, the Cyborg is presented as an agent for change and liberation from oppression (Haraway 1991).   Muhr explores the dark side of the Cyborg myth. To achieve liberation, Muhr claims, the Cyborg must absorb, adopt and exude an abundance of masculine, feminine, and machine-like attributes. For example, a woman rises to the upper ranks of management through a quest for (machine-like) perfection, acquiring a reputation as a strong, tough (masculinized) leader, coexisting with (feminized) charisma and physical beauty.  To achieve and sustain a liberation from gendered stereotypes, the Cyborg must invest in those stereotypes in excess.

The paradox of the Cyborg is that it may inspire others to follow, but its mechanical perfection is impossible to replicate, so it does not move others closer to liberation.  In fact, by demonstrating that it is superhuman or inhuman, the Cyborg reinforces the boundaries that it attempts to breach in the act of liberation.  Then the Cyborg becomes the oppressor, in symbiosis with the system of oppression and the fellow victims it would ostensibly liberate.

I argue that the Cyborg is present in Flint, manifest in the mechanical denial of citizen experience through a scripted official narrative.  Through this denial, the Cyborg reinforces experiences of oppression; what was once the liberator becomes the oppressor.  For example, city officials of Flint, once citizens sharing the common experience of a public outraged that the city’s water has been poisoned, are elevated to trusted leadership status by citizens through the electoral process.  To achieve elevation, a candidate must present as tough and strong, attractive and personable, trustworthy and hard-working.

Once in office, the Cyborg must maintain.  Muhr likens the Cyborg’s metamorphosis from commanding through respect and adoration to repressing through fear and intimidation to traversing “the uncanny valley” (Muhr, p. 350).  The Cyborg crosses a boundary from humanity to an unnatural state of being frighteningly mechanistic and intimidating.  In Flint, the Cyborg is augmented by militaristic trappings to exaggerate the overwhelming imbalance of power between itself and its constituency.

To see the conduct of oppression through intimidation playing out in Flint, one need only look at patterns of discourse between city officials and the public in town hall meetings.  City officials, buffered by heavy police presence, hold court in a community setting–a church–where citizens are invited to the microphones in two-minute allotments so that every person gets a chance to be heard.  Emotions run high as people share their frustration, their disillusionment, their despair.  Certain participants–the vocal, the dissident, and also the innocuous, the passive–are roughly removed in a bizarre selection lottery and symbolically de-voiced through deprivation of liberty and seizure of their phones, in a display of  heavy-handed policing which shocks and stuns the public, as if it were collectively a prey.   Thus the corpus of the Cyborg is extended to the body of government and all its militaristic accouterment.

Video Credit: Terrence Daniels, Flint arrests at Town Hall 2 4/20/2017

Bullard, R. D. (1990). Dumping in Dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Clynes, M.E. and Kline, N.S. (1960). Cyborgs and space.  Astronautics, September, 29-33, 74-5.
Gustafson, S. (2014). Megapolitan Political Ecology and Urban Metabolism in Southern Appalachia. The Professional Geographer, 66(4), 664-675.
Haraway, D. (1991). A cyborg manifesto: science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century. In Haraway, D. (ed.) Simians, Cyborgs, and Woman, pp. 149-181. New York: Routledge.
Muhr, S. L. (2011). Caught in the gendered machine: On the masculine and feminine in cyborg leadership. Gender, Work & Organization18(3), 337-357.

What would Lewis Carroll say?

Front cover, The Hunting of the Snark

The poison water case studies of our “Experts and the Public” course have illuminated just two examples of conflicts in which, no matter how we dissect, analyze, or prescribe, we must conclude that the public (“The Other”) is on the losing side without a clear way forward.  The other losing side, the powerful and elite that collectively might be called “The Establishment,” can use power and privilege indefinitely to overcome, silence, dilute, and prolong so that nothing is ever resolved.

We have chronicled the rise of lay experts, those motivated by a need to stay healthy and trapped by circumstances beyond their control, who attain a sophisticated and growing knowledge of the matters at hand, in the vacuum of substantive guidance.  Baptised by fire, these reluctant foot soldiers understand the bottom line, if not much of the intricate science about the poisoning of their communities, probably better than established experts. Maybe that is why The Establishment seeks to silence them.  In any case, resolution of the crisis is stalemated, and victimhood is institutionalized in the fabric of these communities, and many others yet unnamed.

The public cannot decisively win by any means short of outright revolution, which is not a practical option.  So how will mass suffering by allayed?  The most likely answer is through the process of social movements, the continued application of pressure by many bearing on repressive attitudes and circumstances.  With enough pressure applied for a long enough time, anything can be made to yield, whether the pressure comprises molecules or humans.  Historically, this process takes decades or centuries.

Which leads me to wonder what Lewis Carroll would say.  In social revolution, pen and paintbrush become swords in the hands of master satirists: Aristophanes, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll.  Since they are not here to speak to us about poisoned water in America, we can rely on metaphorical blending to give new interpretation to existing works.  What better work of satire to fit to modern narratives than Lewis Carroll’s 1876 poem, The Hunting of the Snark?

A re-reading of Snark in the context of present events is not an individual exercise, so I will rely on a rich discussion by several imaginative commentators to bring the metaphor to life and to bear on the present injustices.  The text of the poem is found here.  For the full impact,  find a copy with Henry Holiday’s original illustrations.

The Hunting of the Snark opens with “The Landing,” in which the Bellman carries each crew member ashore by the hair.  In the first page, the Bellman proclaims, “what I tell you three times is true,” which Eileen Byrne has named “the Snark syndrome,” the phenomenon in which the oft-proclaimed is elevated to “knowledge” status and used to guide policy.

Plate 1, The Hunting of the Snark

In Snark, the Bellman is an authority figure who demands attention and deference but is incapable of providing useful guidance.  Through the rest of the poem, the Bellman prattles about ringing his bell, as if the bell detracts from and atones for his own lack of substance. Who is the Bellman in Flint or Washington, DC?

This was charming, no doubt; but they shortly found out
   That the Captain they trusted so well
Had only one notion for crossing the ocean,
   And that was to tingle his bell.


Plate 5, The Hunting of the Snark

The Baker, “who could only bake Bride-cake,” received a warning from his Uncle about the Boojum, a most dangerous variety of Snark.  The Baker does indeed vanish away at the end of the poem.

‘But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
   If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
   And never be met with again!’


Plate 9, The Hunting of the Snark

One of the most interesting, if baffling, scenes in the poem occurs in “Fit the Seventh: The Banker’s Fate,” when the Banker is attacked by a Bandersnatch. The Banker tries to bribe the Bandersnatch and is almost seized and escapes but goes insane.  The fright causes the Banker to turn black in the face, while his waistcoat turns white. The Banker is portrayed in the scene playing the bones.  After the Banker’s fright, the Bellman abandons him in his chair on the rocks.

Down he sank in a chair—ran his hands through his hair—
   And chanted in mimsiest tones
Words whose utter inanity proved his insanity,
   While he rattled a couple of bones.


This is a reference to blackface minstrelsy, which was immensely popular among lower class Americans in the nineteenth century because it was participatory entertainment and gave the audience a voice.   In blackface minstrelsy, blackness was a signal of an intruder or outsider (Cockrell, 1997).  Lewis Carroll was calling someone out as an intruder in Victorian England. Who is the Banker in our narrative?

What about the Snark itself — the Boojum — which the audience is never allowed to see?  Does it even exist, or is this just a convenient mythical creature to point blame for events that are unexplained or hidden?  There are surely analogs to the Snark/Boojum in the conduct of repression. What do you think?

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
   In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
   For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.


The Bellman

Byrne, E. M. (1993). Women and Science: The Snark Syndrome. Falmer Press, Bristol, PA.

Carroll, William.   “The Banjo as Metaphor in Nineteenth-Century America.” Unpublished class presentation, 2017.

Cockrell, Dale. Demons of Disorder : Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World.  Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Thanks to Bill Carroll for sharing his research on 19th century blackface minstrelsy in class on August 1!

Illustration credits:  Henry Holiday (1839-1927) after Lewis Carroll [Real name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson] (1832-1896) – The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits by Lewis Carroll, MacMillan and Co, Limited, St. Martin’s Street, London, 1931.

Illusory Views

"Welling Up" by Mindi Oaten
Image credit: “Welling Up” by Mindi Oaten, acrylic on canvas, 2016

Water is a universal motif across the history and breadth of humanity, associated with many themes:

Life, Birth, Fertility
Cleansing, Purity
Calm, Stillness, Reflection
Wisdom, Knowledge, Enlightenment
Transformation, Change, Renewal

Water is a force of nature with massive power, commanding awed respect. The same water that sustains all life on earth has the power to destroy life, property, and illusions. I witnessed water’s stark duality during the Greater Houston Floods of 1994. Standing in the back of a huge truck on a slow tour of my community, stopping on every street to rescue people and pets, the image that struck me and the one I remember was the calm beauty of the water that had perfected such complete destruction.

Thinking about water invokes images of purity, images of cleansing. City officials drink Flint water on television–it looks clear, so it must be pure. Doctors wash their hands in it, so it must be clean. Images of productivity. Industrial plants use it for cooling, for cleaning, for processing. Images of beauty. Institutions have ponds and fountains; nature has lakes and rivers.

These sacred images mask the reality of water. It looks clear, but it’s not always safe. It can be harnessed, but its force is destructive. It is beautiful, but under the surface, it is hiding something ugly. After the flood water receded, the subtle image that most struck me when I returned home was hundreds of dead earthworms. I grieved the loss of the earthworms. I could fix my house–eventually–but who is going to aerate the soil?

It occurs to me that it must be a human tendency to cling to good images, even if they are a myth, and deny unpleasant realities. When I was a plant engineer, I headed a committee to revise some important safety regulations involving instrumentation for chemical processes. In my research, I consulted the plant’s Principal Engineer, Roger Hickerson. Roger said to me, “water is the harshest service,” meaning the harshest chemical product borne by pipe in our plant from a maintenance point of view. This was a surprising revelation because the plant’s pipes and pumps conveyed chemical streams that are hazardous, deadly, corrosive, stinky, and teratogenic. One thinks of such substances in negative terms, whereas water is clear and pure, isn’t it? I did not doubt Roger’s word. He is a chemical engineer, and he would not make such claims frivolously. Besides, I have seen the inside of drain pipes. When I told the committee that Roger Hickerson said water is the harshest service, they immediately and unanimously dismissed Roger’s claim as impossible. This is disturbing behavior from engineers.

My conclusion is that my colleagues on the committee were seduced by the illusion of water, like a clear glass that you hold up and drink on television. They were not open to the entire range of possibilities that water can be non-potable; water can be destructive; water can be disease bearing; water can be toxic; water can cause maintenance problems in industrial equipment.

From this perspective, it is a little easier to understand how legions of professionals can cling to a false narrative around Flint’s water problems in the face of contrary claims. Easier to understand, but not acceptable. Professional engineers are expected and required to look beneath the surface and expose the truth. I learned this lesson in biology class. The lab practical exam presented a plant in a pot of soil, and the arrow pointed to the base of the plant where it contacted the soil. What was the term? It was not “root,” for the teaching moment revealed a rootless plant, which was just resting on the surface of the soil.

It is not enough to blindly accept appearance at face value. We will see what we want to see easily enough. To have successful outcomes, the gatekeeper of the narrative must dare to look beneath the surface and ask the next question and the next until the truth is uncovered.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Image credit: Katsushika Hokusai (北斎改爲一筆), ca. 1832. The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 45434

It was a boojum . . .

Illustration credit: Théophile Steinlen [Public domain] (1898) via Wikimedia Commons

Toward the end of our class meeting last week with Paul Schwartz, Paul’s comment about the “rescuer/hero narrative” in regard to the Flint crisis gave me pause. I have seen references to a similar paradigm in the Flint Water Course, which describes instances in which people came into the city to help and assumed that the residents were “country bumpkins who didn’t know anything.” (Flint Water Crisis Course, October 13, 2016)

I understand this dynamic quite well, and Paul’s mention of it made me recall my own experiences. Some years ago, my husband died suddenly, leaving me alone to raise four angry children who did not understand why their father was not with us. My family became a beneficiary of various social services, which means that several professionals were tasked with getting me the help that I needed to put my family on track to recovery. In practice, the professionals from different agencies could not come to a consensus about a relatively trivial matter, and their itinerant, chaotic approach to “helping” us was actually harmful. My family soon escaped further harm by moving away. A month later, we were visiting a family advocate who had befriended us, and her neighbor told her that she had heard of us. We were famous! One of the agencies that failed to help us changed history and was touting our “case” as their own achievement: “We changed this family’s life.” It turns out that the harm continued after we moved away because we were objectified.

What resonated with me about Paul’s comments was the idea of the fishbowl of victimhood, the insult of self-proclaimed rescuers drawn to the limelight of a crisis to glean some personal glory through self-accolades before they vanish.

What does this have to do with the boojum? A boojum is “a particularly dangerous kind of Snark,” and both are creations of Lewis Carroll in his famous 1876 nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark. To me, the Snark is symbolic of the chaos of bias, prejudice, and reckless disregard for truth. Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks of boojums and Snarks in relation to these concepts. In 1993, Eileen Byrne wrote Women and Science: The Snark Syndrome, which discusses women’s access to science and technology in higher education. Byrne coins “the Snark syndrome” to describe beliefs that have no credible basis, that have been internalized through use, then are institutionalized and used to justify decisions and policy. I often felt that my situation was being over-sensationalized, with truth being pushed aside in favor of rumor and innuendo. When I took exception to such misinformation creeping into school reports, I was stonewalled. Does this sound familiar? What widows have in common with ordinary citizens is that both are subject to being marginalized by those with elite or authority status. Have we seen the Snark Syndrome in our studies of Flint and Washington, DC this semester? I believe we have.

Byrne, E. M. (1993). Women and Science: The Snark Syndrome. Falmer Press, Bristol, PA.

Carroll, Lewis (2006) [1876]. The Annotated Hunting of the Snark. Edited with notes by Martin Gardner, illustrations by Henry Holiday and others, introduction by Adam Gopnik (“Definitive Edition” ed.). W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-06242-2.

The Flint Water Crisis Course (2015). https://www.umflint.edu/flintwatercrisis. October 13, 2016 (Session 3).

Dr. Sarah Bailey, CEO of Bridges into the Future, Inc., presents at the Flint Water Course on October 13, 2016.

On Juggernauts and Jabberwocks (or System Thinking)

Hunting of the Snark Plate 8 by Henry Holiday in Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark

“We have to go by what the system says.’

What or who is this infernal “system?” Nobody can say. How convenient to have a nameless, faceless entity to hide behind whenever someone challenges data. “The system” is the presented as the ultimate authority. No human person has authority to examine or override data or decisions. Hence, bad data and bad decisions are allowed to go unchallenged because they are shrouded in mystery and anonymity.

The person who spoke those words to me works at Bank of America, and “the system” has calculated my mortgage interest using bad data that was manipulated by a human person. The error cannot be challenged because “the system” is part of a circular argument.

Me: I want to challenge bad data.
Bank of America: We have to go by what the system says.
Me: These numbers are incorrect.
Bank of America: In the next billing cycle, the system will update your statement with correct information.
Me (next billing cycle): There were no corrections; these numbers are still wrong.
Bank of America: The system does not make a mistake, so the numbers are correct.
Me: But you acknowledged that the statements were incorrect as a result of human error. Where is the correction?
Bank of America: We have to go by what the system says.

If someone wanted to implement a scheme to move assets from one place to another without being assigned blame (to steal money undetected), such a “system” of obfuscation is the perfect mechanism. Challengers will be so frustrated by the challenge process that they will give up. Challengers that persist will not be able to bypass the gatekeepers, who probably really believe that “the system” is always right.

I thought that perhaps nobody at Bank of America uses a calculator, but I realized that is not the point. I will never be able to reach the person with the calculator because the system of obfuscation is institutionalized.

How many institutions are able to deflect challenges under the shield of a “system?” I submit that Bank of America’s “system” method of deflecting inquiry is conceptually the same mechanism that disempowers citizens of cities like Flint while they suffer great harm without recourse. A “system” is a subterfuge, a substitution for legitimate authority which conceals the absence of the valid exercise of expert judgement while it also frustrates discourse. Bank of America passed my phone call from one associate to the next, some cowardly refusing to stay on the line and explain my issue to the next associate to take the call. Similarly, Flint residents have dealt with an opaque and obtuse Department of Health that was unresponsive to individuals and which put out misleading information to the public.

My dispute with Bank of America is like the Flint citizens’ dispute with their governance in that in both cases, those with authority are rendering decisions that are not based on empirical facts. The “facts” may be altered to fit the decisions, or the truth may simply by pushed aside or discounted, in some cases when those in authority do not have the expertise to use evidence to inform their action or inaction. The good news for laypersons is that those with authority do not have a monopoly on science or mathematics.

I am not a banker or an accountant, but I can use my working knowledge of mathematics to calculate finance charges, once I know the methodology that is being used. In the absence of specific guidance from Bank of America, it is possible to research the normative practices of the mortgage banking industry and reverse engineer prior account statements to derive the correct formulas. That is what I did.

Most Flint citizens are not civil engineers or environmental scientists, but a lack of academic credentials does not render one powerless. Citizens can research the normative water utility treatment practices and study evidence found in reports to determine what water treatment practices are likely in use. That is what they did.

Learning the truth is not the end of the battle. I must convey my findings to Bank of America in such a way that whoever receives my report will be convinced that it is correct and compelled to take action to repair my account. I am fortunate that federal law prescribes dispute protocols which force Bank of America to go through the motions of reviewing my claims. There is no fixed dispute protocol for public health or environmental claims. Citizens of Flint must create an infrastructure of their own to give their evidence a public hearing to motivate or compel change.

Does this mean that our society places a higher value on monetary assets than on public health assets? Perhaps. I think it just means that multiplication is monolithic, whereas science is multifaceted and has more fissures to shelter iniquity. In both cases, the most apt symbolic image for citizens who would challenge authority is the inequality operator.

Illustration by Henry Holiday (originally 1876), Plate 8 in The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits by Lewis Carroll, MacMillan and Co, Limited, St. Martin’s Street, London, 1931. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

The Quiet Privilege of Listening

Craftsman at work in Japan around 1916

When I am not being listened to, I will not speak. That was also the normative practice between wage earners and engineers during my engineering career. By listening and being quiet, I earned the privilege of conversation with craftsmen.

I was taught that a plant engineer and a millwright working together can be an effective team. As a new engineer, after I gained their trust, the millwrights told me that they do not tell engineers how to do their job, even if they are asked. The reason is that most engineers are not interested in listening to someone who is beneath their employment station. “The engineers think they know everything,” a millwright said, “so they don’t care what we think.”

This view of engineers was so pervasive that I even encountered it at home. My better half was a technician, and as such, he could tell me what was wrong with my engineer’s vision and how to fix it. That is, if he cared to, which he seldom did, because everyone knows that engineers do not listen.

Typically, an engineer will become an expert, perhaps in multiple domains. However, the millwrights may also be experts. They work with their tools, equipment, and the plant’s assets every day, and they have a working knowledge that most engineers will never approach. The engineers’ and millwrights’ mutual interest in maintaining equipment is best addressed by their effective working partnership.

Likewise, the citizens of Flint, Michigan have a sophisticated understanding of the many ills that have plagued their city, on many levels, although—evidently—many experts and persons in authority will not take the trouble to learn from folks that they may believe are beneath their station. The Flint Water Crisis Course, which is archived at https://www.uflint.edu/flintwatercrisis, is testament to the knowledge of Flint citizens, who are experts in their own business. Drawing strength from one another, they will find the way forward themselves. I believe they will.

photo credit: Craftsman by A. Davey.

“He chose to do what is right, not what is easy”

word cloud
In his 2007 essay, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited,” Parker J. Palmer takes issue with “knowledge” devoid of social context as the product of education, such that graduates—professionals—are subservient to institutions rather than the interests of humanity.

‘The institutions in which we work too often threaten our professional values.’ —Parker J. Palmer

We have seen recent examples, close to home, of institutions eclipsing the needs of those that they supposedly serve. In his Engineering News Record Award of Excellence acceptance speech last week, Dr. Marc Edwards decried the engineering profession’s retreat from “loyalty to humankind and truth-seeking” to a state of technical superiority, not just without business ethics, but where members of the institutions actively collude to “hide malfeasance.” Dr. Edwards described his experience as the object of derision by colleagues when he stood up for public welfare, exposing environmental crimes by government engineers, placing himself at great personal, professional, and financial risk by doing so.

Dr. Edwards’ testimony suggests that the normative practice in the engineering profession is to go through the motions of serving the public, but to stop short of any finding that will implicate the institutions or hold them accountable for harm to the public. Professionals who violate the norms are silenced and punished.

‘If a new dark age is to be averted, we are going to need YOUR leadership to make that happen.’ — Dr. Marc Edwards

Dr. Edwards calls for a return to an “era of the heroic engineer” who will “burn bridges” to protect the public.  Dr. Palmer, in 2007,  provided a roadmap to begin that process, and the key is to nurture students’ emotional intelligence.  In engineering, this means redirecting some of the empirical focus in engineering instruction to the set of knowledge, skills, and engineering practices that are loosely characterized as “art” in introductory engineering courses but without much explanation of how the art of engineering is learned and practiced.

I will take the liberty to interpret Dr. Palmer’s “five immodest proposals” for use in educating engineers:

  1. Question everything.  The wisdom of taking nothing for granted is apparent if one reads state engineering board disciplinary reports, which are distributed to registered engineers with the expectation that they will learn from the mistakes of their peers.
  2. Reflect on learning.  Metacognition is a higher order thinking skill which can be exercised in engineering classes.  In practice, problems are not solved with a calculator, but through thoughtful reflection.
  3. Make reflection actionable.  In the 1981 film Excalibur, Arthur’s act of drawing the sword plunges the kingdom into civil war, while Arthur takes refuge in the forest.  When he awakens, Arthur asks Merlin what to do.  Merlin prompts him with a few questions, and Arthur concludes that he must lead his army to the aid of his supporters, who are under attack.  “That was easy!” quips Merlin.
  4. Cultivate community.  It’s not always easy for a lone individual to know what to do.   Teach students, through work in the classroom community, to learn from, contribute to, and rely on their groups, without engaging in “group think.”  This can be done with practice at group work over time.
  5. Uproot hidden curricula.  Model integrity and agency for change.  This is the most challenging proposal.  At the same time, it is a reason to embed ethics education into the curriculum.  Take ethics education to the next level by making the community the classroom. Marc Edwards did this by taking his students to Flint, and you can view their poignant testimony here.

‘When the time came for someone to step in, he chose to do what is right and not what is easy.’— Anurag Mantha, Virginia Tech Flint Team

For more information:

Boorman, J. (Director). (1981). Excalibur [Video file]. Warner/Orion.

Edwards, M. (2017).  How Engineers Can Reclaim Moral Authority.  Remarks by Marc Edwards on receiving ENR’s top award April 13, 2017.  Published at YouTube.com on April 14. 2017.  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okYQkEyisNY

Palmer, P. (2007). A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited. Change, 39(6), 6-12. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/stable/4017826.pdf

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Welcome to Room 101

Harriet the cat

‘Sometimes I sits and thinks and
sometimes I just sits’ – A.A. Milne

Like Nicholas Carr, I, too, am disturbed by that prospect of someone deciding for me that I will be “better off” assisted by an artificial brain, a “HAL-like machine” that is “smart as people—or smarter.”

When the machine is “smarter” than the human it serves, will it still subordinate to the human’s wishes and whims? As Carr recalls in his article (Is Google Making Us Stupid?), the fictional HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey tried to send its human to a “deep space death.” The human succeeded in outmaneuvering HAL, “calmly, coldly” disconnecting it while the machine pleaded plaintively for a reprieve.

Today’s real cyber-servants are becoming commonplace, accepted, and even necessary to daily activity, while their creators strive to make them more HAL-like, ever-present and integral to everything we think and do, while reporting our wishes and whims — to who? Who will be privileged to know what I want even before I do? I don’t want or need somebody or something deciding how I will be better off. Certainly, I don’t need for third parties to have privileged access to my needs, desires, and weaknesses, to exploit my vulnerabilities, or to place their interests ahead of mine.

Human history is full of examples of the privileged exerting dominion over the non-privileged. Is “HAL” just another way to perpetuate the same power differentials that have always existed, or do these technological developments herald the creation of a new type of privileged class, one that may not even be human?

We have become the Jetsons
It’s not a greater quantity of information or quicker insights that stand between me and productivity; it’s the same clerical barriers that have always existed, but taking new forms. Instead of pushing a stylus into a tablet, I am pushing buttons to synthesize documents that I need for my work. The most modern tools impede my progress by imposing additional barriers. I can’t just convert my creation to a pdf format, as I did a few years ago, with a few keystrokes; the software servant demands authentication before I can access “the cloud.” With multiple roles, I use more than one “cloud,” and there is confusion in the machine. Problems that I had solved years ago regress to a more modern state and demand undue time and attention, if I can solve them at all. The machine is not my servant any more, if it ever was.

While it is convenient to have access to information upon command, I have never thought that I needed to speed up, to skim lightly over content so I could “cover” more. On the contrary, I long for the luxury of time to ponder. Flashes of insight, and, indeed, all deep learning, are the result of time, space, action, and even inaction — a pause for contemplation, while knowledge percolates, and its essence is distilled into new awareness.

“No, I don’t think that is necessary”

Our readings about the sociocultural role of schooling make me think about who decides who gets to go to college.

In community college, open enrollment makes higher education available to almost everyone, at least in theory. Inadequate preparation from grade school can be overcome, to some extent. In a community college engineering program, students typically begin their math with intermediate algebra. An extra year of math before Calculus I allows students who were not on the engineering track in high school to catch up. This was not always the case, and even now, it’s not a perfect solution.

Here’s my story. In the sixth grade, I transferred to public school. Coming from outside the public school system, my placement was determined by testing, and I was assigned to “6-1,” the top academically ranked sixth-grade class. The other nine sixth-grade classes were numbered “6-2” through “6-10,” in descending order of academic ranking from college-bound to remedial instruction.

The middle school had three or four elementary feeder schools. That’s why I was surprised and confused to find that every member of my “6-1” class, except me, not only already knew one another, but had been in the same fifth grade class together. I also found it odd that every student in our class was white. Through three years of middle school, there was some limited mixing between the top two classes. Halfway through the seventh grade, the two top math classes re-mixed, with one group preparing for 8th grade algebra and the other taking regular 8th grade math. The former would be favorably positioned for 12th grade calculus. Students who missed 8th grade algebra could catch up to the calculus class by doubling up on 10th grade math. A few students from the original “6-1” dropped down to lower ranked placements, but no students from “6-3” or below ever rose to the upper academic rankings.

Many years later, it dawned on me that “6-1” was simply the top fifth grade class from the whitest elementary feeder school selected wholesale, without evidence to support placement. The “6-2” class came from the largely Hispanic elementary school, which would have been my school had I attended public school in fifth grade.

There were many black students at my middle school, probably a majority of the school, but almost none were in the college-bound classes. I did not take classes with black students until high school. Even then, with only one public high school in a racially diverse community, black students were a small minority in the college-bound classes.

At that time, community college was not a realistic path for engineering students. To be accepted into an engineering program, one needed to at least be ready for Calculus I as a college freshman. This means that the person or policy responsible for selecting “6-1” from the most privileged effectively chose who would and who would not have a chance to become an engineer seven years before those students finished high school.

Thirty years later, I advocated for my son to be in the algebra-bound seventh grade math class, to no avail. There was no justification for my son’s placement on the non-algebra track except convenience for school administration, apparently. I was told that the first week of school was “too busy” a time to reconsider placements, then in the second week, it was “too late to change.” My son got a lucky break by getting transferred to a small special education school, where his placements were determined by testing. Halfway through the 8th grade, my son was told that he should rightly be placed in algebra, and he was given an opportunity to join an online class and complete the course in half a year, which he did. He did not become an engineer, but he had the opportunity to do so, and more importantly, his school helped instill in him an attitude and expectation that he could achieve academic success, which he did in high school and college. Unfortunately, the hundreds of students in the mainstream middle school did not all have this advantage.

The most shocking example of “power related dynamics” that “undermine social mobility” (as described in Critical Pedagogy in School) happened to me in high school. My parents went through the process of requesting my high school principal for permission for me to enroll in a single elective course at the community college in summer school, just to give me something to do. The principal’s response: “No, I don’t think that is necessary.” Obviously to me, the principal was threatened by the idea that I was not getting all the education I needed from public school and felt it necessary to supplement. At the time, I did not actually know what engineering was or that I should want to study it. The community college course that my parents suggested for me would have exposed me to engineering. So it was not really “elective” but an important part of my development. I am fortunate that I happened to find engineering another way, in time to matriculate into a university engineering program upon high school graduation.

From my perspective, it appears that little has changed in public schools since my school days. We in higher education are left to correct deficiencies through catch-up programs in community colleges, for a price which is largely borne by the students. Remedial classes tend to have heavy billable hours and may not get the same financial aid coverage as regular academic courses. The presence of these courses on the transcript may not be well regarded by the transfer schools that engineering students must get accepted into to become graduate engineers. It’s no wonder that the engineering profession has suffered from the same lack of diversity for decades. Selection, or non-selection, of who gets to go to college is built into the primary education system, and students are potentially crippled by arbitrary decisions made by others years before. They may never realize the impact upon their own lives; being unaware is part of the lack of agency promoted by the system.

For more information:
Critical Pedagogy in School. (2005). Critical Pedagogy Primer, 97-114.

Image credit: mohoni