Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Village on Stilts

Yesterday morning (or what seems like yesterday, though the calendar says it was 48 hours ago) I got on a train, and then a boat, and within two hours of Kuala Lumpur, found myself at Palau Ketam, a fishing village on a mudflat island in the Strait of Maleka, between Malaysia and Sumatra.

It is only with reluctance that my managers will allow such indulgences, and thus only infrequently I am able to take the opportunity. And there are days that I will confess that I feel that I am the only person who understands what I am about when I visit such places.

I have always said that experience is the best teacher, and that to truly learn, we must leave the classroom and go out into the world. I have always felt that the benefit of online learning would be to free us from the more traditional order that keeps us in the classroom, in the office, and away from the world, away from the benefits of true experience.

Ewan McIntosh is engaging in debate in the traditional Oxford style under the auspices of the staid and world-wary officials of the Economist. This while I walk along the sidewalks among the screaming children riding their bicycles at breakneck speed on their elevated concrete and wooden sidewalks.

I suspect he does not even understand my objections to his participation, though I don't think I can say it more clearly: that the Economist is stage-managing these debates in order to distract from what can be genuinely learned.

I am not going to glamorize Malaysia - the country is far too complicated for that. Like Colombia, and like Lesotho, there is poverty. People struggle to make a living, even as glass and steel towers rise in the cities, even as the malls sell MacBooks and mobile phones. Perhaps my most enduring memory of Palau Ketam is not the old man weaving reeds around the shell of a chair or the women preparing seafood products on the floor of their house, but the sight of a flat-screen colour TV through the window of one of these houses. Poverty exists side by side with plenty, sometimes even in the same room.

The economist would have us believe that it is the free market that makes these advances possible in such poor nations, but I know better. What advances there are in places like Malaysia - and I have seen the pattern repeated elsewhere - are as a result of government services and supports. From the subsidies on fuel and food that keep the people out of abject poverty, to the housing that supports them, to the concrete pillars and concrete walkways of Palau Ketam that make life there just a little less precarious.

Yes, there is the attractive side of the free market in Malaysia. I would much rather shop in the technology mall, choosing from a hundred different vendors, than I would walk the sterile aisles of the Future Shop. I saw more 'authorized Mac vendors' in Malaysia than anywhere else I've been, as it is apparent the Monopoly has been broken there. And I would much rather wander the bazaars and the night markets than to shop at WalMart. But equally, I was cautious (to say the least) about food I knew would make me sick, and careful where I stepped on the uneven (and often dirty) sidewalks.

Many of the lessons from Malaysia will wait weeks before rising to the surface of my memories. Can you believe that I have never been in a mosque before now? What will I make of the calls of the mullahs to prayer, which I will now forever associate with sunrise and sunset, an aching and haunting call that is beautiful and meaningful? What will I make of the gangs of youths, using motorcycle helmets as weapons, fighting at the bus stop in the Brickfields?

When I think of the Economist I think of people like Thomas Friedman writing that 'the world is flat', and I certainly see why he makes such a claim. When I compare cities like Bogota and Kuala Lumpur to my own home in New Brunswick, I see clearly not how far these countries have come (and in many ways surpassed us), I am equally aware of the fragility of our hold on the advantages of a modern technological society. We are very smug in our quiet and clean towns, almost completely unaware that we are rapidly becoming irrelevant.

This should be clear: that the policies of people like those who run the Economist kept for many years the citizens of these nations living in abject poverty, and it is only through enormous force of will that governments, like the Islamic government of Malaysia, are overturning the dictates of agencies like the World Bank and the rule of the multinational corporations.

And living in New Brunswick, I perhaps better than others know how easily and quickly these agencies will switch allegiances, casting ourselves in the role of impoverished producers of commodities, eking a living with fewer and fewer of the social supports to which we have become accustomed.

I will attempt in the future to express some of these sentiments more articulately than I can today. But I want at least to capture the emotion and the feeling.

Because, you know, people like those who run the Economist always come appearing to have the most benign of attentions and carrying with them the promise of riches. They come with riches, they come with what it is you want. If you crave money, they will pay you. If you crave attention, they will give you an audience.

They can, as they have so many times before, promise to make you the king in your own country, the representative of your people, the one who carries the standard. And it is far easier to accept this, than to ask, by what right do they offer this?

Just as we know that the Americans will never allow the mullahs to rule in Iraq, we know that the Economist will never appoint the Frieres or the Illichs of our own community to speak on behalf of educators, or even on one side of a so-called 'debate'.

Just as, in our so-called democracy, the national media will never run advertisements questioning the role of multinationals in world development, or advocating socially responsible events like 'buy nothing' day.

I want also to comment on Olli Answers, who asks, appropriately, "What then is the value an expert opinion and who decides what makes an expert an expert?

Appropriate, because he also comments, "I find it rather ironic that Downes complains about the Economist’s “cult of ‘experts’” when, until now, I always presumed Downes to be a member of the cult of education experts. Isn’t Downes one of the academic elite in education?"

Whether or not I am one of the 'elite' - and I hasten to add, that I have always resisted this characterization - I would like to point to the distinction between one who has become an expert and one who has been appointed one.

If you toe the line, if you are ready to say the right things, to appeal to the right demographic, to have a certain popular appear, then you can become 'published'.

Like it or not, no matter how much you may protest your autonomy and independence, when you accept Caesar's crown, you become Caesar's king.

As for me, well, I turn my back on Rome.

4 comments:

  1. "...the Economist is stage-managing these debates in order to distract from what can be genuinely learned."

    I'm curious, Stephen: assuming you are correct, to what extent do you think that the people in the Economist who organised this debate are conscious of their motives in doing so? Or are they mere passive conduits for the Economist's world-view?

    In terms of their own understanding of their intent, I would lean more towards a simplistic 'grab-a-passing-zeitgeist' motivation than anything explicitly political in the sense that I think that you mean. Nonetheless, regular reading of the 'newspaper' (they are careful not to call themselves a magazine) and some past personal correspondence with them leads me to agree that their educational agenda is anything but progressive. Indeed, one email I received from an 'education correspondent' on the paper was not merely educationally regressive but emphatically educationally-illiterate!

    Safe travels!

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  2. Just a few hours after writing this post I see Diane Ravatch write this:

    "One, how did American education fall so effortlessly into the control of Know Nothings from the world of business, law, and politics?"

    And it's the same with the Economist - it's not that they have a policy regarding education, beyond some regressive simple-minded conservatism, but rather, that they are 'Know Nothings' who are venturing into the world of education.

    The Economist's political agenda is transparent and obvious to anyone who reads it on a regular basis - I have criticized the Economist frequently before, here, for example, and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here -- a consistent opposition to what has been over the last decade or so a consistent non-thinking know-nothing dogmatic political campaign emanating from the 'newspaper' that is, in reality, a propaganda paper.

    I think it is not possible for the publishers of the Economist to not be aware of the positions they have taken, and conclude therefore that they are taken knowingly and deliberately.

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  3. "I would like to point to the distinction between one who has become an expert and one who has been appointed one."

    Stephen, you evidently hold the value of your own opinions in high regard, but I have had to question your opinions with increasing regularity. Comparing how you use Twitter, for example, to how Ewan does, I would have to say that Ewan demonstrates rather more expertise in the use of that particular social networking tool than you do: Ewan uses Twitter for conversation, you appear to use it for broadcast.

    The same goes with a comparison of your respective blogs. Ewan's encompasses myriad technologies and innovations in education with authority, and demonstrates substantial involvement with the implementation of educational technologies, whereas your own blogs tend to reflect theoretical thought rather than practical experience in the use of technology in educational settings. Without the same experiences in the use of social and mobile tools (for example) in education, the very insightful discoveries you regularly share are sadly punctuated by the odd post that is completely off the mark.

    Whether Ewan is has become an "expert," been appointed one, or both is possibly irrelevant. Personally, I don't think there *are* all-round "experts" any more - not Ewan, not yourself, and not me. We each have particular strengths and specialties when it comes to educational technology, but so too do we each have our weaknesses.

    Ewan's participation in The Economist's debate is imperfect but still very commendable. Stemming from that involvement, there's been an enormous amount of debate and reflection across the international edublogging and education communities on all kinds of related issues, and all of that reflection makes for learning and professional development aplenty.

    Whatever influence you may claim that The Economist may have on its own site, it has none over the dozens of bloggers who have provided their own thoughts, on their own sites. And if you can't understand the value of such conversations, you have clearly "lost it" when it comes to understanding the true meaning of Education 2.0...

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  4. To Anonymous:

    First, my intention is not to 'encompass' the range of technologies that Ewan apparently does; this blog is just a convenient place to post, while on the main blog the technologies I use are ones that I have built myself, which I'm sure you can appreciate takes a little longer.

    Second, I am not interested in education 2.o. I have always focused on learning - and in particular, personal learning - and not 'education' and 'schools' and the trappings of the traditional system. I have been clear, I think, in my opposition to a characterization of online learning as one in which we simply add technologies to classrooms.

    My job is to attempt to learn as much as I can and then to express my opinions about these things. I'm not a 'home handyman' with 'practical tips', I am a researcher, a scientist and a philosopher. If you have no need for such reflections, if the lack of emphasis on the (increasingly less) 'practical' does not suit your needs, then by all means please do not let me take up any more of your time.

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