A Mass Market of Individuals

Shhh, I’m not really here.

Yesterday I listened to the latest episode of Note to Self, which investigated a tech startup called “AltSchool.” Founded by a former Google executive, AltSchool is “disrupting” elementary school by catering to each student’s educational profile and learning styles, tracked and measured using surveillance technology. Preliminary results seem promising, with highly engaged children partly directing their own learning, all with the help of their handy tablets loaded with personalized curricula.

The episode touches on many implications of this controversial model, and I’d be interested in an entire series on this enticing and alarming incubator. For one thing, the consumers (perhaps more aptly, beta-testers) are children, an ethical grey area the show doesn’t get into. Host Manoush Zomorodi and NPR education reporter Anya Kamanetz do highlight the fact that these beta-testers are not representative of the demographic realities of their communities, and question the business model of an educational institution that has to answer to shareholders. For his part, founder Max Ventilla argues that children should be allowed a period of no-holds-barred wonderment, and questions the idea that the world is a terrible place that kids need to be prepared for.

What stopped me in my tracks was the whole idea of personalized education.

When every child’s every unique preference and need is catered to so consistently, how do they learn to be part of a group? To compromise their unique needs with those of others? What happens to social norms in such a population? Do we rebuild them from a ground made of disparate special snowflakes, creating social norms from a cacophony of difference? I can see that working, I suppose. After all, that is what many coalitions attempt.

This can get into the dicey area of identity politics. The concerns of marginalized people who aren’t served by the status quo are important to take seriously. I admit that it can be easier for me to conform to existing social norms than it is for some people. Society and its norms should be questioned and challenged if society is to become egalitarian. That’s not what I’m trying to get at here. I’m not saying social norms shouldn’t change to reflect the lived realities of the many types of people who make up a civil society. I’m simply wondering how children will learn social norms in the first place if they’re not taught to forgo their personal preferences in favor of the needs of the larger group. Without that guiding principle, we’d risk social chaos.

But maybe my alarm is off-base, and what really troubles me is that so many “solutions” to social problems are increasingly coming at things from an individual perspective. That and the fact that the organizations piloting these solutions are venture capital-backed tech startups that exist to turn a profit. (I do so wish they’d stop meddling.)

Pernicious individualization strikes me as a dangerous marketing ploy, as a symptom of a consumer culture so invested in getting people to think of themselves as special that they’ll buy anything to prove it, including a personalized education. This is a tech start-up after all. The same type of company that got us to go for a car service that exploits workers and dinner boxes that produce mountains of waste. It’s personal convenience at the expense of the public good. We’re allowing ourselves to get distracted from our collective consciousness of the structural problems that create symptoms like ineffectual schools.

As the individualization trend grows and consumerism takes over what were once public services (e.g., education) what becomes of our society? I maintain that a certain measure of conformity is critical to living and working with other people. And that systematic change, not micro-disruptions, are crucial to positive social transformation.

So enough with the money-grubbing disruption, the expensive band-aids that bill themselves as cost-effective lifestyle enhancements. Let’s instead identify our common needs and mold our institutions into something that serves them.



Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Technology

6 responses to “A Mass Market of Individuals

  1. A big red flag for me comes when you say Ventilla argues for a period of wonder and questions prepping kids for how terrible the world can be, because from my perspective, *both* of those things are true. And guess what, lots of kids *know* at a pretty early age that the world is complex and dangerous. That doesn’t necessarily inhibit wonder; in fact it can feed it. Second, like you I question the virtues of individualization as if that isn’t socially constructed, as if all ways of being equal are the same, and as if you can write algorithms that are culturally neutral, that won’t privilege some ways of being individual over others. The divergent ways of being an individual in a society is *exactly* an issue that education should address, overtly, consciously, rather than avoid with hyper-individualization. Which brings me to a question I was asking myself the other day: What is learning? I realized that when I taught writing, I didn’t just want my students to be able to make better sentences, paragraphs, etc. (Some of my students could already do that, so was my job done? Nope.) Whatever their facility with words, I wanted to deepen their concept of what writing was, or at least of what it could be. I wanted to broaden their sense of writing’s possibilities, whether they chose to pursue those possibilities or not. I wanted them to see that writing already is many different things in many different settings so that they would become conscious of the implications of the writing choices they made. In short, I wanted to challenge their current perception. The best way to disrupt school is by bringing the divergent cultures and expectations of the students themselves (and other cultures) in dialogue with one another. And that’s not an individual pursuit; it’s a social one.


    • As usual, you crack things open and give us all more to think about. I’m intrigued by the idea of knowing the world is complex and dangerous feeding wonder, rather than squelching it. That and your whole algorithms-as-modeling-ways-of-being-individual…super deep relativism-meets-tech to ponder there.

      You write, “The divergent ways of being an individual in a society is *exactly* an issue that education should address, overtly, consciously, rather than avoid with hyper-individualization.” And I thank you. For making me pause and consider the distinction between ways of being, and individualization. There must be ways to recognize and honor difference within a group without stimatizing, while still upholding ways of interacting that maintain the common good. (I think one of those ways is called “Sesame Street.”)

      As to your view of learning as a social process that brings difference into dialogue to deepen understanding…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. P.S.
    I totally didn’t see you here at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Rachel! I love that you’re “not really here”! :-)! You’ve given me a lot to think about with this one. I started a charter school in 2005 based on an alternative educational model that I still believe in … and will be writing about in a book I’m calling “Growing Leaders.” What has changed since then is that big business has taken over the charter school industry and we are becoming more and more locked into a “one-size-fits- all” model. Lots more to say on this … but will save it for later. Keep writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL! I’ve never been in one of these conversations before and forgot that I had used “bettel2w2L” on my google account! That’s the other book I’m writing … “Learning to Write / Writing to Learn: 10 Core Competencies.” That’s exactly the reason I’m so interested in how blogging can work. (See Common Core Anchor Standard #6 ;-)!)


    • Didn’t realize you’d started a school. What an undertaking! I’d be interested to hear about your experience in the thick of the charter school movement, what you saw as the initial vision and what’s changed since then. Keep me posted on your book!


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