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.