A libertarian commune is a contradiction in terms.

13 01 2014

Like so many things these days, I first heard of Black Mountain SOLE on Twitter. My tweeps were debating whether or not it was a hoax. It is not a hoax. Repeat: It is not a hoax. SOLE stands for “self-organized learning environment,” which includes, as its founders describe it, every education reform buzzword wrapped up into one:

We saw not only serious flaws in the current system but also tremendous opportunity. We’re joining the revolution – alongside new paradigms like DIY education and unschooling, new technology and content like MOOCs, and new blended learning programs – to offer a new education pathway.

And while Black Mountain SOLE is apparently a 501(c)(3), it is hardly free.

I had no reliable confirmation that Black Mountain SOLE actually existed until an article about it appeared in the New Republic shortly before Christmas. You should be able to see my interest immediately from just this exxcerpt:

At Black Mountain, much hangs on this brand of team-building exercise, because community is the program’s chief selling point. The other selling point is, basically, access to the Internet. It’s both an offshoot and an indicator of the recent boom in online education, especially the rapid growth of MOOCs, which have made lecture courses from a wide range of universities available for free online. Though traditional colleges are increasingly rounding out their curricula with online courses, Black Mountain claims to be the first experiment in assembling an entire campus around MOOCs.

Alas, it seems, things weren’t really going well at the cutting edge of the revolution. Read the whole article to learn about all the problems, but this was by far my favorite part:

Accordingly, most of the SOLEmates are more interested in crafting a business proposal than in pursuing some version of a liberal arts curriculum—barely any are taking MOOCs. Tara Byrne, an 18-year-old who told me about a business plan to monetize YouTube, explained, “I’m currently in social psychology on Coursera”—one of the leading MOOC platforms—“so that I can actually use it in day-to-day life. I won’t pick up a MOOC unless I know that I’m going to be using it. It makes me more picky … because I could be making money” by working on her business ideas instead.

So here we have some of the most self-motivated young people in the world, living in what is in essence a commune in North Carolina trying to educate themselves, and the MOOCs that this community were supposed to be organized around have already fallen by the wayside.

Do you see a problem here?

***

One of the strange rabbit holes my obsession with MOOCs has brought me down is the strange relationship between the counterculture of the 1960s and modern-day Silicon Valley. How, to put it as crudely as possible, did a group of well-meaning stoners gradually evolve into the libertarian technological utopians of today? I’ve read Markhoff and I’ve read Turner now and I’ve read Morozov on the subject, yet this relationship still kind of eludes me.

That’s why I have to fall back on the history of the Sixties that I tend to teach in my U.S. survey class here. Imagine that the Sixties Left falls into two factions: the political Left and the cultural Left. Some of the political left wrote the Port Huron Statement. Some of it went “Clean for Gene.” The cultural left, on the other hand, tuned in, turned on and dropped out. These are the people who not only freaked out their parents, they freaked out America. If you don’t believe me, watch this:

But apparently a few of these cultural leftists had real political aspirations, at least in the broader sense of that word.

Fred Turner points to a group that he calls the “New Communalists,” cultural Leftists who expressed their politics through a number of different experiments in communal living that tended to be short lived, as most utopian experiments tend to be. The jump that Turner makes, which just seems impossible for me to describe, is from living in a commune somewhere near Taos or Trinidad, to participating in a community online. If we couldn’t save the world by example, those people essentially said, then we’ll bring everybody together online to do the same kind of reorganization there.

That effort started with The Well, and has only grown bigger in the last twenty odd years. Unfortunately, thanks to companies like Facebook, these newer, bigger efforts have been highly commercialized. Can you serve the interests of your members and still make money? Let’s just say that I quit Facebook as soon as I realized that they’d be using my image to sell crap to my friends. If you’re still on Facebook and you’re over age 16, you’re essentially working against their efforts to monetize your good name, not with them.

***

Read that description of Black Mountain SOLE in the New Republic and you can really see how what came around then has come around again with a vengeance. This time, however, the politics are a lot more self-interested than they were back in the day:

From the first, Dobias envisioned Black Mountain as a haven for young entrepreneurs like himself, and to the extent there are guiding structures in place, that’s the group they serve. Dobias and Hanna share their experience in business; Cleary worked in PR; Adams can teach programming. When they hold workshops, the topics are “how to build a landing page” (Adams) and “how to woo a mentor” (Dobias) and “how to write a press release” (Cleary, who resigned from the operations team in November but is still a “coach” at the SOLE). When I asked Dobias about this, he was firm that he and the staff “don’t want this to be just a business incubator. What makes this place awesome is the exchange of all these different groups mixing together.”

I bet the “Meditation room with backjacks and cushions,” the outdoor swimming pool and the 18-hole disc golf course are lovely, but they’re not exactly conducive to collaboration, let alone learning. Live communally, make a million? It doesn’t hold water. No wonder the whole thing is falling apart already.

Learning, like teaching, is actually a lot harder than it looks. This post is an oldie but goodie which I first read in the early days of my online learning fixation:

E-books + Youtube Videos + tweets x anywhere= learning. It’s just so simple. Yet flawed. It reminds me of that Forbes blog post,a couple of month ago, where that old white guy talked about how he would get out of poverty if he was black, just read stuff online. Real learning is much more than that.

Trying to make money out that arrangement is even harder than succeeding at your stated goal. Coursera and Udacity are finding that out right about now. Even though they have a larger cash cushion than Black Mountain SOLE, I predict they’ll all end up in the exact same place: bankrupt.

***

Why do I predict that? All of these experiments in higher education face the same insurmountable problem: Too much customer service. Students don’t want to read books? Coursera won’t assign them. Students don’t want to watch MOOC lectures? Black Mountain SOLE won’t make them. After all, the learning is self-organized, not top-down.

One of the earliest and most famous communes in America was at Brook Farm, where all those Transcendentalists hung out for at least a while. The goals of that community were:

To insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possible, in the same individual; to guarantee the highest mental freedom, by providing all with labor, adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry; so to do away with the necessity of menial services, by opening the benefits of education and the profits of labor to all; and thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions.

Sounds great in theory, but somebody has to do the drudgery, right? That commune went bankrupt after only six years. If your society is as small as one of Fourier’s phalanxes, maybe you can get by without a leader for a while but that will never work in even the smallest classrooms. Education is top-down almost by definition. [I actually have a fondness for problem-based learning but even that works better under the guidance of trained professionals.]

In education, it is exceedingly difficult to farm out the drudgery to anybody. Send your MOOC to every corner of the planet, but if you don’t follow it there your students will not learn as much if you are not there to help them. On the other side of the equation, you will not learn nearly as much if you don’t do the reading than if you do all the assigned reading yourself. Allow students to plan their own classes, and nearly all your classes will be held out on the lawn faster than you can shake a stick. Somebody has to be the authority figure. Somebody has to be around to say, “No.”

Which brings us back to the 1960s. Rebelling against “The Man” is all well and good, but in education it can only get you so far. It used to be that people entered higher education because they actually wanted to learn something. Now too many people enter higher education only because they want a job. If your degree is nothing but a pedigree, then it doesn’t matter whether you actually learned something in college or not. You’ll get that job anyways when you’re done. To my mind, MOOC providers have not only bought into this mentality, their business model actively encourages it because they know that they’ll never be able to have someone watching every student to make sure that they’re actually learning. They just give out certificates to people who can make a claim to having completed a bunch of multiple choice tests.

Professors are, like it or not, authority figures. They are authorities on their given subjects and they are also authorities in their classrooms. Disrupting them may seem like a revolutionary act, but it’s about as helpful for the cause of actual higher education as blowing up the Army Math building in Madison was for ending the war in Vietnam.

Sometimes creative destruction is just destruction, and it’s sad that we all have to re-learn the lessons of the 1960s in order to realize that fact.

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One response

14 01 2014
Parker

Just read the Morozov essay and the parallels with MOOCs are interesting. The desire to move away from the current institutions towards “free” education are certainly there. (I do wonder if the “elitist institution” includes “elitist professors” with their pre-requisite knowledge and background reading.) Anyhow, providing the tools (i.e. the information) to the masses won’t cut it. MOOCs have already been co-opted by what I would certainly call elitist institutions. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The only way to free education is through collective political action within the existing “system”.

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