On Listing Education Innovators and Intellectuals

I Think My Imagination Broke...

Three pronouncements this week. Three lists of innovators and intellectuals in education:

There isn’t any overlap of who devised these lists or who’s on these lists, but I think there’s important overlap in how these lists were made and what that process and what the choices reveal.

The Forbes list was chosen by the Clayton Christensen Institute’s Michael Horn, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan (who dipped his toes into the ed-reform waters last year with the publication of I Got Schooled), and Pearson exec Luyen Chou.

The list contains 9 Teach for America alums and the founders of the astroturf organization Students for Education Reform. It contains several companies that are part of the VC firm Learn Capital’s investment portfolio (of which, let’s not forget, Pearson is the largest limited partner): Udemy, General Assembly, ClassDojo, and Edmodo.

But not a single practicing classroom teacher.

According to Edsurge (whose managing editor Tony Wan also made the list), “it appears that the industry favored bold changemakers for the honor.”

Um. That’s one way to spin it.

I guess that depends on how you define “bold changemakers.” I guess that depends on how you define “change.”

I guess that depends on if you see education as an “industry.”

I guess that depends on who you see and don’t see. I guess that depends on “who counts.”

Rick Hess’s list of education scholars purports to count “influence,” not “innovation.” But there are still similar questions to be raised here about what that means – with who and what counts.

In this case, there’s a detailed rubric (something that Forbes doesn’t offer, no surprise) that includes a “Google Scholar Score,” “Highest Amazon Ranking,” “Education Press Mentions,” and “Klout Score.” These scores are used to select among those deemed “eligible” in the first place: nominees among “university-based scholars who have a focus wholly or primarily on educational questions.”

But I can’t help but ask: what do Hess and his committee see as “educational questions”?

Apparently not MOOCs. Despite all the hype and hand-wringing last year about how MOOCs might shape the future of the university, there isn’t a single MOOC-related name on the list, whether pro- or con. No Daphne Koller. No Andrew Ng. No Sebastian Thrun. No Anant Agarwal. No Cathy Davidson. No Jonathan Rees. No Keith Devlin.

This absence is incredibly striking to me as MOOCs – particularly the corporate narrative that promises the unbundling and dismantling and disrupting public education – fall so neatly into the American Enterprise Institute platform. Why ignore the agitation stirred up by MOOCs about learning and labor? Oh yeah. “Labor.”

Indeed, looking at Hess’s list, I have to press further: Where are the adjuncts? Where are the post-docs? Where are the graduate students?

And where is Tressie McMillan Cottom?

Cottom, a PhD student in sociology at Emory University, wrote eloquently and often last year about for-profit universities, MOOCs, race, class, gender, prestige, privilege, and more. She appeared on Dan Rather Reports. Her articles appeared in Slate (and elsewhere). (Pretty sure her Klout score is higher than everyone on Hess’s list, save Diane Ravitch. Of course, just 46 on the list even use Twitter.)

Why is a rising education scholar like Cottom not on Hess's list? Why is she unrecognized? Why is she unseen? I wonder...

I can’t help but think here of the clash this week between The Atlantic’s Ta-nehisi Coates and Politico’s Dylan Byers.

On Monday, Coates called Tulane University political science professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry “America’s most foremost public intellectual.”

Dyers scoffed and on Twitter suggested that Coates’ calling her such “sort of undermines his intellectual cred.” Byers later offered the names of 5 guys (and one dead woman) as his choices.

“Better choices,” insisted Dyers. White choices.

Coates’ response, in turn, was powerful:

I came up in a time when white intellectuals were forever making breathless pronouncements about their world, about my world, and about the world itself. My life was delineated lists like “Geniuses of Western Music” written by people who evidently believed Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin did not exist. That tradition continues. Dylan Byers knows nothing of your work, and therefore your work must not exist.

Here is the machinery of racism—the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with the everywhere; the right of false naming; the right to claim that the lakes, trees, and mountains of our world do not exist; the right to insult our intelligence with your ignorance. The machinery of racism requires no bigotry from Dylan Byers. It merely requires that Dylan Byers sit still.

Frankly, I think all 3 of these lists – Byers’ list, Forbes’ list, Hess’s list – are connected to this machinery.

The machinery of privilege and exploitation. Insults to our intelligence. The right of false naming. Gestures of obliviousnesses. Genuflections to financial and political power. Disdain towards marginalized voices. The erasure of progressive activism. A wishful denial of progressive change. 

Image credits: Bradi Wells and The Noun Project



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