Monday, June 24, 2013

Sometimes, Power Resides Outside of Washington

I was struck by this article in last weeks' Chronicle of Higher Education:
Crusader for Better Science Teaching Finds Colleges Slow to Change
There are a lot of easy narratives to fit this into: status quo-defending professors vs. an upstart innovator, arguments about "outcomes-based" vs. "process-oriented" teaching, and so on. The debate about what's the best way for students to learn science is an important one, and I will leave it to those who are best suited to conduct it.

As usual, I'm drawn to the intersection between higher education and politics. The part of the article that struck me was this:
In 2010, while at British Columbia, he got a visit from another Nobel laureate, Steven Chu, U.S. energy secretary under Mr. Obama. Mr. Chu urged Mr. Wieman to join the White House science office. Mr. Chu suggested that Mr. Wieman could do a lot more to improve undergraduate science education from Washington than from Vancouver, Mr. Wieman says. (emphasis added)
This is a typical notion - that if you want to really get something done, you need to go where the "action" is, the center of power: Washington. Steven Chu's suggestion to Wieman was, in terms of conventional wisdom, entirely unremarkable.

The rest of the article goes on to talk about some of the mechanisms that have prevented Wieman's ideas and research on science pedagogy from gaining widespread traction once he took Chu up on his offer. Many would tell that story to say, despite his position as a science advisor to the White House. I want to suggest that the failure of Wieman's ideas to be adopted more widely and quickly is because of that position.

Over the past 60 years (some might argue for the past 100), we have seen an increasing centralization of power and authority, both in the Federal government in general and in the executive branch in particular. There are certainly instances in which this was a good thing; the Civil Rights Movement would have struggled for far longer if not for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which overrode the express wishes of a number of states (largely in the South), and for the willingness of the Federal Executive to intervene with military force to protect school integration in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama.

But that centralization has its downsides. In every debate in which the Federal government decides to tip the scales, there are winners and losers. Since every issue creates different cleavages, the chances of being on the losing end of the stick approach near-certainty over time. Eventually, everyone has been ticked off by the government at some point - a phenomenon long ago uncovered by John Mueller, among others.

The past two administrations (Bush and Obama) have exacerbated this phenomena. Each administration was deeply and abidingly disappointing to partisans of the other party, with the further ordered impact that many liberals ticked off by Bush have not been restored to full faith in the government by Obama (the recent revelations about NSA spying being a case in point).

In this context, the phrase "I'm from the government, I'm here to help" has become more ironic and maligned than ever. It is difficult to find folks these days who have faith in both the motives and the capacity of government to do good things - but much easier to find instances in which people fear government intrusion into areas it may not belong.

This is especially true when it comes to fields of expertise. In the case of the article above, science faculty are supposed to be experts in how to teach science to college students (whether they actually are experts or not is another question). Nobody who fancies himself an expert in something likes outsiders telling him what to do - especially when that outsider is wearing the badge of the Federal government, and therefore the implicit threat of funding withheld.

There are other things contributing to the reluctance to change, of course - fear of change itself, fear of MOOCs and online learning, fear that universities are being undermined by market forces, fear of anti-intellectualism, and so on. But the fact remains that in the current climate, anybody trying to induce widespread change may be better off doing so from outside the government than from within it.

How could such change come about? If the object is to get people (in this case, tenured faculty) to change their habits and try something new, the answer has to be through persuasion. You cannot force these folks to teach differently, you have to persuade them that it's a good idea. And persuasion is inherently a relational tool that comes only through conversation. That conversation is much more effective in an environment where there are no threats, even implicit ones, in the air.

In this sense, it's possible that Wiemer may well have effected more change had he stayed anchored in Vancouver. From that position, armed with his research, he would have been harmless - and therefore may have had an easier time engaging in the necessary conversations. Give some TED talks; hold symposia; travel from university to university spreading ideas and debating skeptics. That takes resources, it's true - but relatively modest ones, easily procured by a Nobel Prize winner.

As long as we accept the logic that "if you want anything done, you have to go through Washington," a great deal less will get done that could be otherwise. In this day and age, change may not always require power - in fact, power may inhibit change. Let's instead fashion our own power and change our own world, rather than waiting for Washington's broken system to do it for us.

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