Self Government and Education

I missed the chance to see Obama’s victory speech on the day he won the election, but I went back and watched it two days later, and I’m glad I did. I immediately searched for the transcript and copied it into a Google Doc so I could mark it up. I found a few passages particularly meaningful… and relevant to our mission as educators, particularly in the age of social media.

I often appreciate and respect the president’s realism, which may not be something his opponents consider one of his strengths. I think it is important to temper the “hope” and “change” (which are vitally important) with a more realistic (sophisticated and nuanced) view of the world if anything is going to actually get done – and if hope is not going to be lost in the face of difficult challenges. Incidentally, I think this is true for educational technologists (and perhaps educators… or people… in general) as well as for political leaders. In any case, I think we see an example of that philosophy from the president here:

Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight — and it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty, and we can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.

I also think this last point is important in our field. We can be grateful that we get to have the arguments that we do… which device, which policy, which pedagogy. And as much as we may grow tired of our opposition (and resistance to what we see as positive change), at least we’re in a position where the argument is a meaningful one and we do actually have the power to make the future a better place for our students.

I believe one of the president’s other strengths is challenging Americans to see a bigger picture. I think it’s why so many people who oppose his efforts feel he is bringing about an end to “their” America. I’m not one who thinks he is selling out our country to the UN, or Europe, or socialists (or whatever), but if the US needs to one day give way to something greater (perhaps in the wake of the UN), I am unequivocally all for that. A meaningful global government (that allows for great diversity in many arenas) will be a good thing for humanity, and this planet. I think the day has already come when we need to not see ourselves as Americans first, but as Humans… and not as “from America” but as “from Earth.” Sometimes the president’s frankly political rhetoric falls short of this vision… and sometimes it moves from the politically correct toward what ought to be. I saw that here:

We want to pass on a country that’s safe and respected and admired around the world; a nation that is defended by the strongest military on Earth and the best troops this world has ever known — (applause) — but also a country that moves with confidence beyond this time of war to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being.

We believe in a generous America; in a compassionate America; in a tolerant America…

I was proud to hear these words coming from our president. And again, I think this perspective is also important in our field… though I would take it an additional step. If we are a generous, compassionate, tolerant America… perhaps we should be working toward educational systems and tools that not only might benefit the 50 million American k12 students, but perhaps the 750 million k12 students world-wide. And there certainly are people and organizations working toward this aim. As I’m writing this I even find myself feeling a bit proud that I’ve been working increasingly on international professional development events… carrying our message face-to-face to educators outside the US. That being said, I know our team is only scratching the surface… and so far is mostly serving international and private schools with more resources than their local public counterparts. One step at a time… hope and hard work in the face of challenge.

Speaking about this change in America, the president touched again on the theme of hard work hand-in-hand with hope (both are necessary for real change to happen in any meaningful pursuit, especially on a national  - or global – scale):

…progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path. By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock, or solve all our problems, or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus, and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin.

Also in keeping with this theme was this next segment, in my opinion the most important (and perhaps most audacious) of the president’s speech:

The role of citizen in our democracy does not end with your vote. America has never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.

In the context of our work in education this means at least two important things to me. First, it means that we can’t complain about the government’s approach to education (at least not unless we’re actively working to change it). It is our government. In a very real way, we are the government. And, things will not change for the better in education (or in any particular direction at least) until we the people rise up and make it so. This can happen at the local level. School boards have a tremendous amount of power, freedom, and flexibility to do as they please locally… and it is rarely exercised… but most boards serve at the pleasure of the voters – you can have it another way if you can craft a compelling vision and organize support for it. This can also happen at a larger level at the state departments of education (states still maintain a high degree of independence when it comes to education, though they too exercise it less and less), and at the federal level. In short, if we want something radical, like, say, a constructivist educational technologist as a secretary of education… we have to make that happen.

Second, it means to me that we need to prepare our students for a life of self-government. I mean this on a personal level of course… in that students need to be able to govern themselves (it’s a key to success in any field – and in life), but I also mean this in terms of participatory government. We need to prepare students to take things into their own hands… to craft compelling visions and organize support… to demand something different from their local, state, federal, and global governments (in all areas, not just education of course… kids are concerned about the environment, human rights, and civil liberties – and we should empower them take their government into their own hands to improve things in the ways they want). And, in this age of social media and participatory media – with the internet in everyone’s pocket (or glasses!) making widely distributed easily scale-able participation almost ubiquitous (among those who have access), it is not unreasonable to think that these technologies can and should make it possible for more people to participate in government more often. I would never imagine everyone voting on everything; we’ll need representatives for the foreseeable future. But there is no reason more people can’t be involved in organizing and lobbying… and no reason more people can’t be authoring, editing, or otherwise contributing to legislation… and no reason we can’t have voters vote on some more issues. Our government should be far more participatory – and far more transparent. There’s no reason a significant overhaul of our government shouldn’t be forthcoming in the wake of these technological changes… despite all the challenges and hard work (and mistakes) this will inevitably entail. Incidentally, I believe we should prepare students both to be more involved in their government no matter what new technologies bring and to help bring about the technologies to make self-government more of a reality in this country… and around the globe.

Perhaps this is a tall order, but I think it’s the cause we take on as educators (or at least as educational technologists). We have the power to make this happen. I believe we will. And I can’t wait. :)

 

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