Academics: Time to Go to the Bench (or Drop a Dime)

We live in an imperiled world.  We face pressing problems from a myriad of complex systems spinning-out-control.  These are systems like global warming; environmental degradation; massive and growing inequality; global casino-capitalism based on speculation and not productivity; global flows of immigration; and global conflicts exacerbated by all these forces. 

Our society has done little to speak to these problems.  Indeed, we appear to disdain evidence and use this disdain as an excuse to ignore these problems and the havoc they wreak on others.  Some scholars have argued that the nature of our current institutions, and even of the human mind itself, are no longer well fit to face such complex problems.  We need deep innovations and we need them soon.  Business as usual can only make things worse.

The nature of academic disciplines, research, expertise, and colleges and universities is fast changing.  High-end research today tends to be organized in terms of cross-disciplinary teams dealing with a core challenge or “hard problem” that requires melding various methods, tools, theories, and technical languages.  Single sub-disciplinary, individual expertise is being superseded by more collaborative, cross-disciplinary, and collective-intelligence-based approaches to research. Furthermore, we have many calls today for academic institutions to put as much emphasis on impact as on publication.  These calls cite the small impact much academic research has had beyond building academic reputations.

As we face this new world, problems of access still remain strong.  People “at the margins”—whether this means members of groups that have typically not been given fair access; people at non-elite institutions; people poorly mentored at elite institutions; or people engaging in work that lies at the margins of current paradigms—still often lack the social networks to gain access to opportunities to grow, contribute, and flourish.  Yet in times of change—and at a time when much work in our own field of Education has run its course, become repetitive, or has failed to truly impact and sometimes even really address the problems we face—innovation and paradigm changes may well come from the margins not the center.

We in Education have worked diligently for decades on problems of access, inequality, various “gaps” between different groups, and the stolid inertia of our schools, classrooms, and educational institutions.  But these problems are not better off enough today than they were in the 1960s. Inequality is at an all-time high; segregation is worse than it was in the 1960s; the literacy gap by class has passed the gap by race, not because we improved the race gap but because we made the class one worse (in part by ignoring it and too often confounding race and class).  

It is time now to stop business as usual.  It is time now to grow new theories, methods, and approaches and in a timely fashion.  It does not seem, however, that these new ideas are likely to come from the center, from the tables where elites sit and trust too strongly in the past to really take care of the future.

It is time now to marshal real attempts to foster innovation, to take risks, and to cultivate the margins, in addition to business as usual.  Many young scholars take the word “margins” to be an insult, but the task here is not to make students and scholars at the margins “mainstream”, the task is to have the courage sometimes to marginalize mainstream work so that innovation can happen and the margins can shift. 

We need now sometimes to use selection processes that seek out risk, innovation, and new talent in order to find the new currents that show promise to refresh and transform mainstream research and interventions in education.  We need to create spaces where risk taking and failure can flourish and young scholars can get ready for a “prime time” that will be constituted of new shows and not repeats and minor riffs on old ones. 

This is not affirmative action.  It is not about bringing disadvantaged people into the fold so they can be like us.  It is about realizing that the future will not be like the past and so now our best hope may well reside somewhere at the margins.  It is about affirmative action on the mainstream’s part to acknowledge not just their merits, but also their very real failures and the massive changes in our world.  This is not about political correctness, it is about evidence and respect for a real and dying world in which we all live.  It is about what all sports teams past their prime do: look to the bench.  It is about not believing that the elite players we have drafted thanks to their outstanding “stats” are necessarily better than a walk-on who changes our game for the better.

The reason to do this—to actively seek promise at the margins and to actively question the current depth and innovation at the center—is not morality (though that would be good reason enough).  The reason is survival and the fulfillment of our intellectual obligations as professors to ensure that knowledge—and not lies—grow and flourish even when this means distrusting our own long-honed judgments about what is at the center and what is at the margin.  I am not saying that our problem is that the mainstream in many areas of Education are Dead White Males (nor am I denying it).  I know a number of mainstream women and a number of mainstream African-Americans (and some people who are both).  I am just saying that the mainstream in some important areas is, in some important ways, dead.

In the (last) Dark Ages, poorly educated monks sequestered themselves in monasteries to copy out and preserve Latin manuscripts (a language which many of them did not know well).  In the margins—which did not really count as part of the book—they sometimes wrote, in their vernacular languages, limericks, gripes, and even pornographic sayings and pictures.  In the act they both preserved Western knowledge in Latin and created writing in vernacular languages.  The latter transformed the world perhaps more than the former.  In the act of preservation they inadvertently broke the hold of Latin and Greek by engaging in the beginnings of a practice that no one then could see had real “legs” to the future.

My last story is, sadly, a sports metaphor, meant only for those who can tolerate male sports stories.  In 1956 the Baltimore Colts football team lost their backup quarterbacks and needed a new one fast.  They had heard about a young guy playing sandlot football for 6 dollars a game.  He had been drafted by the Steelers in 1955 and cut from the team without ever throwing a pass.  The Steelers said he was not smart enough to play football and his college team had said he was too small to play professional football in any case.  The Colts called him up with a dime phone call and made him a backup quarterback to be paid only if he actually made the team.  In the fourth game of the season, the first-string quarterback got injured and the sandlot player came in and immediately threw an interception on his first pass, an interception ran back for a touchdown.  Not an auspicious start.  But things got better after that.  He played 18 years and is in the Hall of Fame.  Many consider him the greatest quarterback of all time and he still holds records that may never be broken.  I know football is a violent game and this is just meant to be used as a metaphor to say for us mainstream Educators: let’s send someone out to check the sandlots.

The problems I am trying to address here are all getting worse as colleges and universities eviscerate tenure, casualize academic labor, honor grant writing over knowledge production, disdain the humanities, and burden students with debt while offering out-of-date and stale forms of education. Too often in today’s colleges and universities even the center is rendered inert, risk adverse, and focused more on status and money making than on innovation and impact.  Now is not the time to circle the wagons to protect the center.  It is the time to open the doors to the “barbarians” that might well bring us the winds of change that could save us all.

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