There is No Such Thing As Neutral

I’m participating over the next month or so in a group reading organized by Bryan Alexander of We Make the Road by Walking by Myles Horton and Paulo Freire.  I’m not going to spend any real time here on background on the authors or the book.  If you go to the link above that’ll give you a sense of what’s going on (and the amazingly intelligent people involved).  I wasn’t even sure I’d have enough thoughts about the material to do much more than tweet a few times, but I ran across something in Chapter 3 a few minutes ago that struck me.  So I thought I’d see how much brain dump I could do here quickly.

Here’s the quote that caught me:

As soon as I started looking at the word neutral and what it meant, it became obvious to me there can be no such thing as neutrality. It’s a code word for the existing system.

There are a few more pages of the two authors discussing this, but that’s the gist of it.  When I read that, my mind jumped immediately to unbiased.  We hear a good deal about how algorithms for this or that are going to revolutionize education because they have no bias.  They remove from the equation all the baggage that, say, a faculty member might bring to advising and gives the student an unbiased assessment of their best possible learning path.  The algorithms are praised, in essence, for being neutral.  If we take at face value what Horton said above, then even a truly unbiased algorithm is just one that supports the existing system.  It calculates a path for us that won’t rock the boat.  It shows us the way to sameness.

I hear a good deal of talk (way more than I wish I did) about personalized learning.  This idea that students can find their own path through the learning process at their own pace and matching their own interests with help of intelligent advising software – an unbiased algorithm to help them along.  But if we’re trying to prepare students for a world of work where most of the jobs they will do don’t even exist right now, can we use unbiased algorithms that are designed to support the existing system to get them there?  Isn’t using an algorithm just another way of making an assembly line out of education?

If we listen to what Horton and Freire are saying, it seems to be we should vigorously reject the idea algorithmically guided education.  We should strive to be bias – bias towards breathing life of the spark of each individual’s passion; towards education as a process, not an outcome; and, most of all, towards a community that values education as a common good.  And I think to do that we all need to pack and label our baggage and get on the ride together.

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