Monday, April 12, 2021

Michael Sandel's Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?

This excellent read, The Tyranny of Merit, by Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel, actually shifted some of my thinking, and I love a good lightbulb moment provoked by a book! I found the book sometimes a little outside my reach in places enough to need to read a few chapters numerous times, but I think I've got the gist of it all.  

In a nutshell, some of us hope that judging people based on their merit makes for a more fair and just system, and the education system can be used as a sorting machine. The promotion of merit and of the sorting tools we use to determine who deserves to rise to the top are seen as part of an open system of global thinking. Rejecting that position, then, it is believed, is clearly aligned with closed-minded thinking, BUT this is all a ruse brought to you by neoliberal politics. It's born of the illusion that we can create a level playing field of equal opportunity, which is a commonly touted argument. Less common, however, is Sandel's captivating argument around what it means to deserve anything and his claim that, even if we could have perfect equality of opportunity, a meritocracy brings with it some nasty side effects: "It would generate hubris and anxiety among the winners and humiliation and resentment among the losers--attitudes at odds with human flourishing and corrosive to the common good" (120). He ends with some plausible but difficult alternatives to our current way of thinking--in education, work, and through contributive justice--which require an entire overhaul of thinking reminiscent of Charles Taylor's notion of social imaginaries: we have to change our beliefs before we'll ever be able to change our behaviours.


We can't get a fully realized meritocracy. The term was first coined just in 1958 in a dystopian novel; it wasn't originally meant to be seen as a solution or a term of praise. Then in the 80s, Reagan created the belief that "market mechanisms are the primary instruments for achieving the public good" (21) and deregulated banks and businesses under the belief that, "Provided they operate within a fair system of equal opportunity, markets give people what they deserve" (62). Since, in theory, everyone can compete equally (the rhetoric of rising), government helped out by lowering taxes to remove barriers to success, which then provoked a dramatic rise in tuition fees. We tolerate inequalities because of the American Dream that suggests we can't win without some losers beneath us: Everything we do is fair and just provided people worthy have equal opportunities to access higher education; however, governing elites have the "responsibility for creating the conditions that have eroded the dignity of work and left many feeing disrespected and disempowered. . . . upheavals we are witnessing are a political response to a political failure of historic proportions" (19). We're starting to see the light. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Interview with the Guelph Back-Grounder: On Teaching Critical Thinking

In early February, just before immersing myself into the current quad of online teaching, a friend of a friend interviewed me for a local independent journal. I thought it would be all about teaching during a pandemic, but together we meandering through a diverse chain of topics for about 90 minutes, which he cut into parts and posted in 5 segments, so far. I'm not sure if there are more. 

I haven't gone back to listen to any of the clips and won't have a chance soon (because I'm nearing the most hectic ending of this insane quad), but there were definitely times during that lengthy conversation that I felt like I completely contradicted something I had said 30 minutes earlier, so that's entirely a possibility! And, of course, other times that I forgot the names of things. I'm hoping I just remember more of the flubs than any potential nuggets of gold! 

Here are the five nine parts:

1. Can People be Taught to Think Critically?

2. Gullibility and the Velocity of Communications

3. Dialectics vs Debate and Ethical Reasoning

4. Conservative vs Liberal Bias

5. Competition in Schools

6. Groupwork Dynamics

7. Developing Community in the Digital Age 

8. Community Pushback

9. Sortition

Thanks to the Cloudwalking Owl for such a delightful chat! It's always nice to talk with someone when you each recognize otherwise obscure references being made. 

Saturday, April 3, 2021

World Autism Day

I've come up for air from this crazy year of teaching for World Autism Day - and I'm a day late. Many autistic people find April an awkward time because much of the messaging around autism comes from non-autistics. Miss Luna Rose made this great graphic to illustrate some of the concerns with the Autism Speaks organization's campaign to have everyone in blue for the month:

The #REDinstead goes back to 2015 with Alanna Rose Whitney's #WalkInRed alternative. It was Judy Singer who coined the term "neurodiversity" as well as creating the infinity loop way back in her sociology thesis paper in 1996. These are preferred by the autistic community, and that's what should matter.