Monday, July 18, 2016

Meat Widgets and the End of College

Learning Machine's website has the phrase "Build Intelligence" right there on their page, which gives you an idea of were they're coming from. But it's this post from Natalie Smolenski, "Cultural Anthropologist & Dedicated Account Manager at Learning Machine," that really captures just how deeply and fundamentally wrong this particular brand of education reform is.

In "A DSM for Achievement," Smolenski lays out how educated human beings can be produced just like toasters or wood screws. And do note-- the whole article is not just Smolenski whipping something up on her own, but spinning off of a speech by Arthur Levine, President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, delivered as the keynote at the 2016 Parchment Conference on Innovating Academic Credentials. This is not just some insane notion from the fringes, but an insane notion that a lot of Really Important People are attached to.

Smolenski is holding up the DSM-- the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-- as an example of how it can be done, so first she has to deal with how lousy the DSM is at its job.

The DSM and Its Issues

So that she can establish it as a model, Smolenski raises and dismisses the following DSM issues.

1) It's highly subjective, subject to ongoing change and therefor imprecise and unstable.

The DSM has included at various times the "disorders" involved that lead to runaway slaves, uppity women, and homosexuality. In other words, it has been at least as reflective of subjective societal bias as it has been of any scientific truth. More specifically, it has been reflective of the biases of the people in charge of the DSM.

Smolenski's reply-- just because we can't do it perfectly doesn't mean that "it is impossible to gauge disturbances in psychological and emotional health in a systematic way." Really? Because I think that's exactly what it means. Smolenski suggests that it's a work in progress, with new societal biases pushing out the old ones, so that's cool. This is not a very supportive support. At the very least we could stop pretending that we've got some scientific solid catalog here that allows us to act with assured scientific certainty. I am sure the generations of black Americans, women, gays and lesbians who suffered for their disorders might agree.

2) The DSM is a lousy diagnostic tool because actual medical professionals still vary a great deal on interpretations of disorders and symptoms. That damn individual activity again.

Smolenski's reply-- Continued research and field tests are working to beat that bug out of the system.

3) The DSM is just a marketing tool for big pharma, big insurance, and the medical establishment that is set up to monetize the wide varieties of human experience and behavior.

Smolenski's reply-- Yeah, that's probably true, but, you know, things keep changing.

Smolenski tries to defend the DSM as a living document, and therefor a super model for a competency-based cataloging system for humans.

Who Will Determine Your Value

Because skills are only meaningful in social context, any given classification of skill is a provisional judgment of pragmatic value within an economy in which such values can be productively leveraged and exchanged. Moreover, because the kind of skill that credentials record is at root a unit of value that has been conferred to a particular individual or entity by another, it can be recorded in any ledger that records transactions of values.

Got that? As a human being, your particular skill set is only as valuable as someone else says it is (and that someone would have to be someone who can exchange something of value for it). Like, say, an employer. Your value as a human being is what an employer says it is.

Smolenski tries to expand on this point by bringing up bitcoins (bitcoins are part of Learning Machine's business). You remember bitcoins, and how they completely changed the way the economy works and pretty much did away with money by use of a super-cool computerized system? You don't remember that happening? Any day now. Really.

How Will This Be Awesome? Let's Count the Ways!

Not only will the shift toward a standardized, competency-based credentialing system allow us to address the social question of what constitutes skill with some consistency and reliability, but it will also decouple credentials from any particular institutional arrangement, in particular the over-reliance on university degrees as arbiters of skill.

I remained unconvinced that Smolenski is referring to a real problem. Where in society do we struggle with the question of what constitutes a skill with consistency and reliability? Fantasy football drafts? Yes, there are certainly people in the world who hate the mess and fuss of dealing with the variations and inconsistencies between the various meat widgets on the planet. "Why," these people ask, "can't humans be more like a toaster or a computer program, where one term always means exactly the same thing and individual humans always behave exactly the same way and humans can be plugged into systems easily and consistently without the system having to shift and accommodate all these variations within the supply of meat widgets?"

To these people, I say, "Grow the hell up." The complaint that Smolenski is trying to address is that human beings are too varied, too different, too inconsistent, too human. It is not a complaint I'm sympathetic to. Also, Smnolenski would like to do away with the whole university system of education and replace it with nice, clear, clean vocational training.

So anyway, what are the benefits of a standardized, competency-based human catalog system?

1) The problem of uneven quality of instruction across institutions.

Prof. Brainmountain at Harvard is doing great stuff in her classroom, while Prof. Dimbulb at Wottsamatta U is doing things differently. Smolenski correctly notes that the current system reinforces a "prestige-based economy" and that certain degrees get more heft because of where they're from (leading to wacky ideas like the notion that a graduate from a high-status school just needs five weeks training to become a better teacher than a person who studied teaching for four years at their less-prestigious college). It is hard to imagine how competency-based certification will change this. In fact, it's hard to imagine how any serious advanced studies can be reduced to a competency-based checklist of standardized skills. What would the checklist for a Art History degree with a concentration in International Studies look like? Who would develop such a list? And once we've made everyone meet the same checklist, will we have a world of grads who look like they came from a top-notch school, or a crappy one?

2) The problem of academic programs that are too broad to be useful to evaluators looking for particular skills.

Well, I'll give Smolendski credit for not saying exactly what she means, which is not "evaluators" but "employers." How are we supposed to know whether or not to hire a guy if his degree just says "computer science"?

The particular labor needs of a technology company cannot simply be mapped to “Computer Science graduates,” in the same way that a particular hospital’s needs cannot be mapped to “Natural Science graduates.”

Yup. A personnel department might have to actually read resumes and do interviews and actually talk to people they were thinking of hiring.

3) The problem of credits being non-transferable from country to country.

Millions of professionals around the world are prohibited from practicing their trades outside of the countries in which their credentials were conferred because other countries have no way of evaluating what skills those credentials entail. This results in massive losses of productivity and hinders international cooperation on vital issues. A standardized set of global definitions would render an already de facto mobile workforce empowered to practice wherever in the world they are.

Oh, did you think we were just talking about national standards? No, we're going to have an international catalog of meat widget skills, because otherwise how will corporations be able to shift production to whatever country suits their fancy?

4) The problem of (exclusively) top-down education models.

This may seem a had-scratcher at first. Wouldn't a big checklist of competencies be created in a top down manner? How else could it be created-- particularly when the list is being designed to cater to the needs of employers?

The problem for Levine and Smolenski is not that education is top down-- it's that they don't like who's at the top. The heierarchy of traditional education needs to be replaced. The list of competencies will appear, somehow (descended from a cloud? rising from a lake?) and students will collect those items on the list however they see fit. Kind of like Pokémon Go.

5) The problem of the purpose of the university.

Well, here she has a point. Of course, she is also part of the problem. Do you go to college to get an education or to get a job? Do you go to chart your own path, or to follow one laid out by other people? And all while racking up huge debt. Why do you have to go for a certain number of hours, years, days? What the hell is up with caps and gowns and stripes and tassels? Smnolenski's unstated implication remains as it has throughout-- couldn't we just solve the problem by doing away with colleges and universities entirely?

Smolenski goes on to acknowledge that her argument (and Levin's) is economic, and that there are people who make the humanistic argument for college as a journey of growth.

It seems clear that four years (or more) spent in a pedagogical and collegial environment that privileges critical thinking, intellectual and interpersonal experimentation, and friendship-building can be profoundly valuable and transformative, not only personally and interpersonally, but also rendering the student a more innovative and effective professional.

But it's expensive, and employers have indicated that such personal growth "often occurs at the expense of or with disregard for building employable skills." So being a well-rounded human being or employable corporate tool-- you can't necessarily be both. And if Smolenski really believes that, then how does she not also raise the question of what could be so terribly, awfully wrong with our current society that you must choose between being a decent fully-grown actualized human being or an employable meat-widget.

Is this not one more way to distinguish between the rich and poor who exist on opposite sides of a terrible gulf-- that only the rich get to be human beings and make a living, but the poor must choose between living full human lives and being useful meat widgets judged worthy of pay by their corporate masters.

Here Come the Toasters

The MIT Media Lab and Learning Machine are rolling out an open source block-chain based meat widget credentialling program in which credentials are kind of like bitcoins, which is intended to lead us to a DSM-styled catalog of skills. (And they aren't the only ones-- the Lumina Foundation is working on the same thing.) Unconfined by university programs, the credentials will let perspective employers know exactly what they are getting and for the love of God, are you kidding me??!! On what planet does a personnel director say, "I don't need to interview anybody. This guy's credential badge list matches exactly the skills profile for the job, so hire him." On what planet does the credentialing list stay ahead of new developments within the industries-- how do you set up credentialing this year for job skills that won't exist till next year? And how do you reduce any job more complex than browning a slice of brad to a list of credentialed skills that can be easily measured and certified?

There are two problems with this system.

One is that it can't be done. You cannot reduce jobs of any complexity whatsoever to a checklist of skills that can themselves be measured and certified. The demand to create that easily measured checklist will force the credential creators to skip over the more complex skills, which means that personnel directors will be right back to dealing with messy variable human interaction. Not to mention the subjective human bias embedded in each credentials list.

Go back to the DSM problems list-- every one of those is a clear explanation of why Smolenski's system cannot be created in any useful way that corporate hiring departments will actually use. And those are the only people for whom this system is useful! Which brings us to the second problem--

This should not be done. Even if somehow every obstacle could be overcome, it shouldn't be. Because the "obstacles" are basically the humanity of the people involved.

This is a system designed for the convenience and service of corporate bosses. Nobody else is served by such a system. Fans will say that future employees are served, but they are "served" only in the sense that such a system would make it easier for them to see how to better please their corporate overlords.

This competency-based meat widget catalog system is the clearest, most obvious version yet of how to retool our entire education system so that it serves the needs of corporate bosses-- and nobody else. This is a system that looks at the difficult tension between the needs of a corporate system and the needs of actual live human beings and says that we must tilt everything toward the corporations. This is a system that says when we find we've created a world in which humanity and the whole structure of power and wealth are in constant conflict, the solution is less humanity.

I said above that these folks need to grow up, and I mean it-- this is also the system of an eight year old, a child who is angry that the other children will not follow the rules as that child understands them, and so that child kicks and screams and demands that somebody make those other children behave The Way They Are Supposed To.

This is about standardizing human beings on a global scale so that meat widgets are more easily identifiable and interchangeable and do what they're supposed to. This is about treating human beings as if they are a product for corporate consumption.

This, in short, is a lousy idea.


  1. "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end." --Immanuel Kant

    I believe that the education reformers are not abiding by the categorical imperative as expressed above in its 2nd formulation.

    However, combining competency based education with Pokemon Go might be an excellent way to combine intellectual and physical activity. At least the students could have fun while they are being treated completely as means to the ends of corporations.

  2. Thanks for another excellent, insightful analysis, Peter.

    If you think back to why universities were created in the 13th century, you see how this kind of proposal is a striving for mediocrity, the opposite of excellence for all.

  3. I am in higher ed, in a field whose accrediting body requires us to certify that upon graduation, our students are capable of performing certain tasks. And guess what: their future employers still want to interview them before they're hired. I suspect the reasons include:

    1) As you've already touched on, it's not possible to reduce the job to a simple list of skills and tasks, thus the top-down list conjured by the accreditors is at best a jumping-off point. The job has already changed before the new hires have cashed their first paychecks. I suspect employers are likely looking for adaptability, resiliency, and ability to self-assess relative to those ends in the context of the hard skills they'll be applying, learning and refining on the job.

    2) The newly hired meat widgets will have to work with and/or alongside each other and/or the meat widgets already there.

    My understanding of the DSM is that it was rooted in an attempt to describe "disorder" better than Potter Stewart defined obscenity ("I know it when I see it"). It was not an attempt to describe "normal" because that would be a much, much bigger book. But that's what Smolenski seems to want.

  4. This is the kind of crap that super duper, "out-of-our-realm" graduate students (usually in the humanities) come up with. Could this idea really take root? These young visionaries are sure they must. The rest of us know that like everything else, this will blow out as quickly as it blew in. That's how hot air works. Meantime, she is feelin' REAL GOOD because there ain't nothing more satisfying than irking the old guard. The theme is no longer question authority. They graduated from that. The theme is mock authority and live in "smuggery" (my term).

    The thing is, they will be on the receiving end sooner than later.

  5. I like "smuggery". But I'm surprised to see this kind of stuff from a cultural anthropologist, even a young one. I expect it from economists and psychometricians.

    1. Unfortunately, the profession of anthropology has a long history of kowtowing to the needs of widget makers. The Diploma in Social Anthropology from Oxford University which I hold was designed originally to give colonial officers and missionaries a fig leaf of academic "respectability" before they went off to Africa and the rest of the uncivilized world to do the Empire's bidding...

  6. As always, this is for Other People's Children.