In an August 7 blog post at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation—whose name somehow reminds me of this—Dr. Michelle Rhee-Weise laments a recent setback for on line education involving Ivy Bridge College. (A breakdown of the issue can be found at Inside Higher Ed.) It’s a bit of a “stiff upper lip” message, and concludes with this paragraph:
As deflating as the events of last week were, I remain optimistic that there are plenty of creative risk-takers…who will stay the course and invent solutions outside of our norms and current standards. I hope for the sake of my and all of our children that entrenched institutional interests will ultimately yield to answers from both the public and private sectors. In the words of W.B. Yeats, “[T]he centre cannot hold.” We need to be open to experimenting with new ways of delivering higher education, even if they come from the margins.
William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” is often quoted. Sometimes, it’s done well. Other times, not so much, especially when fragments of it are quoted by people who don’t seem to know the entire thing.
In fact, here’s the fragment that Dr. Rhee-Weise’s uses, embedded in its immediate context:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…
I can’t imagine that Yeats meant this optimistically, much less as a “once more into the breach” kind of thing. And here’s a passage from the much-less-quoted second stanza:
…a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
Yeats doesn’t seem to be very sanguine about the coming of this sphinx. Is it war? The end of Christianity? Hard to say. At any rate, it isn’t “Disruptive Innovation.”
On the other hand, Dr. Rhee-Weise’s allusion does open up some fun allegorical possibilities, such as:
MOOCs = the sphinx, “from the ancient Greek, “the strangler”…sent by the gods to plague the town of Thebes as punishment for some ancient crime. There she preyed on the youths of the land, devouring all those who failed to solve her riddle…Oidipous accepted the challenge, and when he solved the Sphinx’s riddle, she cast herself off a mountainside in despair…(theoi.com)
the profit motive = “Spiritus Mundi”
“the margins,” or the home of reform = “waste of desert sand”
“stay the course” = “moving its slow thighs”
outraged faculty = “indignant desert birds”
It’s not surprising that a champion of neoliberal education “reforms” was tripped up by actual content. That’s not their business, anyway. What they’re after are delivery systems, and one deliverable is as good as the next. Larry Summers, for example, in a January post at the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, said,
If you had a discussion with dentists on tooth decay in 1947 it would have been about brushing your teeth and dental care, but the most important thing to happen with fighting tooth decay was fluoridated water and this is similar.
He later went on to compare college to a football game, with “a cold bench with no good food and bad bathrooms.”
Of course, the “reformers” didn’t throw themselves off a cliff after the Ivy Bridge setback; it was merely time to breath, regroup, and start moving the slow thighs. But if they want to have an easier time selling their products to colleges, especially without listening to the cries of “indignant desert birds,” they’d better start sounding like people who know their poetry. Just sayin’.