At the time of our revolution, there were those who advocated for a perfect democracy of the people. There would be one legislative body, there would be perfect and equal ("equal") representation of the nation. There would be no need for an executive branch or any sort of further central organization.
"To Adams this was patent nonsense. A simple, perfect democracy had never yet existed. The whole people were incapable of deciding much of anything, even on the small scale of a village. He had had enough experience with town meets at home to know that in order for anything to be done certain powers and responsibilities had to be delegated to a moderator, a town clerk, a constable, and, at times to special committees." (John Adams, David McCullough)It seems to me that this tension -- between freedom, equality and centralization -- arises whenever a group of people attempts to coordinate at all. Coordination gets more and more difficult as the number of people involved in the community grows, and things can start to go bad almost unintentionally. Think unregulated markets, or the way crowds can be dominated by majority impulses.
Of course, Adams believed that many centralizing institutions were bad. He just wanted to build better, more perfect institutions.
We are living at a time when it feels natural to be skeptical of the structures of society. There's a longstanding decline in Americans' confidence and participation in our institutions. This cuts across the board: confidence in public schools, congress, organized religions, banks, professional organizations, community organizations, the courts, television news, unions, the presidency has never been lower.
For her part, Anne Schwartz offered a critique of the selection of keynote speakers for an upcoming conference:
"If you know me you know that I love Dan Meyer, Eli Luberoff and Steve Leinwand. They are three really fantastic white men. But Twitter Math Camp is an outstanding conference run by amazing amazing women teachers, attended by a majority women and almost completely teachers I just wish the keynotes represented that fact. Max Ray said it last year and I echo it this year. More women, more diversity."My argument is that both Danielson and Schwartz's critiques speak to the need for online communities of teachers to build strong institutions. Their critiques speak to systemic problems, and they call for improving our systems and organizations.
There's a certain line of thinking that I hear in my discussions with friends and colleagues who are active on the teacher-internet. "What's great and different about twitter and blogs is that it's completely open and decentralized." Since the internet offers a level playing field good ideas end up flowering and being shared widely, allowing progress and creativity to burst forth and spread. Institutions are crusty and boring. Institutions are responsible for textbooks, lousy PD, edu-jargon, lazy teachers. We individuals? We're responsible for amazing blog posts, loose and informal PD and the most committed teachers on the planet.
If what you love about the internet is openness, you might be troubled that it favors white men. (Remember this?)
Like it or not, when you get a bunch of people together you end up with institutions and normative culture. Twitter has a culture. Blogs have a hierarchy. Twitter Math Camp is a gatekeeper. The question isn't whether we should have central institutions or not. The choice we have is whether to build strong institutions or weak institutions. Strong institutions are able to coordinate action, to move a community and make changes. Weak institutions are dominated by uncontrollable forces, emergent behavior, mere shouting and some kind of anarchy.
Twitter Math Camp is capable of turning this around. There are people in place who have responsibilities and accountability. These people can be asked to make diversity a priority. We will know if we succeed or if we don't. There are things that can be done.
But if you want to change the way business is done on twitter? Good luck with that. Enjoy shouting in the tornado of tweets and slowly watching your followers drop and follow you accordingly. Of course we should all speak up on twitter -- this isn't an argument against that. Instead it's an argument for the limitations of speaking up on a social media platform where there's precious little structure to the community.
Leslie Knope gets it:
To close: this is also an argument for the importance of the Global Math Department. Building strong institutions gives our community the chance to be more intentional, to know ourselves a little bit better. We can make our biases visible, and thereby have the chance to correct them. I don't just mean racial or gender biases here, by the way. How open are we to outsiders? Do we have tendencies to prefer certain learning experiences over others? Do we prefer certain forms of PD over others? I just finished reading a book about the ways that ideas ripple through the profession. Building strong, healthy institutions is how we gain control over those forces instead of merely being subject to them.