Wouldn't Universal Design - that joining together of differentiated instruction, new information and communication technologies, and learner-directed education seem the obvious solution to a diverse community with diverse starting points and diverse ongoing needs? Nothing quite matches the rhetoric of "we'll get everyone to succeed" better than an educational design which abandons the industrial model for a humanist, flexible alternative. But - UDL is not only not embraced, it is barely considered. (see Considering Universal Design, below)
"We don't get there," I say, "because we really don't want everyone to succeed. And certainly those 'in power' don't want everyone to succeed. Only when we admit that, do all the attitudes which run through American education begin to make sense."
I put it in simple micro-economic terms. "If we had the chance to triple the number of people getting PhDs when we get ours, would we really want that?" I extend it a few ways, "Do the faculty upstairs really want their kids to be competing for spots in those 'best colleges' with twice as many high school grads? If you're trying to buy a $250,000 house do you really want twice as many people able to bid on it?"
In the end I suggest that we - and I mean "we" as a system - don't want those "at the bottom" to be miserable - that makes us feel bad. But we sure don't really want them to fully succeed either. In a capitalist economy that makes them competitors, and while capitalists like competition theoretically, it is not really what any capitalist wants in their own life.
Universal Design threatens an elite
Suppose that people were allowed to truly get to where they needed to go on their own terms. If everyone could study in the way that best worked for them to assemble the knowledge and skills necessary to become a lawyer, a doctor, an architect, an accountant, even a professor - there is, of course, ample proof that there are many out there who can accomplish these things in their own way but may not - for reasons of disability or difference or temperament or family resources or societal bias or physical location or even simply attitudes - can not complete the traditional routes to those careers.
If these differing learners had real equal opportunity to succeed, life would get, at least in some ways, more difficult for those who do succeed via the traditional routes.
Now remember, almost everyone in power in the education establishment has succeeded by traditional means. They did well in school when most did not do well. (We know this, most students do not do well in school. In many American cities not even half of students can finish high school.) They went to college and graduated, a distinctly minority position. They typically have at least a Masters Degree - now we're down to less than 10% of the population. They may have a PhD - a degree that is only granted to people by those already holding this degree in the manner of a closed club or fraternity. In order to do all that the most important skills these people usually have is the ability to conform, to follow the rules, to jump through hoops.
People are interesting though. And few highly educated people want to be perceived as being successful mostly because they can conform, follow rules, and jump through hoops. So they create myths, myths which imply that these acts of conformity are both 'essential' and 'important social skills.' And, as in all myths, there might even be touches of truth behind them, but they are still myths which exist primarily to build walls which keep people out of a privileged and exclusive club.
Universal Design vs. American notions of equality
So, yes, there is no real motivation for American educators to embrace Universal Design. But worse, there is a real psychological motivation, particular to the United States, to actually oppose it. Europeans, when considering education and child development, seem to understand that different children are born to circumstances (both genetic and social) which somehow prefigure differing outcomes. I am not suggesting whether this is "good" or "bad." As with most things my guess is that it is, somehow, both. So children are "tracked" to different paths, and there is little notion that there is a "single route" - no "single path" which somehow makes sense for everyone.
Americans are typically appalled by this notion. "How can you divide kids so early?" they ask, expressing shock. Americans have been brought up in the world's most Calvinist society, one which truly believes in that "single path" to "the light." And, in order to believe in that idea Americans have constructed another idea - equality means that everyone is really starting at the same point ("anyone can grow up to be president") and that if we simply treat everyone in exactly the same way it will all work out.
This is not simply the lunatic ravings of a Clarence Thomas or a George W. Bush. Sure, they will sound ridiculous making the argument that the child of a single-mother McDonald's minimum-wage minority group employee who lives in a 1979 Chevy Van has the same opportunities as the child of a Harvard-graduate bank president from Connecticut, but even "liberal" Americans, from Ted Kennedy to Hillary Clinton to most university faculty truly appear to believe the same thing. For example, No Child Left Behind is frequently bashed for excessive testing, but remember, both Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton voted for a law which presumes:
that (a) all children learn at the same rate and learn all things at the same ages, and
that (b) the only form of acceptable research in education is research which treats education as an industrial process.
Also consider that university education faculties across the US have embraced these ideas, and fight for grants for studies which will encourage these beliefs. And finally - walk into any university classroom, read any university syllabus, hell, read any graduate school guidebook, and you will see as little understanding of the idea of differentiated instruction as you will see in a KIPP boot-camp school or a New York City School System elementary reading lesson. In other words - none.
An inability to accept...
So, if you suggest to those who hold the power in education in America that it may not matter...
- whether students read via ink-on-paper, or audio-book, or digital text
- whether students take notes on paper, or computer, or mobile phone
- whether students come to class, or view a video of the class, or listen to a podcast of the class, or just read the material on their own
- whether they take the class at all if the can demonstrate the skills and/or knowledge
- whether they can express their thoughts via pen, or keyboard, or speech recognition
- whether they use APA or MLA citations or simply offer "livelinks" (hyperlinks) to the source of the data
Models of Fairness
I do not want to suggest that simply because this is so ingrained that is thus fully "unconscious." I do not believe that it is. I see it as a set of choices, because Americans have many models of fairness that they routinely adopt as long as all involved are already part of an elite.
Sailboat racing, for example, uses a complex handicapping system which allows 20 foot boats to race against 100 foot yachts. Golfers use handicaps as well. "Legacy" admissions to Ivy League schools allow access to the benefits of elite education to the occasionally lazy, irresponsible child (the current US president, among many others). Wealthy parents hire tutors and 'packagers' to help their children get into college. They buy their children fancy computers which check their spelling and help them make creative videos. They fill their homes with all the things that give their children "advantages." American sports leagues even hold "drafts" which help unsuccessful teams compete (as opposed to European leagues where unsuccessful teams are tossed into lower levels of competition). But in every one of these cases those who benefit from these "assistive technologies" are those who have already secured their spots among the elite. When equivalent systems are suggested for those from "outside," be it screen readers in the classroom, affirmative action (reverse discrimination), or a path to credentials which does not conform to "the rules" - these are derided as "unfair," "un-American," even as truly dangerous - "a lowering of standards," or - to use the ultimate attack - "socialism."
So the system of power resists. It fights. It shifts its arguments as often as Dick Cheney on Iraq but it stands its ground despite it all. Laptops in the classroom are "distracting," yeah, that's why we're against them, they're "distracting." It isn't that we want to limit success to those just like "us." Of course not. Mobile phones "allow for cheating." It's not that new communications technology might support the success of different learners, surely not, we just need to maintain our "standards." On-line publishing allows for "plagiarism." Really, we're not trying to protect our jobs and our control of information, it's a "legal matter." Videotaping the class promotes "laziness." We're not against different ways to learn, but we're "the experts," these are "time-proven" educational methods. Alternative paths to credentials and certifications? "It's possible," we suggest, "as long as we stay in control and maintain the standards."
And thus the elites will of course embrace sending rich kids with no training out to teach poor kids but will attack the idea of one-to-one computing or mobile learning. And thus most of the students who are allowed college entrance-exam accommodations are wealthy, white, suburbanites.
In the end Universal Design is not difficult, nor expensive, nor do we lack examples of how to do it. But it is not really something which our society wants to do. And so we do not do it.
- Ira Socol