Carol Twigg raises doubts about the ultimate viability of the Khan Academy. Khan raises the question of completion rates verses quality of education. These questions are red herrings. The Khan Academy is trying something in an era when education is challenged by stagnation, technology, global competition and gross domestic inequalities. I thought of two people when I read the article in IHE about it today. The first is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The second is my Aunt Toni.
When challenged about the good that the New Deal programs would do, FDR did not respond defensively with a legal brief or risk management spread sheet. Rather he famously said, "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." I salute Salmon Kahn enthusiastically for making an effort that will help at least some people and make a contribution to our collective knowledge about what will work in this arena. This magnanimous effort is in the spirit of one of the most lauded political figures in Twentieth Century.
My Aunt Toni was not only a well educated woman, a Masters from Oxford, but thoughtful and wise. She and her husband, my father's brother, were seminal in my ability to go to college. I started in an American University in the U.K., living in Richmond, Surrey, and I took some classes in London. I was desperately home sick the first semester, to the point when my Aunt Toni called me from her home in Vienna, Virginia to check up on me. British by upbringing, and knowledgable about London, she asked me if I were going out, doing things in city, had I made friends, what my classes were like, all perfectly reasonable questions and the ones I would ask were I in her shoes today. I had make friends, I was exploring the city but still I was anxious. What I was not disclosing was the tumult I felt about a long-standing relationship I had with a woman, a classmate of mine in high school, that was fraying, among other reasons, under the pressure of our secrecy. I needed to be back home to make sense of the situation's emotional complexity. Aunt Toni's degree was in psychology; she and her husband, William Morgan, a psychologist with a doctorate from Yale, had a vibrant practice as aptitude psychologists for clients in the D.C. area. Toni picked up on something that she did not have to say; we had that conversation some months later in her kitchen when she outrightly asked me if I was bisexual. What she said in the moment is what stayed with me for a lifetime. "Sometimes you are in situations or places or times of life when you do not know the lessons you are learning from them. You may not know what it means for other days. You have to have the patience and trust in life that those meanings will come to you another day."
I thought of what she said yesterday as I left work. Relentlessly overcast, cloudy, and filled with fog, the twilight sky refracted stadium lights to give off a translucent, orange glow. I was immediately brought back to London in the mid 1970's. Foggy as always, but smoggy too, it was a London sky, and suddenly I was filled with the joy of having that memory on street that runs through Cornell University. Whatever anxiety I felt in that moment had faded away from this particular memory; a sense of wonder about exciting and diverse experiences over the course of a lifetime is what came back to me.
That is a long and winding way to say that a meaningful education and college completion rates are not in competition with each other. Social policy is ill-advised to see them this way. One could discourse analytically on this subject, as I am sure many have, so let me conclude with the simple point I am trying by association to my Aunt's wisdom to make. Even if a student feels as if they are going through the motions sometimes -- as we all do; even if, on balance, some experiences in classroom, distributed and distance learnings settings have shortcomings each in their own way (and they do, as well as opportunities), it is still a good thing to get to the finish line. If programs such as the Gates Foundation help some students through that process, it is valuable work that the Foundation is doing. Because sometimes you are in situations or places or times of life when you do not know the lessons you are learning from them ... You have to have the patience and trust in life that those meanings will come to you another day.