The Atlantic is the The National Review is The Nation

I could go through this Graeme Wood piece on Minvera, the latest in the hoary old industry of disruptive innovators disruptively innovating in education, and offer my rebuttals. Wood is so hopelessly infatuated with the Silicon Valley hero-libertarian narrative that he doesn’t even begin to question the company or its Ayn Rand-dweeb founder, Ben Nelson. There’s so much low hanging fruit here that my basket would overflow if I started picking it. To begin with: Nelson says that education is “a science and a science,” which is the sort of thing you can only say if you’ve never really taught before. Wood takes this all in with a credulity and lack of skepticism that should pretty much keep him from ever getting work as a journalist again. Well, science depends on evidence, and the evidence that education is a process that can be ported into the online space is nonexistent. Indeed, the extant evidence is incredibly pessimistic about online education specifically and educational technology in general. The record of using technology to radically alter the educational process is shockingly, incredibly, monumentally poor. It is a graveyard of big ideas and terrible results, of over-promising and under-delivering. You would think Wood might go a little further to tell his reader that– but there is not one moment in this piece when he isn’t advocating for a point of view. It’s a several thousand word piece of free advertising, no more skeptical than the Scientology advertorial that the Atlantic ran.

Now you’ve read this all before. Wood’s piece is so filled with Wired-style cliches and buzzwords that I started to wonder if the piece wasn’t all an arch parody. Fundamentally, Wood and Nelson share the same misunderstanding of what education is– and what students are. Like Clay Shirky, they think that most students are like them: self-styled autodidacts who reject teaching because they think they already know everything. But most students will never be that way. The notion that we’re training a nation of young Aaron Swartzes simply misunderstands most students and what motivates them. Most students have to be dragged to education. The world will never, ever be made up primarily of the self-educated and the autodidacts. The next stage of education will not be about the Atlas Shrugged set but rather the marginal students, the people who have traditionally struggled and who need direct engagement and supervision to reach competency. That doesn’t flatter the egoist narrative, but it’s what we’re actually confronting as a nation. And what works best, the evidence shows, is the opposite of disconnected, virtual teaching. What works is human communication and accountability. You know? An instructor sitting with a student, asking for engagement and effort, and guiding that student with care and respect? But nobody ever got rich selling that. Nobody ever got a venture capital infusion making that case, and ultimately that’s what Nelson, and Wood, care about. How does it sell to the gang in Silicon Valley?

I could go on. Wood uncritically and unthinkingly accepts the notion that education is a matter of pouring knowledge into another human’s head, even though he gets a cogent objection from a Harvard prof. (But then, Harvard isn’t exactly known for its dynamic disruptive innovation creative destruction The Cloud internet of things outside the box TED workflow synnergy.) That’s the basic play, here: Wood half-heartedly mentions some inconvenient objection, then turns it aside in favor of meaningless invocations of efficiency and corporate dynamism. But I’m less interested in another crypto-libertarian dudebro who thinks that the future is a techno-utopian hero narrative and more interested in the phenomenon that is The Atlantic, and its pretensions to objectivity. In the article, you can see Wood constantly struggling to push down his boner and do some Serious, Objective Reporting. He knows he needs to defend the Atlantic‘s brand– stentorian, authoritative, self-impressed– while still advancing the neoliberal, technocratic dictates that are the contemporary Atlantic‘s ideology.

If this was put out their honestly and directly, I’d have fewer complaints. But what rankles about the Atlantic and the NYT and The New Yorker and similar publications is that they have somehow been afforded the mantle of being non-partisan, or “general interest,” or similar. We think of magazines like The National Review or The Nation or any dozen others as being partisan, or ideological, etc. They are thought to have a particular point of view, a political slant that responsible types factors in when considering the work they publish. But a publication like the Atlantic has an ideology too. It’s just that part of their ideology is pretending they don’t have one.

Wood is the perfect example, an ideologue who thinks that his ideology is called “the future.” In fact, his ideology is credulity: credulity to empty buzzwords, slick but shallow narratives, the Powerpoint vision of human knowledge, and the techno-utopian ideal that does nothing but fail and yet which will never receive anything less than an endless tongue bath from our media elites. Which is fine. Just like the witless neoliberalism that is the magazine’s default ideology magazine is fine. The problem is that this stance towards technology, “the future,” and capitalism is represented in our culture as somehow outside of ideology or politics, when in fact it’s hard to imagine something more ideological or more political. Like many publications, the Atlantic publishes lots of good pieces and smart people, even while its default mode is so dopey. In fact, it publishes some brilliant, essential writers. It just makes sure that at the end of the day, its invocation of technology-enabled neoliberal triumphalism emerges as its dominant voice. That’s life. But let’s not give it, or any other magazine, the laurel of being not having a political stance. Instead, its stance is the stance of establishment corporate power.


  1. The problem is that this stance towards technology, “the future,” and capitalism is represented in our culture as somehow outside of ideology or politics, when in fact it’s hard to imagine something more ideological or more political.

    I think giving the impression of being “outside of politics” is the key. One of the great fictions of our time–especially among a certain kind of elite–is that there’s this whole menu of ways to be socially engaged, socially conscious, deeply concerned about social problems/the environment/poverty/health care while entirely eschewing the low, ugly scene of “politics”. An Ice Bucket Challenge that asked people to call their members of congress and demand that they restore funding to the NIH instead of asking them to take the (nonpolitical) act of donating to a charity would never have gone anywhere.

  2. A few corrections:

    “Synnergy” has one ‘n’.

    Second last sentence: “the laurel of being not having a political stance.” The word “being” should be omitted, I think.

  3. This is simply not true: “But what rankles about the Atlantic and the NYT and The New Yorker and similar publications is that they have somehow been afforded the mantle of being non-partisan.”

    No one believes that. No one has ever believed that, except for maybe the farthest left liberals. Even the NYT ombudsman has written: “Of *course* the NYT is liberal!” And the New Yorker is ridiculously partisan under Remnick. It’s a shilling rag absolutely like the Nation or Alternet or TruthOut or CommonDreams.

    No one grants these publications a mantle of being “non-partisan.” That’s a completely false assumption.

    1. What I think Freddie is trying to point out is the self-conception of many of these media outlets. Of course the NYT or New Yorker are partisan. So are CNN, Al Jazeera, and The Economist. But the point is that these and other news organizations self-identify as non-partisan. The difference between The Atlantic and its left- and right-wing counterparts like The Nation and The National Review is that the latter self-identify with a particular ideology. Why they do and why places like The Atlantic don’t is at the heart of how they work as media organizations.

  4. ‘Auto-didacts who think they know everything,’ and ‘students who need to be dragged to education’ thankfully not the only two categories.

    1. Did he say that?

      His point is that the latter group is the more challenging one to educate and that the mistake is assuming everying is like the first class.

      Of course, we can also debate the meaning of “education”, but….

    1. I’m reading this site because I read Frederick deBoer on The Dish … so perhaps I’m a rocket scientist.

      Mr. deBoer seems very exercised about corporate journalism generally and The Atlantic specifically; plenty to object to there. I’d agree that Graeme Wood wasn’t as skeptical or challenging as he might or should have been in his reporting. I also think that Fredrick deBoer misses that point about Minerva. It is hardly their goal to educate any students “who have to be dragged to education”. On the contrary, I think that they’re goal is to educate students who are already disciplined, ambitious, adventurous, and learning adept at a lower cost than colleges typically charge, to produce smart and worldly graduates, and to make a profit in the process. Nothing wrong with that if they can pull it off.

  5. What is funny to me is that the Atlantic reposted a story about Minerva by Jordan Weismann from 2012, in which Weismann took the stance that Minerva is an interesting business proposition, whose core clientele would be wealthy foreigners. That is to say, it would be a purer distillation of a lot of public flagship universities, who have caps on in-state tuition, and so target foreigners who will pay full tuition. At the very least, that is how UNC Chapel Hill has been portrayed in the local press.

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