Editorial Note: This is the first post on Education & Liberty by Dr. Eric Wearne, of Georgia Gwinnett College. Welcome to Dr. Wearne!
C.S. Lewis’ underappreciated Space Trilogy, about a man who travels around our solar system ends with a book titled That Hideous Strength. The entire Space Trilogy, and especially its final installment, deserves to be much, much more widely read; the books present a window into academia (especially the social sciences), Christianity, modernization, romantic relationships, and so much more. In That Hideous Strength, the villains of the story are housed in a new research institute dedicated to the “improvement” of humanity through social and hard scientific research: the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E.
Recently, Glenn Beck has spent time arguing against the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) on his television and radio shows, describing the CCSS effort as akin to the N.I.C.E. (actually calling it “the scariest thing we’ve found yet”). This description of some of the N.I.C.E.’s new technology sounds eerily analogous to Beck’s fears:
The N.I.C.E. marks the beginning of a new era – the really scientific era. Up to now, everything has been haphazard. This is going to put science itself on a scientific basis. There are to be forty interlocking committees sitting every day and they’ve got a wonderful gadget –I was shown the model last time I was in town – by which the findings of each committee print themselves off in their own little compartment on the Analytical Notice-Board every half hour. Then, that report slides itself into the right position where it’s connected up by little arrows with all the relevant parts of the other reports. A glance at the Board shows you the policy of the whole Institute actually taking shape under your eyes. There’ll be a staff of at least twenty experts at the top of the building working this Notice Board in a room rather like the Tube control rooms. It’s a marvellous gadget.
Beck has mentioned religion, family voting status and health care history as data points (among many others) that could be collected on people, starting at a very young age, for twenty years, or as long as someone is in school of any kind. He ascribes a lot of this to the 2009 stimulus and specifically to Race to the Top. When I worked for a state education policy agency, I helped manage public school data reporting. I helped specifically with responses to the stimulus, and was involved with improving the state’s data capabilities for research purposes. Data on religion, family voting status and health care were never asked for or collected by an education agency, as far as I’m aware.
Still and yet…there are reasons to be aware (and wary) of Big Data as it relates to our schools. The Gates Foundation is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to improve data collection systems. And, as I have written elsewhere, we should absolutely be vigilant with growing data collections as they relate to our and our children’s civil liberties. Educational technology companies are constantly seeking ways to access and to use finer and finer grain data, often for use by government agencies or school systems. How long will it be before the first researcher suggests we outfit entire classes in Google Glass, so that we can gather data on what teachers are doing and what students are paying attention to at any moment? Anyone horrified or surprised by such a suggestion should pay closer attention to how inexorably Big Data works. Teachers and parents, ask yourselves if you are interested in this kind of future.
Actors at the state level are generally seeking to improve their data collections to make them more accurate, efficient, and useful. For example, in Georgia it has historically been difficult to accurately track students as they move from the K12 public school system into the University System of Georgia or the Technical College System of Georgia. Many students move back and forth between USG and TCSG. One could argue that it is not the state’s business what a particular student’s education path looks like, but it is clear why those agencies would reasonably want to improve their own performance and efficiency by doing research in this area. Most, if not all state departments of education could certainly stand to shrink in size and budget, but if we are going to have them, then data collection and reporting are appropriate roles for them – to a point. (And, lest we forget, it’s not as if the private sector is particularly interested in protecting privacy. See Google, Target, Facebook, Apple, etc.)
Ultimately, it is not particularly helpful to gin up fears about things that aren’t happening. But Beck is right to be concerned about the future, even if some of his current particular complaints are overblown; we have not been vigilant enough about data privacy and related civil liberties. Large organizations – public and private alike – are increasingly data-hungry, and seek out whatever advantages they can get by using our personal data. Americans are becoming more and more willing to allow policy and personal decisions to be made based on Big Data. Improving the efficiency and accuracy of our data systems can help inform policy decisions. But as Reason’s Jacob Sullum notes, “Privacy is expected when it’s protected, and it’s protected when it’s expected. We need to expect more, or we will end up with less.” We should be vigilant, and not grant state agencies—or private entities – too much latitude in collecting or using our data, or our children’s data, without explicit consent. They should not be allowed that hideous strength.