• Rethinking Higher Education

    Peter Smith's take on opportunity and access in higher education, the unmet challenges that remain, and the future that lies ahead for those willing to tackle it.

The Bootstrap Fallacy: Self-Levitation Doesn’t Work

Personal progress is not the sole responsibility of the individual. It's the problem of just institutions, too.

July 22, 2020
 

One of the pillars of American mythology is the “bootstrap” theory of self-improvement and personal progress. In this thinking, the individuals pull themselves up to a better station in life by their own bootstraps, i.e., personal initiative and drive. And even though we know that self-levitation is not possible, we have let this antigravity metaphor dominate our thinking about where responsibility lies for improving your lot and getting ahead in American society.

In the continuing tension between liberty (an individual notion) and justice (a societal notion), the time has come to say that all personal progress is not the sole responsibility of the individual. Other factors matter, a lot.

Even in colleges where commitment to access and success are core to the mission, the bootstrap fallacy is alive and well. In fact, it permeates our language, our assumptions about learners and learning, and our practices. And for just practices to join best practices, this must change.

Our language. When you go to a hospital, you are looking for a solution to a health problem that you have. And the focus is on care and recovery whenever possible. All the language points in that direction. When you go to college, however, it is positioned as a challenge. If you meet the challenge and pass, we say that you have persisted. Persistence defines learning as a struggle, a burden the learner must bear successfully to get ahead.

Persistence is also treated as the responsibility of the learner, not a shared responsibility with others. When one fails to complete a degree or a certificate, the traditional judgement has been that they either lacked sufficient intelligence or stick-to-it-iveness or were simply not up to the challenge. The fault, the lack, lay with them.

Our assumptions. Similarly, the substance of what is taught, and its structure, is generally determined by others and applied to the learner regardless of the learner’s needs. So, an ESL course might be considered noncredit and its successful completion a precondition for beginning “formal” study. But a course in Spanish or French would count for academic credit. Since when is it less valuable to know English than French? Or the life experience and prior learning brought by someone from a different life path, culture or socioeconomic status might be devalued and ignored because it doesn’t fit with the initial assumptions of the curriculum or it was learned “elsewhere.”

The bootstrap fallacy asserts that not only must you self-levitate successfully, but that you also must do so by others’ rules and expectations, others’ assumptions about what a quality academic experience is and how much learning is enough.

Our practices. And, generally, you must do it alone, without counseling or other support, including good information about what you are studying and why. In a just college, those services and supports will be integrated with the curriculum and learner experience. This integration and personal support begins to make the learning journey a team effort, a shared responsibility, instead of a solo experience. When Nordstrom’s gives you concierge service as a shopper, they do it because they have learned that people buy more and return more often if they are assisted. An educational concierge service supports the learner in her primary endeavor, learning, while removing obstacles and responding to needs that might frustrate learning along the way. The odds are she will learn more and succeed more quickly.

Finally, we know that first-year students are the most vulnerable and prone to failure. Why, then, do we place them in large lecture classes, while graduate students, already proven successful learners, get one-to-one treatment? If an emergency room behaved this way, they would make the sickest people wait while they served those who were healthier.

Just practices begin with a deep respect for and understanding of the needs of the learners, including life circumstances, personal history and aspirations. We need to evaluate policies and practices to determine whether they are learner-friendly. And we need to create support and engagement structures that free the learner to do the learning and come to the learner’s aid when life intervenes to frustrate the ability to learn.

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