Idealism and Pragmatism

I've been pondering further after my previous post in response to George Siemens' call to arms for visionaries in the open education movement. It's the sign of how good George's post was that it has set many of us thinking around the issue.

I mentioned in my last post that there was something of the pragmatist vs idealist in the debate, and I offer this up just because I'm trying to think it through myself. I'm in agreement about the need for debate and not letting it be overtaken by commercial interests. But I'd disagree with George's opening remark:

"We need some good ol’ radicals in open education. You know, the types
that have a vision and an ideological orientation that defies the
pragmatics of reality. Stubborn, irritating, aggravating visionaries."

I think the opposite is true – in higher education we've got too many stubborn, irritating visionaries and not enough driven pragmatists. I admire idealists, and I know that we need them to hold onto beliefs and drive forward change. But if I'm honest, I also have a bit of an issue with idealists, particularly in higher education. Being an idealist is sexy, admirable. But it can also be an easy option – idealists don't often take on the messy managerial roles of projects. It's then possible to never be proved wrong and to always claim that had they done it your way it would have turned out right. I know this, because I've done it. This isn't always true, plenty of idealists put their careers, their reputation and sometimes their lives on the line. But in the often cosy world of higher education it's possible to hide behind idealism as a means of never having to fail.

I always like people who actually get on and do it though. In his book about the development of the Mac Steven Levy gives us the famous 'real artists ship' quote from Steven Jobs. The point being that it is delivery that matters.

But Jobs is an interesting case of a pragmatist – he is also a purist and doesn't easily compromise. But he knows how to deliver, and it is that focus which I think higher education lacks. If real artists ship, what do real educators do?

In the end, maybe what I'm calling for is this:


  • D'Arcy Norman

    You said this much better than I could have. I mangled a comment on Brian’s blog trying to get at roughly this point, but it didn’t come out. Exactly. Enough blibber blabber. Ship it already.

  • Dominik Lukeš

    As luck (mine good, yours bad) would have it, I was just listening to these great lectures on the Francis of Assisi ( and it turns out the Church was dealing with exactly the same issues you describe here in the whole series of monastic and other moral reforms, viz. how to transfer the enthusiasm and zeal of individuals into organizationally workable changes. Obviously, Cuban’s and Tyack’s ‘Tinkering towards utopia’ addresses this, as well, but I like the Franciscan comparison for its starkness (btw: speaking here as an anti-spiritual atheist).
    But I disagree that “in higher education we’ve got too many stubborn, irritating visionaries and not enough driven pragmatists”. There are a lot of people who are frustrated with how little their ‘visions’ are reflected in policy but very few actual ‘good ole’ radicals willing to actually upset the applecart, take the consequences and be ‘compassionate’ in the sense of ‘suffering with’ their students (here’s the St Francis again).
    I think Steve Jobs is exactly the wrong kind of example here. He’s a man with a singular vision but no compassion. He’s failed as many times as he succeeded. Only his successes were so spectacular people see his failures as inconsequential: Lisa, Next, Cube, AppleTV, the Mac mouse, Apple Mini – all of those are products that are just about OK but certainly not successful. Jobs is like Lenin without the ideals of Marx. We need some Marxes first and then the Attlees. I don’t think there is a real progressive vision in education (higher or otherwise) other than the general malaise over the status quo. At the moment, it is the proponents of standardization, free-marketisation and personalisation that have the vision and the agenda. I don’t particularly like the vision but I don’t see a cohesive progressive alternative to it that has the same life in it. “Openness” could be it, but I feel, it needs some radicalism before it can mature into a pragmatic policy.

  • Richard Hall

    Whoa! We deinitely need a beer Martin!!
    My take is that we definitely need more idealists and a stronger ideology within both HE and EdTech. It is one of the great shames of recent decades that HE practitioners have sat by and refused to challenge a neo-liberal consensus, within education and more broadly within our socio-economic consensus, and that we accept uncontested the role of technology [I know you don’t do this BTW, but some – especially managers – do].
    I blogged a bit in terms of resilience:
    but also at:
    I need to do lots more work on this, but I fear that without a clash of ideas we drift into techno-determinism and reductionist positions.
    Be good and keep right on.

  • Juliette Culver

    Good topic for discussion! For me the difference is to try and do things rather than just talk about what’s wrong with what other people are doing. ‘I criticise by creation – not by finding fault’ – Cicero.

  • Edwebb

    I think Juliette has the right idea. We could probably stick a fancy label on it – philosophy or praxis? immanent critique? – but it’s not necessary. The point, as Uncle Karl reminded us, is not simply to criticize conditions but to change them. And we’ll change them by, well, changing them, by doing things differently. Something of the radical’s willingness to rock the boat combined with a genuine focus on the mission – how do we best serve our students? I’m very certain it’s not by ticking boxes in some neo-liberal, management-factory-sanctified exercise designed to produce fake, ‘measurable’ outcomes – the currently prevailing ‘vision’ or consensus with momentum. To the extent that we know what is better, we should practise it and, but practising it, change the terrain on which the conversation/struggle is taking place.

  • FSecureUKTeam

    It’s interesting that enabling collaboration has both an invigorating and a stifling effect. While so much discussion about social media builds interest and anticipation, many are still looking for that “killer app” that makes everything easy. That’s the great thing about real visionaries, they make it look easy. Of course, it only looks that way.

  • Martin

    @Dominik – I love the Franciscan analogy. This is why blogging is great, you get such intelligent comments. Re Jobs, his failures aren’t really the issue, indeed we should be prepared to fail more often. You could argue that his Mac vision was driven by a desire for democratisation but I’d agree he isn’t really about compassion. My point was that he is a great example of taking something and pushing it through. And I liked the quote.
    @Juliette – a great Cicero quote, you are my new favourite commenter!
    @Richard – I was probably being provocative, but my point is that many educators operate from a position of relative safety and make pronouncements without following through on them. This may be the reason for the passivity you mention. So maybe it isn’t less idealists and more pragmatists but more idealistic activists we need.
    @Ed – yep, I’m with you all the way, change by practice. I’ve often thought this about web 2.0/social media – lots of academics research it, but few of them actually live it, and that is the real change.
    @Richard –

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