July 24, 2021

A Critical Discussion

Note: This is a complex and important turn of events worthy of your time and attention. The recently discovered speech by Seymour Papert at the end of this essay adds a great deal of clarity to the current controversy.

Last month (June 2021), more than fifty Latin American educators and scholars published a joint letter online very clear issues they have with a recent book, The Charisma Machine – The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop Per Child, by Berkeley Assistant Adjunct Professor Morgan Ames. While I personally find the book to be a deeply flawed, inaccurate, and unkind polemic, my Latinx colleagues’ concerns deserve your attention and their voices need to be heard.

The Colonialist Charisma Machine states collectively that “The colonialism of “The Charisma Machine” book by Morgan Ames disrespects Latin American education and research.” Those serious charges are supported by evidence, detailed fact-checking, and discussion of the pain caused by the book’s assertions.

You should read the Latinx scholars’ critique of the Ames book, her response, and the collective rebuttal to Ames’ reply by the manifesto’s signatories.

One of the signers of our original letter is a Latinx scholar from Brazil, Paulo Blikstein, from Columbia University (US). He also posted the letter on his personal social media accounts, just like many of us did. Unfortunately, Morgan Ames has claimed that the letter “originated” from him, and that he is a “white man tenured at an Ivy League University.”

First, he is one individual in a much larger group. We have made that very clear many times. Second, Ames’s attempt to portray him as a “white man” – intentionally invisibilizing the fact that he is an immigrant Latinx scholar from Brazil – is problematic on so many levels that we will leave it for the reader to conjecture about her reasons. Why omit from the description only and exactly the fact that he is a Latin American immigrant scholar? Doing this in the context of responding to scholarly criticism about the book’s lack of understanding of diversity in Latin America is profoundly revealing.

In addition, five individual Latin American scholars (three female, two male) wrote and signed their own personal letters and posted them on the same website. Other four scholars submitted their own list of references, and they are individually named on the website. Are those also invalid, per Ames? She claims that she would like to hear from “others,” but other have already written separate signed statements!

By centering her critique on a personal attack to one person in our group, and misrepresenting his identity as an immigrant scholar from Latin America, Ames shows, again, that she believes that Latin American scholars cannot think by themselves and don’t have any agency. That is exactly our critique of the book.

The fact that she takes advantage of important equity agendas to respond to criticism is beyond our understanding and just unfortunate. It actually confirms what we have felt in many places in academia: nondominant scholars, including from Latin America, are tolerated as long as they are docile, and do not disagree–or stay invisible.

But we are good students of history and we reject that notion. We reject being made invisible. We hope Ames’s course of action will not be to personally attack individuals in our group or try to misrepresent their identity, again. We are a group and we act collectively–maybe that is something that is just part of our culture: if you disagree with our position, please address us as a group.

Response to Morgan Ames’ Letter

In her efforts to advance a particular narrative that erroneously conflates the humanitarian aims, learner-centered educational vision, and anti-profit motives of One Laptop Per Child with the toxicity of Silicon Valley, Ames accuses the OLPC effort and its supporters of sexism, while the female Latinx educators doing the work are “being made invisible.”

In my letter of solidarity with my friends and colleagues in Latin America, many of whom I have known and whose work I have admired for more than three decades, I mention that the first implementation of 1:1 personal computing and constructionism was in a non-American girls school. This is particularly ironic given the accusations of American imperialism and misogyny in the Ames book. I cite some of the scholarship documenting that history dating back thirty years. Life is too short to fact-check the entire book however tempting.

“Ames reveals that the laptops were designed by “technically precocious boys” – idealized younger versions of the designers – rather than the children who were actually using them.”

The neither factual or objective claim made on the back cover of “the Charisma Machine”

Anyone familiar with Dr. Seymour Papert or his work knows of his admiration for educators in the developing world, particularly Latin America, and their mutual affection for one another. Since he is no longer here to defend himself, it falls upon his friends and colleagues to do so. While trying to make sense of the sweeping condemnations of his work and my colleagues’ work and identity being marginalized, I found a video of a 1989 speech by Seymour Papert in my archives and had it transcribed.

In that speech, Papert lavishes praise on predominantly female Costa Rican educators whose courage, creativity, intellectual capacity, and commitment to making their schools a better place for children would inspire the world. In just five paragraphs, Papert dismantles several of the central tenets of the Ames book more than thirty years before its publication.

Video should be cued to the passage below. If not, go to 36:15.

“The next issue, which was the one I really wanted to touch on, was what … Was about how those computers would be used, and how they could be used, centered around whether you would look for the use of the computer that automated teaching, in the spirit that people often still associate with the natural use of computers in schools. You would load a disk into the computer and some program would run that would lead the child by the nose through a curriculum.

Or, what we were proposing, was an intellectually strenuous plan of having these teachers, whose previous education was hardly at the level of our high schools, and many of whom had had no contact with technologies, had grown up in distant villages, we thought, give them access to computers. Let them learn to program them, let them feel master of the computers.

A debate waged in the country quite fiercely in its education circles. Is this feasible? Can it be done? Surely we in Costa Rica have to adopt a plan that will make it easy for the teachers, because our teachers have not had the advantage of teachers in the United States, or Europe, or Japan in having advanced access to technological knowledge.

Well, the debate waged for a while, and then an experiment was tried. The amazing result of the experiment was that those teachers in the first group of … that we had, I think learned faster and better than any comparable set of teachers we have ever seen in the United States, and I think they did this despite their lack of this very technical kind of school knowledge, because for them, they were affirming something deep.

They were affirming something about their country, they were affirming something about themselves. There was a challenge. It wasn’t just a challenge of what they could do with their children, they as people, as Costa Ricans, as teachers, and, I would mention, as women, in many of the cases, were energized by the need to, and the possibility of affirming themselves in all these ways, to do a miracle of learning.”

Papert, S. (1989) Seymour Papert’s Valedictory Speech Upon Being Named LEGO Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab. Accessed from http://dailypapert.com/legochair/. July 11, 2021.

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