HEWN, No. 316

Educelebrities and stool pigeons

This week’s pigeon is Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon, who died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo. (Image credits)

Some scholars trace the phrase “stool pigeon” — an informant or a narc — to the passenger pigeon and to the decoys that were used to lure the birds for capture or slaughter. A pigeon would be tied to a stool, sometimes with its eyes sewn shut, and as it flapped its wings in distress, other pigeons would fly over to investigate, making it easy to shoot or snare them en masse. The passenger pigeon was once the most numerous bird on the planet — some three to five billion of them. But they were hunted to extinction.

I can’t help but think of those poor birds — blinded and trapped, but making enough of a ruckus that others are instictively drawn to them, even at the cost of their own safety — in light of some of the discussions folks have had in recent weeks about “edu-celebrities” and concerns that these high profile speakers are misleading the flock. There is even a Twitter account now (@educelebrity) satirizing the pithy emptiness of these consultants and buzzword-hustlers.

It’s easy, perhaps, to dismiss these figures as mostly harmless. They perform at professional development pep rallies and in their daily affirmations on social media, shouting and flapping and trying to attract attention.

Like the passenger pigeons, we humans are social creatures. We are drawn to the flutter. And like the passenger pigeons, we often misread the signals. We don’t see the danger. We aren’t so good at telling when the presence of these “edu-celebrities,” when their punditry will simply serve to beguile not liberate us.

I don’t know that the field of education is any more susceptible to this sort of clap-trap than other fields. Plenty of people in a variety of sectors fall for those who peddle Big Ideas™. Plenty of people in a variety of sectors fall for those who are (supposedly) the most Brilliant Minds™.

The scientists who Jeffrey Epstein surrounded himself with — or the scientists who clamored for Epstein's money and attention — seem to be a case in point. And I read this week’s story in Slate about what that was like with utter horror and revulsion.

The story features a couple of education/technology's Brilliant Minds™: namely, Marvin Minsky and Roger Schank. The former was just linked to Epstein’s sex trafficking circle in unsealed documents today. And the latter provides some of the most breathtakingly awful justifications for Epstein’s predatory behavior that I think I’ve ever read. And the kicker... well, the kicker to that Slate piece is something else.

These two men — Minsky and Schank — are viewed as luminaries in education technology, as founders of the field of AI. And this is how they act and think. This is how they construe agency and autonomy and personal integrity. The foundation is rotten to its core.

I’ve seen Epstein described elsewhere as a “stool pigeon,” tasked with ratting out other billionaire pedophiles as part of a deal he struck (or hopes to strike) with the government. It seems to me there are several stool pigeons here among his science cronies too, especially those who set out some decoy version of “intelligence” — dare I say “artificial intelligence” — hoping we don’t sense the danger or notice that their eyes and minds and hearts are sewn shut.

It has been another hellish week of loss and trauma. To help us navigate and understand all that, we turn to writers. And we’ve lost one of the greatest ones, Toni Morrison. Rest in power.

Recommended reading:

Yours in struggle,