Every reader of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House will remember the character Mrs. Jellyby, a woman whose “telescopic philanthropy” leaves her domestic life in disarray. Mrs. Jellyby is devoted to the cause of the people from a village in Africa, “Borrioboola-Gha.” With eyes that look as if they “could see nothing nearer than Africa,” Mrs. Jellyby is so preoccupied by this imaginary faraway place that she utterly neglects the world around her.
Mrs. Jellyby has been on my mind lately in connection to a question about the measure of responsibility that institutions as well as individuals have to serve and support their local communities. The question of what institutions and individuals may owe to their surroundings resurfaced for me when the Community Development Department of Cambridge MA released its report on poverty in the city last month. The results, based on census data for the years 2009-11, are not encouraging. The report shows, among other things, high degrees of poverty among black and Latino/a residents of the city — slightly higher than the national average in both cases. Poverty in Cambridge is densely concentrated too, with a significant percentage of the city’s poor clustered in only six census tracts in the city. North Cambridge, where I live, contains almost a quarter of Cambridge’s poor (see figure). Another significant area of poverty is concentrated on the perimeters of the Kendall Square technology hub near MIT, in Area IV and East Cambridge. Cambridge is sometimes depicted as an enclave of political progressivism even within the left-leaning state of Massachusetts. But the data on poverty in the city effectively dismantles any such illusions about the “Peoples’ Republic of Cambridge,” showing the presence of deep economic and racial inequality within its borders.
I live in a neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the city and am so not entirely surprised by the information revealed in the report. But the report is sobering and important for making the extent of the problem plainly visible. It seems to me impossible that residents of Cambridge could meet news of a crisis of this extent with complacency. The city council is taking the information seriously, and I hope that other communities in and around Cambridge do the same. The report points to a matter of urgent concern for the city, necessitating concerted action.
What can Cambridge’s universities do to serve their city and local communities in the midst of a crisis of widespread poverty? What can and does the university in general do to address problems of poverty and vast income equality in its neighborhoods? In posing these questions I am reminded that universities in Massachusetts enjoy tax exemption on grounds that “citizen education [i]s an essential governmental function.” When addressing what universities specifically do to support the communities of which they are a part, university administrations often reply, as does the University of Massachusetts Treasurer’s Office on the website linked above, that institutions of higher learning serve their communities most effectively as hubs for citizen education.
One form of educational outreach for which Harvard and MIT are now widely known, of course, is their development of online learning initiatives including MOOCs. As edX president Anant Agarwal recently affirmed, “Improving global access to high-quality education has been a key edX goal from day one.” Massively open online courses are often remarked on for their potential in facilitating global outreach (or more pessimistically, cultural colonialism) by elite institutions of higher education. A New York Times story this fall, “The Boy Genius of Ulan Bator,” gave an in-depth anecdotal account of how a Mongolian child who participated in MITx’s electrical engineering MOOCs did so well that he subsequently obtained admission to MIT. The article presented MITx and related endeavors as poised to serve as a global farm system for unrecognized talent from poor communities worldwide. But HarvardX researcher Justin Reich observed in a blog post that the “boy genius” in question had in fact enjoyed the considerable advantages of a supportive network of adult mentors around him, which prepared the ground for his academic success and recognition by MIT. The inspiring story of a Mongolian village boy whose life was changed by MOOCs, plucked from obscurity by one of the world’s leading educational institutions in science and technology, was partly fictional.
I have been saying for a while now that I would like to see MOOCs do more to include in their outreach efforts those populations nearest to them as well as those farthest away. In a blog post last year, I proposed that MOOCs might be involved in a broader effort to strengthen local and community ties:
[I]n addition to the flat, global learning community ritually invoked as the audience for MOOCs, we could benefit from thinking locally too. How can the online course format make possible new relationships not only with the most far-flung remote corners of the earth but with the neighborhoods and communities nearest to campus? Can we make MOOCs that foster meaningful links with the community or create learning communities that cut across both the university and the online platform?
In thinking about how the energies and educational resources of elite institutions might be brought more fully to bear to one of the most urgent issues facing the city today, I would not be understood to seek an exclusively technological solution to complex problems; nor do I mean to suggest that such a solution exists. It’s not impossible that blended learning environments created with the purpose to engage the local community would be ultimately ineffective in addressing the problem of poverty in the city. Indeed we could find to be truth what some have already suspected, that the MOOC is a fundamentally ineffective medium, the modern equivalent of Mrs. Jellyby’s ceaseless letters on behalf of Borriobhoola-Gha. But simple one-sided philanthropy of this order will clearly not be enough. A mission of outreach and engagement with the local community would obviously require a greater investment than the bequest of iPads to students in chronically underfunded school districts, or the introduction of One Laptop Per Child in impoverished regions of the globe. I remain interested in how the digital medium, so long conceived as enabling a flight from materiality, might play a role in creating learning communities and engaging residents on the streets where we live and work. Poverty is a matter of shared concern, for which collaborative and creative thinking of local communities is urgently needed — “by any medium necessary.”