Uncertainty is a Social Justice Issue

Credit K__ for reminding us that behind the big push for institutional efficiency is an even deeper emphasis on intellectual and experiential certainty. The academic pathway is inherently linear, in theory at least, with prescribed points of entry, predefined opportunities for (minimal) lateral movement, and an anticipated exit point (outcome) that is, basically, the grand anticipated EFFECT driving all this programmatic cause.

In short, they are burying options (K’s word) while reducing choice to a limited set of offerings. A menu is always clear about what you can’t eat. Even on the website a train of visually hierarchized click points guides the user into predetermined academic tunnels. Pathway certainty is rewarded with a smooth ride and a clearly defined outcome (schedule, course plan, instructions for how to show up on day one). The most certain among us may even have a JOB waiting for us at the end of the tracks.

What we have here is a frontal assault on the right to uncertainty (indecision, wandering, taking one’s time, deferral, waiting, patience, error, misstep, reconsideration). The emphasis on knowing where you’re going, from the start, ignores the very real possibility that a great many of us (most?) haven’t a clue what we want to do. Entire populations of otherwise enthusiastic travelers get thrown of course, arguably, when the decision to venture out is met with a limited set of trails to follow. What fun is that when the goal, for many, is just finding out what’s out there.

So what do we do with the indecisive, the wanderers, the hopelessly uncertain? How do we manage them? Their answer is to remove uncertainty as an option, to coax certainty by funneling all into prescribed channels. Promoted as free choice, the selection process is nothing more than a self-limiting exercise in intellectual and experiential foreclosure. You are made into what you (should/must?) want to be through an unwitting forfeiture of the right to pursue possibility and uncertainty.

Our answer, of course, is to recognize uncertainty and possibility (real option, the right to explore) as a social justice issue. Here in the city, where individual certainty is often the byproduct of privileged access to the codes and conduits of economic stability and upward mobility, uncertainty is often the defining characteristic of those we’ve been hired (by mission) to serve. Removing the option of an open path discriminates against those who benefit most from open access.

So our struggle in part, beyond curricular battles, is to defend the uncertain and the very principle of uncertainty. We are, in effect, the new traditionalists unwilling to let an old idea (the right to not know) die a very new kind of death.


Bill Marsh

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