Category Archives: parentings

Transporting school into home

I rarely I find a New York Times analysis that echoes something I wrote. On October 1, 2020, Carina Chocano did just that in a piece  on “Distance learning, with shades of big brother.” This was triggered by a wonderful awful video on what little girls should NOT do when Zooming school.

young girl doing school at home via Zoom
do not eat while Zooming for school

As Chocano points out, this video is nor really addressed to 5 year old girls, but rather to her parents.

Why would such a video be necessary?  Why does it make so much sense for school people to tell parents to watch it?

A long time ago (1984), McDermott and I wrote about a well known chore of 20th century modernity: “homework” that is school work to be performed at home. As children continue to do all their school work at home anthropologists should wonder anew about the relationship between home and school.  In 1984,  we argued that family education looks nothing like school education. In general, the organization of family education will always evolve through mechanisms that centralizing authorities cannot fully direct—even as they attempt to do so. Simply put, school teachers are licensed by the State, family teachers are not. School teachers are disciplined by assistant principals or “inspectors” (as they are called in France) to check whether they enforce the currently approved curriculum or pedagogy. Parents, in contrast, cannot be routinely disciplined-thus perhaps the need for a video on how to do school at home.

Our main goal in the 1984 paper was to highlight the reality of family education and particularly the paradox that this education shapes the actual performance of “homework” and easily trumps what the School attempts to do.  We were also trying to investigate an alternate, ethnographic and ethnomethodological, route to the analysis of the great school mystery: why is it that an institution designed to mitigate birth privilege as been such at failure at doing so.  Since the late 1960s at least, “big data” social scientists have established that the most powerful predictor of school success is family organization (Coleman 1966: 218ff).  Half a century later, not much has changed. How can that be?

The most common answer is the one Chocano learned in college.  As she tells us, while watching the video she was reminded of prisons and “big brother.” She then goes on to quote Michel Foucault about disciplining the body of children-as-pupil  to make “docile bodies” who “internalize” the discipline into adulthood and parenthood when they will reproduce it.   She might also have quoted Bourdieu on the production of an “habitus”  without noticing that reproduction through internalization is an altogether wild hypothesis.   This is not Chocano’s fault.  She was probably not taught that Foucault had radically discounted all evidence that the (let’s say French) State (of, say, the first half of the 20th century), however centralized and hegemonic over its provinces essentially failed in its task. The French State did discipline speakers of Provencal into speakers of French (as happened to my grandparents) and it did punish those who refused to send their children to school. But this State, like all other states, failed to so discipline families in their internal organization.  The State and its wardens (to develop what Foucault does not quite tell us is a metaphor) could not prevent families from appearing to satisfy wardens and inmates that they should not punished while they actually escaped the fate the institution prepared for them.

Readers of Foucault and Bourdieu should now focus on this failure of the School to control families.  McDermott and I, as cultural anthropologists have done since Boas at least, were trying to do by documenting the multiplicities of alternate ways families found to do what their schools was trying to discipline them to do.  In the language of the video, they did eat while doing homework, they danced when they should have been sober, and they doodled in the margins of their workbooks (like the little girl does when she fills a comment box with unicorn emojis!).

What I would now say McDermott and I were also doing was bringing out the way school work at home threatens internal familial dynamics and thus requires specific family work to encompass what the School requires. Transporting school into home makes a crisis that those who make this home must then deal with.  By proceeding in this fashion, from crisis to observation of the work of re-ordering, we were doing what anthropologists have always done and was made by Garfinkel into a fundamental methodological tool: we use disruption in the habitual to get a better sense of that particular order some human beings try to live by.  They rarely did.  But we are now living just such a crisis and it can tell us much about many of our institutions including, of course, all institutions in their educational roles.

As I argued earlier, C19 does not close schools, only some people can do this and, in the process, produce the local orders I label “Corona.”  But, as it is daily made evident, Corona, anywhere that it is getting institutionalized, is made up of different practices depending on whether one is acting as an agent of the School (say a person-as-teacher Zooming) or whether one is doing so as an agent of one’s family (say this teacher-as-parent setting up a child’s Zoom). Interestingly, the production channels are more complex as State agencies are themselves organized so that the part of the State dedicated to public health can impose matters on that other aspect of the State designed to shape schools and maintain this shape.   By enforcing the injunction “Stay Home! Stay Safe!” public health official created a crisis for school  governors who had little choice but to transport school into family.  And, as these governors knew well, by doing this they were also relinquishing much of their disciplinary methods … thus the production of a video that is clear evidence that these governors know very well that children-as-children will do all the things marked as “NO!” on the video (and much else that would not be shown on a “family-friendly” video).  And they know that their parents may let them do these NO things.  Parents may organize their child so that he could, should he decides to do it on his own, explore the Siberian Socialist Republic one one monitor while School Zoom drones  on the others.

young boy doing school at home via Zoom
exploring the Siberian Socialist Republic while Zooming to school on another monitor

That parents may organize their children do what the school say they should not do may or may not be a problem.  As an anthropologist, I always err in the direction of celebrating the human capacity to find ways through crisis no other human being can imagine. One might even say transporting school into home is a step towards “deschooling” society (Illich 1970).  And yet, as a child of three centuries of “democratic” revolutions I also understand the concern about the reproduction of birth privilege through family processes that trump school processes.  Access to three monitors and a desk of one’s own is not something many parents can do.  C19 is also an occasion and justification to radically distance one’s children from all sort of undesirables to the parents—they might carry diseases! There was a good policy reason for “public” schools that radically separated children from their parents and local communities. Whether the aftermath of Corona will lead to a return to this kind of schooling that was already on the way out is something an anthropologist cannot say.

References

Coleman, James      1966 Equality of educational opportunity. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Foucault, Michel   [1975] 1978     Discipline and punish. Tr. by A. Sheridan. New York: Penguin Books.

Illich, Ivan 1970 Deschooling society. New York: Harper & Row.

McDermott, R.P., S. Goldman and H. Varenne   1994     “When School Goes Home: Some Problems and Defensive Tactics,” Teachers College Record. 85: 391-409.

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High tech creationism?

One of the many after effects of Trump’s election has been an altogether astonishing flowering of high fallutin exercises in cultural analysis.  I particular enjoy those who play with popularized (populist?) deconstructionism.  So, let’s join the (deep?) play.

Most of my own intellectual education has been plagued by the fundamental mis-readings of Saussure and Lévi-Strauss led by Derrida ([1967] 1978) and others.  In various ways if have tried to write against deconstructionism, sometimes specifically (1994),
and mostly by implication.  And yet, I have also felt party to many of these debates, particularly when they involve plays with “facts” and fiction, truth and relativism, history and narratives, and indeed the nature of reality (ontology?).

So, when the New York Times, as it regularly does, plays with “truth … that is always changing” (NYT, “How to fix the Met,” 3/1/2107) I could not resist tweeting and playing with the Times nemesis (and vice versa)—the author of the wonderfully truthy “truthful hyperbole.”

Sam AltmanWhat I then found out in another exercise in cultural analysis was worth more than a chuckle. It involves an extended metaphor on Silicon Valley idealistic and nihilistic ontology (as reflection on the nature of being, existence, and reality).  This one comes from one of these mythical young white men that can claim, as does his Wikipedia page, that “the total valuation of Y Combinator companies has surpassed $65 billions”(read on March 2017). This young man is Sam Altman and the piece was written by Tad Friend of the New Yorker (October 2016 issue).

A few sentences from this piece were picked up by multiple media outlet under such titles as “Tech billionaires think we live in the Matrix and have asked scientists to get us out” (CNBC, 10/7/2016) or “Many of the world’s richest and most powerful people, including Elon Musk and Bank of America, think that we live in a simulation of the real world” (Independent, 10/6/2016)

I found this thread after coming to a not clearly authored page where the writer wonders about such “bizarre events” as the mistake at the Oscars, this year’s Super Bowl, and, of course, Trump’s election.  So, he (I will caricature him as male, but I am not sure) wonders whether:

“we are living in the Matrix, and something has gone wrong with the controllers. This idea was, I’m told, put forward first and most forcibly by the N.Y.U. philosopher David Chalmers: What is happening lately, he says, is support for the hypothesis that we are living in a computer simulation and that something has recently gone haywire within it. The people or machines or aliens who are supposed to be running our lives are having some kind of breakdown. There’s a glitch, and we are in it. [Such events] makes no sense at all in the ‘real world’.

There may be not merely a glitch in the Matrix. There may be a Loki, a prankster, suddenly running it. After all, the same kind of thing seemed to happen on Election Day: the program was all set, and then some mischievous overlord – whether alien or artificial intelligence doesn’t matter – said, “Well, what if he did win? How would they react?” “You can’t do that to them,” the wiser, older Architect said. “Oh, c’mon,” the kid said. “It’ll be funny. Let’s see what they do!” And then it happened. We seem to be living within a kind of adolescent rebellion on the part of the controllers of the video game we’re trapped in, who are doing this for their strange idea of fun. (crystalinks.com 2/26/17)

As written by Ted Friend, the statement attributed to Sam Altman on “two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation” is a paraphrase rather than a quote, and is not the main point of the piece.  But it is the sentence that caught the eye of many journalists in the United States and England.  I guess, it is “fun news” (somewhere on the continuum towards “fake news”).

Actually, it may be “fake news” that Sam Altman, or any of the other billionaires mentioned, actually “believe,” in the strong sense of the verb, that we are living in a Matrix-like simulation, whether run by wise aliens or trickster adolescents.  No sane person would believe that, would they?  Maybe Altman was just burnishing his image as not only a monument to successful greed but also as Silicon Valley seer and (pop) philosopher.  America has produced many such billionaire seers.  Altman will not be the last.

What is more interesting to me is that Altman is channeling a long and very real strain in Western philosophy: the idealism most extremely stated by Bishop George Berkeley in the early 18th century.  Most analysis of the Matrix movies prefer to mention Descartes (Plato, etc.) but Cartesian doubt was about epistemology (how to we know?) rather than ontology (how is ‘is’?).  In the 20th century, the early Derrida proposed a new version of classical ontological idealism when he wrote that, and I paraphrase, “there is no center that can escape the play of discourses” (1967: 411).  All is discourse (language).  There are no “hors-textes” (outside text) that might take us away from language.  Popularized, this late 20th century idealism can be developed in further texts affirming that we cannot be sure that an experience of snow falling outside a writer’s window has not been “written” by some very clever programmer and fed directly into some imperceptible artificial reality goggle: the Matrix.  Reality IS a text, written in mysterious algorithms.

There is of course no way to, rationally, disprove this hypothesis since the very arguments against it could have been written by the clever programmer.  The hypothesis seems to me equivalent to the biblical creationism that estimates the age of the universe at something like 6000 years: all the evidence that it is older (dinosaurs, echos of the Big Bang) could easily have been written by God into what only looks like a record of earlier events.

Now, of course, there are other ontologies that are well captured by Saussure’s wonderful, and easy to mistranslate, diagram about the segmentation of continuums ([1915] 1966: 112). Saussure on segmentation of realityThere, the wavy lines are an attempt to capture the mystery that language imperfectly reveals as it works at representing this mystery using the vagaries of human affordances (vocal box, faces and arms, etc. Not to mention a peculiar brain).  If any of this was “designed” it was not by an efficiency expert.  As Merleau-Ponty once said, and I paraphrase and expand, “meaning is in the silence between the words” ([1969] 1973: 43).  Mystery is not empty.  Stuff (good and bad) happens.  Or, as another wise man put it:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet to Horatio Hamlet (1.5.167-8) ).

References

References

Derrida, Jacques   1967 [1978]    Writing and difference. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice   1973 [1969]     The prose of the world. Tr. by J. O’Neil. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Saussure, Ferdinand de   1966 [1915]     Course in General Linguistics. Tr. by W. Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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on parents challenging schooling

Those who follow my work know that I look for evidence (empirical? evidential?) that Bourdieu’s hypothesis about habitus driving (mis-)consciousness is wrong as written. In this search, I prefer detailed ethnographic evidence (the kind sociologists dismiss as “anecdotal”). But descriptive statistics have their place as evidence opening routes for further exploration.

So, I am thankful to my colleagues Oren Pizmony-Levy and Nancy Green Saraisky for their report of a national survey they conducted on who opts out of standardized testing and why (Who opts out and why, August 2016). The media, particularly in New York State has been reporting on something that is often presented as new: parents (mostly prosperous) refusing to have their children take some high-stake tests. This may be a cultural innovation, either because more parents are doing it, because they have found out that opting out is actually possible, or because the media started paying attention, or for other political reasons. Historical research is needed. I would also relate this movement with other movements of parents organizing to do something those with official pedagogical authority (in Bourdieu’s phrase) wish they did not do. In New York City, Mayor de Blasio and others found out that their efforts to rein in charter schools would fail as parents, mostly inner city parent financially struggling, found a way to stop the reining in. At about the same time, other parents, many recent immigrants from China, many who could not speak English, appear to have stopped another movement by those with authority to change the admission requirements to the most academic public high schools. Elsewhere in New York City, other parents organize to home school their children, while others compete mercilessly to enrol their children in astronomically expensive pre-schools.

Whether all this is good for the children, for their parents, for the State, or for humanity is something else altogether. In any events, parents keep demonstrating that there are ways to resist the school-as-is, or the school-as-some-want-it, even as they participate in the evolution of schooling into un-imaginable forms.

Bourdieu and other structural-functionalists who keep Talcott Parsons alive might mark all this as a failure of early socialization into the practical acceptance of pedagogical authority. It could be that the schools have failed at reproducing whatever made Western schooling so successful for so many years and across the world. We may have a failure in maintaining homeostasis!

But it could also be that reproduction will always fail however determined the efforts to keep alive what was. It could be that (social) life will always be about constituting the heretofore unimaginable.

And so, as I like to say, we need a theory of culture that starts with the impossibility of cultural reproduction and sets aside concerns with enculturation. Instead, we need to pays close attention to the ongoing efforts both to preserve and innovate (Varenne 2007, 2011).

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