Category Archives: Education

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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Ignorant School Teachers

Rancière is altogether optimistic about “ignorant school masters” ([1987] 1999 ). He advocates for a radically “democratic,” non stultifying education that is not about students repeating what they are told by some teacher. As Joseph Jacotot has demonstrated, anyone can teach anything they do not know… as long as they do not invoke knowledge. The best school master is the one who is ignorant of what the students under his authority are trying to learn through exercising their intelligence in community with others also doing it. Rancière is tempted by Jacotot’s radical revolutionary democracy as it was dreamed up by the young French of 1789 (who also produced the Terror). He is tempted to doubt any claim to knowledge, expertise, etc. from philosophers, particularly when they are also placed at the service of some political cause or State.

One can seriously doubt whether this is something that is to be “applied” in the case of anything that involves the medical care of our bodies by modern medicine (vaccines, viruses, traumas, etc.). In such cases it would be hard to claim that we do not need expert teachers, who were taught by fully knowledgeable teachers, and who keep learning from such. We might also hope that some of them will think beyond the various boundaries set by their teachers so that they can actually find something no one else could have taught them. But that is a boundary case.

But one should not doubt the importance of Rancière’s major point: that people continually teach each other what they do not know as well as exercise their intelligence to figure out what to do next given their conditions, including all the advice others, and particularly experts, give them. This is something everyone should take into account, and particularly people with power and authority leaning on experts. “Official” education is always going to be challenged by the non-official.

This is very general, and, as I teach it, completely in line with the most classical forms of cultural anthropology. Humans would not be where they are, anywhere in the world, if they had not continually been involved in challenges to any order established earlier.

Now, in the particular case of Corona, we have a different kind of “ignorant school masters.” As I argued in my earlier post, most of the population of the United States (France, Italy, etc.) learned about COVID-19 from the media, that is from announcers or journalists translating what others had said, including politicians and experts. They continually invoke authoritative knowledge (as well as play on the emotions of their audience). “Stories” generally include reference to the “CDC,” a Dr. X “expert from [famous] hospital,” etc. How these stories are written, by whom, under what kind of control is something that specialist in media studies might teach me. But I strongly suspect that the experts themselves do not control the final wording (that is the curriculum) or the manner of the delivery (that is the pedagogy) of the education dispensed by the media. And I am about certain that the journalists themselves are not expert, or have any decision making authority such as those of governmental officials. The media people are teachers, but they are of the most ignorant type.

In the past few days, I have gotten further teaching documents that many if not most will never get. I have statements from university presidents, some colleagues, and such. They are statements by people outside the media that the media people may translate into their stories. The anthropologist Mica Pollock, for example, sent anthropologists of education these links from Ariadne Labs at Harvard: This is Not a Snow Day and #KidsHomeSafe: Advice on Social Distancing for Families. Here is expertise over expertise reiterating, or being the source of, action by the State.  Again, education from beyond the school

But the social reality remains the same, and is sometimes hinted at in these documents. If one has to be told that this is NOT a snow day, then it is probably because the author of this title is aware that many do take the current regulations as equivalent as snow days, vacations from school or work during which one should also have some fun with friends and family. Most medical doctors know well that many patients do not follow their advice, leading to a huge literature on the matter.

For an anthropologist of education/knowledge, the questions remain. Outside to the realm of experts, and the politicians who listen to them, what becomes accepted knowledge among a certain group? That is a social question since, as an anthropologist, I am less interested in individual knowledge than about communal one. I am interested even more in the establishing of (probably very temporary) agreements about what to do next. I can imagine some mother reading the texts produced by Ariadne Labs and then trying to establish what to do over the next day that husband, children, neighbors, etc. will actually implement.

It is about these processes that cultural anthropologists may have some expertise.  On the basis of this expertise, we can criticize another story from Ariadne Lab titled “Resistance and change” (about some surgical procedure). The post starts with “ Humans resist change. Maybe it’s a survival mechanism from our evolutionary past.” The reality is, of course, that humans continually change, that their conditions and resources for survival change, so that, actually and eventually, modern medicine does evolve over its past and towards some uncertain future.

 

References

[1987] 1999 The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Tr. by K. Ross. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

 

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Educating into Corona, in life

In my case,  about everything I have learned about the virus I learned through the media, mostly from the “traditional” media (New York Times, Le Figaro, etc.) and somewhat less traditional (Yahoo summaries, etc.). I have watched some television, mostly in restaurants where it was on. I hope that people in the medical profession, as well as various politicians and “officials” with power and authority, are learning from other sources—though we will never quite know where Trump or Pelosi, Cuomo or de Blasio, etc., are getting the information on which they base their decisions.

Obviously, no one among all those (except perhaps the medical people) learned any of all this at school, though some may remember some high school class, taken decades ago about virus and the like.

So, this virus has not (yet) been taught in school. More interestingly, whatever one learns is not verified by a more knowledgeable person (say, a school teacher). There are no tests. And one receives no diploma for whatever knowledge one has gotten. The “media” (journalists, TV announcers and such) are the main teachers. But they are not school teachers. Not only can they not give tests, they have no way to control what their “students” are learning. It is not even clear to me where their “curriculum about the virus today” comes from and who vets it (producers? lawyers? “officials”?). They are all very much “distance teachers” with little feedback about their impact.

Most importantly, the students are not isolated from each other as they might be in a test-driven classroom where their knowledge is supposed to be assessed independently so that they can be sorted into more or less knowledgeable. The students (me, my family, my peers, people I briefly encountered in stores or hotels) talk to each other, and they teach each other. As soon as they hear or read something presented as “knowledge about the virus” they start discussing this knowledge in all sorts of forums with different of co-participants, etc. They dispute, disagree, criticize, suggest, cajole, enforce, etc.).

All this could be said to be “Cremin 101″ (1976) as I and my students developed it recently (2019). I will be using “teaching/learning Corona” for the rest of my career. I strongly encourage students who might be reading this as the event still unfolds to keep an “educational journal” focusing not only on themselves but on the others with whom they engage (very significant others, parents, friends, etc.).

[Note that this is the first of a series of posts I will be making over the near future in my role as senior anthropologist of education. This will be accompanied by a developing web site with notes and further elaboration. Note also that everything said here is under my own responsibility and does not in any way represent the position of Columbia University, Teachers College, or my colleagues and peers]

References

Cremin, Larry   1975     “Public Education and the Education of the Public.” Teachers College Record 77:1-12

Varenne, Herve et al.   2019     Educating in life. Routledge

 

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What is there to learn now, here, under maximum stress? (a problem for learning theory?)

Learning with others is, necessarily, a political matter. Thus my insistence on writing about “polities” of practice. Still, it remains that “learning” post participation risks being taken as a somewhat automatic process in the movement towards “fuller” (political) participation. Through participation one may move from apprentice to master but focusing, as we must, on movement does not tell us much about the everyday activities of the one who moves (or of the activities of those who encourage the movement—or put blocks on the way), and particularly about the activity of sorting out what to learn (what to prioritize, what to ignore, etc.).

I thought about this in the interstices of other activities I was not  able to escape these past weeks. I found myself, much against my will, and my hopes, in the position of apprentice to “next of kin” practices, first in in the neurological intensive care unit of New York/Presbyterian Hospital, and then in the regular neurological unit, and then in a rehabilitation center. At 70, it is the case that I have never been in that position, legitimately or otherwise, and that I have had much to learn even as I worried about much more than learning.

There were the not so trivial matters.  Where on earth is “177 Fort Washington Avenue”? Such an apparently non-deictic specification is altogether useless in New York City where major hospitals do not advertise their address on their majestic fronts! After one instance of re-directing instruction, I found myself having the figure out the security system, the floor, the location of switches to open doors, the “family waiting room” (including, later, its rhythms and accommodations to being told, or not, to wait there).

All this may appear minor as one learns with the help of instructing people who tell where one should (not) be (not) doing this or that, now but not necessarily then, along with meta-instructions about the range of possibilities for not triggering further instruction about (not) standing here or there, now and then, or the kind of apologies that might quiet criticism for messing around (and not give authorities the occasion to label one “confused” in a place and at moments specifically dedicated to identify, measure, and treat altogether real “confusion”).

Much less minor, when one first enters the emergency room, is the semi-circle of surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, (and what else?), “explaining” (teaching?) emergency procedures and asking for various permissions and signatures. At that moment of highest stress, there is not much room for wondering what to learn. This, actually, may be just one of the moments when one must rely on previous learning with all its pre-judgements (aka “prejudices”) about what to do next (“trust the experts and sign whatever they place in front of you!”). At such a moment there is no time or occasion to review, analyze, discuss judgments that must be made right here, and right now—not after 10 minutes of consultation with family, friends, Google, etc.

And then, there is the wait…… Now one can review pre-judgements, wonder about possibilities (“did I tell them that …”), alternatives, paths that might open, one of which will have to be taken into a completely uncertain future. This is the time when one realizes that one does not know what, of all that one has learned earlier in life, is going to be useful and so must, once again, figure out, perhaps with trustworthy (or not) guidance, what one will have to learn—and whether it is to be needed only for the short term (I hope I am never on that hospital floor again), or for the longer term (new diets? limitations? handicaps and their mitigation? other hospitals for other diseases or conditions?).

And then, there is the matter of leaning about what one needs to learn about rehabilitation centers….

In the mean time, someplace between the trivial and the not so trivial given life in the 21st century, is the matter of figuring out how to get the Apple iPad to do what it is supposed to do.
I was convinced by a significant other that it would help the recovering body whittle away the time.  And so I bought my first Apple product.  As I expected, I found the iPad an irritation (though hopefully not for much longer). For someone raised on Vax VMS (who knows what that is?!) and Microsoft Windows, the pictograms at the bottom of the iPad were an initial mystery (as well as aesthetically challenging). Yes, it is a wonderful machine, but in what direction does how swipe, and when? What just happened to what I was looking at? Why doesn’t Siri take dictation (so that I could write this blog), or is it that I have not found how to get her to take dictation?

More importantly, it turns out, not too surprisingly, that the recovering body actually cannot handle the iPad.  It cannot hold the thing,  its fingers swipe, but not quite with the required dexterity.  So endless instructions: “do no put your finger here,” “you touched something at the bottom of the screen,” “you need to swipe twice from the bottom of the screen.” On and on the need for instruction arises, as well as for wondering whether to learn/teach this, and if so, what to learn/teach next.  Eventually, there is the matter of the will to take instruction, practice the instructions, discover new forms of ignorance.  Is there really a need to learn one more set of trivial matters? Perhaps there is.  But convincing the recovering body, or her most significant other, is no easy task.

Here again, for analysts concerned with the reality that the world, whether man-made or not, is not an open book, the issue to investigate should not be what or how people “learn” (and teach).  The issue should be the work that people perform as they figure out what to learn/teach, and as always, who might help/hinder that search: child, trial and error, warning message, instructions from some programmer who imagined that this might require instruction (but not that)???

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On hackathons, machines, and flamingos

Recently, Audrey Le successfully defended a most interesting dissertation about “hackathons.” Like me a while ago you may have no idea what those would be… Well, they are events when (very much mostly) young (mostly) men play/work over a weekend at developing some “thing” (app, process, and who knows what else) that involves some computer programming (or can be analogized to computer design). Until Le started teaching me about them, I had never heard of hackathons–like I had never heard of DoItYourself biology labs, venture capitalists, equine therapies, video badge games and so many other wonder-inspiring stuff that first appeared in the late 20th century. There is indeed much “new” here for anthropologists looking for the odd human beings they thought could only encounter up the Amazon or the Congo. An anthropologist just has to go down the corridors of Columbia (Harvard, MIT, etc.) to meet never-yet-imagined “others.”
Continue reading On hackathons, machines, and flamingos

On the importance of reading footnotes

Those who know my work know that I am a great admirer of the historian Lawrence Cremin whom I happily coopt not only as an anthropologist, but also as an anthropologist ahead of his time even as he channeled the Boasian tradition he was taught at Columbia while a graduate student.

What I found this morning is a wonderfully clear critique not only of most definitions of education, including common ones from anthropologists, but, most impressively, of most definitions of “culture.”

This is the footnote:

Bailyn advances a definition of education as “the entire process by which culture transmits itself across the generations.” Yet, as Werner Jaeger made clear in the introduction to Paideia, until the word “culture” is clarified, such a definition remains obscure. “We are accustomed to use the word culture,” Jaeger noted, “not to describe the ideal which only the Hellenocentric world possesses, but in a much more trivial and general sense, to denote something inherent in every nation of the world, even the most primitive.” He was referring, of course, to the concept as developed by the social scientists-a usage he saw associated with “the positivist passion for reducing everything to the same terms.” By Bailyn’s definition, “education” is ultimately synonymous with “enculturation,” as that term is used by the anthropologists, notably Melville Herskovits. I myself am sympathetic to Jaeger’s insistence that true education implies the deliberate, self-conscious pursuit of certain intellectual, ethical, and aesthetic ideals, though I am perfectly ready to grant that nondeliberate influences are often, if not always, more powerful and pervasive and that the educational historian must be concerned with both. For a statement of a similar problem of definition that has long bedeviled literary historians, see Howard Mumford Jones, The Theory of American Literature (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1948), pp. 59-61 and passim. My reference to “the architecture of contemporary education” is taken from the lectures of my colleague Martin S. Dworkin in his course at Teachers College on “Education, Ideology, and Mass Communication.” (Cremin 1965: 75)

Note the attack on reductionism and enculturation; note “granting nondeliberate influences” as a kind of exception to “deliberate, self-conscious, pursuit” (aka, in my current vocabulary: practical meta-discursive work).

about Facteur ChevalNote also Cremin approving of a metaphor not be taken as “constructivist” but rather as a prefiguration of Latour’s ANT: the ‘architecture’ of education.  I am not sure what Cremin would have done of my added comment that the building, as an assemblage of rooms and corridors assembled on the basis of competing blue-prints with much cracks papered over would look more like the buildings that delighted Lévi-Strauss ([1962] 1966: 17): Cheval’s villa, or Mr. Wilmmick’s suburban villa as imagined by Charles Dickens (who must have seen versions of it!). And, among many others, a Texas version… Not to mention, from the ridiculous to the sublime, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

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On thriving children and the hegemony of psychology

I always wonder about the way research on interaction gets reported in the media only (or about always) when it is conducted by psychologists.  Easy to chalk to “American individualism,” as institutionalized, and to its sub-forms like “culture of poverty,” or “child development.”

This time, my antennas were agitated by an interview in the University of Chicago glossy publication for alumni.  It is titled “Little scientists” with the descriptive subtitle “Think of children as pint-sized psychologists, says parenting expert Erica Reischer, AM’96, PhD’00.”

Not too surprisingly, the editors of the magazine chose, to illustrate, a picture of a child, writing in a notebook.  Many will notice that the child is a boy, white, with auburn hair, wearing a blue t-shirt.  I notice that he is by himself.  If there were a caption, it might be “the scientist at work”…

Irony aside, the underlying work is one I wish I could use when writing about family education.  The story starts with a common place: obedience class for dogs is really about training humans.  Having just been working on Jennifer Van Tiem’s chapter on horses and human (for our When is education), I know now how extensive the anthropological literature on animal/human interaction has become.  But, of course, the editor quotes Reischer for saying something about “teaching us how to think like a dog … so that [the dog] would learn positive behaviors.”

Note the emphasis on thinking for the human, behavior for the dog, and a causal link between separate entities.

On to children, analogically.

“What we really need … is pay attention to our children’s behavior”  (as if any human being could NOT pay attention) …. “[then] we can make choices about what we are going to do about [it]” (as if NEXT acts, in an improvised sequence, could ever be matters of choice under separate control).

Most interesting is the metaphor of the scientist (a conceit, really) Reischer proposes and the editor uses as title for the piece: “Kids are doing experiments because they have to figure out how the people in their lives work. I sometimes say, ‘Pretend your kids are wearing little white lab coats, and carrying little lab notebooks, and making notes all day long about what works and what doesn’t work with you’.”  Now that could have developed into something Rancière or Garfinkel might have written as instructions to researchers (and parents): notice intelligence at work; notice the noticings and the improvisations on suggested themes given tools and affordances.

Except, of course, that the editor goes back to the atomistic, individualistic, narrative and the “secret sauce” [sic] to happy parenting: Learn how to manipulate your child like a trainer manipulates dogs.

Pavlov? Skinner?

I have not read Reischer’s book.  So I am not sure how close the magazine story comes to what she wrote, what she “believes,” or what she could be shown to do when face to face with her own children if we had videotapes of the interaction.  My experience with the editors of such magazines is that their priorities are not mine, and may not have been Reischer’s.  Public relation editors must translate for their audience: alumni who are mostly not scholars, but may be imagined to be most comfortable with stories about human interaction written in terms of causation between separately acting (free) individuals.

And yet, one might go back and rewrite the story, the book, and maybe even the research (though there many not have been any in this case) to show how the child is indeed, a “scientist” with (ethno-)methods for figuring out what happened in collaboration with (and thus in struggle with) parents as consociates as, together, they improvise the family that will have been.  One cannot be a scientist by oneself.  And researchers who specialize in individuals will never understand humanity (or why psychology is hegemonic in America).

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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 educating a democratic public, democratically

Soon after Lawrence Cremin published Public education (1976), I gushed about the book to a senior colleague.  He did not like any aspect of the book because, as I remember he put it, Cremin made of education a form of “brain-washing.”  My colleague claimed Paulo Freire and, I guess, an alternate view of what it means to educate, democratically.

I must say I was astonished.  My take then, and I have not changed my mind, was that Cremin asks something surprising from us who are given the task to design education for the public.  He asks us to pay attention to what people are doing, in the streets and alleys of the world, far from the halls where pedagogy and curriculum are discussed.

I was astonished that my colleague had not noticed that Cremin was asking us to look at the crowds around us and was criticizing the John Dewey of Democracy and education ([1916] 1966) for not imagining any other educational institution than than the State sponsored school.  I could see how a very unsympathetic critic might notice that Dewey, as a philosopher who also read the psychologies and social sciences of his time, was quite sure as to what to teach the masses settling in the United States that they should learn to participate in an American democracy.  By Chapter 7, Dewey, unapologetically, claims an aim, a “Good Aim.”  In brief, in language Teachers College still uses (though we might wonder about mention of a “social ideal” and the measurement of “the worth of a form of social life”):

Since education is a social process, and there are many kinds of societies, a criterion for educational criticism … implies a particular social ideal. The two points selected by which to measure the worth of a form of social life are the extent in which the interests of a group are shared by all its members, and the fullness and freedom with which it interacts with other groups. An undesirable society, in other words, is one which internally and externally sets us barriers to free intercourse and communication of experience. A society which makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible forms of associated life is in so far democratic. Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control, and the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder. (p. 99)

It is probably the case that Cremin would not have disagreed with this.  Cremin’s concern was with Dewey’s next step, when he gets to assume that the institution of desirable education is the public school.  I was then starting my career in a department soon to be named “Family and Community Education,” that Cremin had been instrumental in creating and which he strongly supported.  With Hope Leichter, Paul Byers, Ray McDermott, we had to wonder about what might count as education in families and communities.  I do not remember us wondering much about who might control this education, assess the worth of the design, or worry that the education parents given their children, each other, friends and consociates, might not be desirable.

Thirty years later, I was introduced to the work of Jacques Rancière who, in many ways, is a scorched earth critique of philosophers-with-an-aim, particularly philosophers of education.  Rancière starts with the Plato of the Meno.  He sides with the various shoe makers whom generations of philosophers have used as example of people who should not be involved in what we know call “knowledge production,” and even less in the teaching of this expert knowledge.  Rancière keeps asking philosophers to pay attention to, and respect, shoe makers

Rancière’s work, like Cremin, is very congenial to the generations of anthropologists who have tried to tell other social scientists and philosophers that all human being produce knowledge, pass on knowledge, transform other forms of knowledge they may encounter and, of course, make different value choices about aims, and are ready to fight for these.

Rancière is also writing about “democracy and education,” but from the point of view of a radical democrat,  Rancière’s hero is a teacher who refused to teach his expertise because he believed teaching what one knows will always be a form of “stultification,” brain-washing—particularly if the “learner” is assessed as having (not) learned just what she was supposed to learn not only as knowledge or skills but also as dispositions (beliefs, attitudes, values).

And so, whether one deplored or celebrated what happened last week, we, as the philosophers of education we cannot help but be, must ask ourselves: what is our business.  Is it convincing or is it allowing people to make up their mind?  And what are we to do with people who do not make the choices we make?

As we ponder the questions, we must face the fact that philosophers cannot control people, even when they are very influential on matters of state authority.  That, I’d say, is what a century of anthropological research has demonstrated.  Radical democracy may be the human condition.

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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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