Archive for the ‘on education, comprehensively’ Category

detouring the internet and making it legal

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Two news items caught my eyes recently as more examples of the kind of activities I deem “educational” and that I encourage doctoral students to investigate.  Here is another set of “free dissertation topics” to expand our collection of case studies of what so many of our colleagues ignore.

The first item is from Afghanistan, the other from Guinea by way of New York City.  Both deal with people in serious trouble figuring out what are their conditions and trace a path through them (“enunciate their landscapes” to cross-reference Merleau-Ponty/de Certeau’s jargon).  In both cases the people are caught in mid-stream, successful-so-far in surviving, but with no guarantee that the future will be less difficult than their recent past has been.  Watching them struggling can teach us much about the world we, ourselves, also face–for it is the same one they do face.

Afghans working on laptop

Volunteers have built a wireless Internet around Jalabad, Afghanistan, from off-the-shelf electronics and ordinary materials (NY Times, 6/12/2011)

On Sunday June 12, the New York Times reported, on page 1 no less, that “U.S. underwrites internet detour around censors.”  The subject of this headline, not surprisingly is “the U.S.”  The subject is further specified in the first paragraphs as “the Obama administration,” “the State Department,” “a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington.”  It is, by the Time standard an “American effort.”  The picture that accompanies the piece, placed smack center at the top of the page, is of two Afghan men and an Apple laptop.  The laptop is set precariously on a chair on a roof.  It is tied to some machines.  One man sitting on the edge of the roof is peering down at the screen, one hand to his mouth, in the classical pose of the person who waits for a computer to complete an important task, or who is trying to interpret what the computer has provided.  The other man is peering into the distance through binoculars.  The legend below the picture says: “Volunteers have built a wireless Internet around Jalabad, Afghanistan, from off-the-shelf electronics and ordinary materials.”

Who are these “volunteers”? How were they trained? By whom? What exactly does it mean to “build a wireless internet”? Who else might also be building wireless internet that bypass state controls?  What are the other controls that may not be bypassed? How does one get an Apple laptop to Afghanistan (and the power to recharge it, etc.)?  (According to Google, there are Apple stores in New Delhi and Lahore, but apparently not in Kabul.)  There are many other subjects there than the “U.S.” and probably a lot of “fifth-floor shops” where the actual possibilities made available to local “volunteers” are explored, exploited, transformed.

The other story implies the existence of other kind of “fifth-floor shops,” this time in the Bronx “where many in New York City’s small Guinean population have blended in among other West African immigrant groups in neighborhoods like High Bridge, north of Yankee Stadium, Claremont and Morrisania” (NYT June 15, 2011).  The story is brief biography of the woman who is accusing Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexually assaulting him.  The details that struck me is the following:

It is not clear how the woman gained entrance to the United States. In the 12 months ending in September 2002, the United States issued 4,410 visas to Guineans, a vast majority for business trips or tourism, officials said.  But by the time she began her job as a housekeeper at the Sofitel in 2008, she had legal status and working papers, her lawyers said.

village in Guinea

The village of Thiakoulle, Guinea, where the hotel housekeeper who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault grew up (NY Times 6/15/2011)

How does one get legal status?  How does one do that, in the details of the peoples, bureaucracies, financial resources that must be involved?  How does one figure it out?  One can imagine the moment when it becomes clear that there are routes that can be followed to go from the village of Thikoulle, Guinea, to New York City, the efforts to find these routes among the maze of other routes that would take one elsewhere, and then the struggles to do whatever it takes to actually follow the route, and then, as is still going on for this woman—for there is no end to all this—, to recast one’s plans as one faces new obstacles and new possibilities.  At every moment and point the woman “learned” something and this something became almost immediately moot since the task that had been accomplished would not repeat itself, while new tasks appeared.

In this case, the one matter that would be worth investigating closely is the network of people who are involved in getting “legal status and working papers,” and to sort out what exactly one has to do.  I am sure that the State Department (or is it the Department of Homeland Security…) has web sites with instructions to follow.  But we also know (as per Garfinkel 2002) that these instructions cannot possibly be enough.  The bureaucratic rules have to be translated though not exactly into a different ‘language’.  Rather, they have to be re-written to become useful at the particular moment when a particular person has to perform whatever it is the rule says this person should do next.  Even more important to investigate are the processes when one finds out that the rules exist, and which of the millions of rules is the one a person should pay attention to now whether to imagine a possible route, or to get through the next gate along the way.  Doing something may just be secondary to finding out that it has to get done.

On ecologically valid assessments

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

At some point during the mini-conference on the future of assessment (held on April 11, 2011), Ray McDermott raised questions about the validity of the kind of tests the Educational Testing Service and such design.  He told of the work he conducted in the late 1970s as part of Michael Cole’s Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition.  Then McDermott, Cole and others wondered about the relationship between tests and the settings about which the tests were supposed to say something.  As they showed (1979, 1998: Chapter 1), the relationship between, for example, a reading test and baking banana bread by reading a recipe is tenuous, at best.  In the setting of a cooking club, so much else happens (from confused writing to interpersonal tensions) that ability to read is the least of the problem the children have to deal with.  The generalizability of these observations across settings and populations is now well established through repeated observations.

What has been left open in this work is the question of finding out what ecologically valid assessments would actually look like.

Soon after the conference, another participant, Katie Anderson-Levitt (U. of Michigan-Dearborn), suggested we look at Paradise and Rogoff’s recent paper about ongoing learning in families (2009).  In that paper, Paradise and Rogoff mention all the work done in the Cole tradition over the past 30 years with a new twist that fits well with my own sense of what I call ‘education.’  In everyday life, at home, “learning” is not a simple automatic matter proceeding below deliberation or symbolic expression.  In everyday life “teaching” (and assessing) is—probably—ubiquitous.

As I reflected on all this, I saw a route I have not yet quite explored and that could lead to further research expanding on the Cole, Lave, etc., traditions.  Starting with an expansion of the point Paradise and Rogoff made, I suspect that  the movement through publicized ignorance is accompanied by all sorts of speech acts, many of which fit in the paradigm of knowledge assessment.  Developing all this is also an expansion on Garfinkel, as I take him.

Garfinkel has kept arguing that maintaining any order requires ongoing work, including the work of figuring out what is going on.  Conversational analysts has given abundant evidence that this is indeed correct.  More recently, Garfinkel wrote about ‘instructions’ as a necessary aspect of this work.  The paper ends with one of my favorite quotes about screwing around and getting instructed (2002: 257).  What I do not think Garfinkel noted, and what I know I never noted myself, is that the instruction moments proceed either from an earlier assessment, or themselves constitute an assessment.  This is also an implication of Gus Andrews recent dissertation (2010) on blog comments when these are assessed as being “wrong” in some way that is specified by a later comment (“this comment does not belong here,” “you should not write your social security number here,” etc.).  In an interactional sequence (conversation?) utterance of the type “Do X differently!” are probably essential mechanisms for maintaining order, constituting emerging orders, moving participants into new positions, etc.

I am quite sure that such ongoing assessment is ubiquitous and should probably added as a function in Jakobson’s model of communication (1960 — though he might have classified it as an aspect of the metalingual function).  Much of the recent work on metapragmatics may also fit here.

In brief, and for our purposes, we could say that Ethno-methodology is at the service of ethno-science (what is the world made of?), and ethno-politics (how do we maintain the order within which we are now caught?), it also at the service of ethno-assessments. [or should we say that (ethno) Methodology is at the service of (ethno) Science, (ethno) Politics, and (ethno) Assessment?]

If this proves a useful direction for inquiry, it suggests that assessment is not an extra-ordinary task.  It also suggests how school assessment has drifted away from the ordinary [I am not sure that ‘drifted’ is the right work, but it will do for today].  The well known school-based QAE (Mehan 1979) model is formally equivalent to what might get known as the SARS model (Statement, Assessment, Re-statement) except that the former starts with the assessor’s question while the later starts with a seeker’s request that may then lead to an assessment (though this proposal may not have been presented as such).  In other words, the sequence starts with ignorance grounded in the here and now (“ecologically valid ignorance”?) and proceeds with statements of local knowledge that are themselves proposals for what it is that the seeker may plausibly not know (I am using the word ‘seeker’ rather than ‘learner’ since it will remain a question wether the subject whose ignorance is marked will learn anything out of the encounter).  This sequence is what I would now say my earlier statements about “productive ignorance” were about.

The question to designers of future tests is something like: how might you produce assessments that are triggered by acknowledgments of ignorance, whether generated by the subject (“I would like to know about X”) or by a co-participant in the polity (“you really should learn more about X”).  The challenge is to find the moment in the sequence of a life when the co-participant teachers will enter.  In everyday life it is a non-problem to the extent that co-participants or “consociates” have the built in or self-generated (legitimate) authority to assess (as siblings may have).  When social distance increases, that is when the network links between those who set what is to be assessed, what is to count as ignorance, and what should be done about include many persons in many institutions, then the problem gets acute.  It may even be unsolvable unless we find ways to reposition the official assessors within the network so they are closer to the performance in such a way that they can get a better sense, in real time, of the feedbacks that the seeker (learner) provides.

(More on what I am trying to formulate about network linkages later)

Practical assessments, perhaps

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

This is my third entry developing some of the points we discussed during the mini-conference on the future of assessment (held on April 11, 2011).  The first two entries (on audiences, and on utopias), and in my initial one before the conference (on political philosophy) were essentially analytic with a definite pessimistic lean.  (School) assessments are bad for the health, and yet they are here to stay given all the powers they serve—including idealistic ones.

Robbie McClintock re-started me on a different track I briefly explored in my last contributions (2010) to the series on Comprehensive Education Ed Gordon and I edited (2008, 2009, 2010).  There I mused about possibilities for forms of institutionalized education that did not proceed from schools.  I am convinced that adults gain their most significant knowledge (about, say, health, emerging scientific and engineering developments, trends in high and popular culture, etc.) from institutions (for example, journalists and television reporters or producers) that are not controlled by the State.  Most of these institutions do not present themselves as primarily in the education business.  But perhaps they should, and draw the consequences.

McClintock emphasized the Web as another source of an education that is not necessarily packaged as, precisely, “education” but perhaps only as “information,” “entertainment,” etc.  Some writers and producers for the Web may present themselves as educating but none, at this moment assess what one may learn by reading their offerings.  Yet, as McClintock pointed out, the new technologies, as they are evolving, afford for possibilities for ongoing, real time assessment that older technologies (for example the printing press) do not afford.

This is intriguing.  Time for a little science fiction.

Imagine a new Google service.  At this moment, Google answers questions of the type “where can I find about X?”  Whether the seeker is satisfied or not with the answer, whatever the seeker does with answer, Google remains silent after providing a list of possible answers ranked by Google’s best guess as to the seeker’s intent.  If the seeker is dissatisfied, he may ask again and Google will answer, but Google has no memory of what this seeker asked and Google’s answers will not evolve as answers do evolve when, say, a child ask a parent about X.  So, last week, while writing my preceding blog entry, I looked for the creationism museum I had read about.  I entered “creationism” in the Google box (search page saved on of 4/20/2011), clicked on the first of 3,150,000 results (a suspiciously ‘round’ number), and found myself in the Wikipedia entry that started, on that day, with “creationism is the religious belief …”  There are no links to the museum in that entry, and so I asked Google again, found that it was second in its list of possibilities (and I also found out, serendipitously, a “Conservapedia” with an entry on creationism that is close but interestingly different from Wikipedia’s.  I am, of course, on my way to educating myself about creationism—not so much as a belief but as an institution with, among others, curricula experts quite deliberately teaching that which School people are quite sure should not be taught.  But Google never intervened in my education.

Imagine that Google did intervene.  Imagine that Google, as run by some revolutionary government, traced my queries, adapted its answers to my renewed queries and, mor or less insistently started asking me about my beliefs and worked at correcting them.  Parents do this with their children.  And school teachers do this with their pupils.  Why shouldn’t Google?

I suspect that the technological infrastructure of such a service is already in place and that it would not take much tweaking of the various flavors of social software already available to make them serve the new function.

The challenge is multiply institutional.  Who is to start it? Fund it? Control it?  Who is to credential (authorize) the persons or software assessing self-sought knowledge in real time?  Who is to establish the curriculum and it goals to which seekers are to be brought back even as they explored far and wide?  Individuals, clubs, associations, etc., may already provide feedback in the sense that their web sites are less informational than argumentative.  For example, the fifth set of links to ‘creationism’ on Google mostly lead to “atheist” web sites specifically addressing creationist links and debunking the claims.

I have never heard of States getting into this as deliberately as States get in the business of setting school curriculum.

The libertarian and anarchist in me whispers: why would you want the State to get involved?  The school critic from the left and the neo-liberal from the right might ask the same question.  States have a wonderfully awful (or is it awfully wonderful?) track record of setting the curriculum for the mass populations they govern.  Why would they do better with real time ongoing assessment than they have with the usual forms of test or examination based assessments for which schools are (in-)famous?

The statist in me begs to differ.  Free, state regulated, public schools have done much that is good in transforming what is to count as the knowledge on which public and private lives should be based, as well as the means for the production of such knowledge.  Rationally based, modernist (?) expertise should probably remain at the core of what States support, propagate, and assess as, precisely, rationally based.  If Latour (1993 [1991]) is correct, “We may never have been modern.”  Modernism itself is a cultural construction that must be reconstituted on an ongoing basis to remain the order of the day.  True enough, but what else might we wish to build?

What ongoing assessment software should be now build?

Utopias and dystopias: Futures for education, technology, and the assessment of authority over knowledge.

Monday, April 18th, 2011

When we met last Monday (April 11, 2011) for the mini-conference on the future of assessment, we, of course, talked a lot about the impact of the new technologies.  Without much prodding from Robbie McClintock we mentioned the oft celebrated opening of access to knowledge as well as the distribution of the production of widely accessible knowledge.  The new technologies open routes to knowledge that do not pass through the gate-keepers we are familiar with: universities, research libraries, newspapers, state-controlled curricula, medical institutions (not to mention the theologians and priests who, until recently appeared to be fading as gate-keepers).

Someone then mentioned that all this has a very dark side.  With the distribution of access and production comes a distribution of the authority to interpret and constitute knowledge so that it can guide practical action in the world.  This can be scary.

In brief, everyone, about, can read Wikipedia (and other sources available on the Web).  But Wikipedia writers cannot assess what people are doing with the reading, whether in real time or, in a posteriori tests.  Readers may learn, as individuals.  More significantly for us, they may then act publicly and practically.  Disagreeing with Darwin for religious reasons is one thing.  Building a “Creation Museum” is something else together (not to mention trying to enter creationism into the public school curriculum).  Doubting the efficacy of vaccines is one thing, not getting a child vaccinated is another one.

Can “democracy”—as Dewey might have meant it when he titled a book “Democracy and Education” (1916)—survive the full democratization of knowledge?  This, of course, is an old problem.

I will stay with the technical issues and keep the implications for political philosophy implicit.  The issue we must raise concerns the interpretation of two sets of now common observations about the entry of the new technologies into public common practices.

On the one hand there is the evidence for the power of crowd sourcing to establish, through communal self-correction, what is, for an intent, purpose, and polity, expert knowledge.  Much of Wikipedia fits here and there are reports that many fields are using crowd-sourcing for scientific purposes in the modernist sense.  McClintock’s own experiment with StudyPlace is a valiant attempt to use wiki software for more than the writing of encyclopedias.

On the other hand there is also evidence for the power of any number of other self-constituting polities to constitute, propose, defend, etc., forms of knowledge that other polities—says academics—will characterize as erroneous.  Post-modernists, critical theorists, performance artists may celebrate this anarchic blooming but the flowers of such blooming can be toxic.

In both cases one has “education” in my sense of “difficult collective deliberations” (2007) particularly as the various polities discuss and address each other.  In both cases one has evidence for collective ongoing “assessments” of earlier statements (Andrews 2010) by people who specifically claim some expertise, or who just proceed as if the assessment had been made by an expert.  And both cases leave state-regulated or controlled “public” schools in a difficult position.  For a century or two school people have been charged with developing knowledge (in research universities for example), deciding which subset of this knowledge is appropriate for what kinds of publics (through the setting of curricula), experimenting with methods (pedagogies) to impart this knowledge.  They have also been charged with vouching that particularly populations have incorporated this knowledge—through achievement tests for example.  In this arc of knowledge (re-)production, alternate forms of knowledge were either specifically discounted (“grand-mothers’ knowledge”) or just ignored.

For at least half-a-century, critics have protested this arc but they did it mostly from the safety of various ivory-towers (think Bourdieu blasting La Sorbonne from his post at the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales).  They rarely had to deal with the practical consequences of direct attack on academic expertise from putative experts who now have the tools to be heard.  It is only recently that the population at large has had the technological means to make fully public these alternate forms of knowledge.  It may be that finally, post-modernism is being institutionalized.

And so, those of us, particularly in anthropology, who see merit in the argument that constituted knowledge is founded on arbitrary institutional (political) means must confront the consequences of the mass distribution of constitutive tools, and thus the appearance of new forms of arbitrary political power (in all the sense of “arbitrary”—the political as well as the semiotic).

In a future that may already be here, schools may become irrelevant as producers, transmitters, or assessors of knowledge—though they could remain as essential baby sitting institutions, and as gate-keepers into the service industries.  This future may be wonderful, or awful.  Stressing the reality that the web makes public all knowledge and frees inquiry from the mediation of the institutions that limited access, can turn into technological utopia.  Stressing the reality that unmediated information can lead to all forms of altogether dangerous knowledge, can turn into technological dystopia.  It is probable that the 21st century will be a time when the classic debates about letting the Christian faithful read the Bible will be reprised (and will not, one hopes, lead to the kind of violence Europe experienced in the 16th century).

On the way home or, “When is m’I culture?”

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Recently, I happened to watch Martin Scorcese’s documentary on Bob Dylan’s early career.  It is titled “No direction home” and starts with a soliloquy by Dylan wondering whether this would be an occasion for him to tell an odyssey of his return to the small town of his youth.  He concluded that it would not be because “I was born very far from where I am supposed to be.  So I am going home” in a future he had not reached when the documentary was made (in 2005).  In the same vein he also said at about the same time “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens.”

In my words, I exhort us, pre/post/never modern, intellectuals: do not explain Bob Dylan by calling on Robert Allen Zimmerman, Hibbing, Minnesota, or any other further “roots” in Judaism, Ukraine, Turkey—or even rock-n-roll, jazz, country, folk, “the 60′s,” … America.  An archaeology of Dylan’s songs will find them all there.  But to stop with the discoveries of a deconstruction is to blind oneself to humanity.  Robert Allen Zimmerman’s dispositions are not causes.  Hibbing … America are obviously Dylan’s resources, the raw material of what he is still cooking for ever renewed present (at the time of composition) constructions (that are now, of course, our enlarged resources for further construction—as for example this post).

I have said all this many times in recent years (20072011).  I’ll just sketch today another correlate by riffing on “home” and the direction there.  As I take him, Dylan makes of “home” a matter of eschatology, not history.

When I started thinking from Dylan’s statement, I was reminded of a paper by James Boon where he compared/contrasted  Lévi-Strauss and Geertz on what could be called the harmonics of the concept of culture (1982: 137-147).  Boon quotes Geertz “‘Without men, no culture, certainly; but equally, and more significantly, without culture, no men’ (1973:49).”  And then Boon continues:

If that bothers you, think how it would sound in French: Sans hommes, pas de culture [structure?], certainement; mais également, et d’une manière plus significative, sans culture, pas d’homme.  In English it sounds antiatomistic and almost optimistic (although Geertz himself—in this respect more Weberian than Parsonian—is pessimistic).  In French it sounds somehow pessimistic, even nihilistic. (1982:146-7).

{Note what may be a typo in Boon’s translation of the second “men” in Geertz’s quote: an ‘s’ is missing and Boon’s French would have to be translated back into English as “without culture no Man”—thereby directing us on other paths in classical musings about humanity vs. human beings}

In any event, Geertz’s quote evokes another classic statement I associate with Margaret Mead (but may be by someone else—I cannot locate it): “a child is born with the potential to live an infinite number of lives, and end up having lived only one, fully shaped by ‘his culture’.”  Every single human being is made by possible by “culture”—“without culture, no men” in a plural that would now be written, more corrrectly, as “without culture, no men or women.”

Whether this formula can be applied to say “without America, no Bob Dylan” would seem to be a question for anthropology (sociology, psychology, etc.) and it would seem to require a positive answer because, to simplify “Dylan is the product of America.”  This would be altogether “normal anthropology” on the relationship between history and career whether one is concerned with musical genres, political sensibilities, gender, age, religion, race, etc. Robert Zimmerman would be a white Jewish male born in … [add any aspects of his biography you wish].

But Bob Dylan challenges us to a different anthropology which I find quite congenial with what I have been trying to say these past few years.  One can start with the statement that “without Bob Dylan no America” (my initial America included Bob Dylan, along with big cars with fins, cowboys and Indians, Doris Day in “Pillow Talk,” and other miscellanea).  But there is more.  Bob Dylan, in his life, has kept producing a culture that was not quite there and about which we, his mass audiences, know altogether little.  Above all, his statements are universal: all human beings are born very far from where they are supposed to be, with wrong names and parents that are always in some ways wrong.

Dylan is often dismissed as being in some way a mystic whose insights are to be bracketed out by serious behavioral scientists.  Their task would be an incommensurable one and so, from Freud to Boasian anthropologists, from pragmatic philosophers to Parsonian sociologists (including, of course Bourdieu), the scientists of the past century or two, have explained adults careers in terms of what has happened, most particularly in the earliest years of one’s life, and most powerfully when one has forgotten what happened.  Merleau-Ponty, de Certeau, (Bob Dylan?), have tried to go in the other direction but exploring this direction systematically has been difficult—particularly given the difficulty of making the point that historically produced resources, and ongoing constraints, must be taken into account even as one follows the production process.

The one exception to my generalization about the social sciences if, or course, an ethnomethodology that has been modified to take into account the ongoing production of new orders—however minimally “different” they may be from earlier orders, and however these differences are disappeared by further constructions that ignore the potentialities of the preceding (thereby treating as allophonic what could have become phonemic [but I am getting ahead of myself here]).

In other words, my home is in the future of my ‘I’ and (continuing a riff on G. H. Mead) my culture is really “m’I” culture, that is an act, a word, that cannot be captured without collapsing it into other people’s cultures.

[all this being potentially related to soon-to-happen events prefigured by the two contracts we have signed over the past three months: a contract to sell our apartment and a contract to buy a house.  The—aptly named—“closing” on the apartment is now scheduled for January 5th, 2011.  What should be named the “opening” on the house should happen in February.  Then, my wife and I will go home on our ways to still future homes...]

journalists are educators

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

[this was to have been published in April 2010]

Mostly, in my work, I celebrate what Linda Lin (forthcoming) felicitously labeled “untamed” education.  Sometimes, I also fear the untamed, particularly when I am asked to imagine “educational policy” as it might be built up with an acknowledgment of the limits of schooling.  And so I celebrated/feared Oprah as a later day Benjamin Franklin, and as a sometimes force for mis-education (from the point of view of the sober public intellectual).

All this came to me when reading another editorial in Newsweek, this time by Sharon Begley (March 29, 2010).  She titled it “Why scientists are losing the PR wars.” She criticizes “scientists” for not communicating well, and “Americans” who believe both in the absence of intermediaries between God and individual (no priests needed for salvation, no expert needed for knowledge) and in the wisdom of crowds.  Classically, she criticized the people of the United States for being both too individualistic and too conformist.  “No wonder so many Americans have decided that experts are idiots,” Begley concludes.

There is just one problem here.  After all scientists are not trained to be (public) “communicators.”  Actually it is trained out of them in graduate school and only a few may have the nerve, late in their career, to address those who are not their peers in a language they may be familiar with, or through the media they have access to.  As for the non-scientists (including scientists in other fields than their own), where do they get their information?  As far as I can tell from my own experience, and that of a rather extended network of kin and friends including several Ph.D.’s., MD’s, as well as office workers and laborers, over close to a century (since I include grand-parents I came to know well and who were born early in the 20th century), these two or three hundred people got all their scientific knowledge from journalists.

There are exceptions to that generalization.  My grandfather learned about growing tomatoes in Southern France from his father, and from long experience.  Cousins who are radiologists have a professional knowledge of radiation and the human body that do make them if not first level expert knowledge producers, but second level ones with direct entry into that level.  But they have no more direct entry into the world of climate scientists than I have.  Actually, I can say that my first lesson in climate science came to my grandmother who liked to repeat, each time the weather was not exactly what she expected that “ils nous ont détraqué le temps avec leurs bombes atomiques.”  Atomic bombs, she had learned, by exercising her intelligence with what she had read in the popular press, might have an impact on the weather.  Actually this was the time, in the mid-1950s when the movement to ban testing bombs in the atmosphere was starting to be discussed.  So, having ended her schooling at the 6th grade around 1910, and then working mostly at the edge of the unqualified working classes of Marseille, she was not far off.

Half-a-century later, her grandson, with his PhD, and appointment as Full Professor at Columbia University, is in the same position in relation to climate science (and about all other forms of science except the social sciences) as she was.  I do not read primary sources in climate science, and I suspect I would not know how to read them, or how to evaluate the evidence.

Science News Cycle
If this is the case for most of the human population, and every evidence suggests it is, then the major educators in the modern world are journalists, and we should take the cartoon by Jorge Cham that I have already mentioned, as a model for the network that, transforms what Latour might call a ????, within the world of science that produces Nobel prizes, into the personal knowledge of the scientist’s grandmother, and, more fatefully, the knowledge that the polity, and particularly a democratic one, will use as it deliberates its own evolution.

On an education into elevators (62 years into a life in modernity)

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

(Actually, I do not remember when I learned about elevators, or when I first operated one, so it may less than 62 years since I reached the point when I did not have to think about operational procedures—until last week)

One of the best experience of my visit to New Orleans for the annual anthropology meetings (except for wonderful papers by “my” students) occured each time I approached the elevators at my (Sheraton) hotel. On the first day, as I left the registration desk, located my elevator banked, rushed into an open elevator, turned around with hand raised to punch my floor …… I was stopped in my tracts: there were not buttons to push. Where the buttons would have been was a bolted cover. As the doors closed I made a panic exit and looked around. There, I saw a small sign (actually I noticed later that there was a large sign about “elevator upgrades” which I had ignored). It told me that operating the elevators was “as simple as 1, 2, 3″ (making me and, I believe, many others feel properly stupid). As Garfinkel told us, the problem with instructions is that there are to be instruction about the instructions. I had not gotten this instruction to look for instructions but now I had no choice. I did find the instruction and was told that, here and then, one had to punch one’s floor outside the elevator, listen to the voice telling us floor and elevator (“33, Car H”). It was not until my third or four trip that I noticed that a small panel up on the side of the door lit up to indicate the floors where the elevator would stop. Two days later all this had become routine: 1) punch your floor and listen to the instruction about the car to take; 2) locate this car and stand in front of it; 3) as the doors open check the side panel for confirmation and move confidently. I had learned!

However, telling this story as an autobiography of the movement from ignorance to knowledge, leaves asides all sorts of other performances involving many more people with whom I waited for and rode the Sheraton elevators. I was not the only one to have been jogged out of my assumptions about elevators and I found myself one of those who instructed other people, our temporary consociates, about these elevators when we suspected that they had not read the posted instructions and were just rushing into an open elevator without having entered their floor outside, or when we saw them with hand hovering over the bolted panel looking around for the buttons. By then people knew something was wrong and they took our instruction to exit the elevator and punch their floor.

But education, as I have been arguing is not only about learning, or even teaching. It is also about commenting, interpreting, placing the event into broader patterns. By the second or third day, if there were several persons in the elevator, it was quite common for impromptu conversations to start among people who did not know each other: “these are the worst elevators!” “I hate this hotel!” “How could they do this? What’s the point?”. And then there were the comments about the commenting: “Isn’t it interesting how the elevators makes us talk to each other.” And so, in the world of education we also have

instructions

commenting on instructions

commenting on comments about instruction

In this vein of commenting about commenting about commenting… let me expand on one of my favorite statement from Garfinkel: “Consider also that once you get into line persons will not therein question that you have rightfully gotten into line unless you start screwing around. Then you get instructed.” (2002: 257) This statement appears as another illustration of achieved orderliness and of the methods through which this orderliness is accomplished. But it does not directly address the cases when those who screw around with a simple task like using an elevator are engineers, backed by powerful corporations, and by unimpeachable discourses about efficiency and such (including energy efficiency, easily linked to discourses about saving the planet). Then, new conditions have been inscribed and “we,” the future members of temporary ad hoc “congregations” (in Garfinkel’s term) or of “polities of practice” (in my terms) must now make new orders. It may be that, in a few years, the Sheraton method to using elevators will have become so common as to hide its extra-vagance (Boon 1999). It will then be “as if” people were habituated into “their” culture (when in fact they are just putting up with someone else’s cultural production).

But these new orders will be required only as long as those who build the machineries of our lives (including the political, economic, classificatory, etc., machines) can maintain them against our own extra-vagance—unless of course they change them.

on taming the ignorant powerful …

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

In an earlier post, I asked a question, with a tongue in my cheek: “how could we tame Oprah?” I did not specifying who ‘we’ are, on what grounds ‘we” should try to tame her, and whether taming Oprah (and others like her) is something that could be done.  After all, they are wonderfully extra-Vagant (as Boon, 1999, might put it) and likely to escape most forms of social control.

I leave the questions open for the moment in order to expand the puzzle triggered by a critique of the advice Oprah dispenses on matters like vaccination.  There is every evidence that, from the ‘official’ public health point of view, her shows can be dangerous, particularly when she discusses vaccination.  She may endanger the health of individual children not getting vaccinated, as well as the health of the public as these children get sick and may sicken others.  At least this is what us, sober headed experts in public health as driven by medical research, might say (and have said).  As a highly schooled expert myself, and someone who generally accepts what other experts tell me, I am uncomfortable at any challenge to my expertise, particularly when it comes from someone as powerful as Oprah.  But I am not writing her to complain.  I continue here to puzzle.

In the earlier post, I marveled at Oprah’s pedagogy (the way she formats the discussions) and at her use of a classic American formula where highly schooled experts are pitted against the common sense of the non-expert.  As a cultural anthropologist, I cheer at a particularly striking improvisation on an old theme.

But I am also an anthropologist interested in education.  As such I am puzzled and need to figure out how the new skepticism about medical authority is actually performed, by whom and when.  So I was fascinated by an editorial by Joel Stein of Time Magazine about “The Vaccination War” and how it played out in a “liberal, wealthy [couple] of L.A.” and their immediate network.  He assumed his new-born would be vaccinated, his wife said ‘No’.  So:

To try to be open-minded and stop our fighting, I went to a seminar about inoculation at Cassandra’s yoga center.  Along with about 50 other people, we paid $30 each to listen to Dr. Lauren Feder.

This Dr. Feder explained why inoculation is not necessary, and how not immunizing might possibly be healthier for the child.  I am tempted to write about this as a case of deliberate mis-education and induced ignorance among the prosperous and powerful.  I could also write it as a case of resistance among some of the powerful (the people who might appear in Larry David’s Curb your enthusiasm) against some other powerful people (health experts).  Unless of course it is just a case of mass hysteria.

Again, I do not want to complain, but the problem remains: “how are we to tame the mis-guided powerful?” (if we decided to do so).

“Educational research” has produced much that has documented the apparent ignorance of the poor and powerless, particularly as compared to the apparent knowledge of the prosperous and powerful.  This literature assumes that the latter know (more) and that they pass this knowledge on to their children (“cultural capital”).  But what if the prosperous also mis-educate their children, if not on matters relating to schooling at school-relevant moments (e.g. high stake exams), at least on a lot of other matters, and at other times?  And what if the prosperous’ success in school tests is not quite a reflection of what they end up “knowing”?  What if the prosperous, often, just pass (pretend, lie) at passing (school tests)?  There is some evidence that the children of the poor sometimes fail at tests because they refuse to do what it takes to pass.  We need to see if, in some case and for certain purposes, the children of the powerful succeed at the same tests because all they have done is do what it takes to pass, without learning in the sense of understanding or accepting the answers they gave on the tests.  When test-taking is done, then what they actually learned over the course of their schooling, or what they continue to educate themselves about as they grow older, may reveal itself as something else altogether than school-people might have expected.

Joel Stein, in the same column, says something very interesting and challenging to us school people about the source of his adult knowledge:

Even in the age of Google and Wikipedia, we still receive almost all of our information through our peers.  I believe in evolution not because I’ve read Darwin but because everyone I know things it’s true.

Now, that is a challenge for all educators, and for all researchers on education.

how to tame Oprah …

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

In the space of two days, I watched a PBS biography, of Benjamin Franklin and an journalistic discussion of Oprah Winfrey Show in Newsweek (June 8, 2009).  Of course, the scholars who discussed Franklin mentioned again and again his place in American history as one of the first and most powerful advocate and practitioner of self-education both through one’s own efforts and through the efforts of people like himself to teach in such a way as to make it easier for people to self-educate.  The journalists reporting on the Winfrey show emphasized the way she presents health issues with an emphasis on personal vs. expert knowledge.  Arguably, both Franklin and Winfrey belongs to the same American tradition that Franklin helped institutionalized.  Both establish their authority by calling on the common sense skepticism about the wisdom of legitimized authority.  It has been said that P. T. Barnum used similar rhetorical moves as he presented the displays for which he was famous as occasions to exercise the skepticism of the audience. One did not have to take Barnum at his word, but one should come in and check for oneself.  Winfrey uses the same argumentation in the statement she released to Newsweek when she was asked to respond to their story: “People are responsible for their actions.  The information presented on the show is … not an endorsement … My intention is for the viewers to … engage in a dialogue with their medical practitioners.”  In other words: “Do not believe me! Judge for yourself!”

Early in my career I would have stopped here with a quip like “only in America!” and possibly mentioned other famous current people who use similar forms. The symbolic successes of Sarah Palin can certainly be linked to the same broad cultural pattern; and so can the refusal to accept the usual narratives about U.S. history, or evolution; and so perhaps can much of what has made the Interned powerful as a tool for cultural production (education).  In the inner cities, the Bible Belt, and probably everywhere else as well, the call to trust common sense over expertise remains what it has been—and Hollywood is happy to profit from it.  As Franklin said of his Almanac: “I endeavored to make it both entertaining and useful and … I reaped considerable profit from it” (as quoted in Cremin, 1970: 374).

But today, I will not stop with an altogether admiring wonder at American quirks.  I am involved in an academic struggle with the definition of what is to count as educational (school reform) policy in the United States and, particularly, with the search for a method to control what experts have determined should be taught by American schools so that it is learned by all American children (so that no child, indeed, is left behind).  I have argued that this attempt is unlikely to work if it focuses solely on schools.  Actually I am not even sure that going beyond schooling to understand education would be enough.  This is where Winfrey comes in.  Provocatively, how might “we,” expert scientists from schools of education, tame Winfrey and come to control her health education curriculum?  Should “we”? And who are the “we” who claim the right to control this curriculum?

And so, I was reminded again of Rancière and the argument that education cannot be tamed.  I thank Dr. Linda Lin for thinking of the paradigm of the wild/domesticated/tamed as best capturing Rancière’s argument as it must be generalized.  Education cannot be tamed and all the efforts to tame it are in vain—and this is a very good thing for the production of new cultural forms.

But that leaves those of us who are quite sure of our expertise with a dilemma. How do we reach the settings where licensed teachers do not have direct authority, from families to the media, from street corners to churches or mosques? How do we tame Oprah?

References

Cremin, Lawrence American education: The Colonial Experience.  New York: Harper & Row. 1970

on ‘Lost’ as educator

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

There is a part of me that is half-ashamed in the pleasure I take in such shows as the TV series Lost.  It is of course gratifying to know that many people do.  More interesting is the discovery of what so many of these people are doing with the show.  Let me join them.

I will leave to a student the task of tracing the full extent of what people are actually doing with Lost.  Given its success, I am sure someone has started doing this.  So I will give this student one more issue to trace: Lost can also be explored as a site for education.  I build here on a journalistic piece written for the web site of Christianity Today.  I will do so to highlight the educational aspect of the show and how its fits with what I have been writing about in recent years (2008, 2009).

This piece (posted 5/18/2009) is written by Tyler Charles, a freelance writer.  He mentions some of what people are doing with Lost as they investigate the scientific, literary, philosophical and religious hints the show gives.  Charles lists the books and philosophers mentioned, the major philosophical issued revealed, as well as other matters.  He does not mention anyone exploring the political aspects of the show and yet, particularly in the first season, a major issue was the nature of leadership and the organization of government (“Who made you the leader, Jack?”, “A leader can’t lead until he knows where he is going.” – Episode 5).  Actually, this issue has been reopened with the (divine?) appointing of Locke as leader by “the island.”  I suspect some people are also exploring this since it can open conversations about the very grounding of democracy.

Charles reports that people are following these leads.  They seek to find out more about the physics of time travel and electromagnetism, or what might make John Locke or David Hume important enough persons to have characters named after them.  Of course, there is a wiki site where one can start exploring all this: lostpedia.wikia.com.

The French philosopher Jacques Rancière (who still does not have a character named after him on Lost…) brought out of obscurity a, until now, minor figure of the French Revolution, Joseph Jacotot.  Rancière recounts how Jacotot demonstrated, to his satisfaction at least, that any one, particularly someone who did NOT know the subject matter, could “teach” this matter.  Even more challenging he argued that all the material they needed was one book, Télémaque written by Fénelon.  It was not because the book was a source of universal wisdom but because, to say all this more carefully:

anyone (not quite a teacher) can produce a situation
…… where someone else (not quite a student) can learn
………. what this person must have the will to learn, and that,

given this will,

…… anything (and not necessarily Télémaque)

………. can start this person on the way to find out for herself what she wants to know.

This actually might be the basis for a Lost episode.  Unless it is the point of the whole show where everyone has to figure out, again, what to do next given what has happened to them in the past.

In that perspective, Lost (like probably Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.) is becoming a Télémaque for a generation of people using it as a departure to teach themselves about physics, religion, human relationships, etc., not to mention of course many aspects of what used to be called “literary criticism,” and would now fall under the purview of “popular culture studies.”

The question, for a faculty at Teachers College, of Columbia University, is: when someone teaches herself anything, does she “learn” it?  Does one know something if no one has certified that she does?