Kreber and Barnett on authenticity, strangeness and what it means to be a graduate

Kreber, C. 2014. Rationalising the nature of ‘graduateness’ through philosophical accounts of authenticity. Teaching in Higher Education, 19 (1), pp90-100.

While the internet was down at work, I read this. I hadn’t heard of Carolin Kreber before; her work was suggested to me by a fellow EdD student at our last meeting in Oxford, and I’m pretty happy about having found her.

Kreber makes connections between graduateness and authenticity. She equates Ron Barnett’s ‘capacity for coping with strangeness’ (2005, p794) with openness to experience, and explains how this links up with what she describes as an existential dimension of authenticity; how human being is affected by, and deals with, the challenges of being in the world. She presents this disposition of openness as a prerequisite for the development of qualities of moral commitment and responsible engagement (Sullivan & Rosin 2008) which follow from the critical and communitarian dimensions of authenticity.

Kreber cites Sullivan and Rosin’s (2008) suggestion that the purpose of higher education is to enable learners to participate and identify with ‘something that is larger than oneself’. For Sullivan and Rosin, with their emphasis on responsible community engagement, this ‘something’ is social, and it resonates strongly with Hogan’s view of education as ‘the uncovering and nourishment of human potentials that benefits others as much as the self’. One of my research participants had an alternative take on this idea of something ‘larger than’ or ‘beyond’ the self, emphasising not only the public good aspect, but the role of higher education in showing an individual other possible ways of being, other than who they are now, and I’ll come back to that in a bit.

My attention was drawn to Kreber’s thoughts on ‘strangeness’. I don’t recall coming across the word in Barnett’s work, and I was intrigued (as I often am by the German language) by Kreber’s translation of ‘unheimliche’; something that is strangely familiar and therefore ‘uncanny’ rather than simply ‘strange’. Uncanny is a word I’ve used in the past without really thinking about what it really means, and the contexts in which we tend to use it, which are closely tied with human likenesses.

Further investigation on the Google revealed this rather fun chart of human likeness against familiarity, featuring the ‘uncanny valley’ of negative emotional response:

Not massively relevant to the philosophy of higher education, I know. Let’s move on.

Kreber proposes that students today are met with two challenges – one being what Barnett calls epistemological uncertainty, with rapid advancements in knowledge – and the calling into question of truth – leading to an awareness that the future is uncertain and unpredictable. Barnett (2007, p36-37) claims the challenge is made ‘supercomplex’ by the incompatibility of different interpretations of the world, which are increasingly coming up against one another as a product of globalisation and disciplinary specialisation.

Having spoken with Ron personally about this, I know he is optimistic about creating shared understandings. As I gather the data for my thesis, I’ve started to wonder whether our knowledge frameworks are as incompatible as we like to believe. Do we – as Theodore Zeldin observes in his book Conversation – focus on difference because we love drama? We find arguing fun to do and entertaining to watch. We also like to find patterns in things, which requires labelling, categorisation, clear distinctions… and often reductionism.

The embryonic findings of my research seem to support Zeldin and Gadamer’s view that we have more common ground; more scope for finding new solidarities; than we might have assumed. That doesn’t surprise me, because I’m a happy, positive soul (well, cheerfully pessimistic) and that’s what I wanted to find! I am also finding evidence that we might all be more self-interested than we think we are; a commonality that possibly gets in the way of us acting on whatever solidarities we build.

Unlike Cinderella’s glass slipper – which either fits or it doesn’t – the compatibility of interpretations appears to be subjective. Pluralism – so it seems to me – is about seeing the compatibility of different interpretations (‘Compatibilism’ specifically refers to the standpoint that free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive). Pluralism is, of course, distinct from relativism, which lends validity to all points of view. Compatibility is not the same thing as validity. I am not a relativist. I may be a pluralist. Hence my view on incompatibility and supercomplexity.

Let’s get back to strangeness, because what Kreber says on this resonates strongly with something I read a few days ago at the very start of David’s book – A Hermeneutics of Religious Education – on the Heideggerian perspective that interpretation invokes a play or tension between a text’s strangeness, and its familiarity (p2). Thinking on this, it struck me that this tension is surely present when we are learning anything. We have to create and engage with strangeness, otherwise there will be nothing to learn.

Barnett argues that the anxiety that is felt when our existing conceptions are called into question is ‘a condition of what it means to be a student’ (Kreber 2014, p93). I’m not sure that’s the kind of thing that makes me feel anxious. I think I quite like having my mind bent around a bit. That probably explains why I like psychedelics so much.

It’s often said that anxiety can get in the way of learning. Procrastination is often said to have a basis in anxiety. I have found that taking a deep breath, holding it and letting it out slowly is a great way to finish that paragraph rather than making another cup of tea. But Barnett and Kreber are talking about more than breathing exercises; they feel that the appropriate response to strangeness is for students to be open to one’s own complex possibilities. This is what they mean by striving for authenticity.

The use of the word ‘authenticity’ is intriguing to me as it suggests being or becoming what one really is; i.e. a single, determined outcome, rather than a range of possibilities. I’ll return here to what my conversation partner said about students discovering other possible ways of being, and the personal example they gave that suggested a critical stripping away of assumptions and expectations that revealed their true self. Is becoming aware of what might be (and what you might be) the same thing as coming to know what is (or becoming who you really are)? This is what Barnett and Kreber – and my conversation partner – seem to be saying, or at least that the relationship is a reciprocal one.

N.B. when I told Richard I was reading about coping with strangeness by creating it, he told me that when he was a little boy he would pretend to be a monster, in order to scare the monsters away. I’m not sure that’s relevant to the debate, I just thought it was cute (and ingenious).

Education requires being open to change – which as David points out in his book is a necessary attitude for engaging in dialogue. There is absolutely no point in entering into a dialogue unless one is open to having one’s mind changed. If we are absolutely sure that we are right, and our aim is to change the other person’s mind, we demand they take a different, more flexible attitude to us; we enforce a double standard (this is a key point in Stone, Patten & Heen’s 1999 book Difficult Conversations). Openness to change, and to the revealing of additional complexity, is what Kreber means by contributing to the strangeness. She returns again to the metaphor of authorship (‘of one’s own life’, which I find a little problematic given my recent reading on free will and determinism), pointing out that where there is no authority to rest on, no confirmation to seek, we have to offer our own ideas. This goes beyond critical thinking; it requires us to invest in and commit to our own choices.

I had an idea today for something to do in the lead-up to the election. I thought I would pop along to the local canvassing meetups for all the main political parties. They couldn’t possibly refuse, could they? Not if I was just hanging around and listening in with an open mind? They’d probably find it very strange, and they’d be right  – it would be very strange, in exactly the way that Kreber is talking about; challenging and developing openness to experience, moral commitment and responsible engagement.

Watch this space for some serious strangeness!

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