Nixon #3 and a tangent on free will

One thing I particularly liked about Nixon’s book was the depth of the image it painted of the four thinkers whose ideas were drawn upon; it described them as real people with families and styles of dress and ways of talking. I like to know about the lives of the thinkers I’m reading about. It’s fairly obvious that our ideas and ways of thinking don’t arise ex nihilo (ha – I said I wouldn’t ever do that) – our perspective depends on where we’re standing.

As usual, I’ve had about five different books on the go at once. While digesting Nixon I’ve also been reading Tim Williamson’s Tetralogue (about absolutism, relativism and points of view), rediscovering Newman’s Idea of the University, dipping into a philosophical anthology on free will, and having some fun with Dave Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind. Quite a mix, I know!

I’ve also started having the conversations for the empirical part of my thesis, and I’m feeling more relaxed (optimistic?) about the University as a concept, the central tenets of which actually seem pretty consistent. Debates over who pays for education, the effect of competition between schools, the quality of student accommodation, contact time, internationalisation… these have been around for millennia – since the academic community of Athens, at least. I can feel myself shifting towards a view that – regarding those in higher education – provided they are actually learning plenty, there’s maybe not a huge amount to worry about.

What about those who aren’t, though? I feel like this is the elephant in the room… or maybe all these writers on higher education think that the elephant isn’t in this particular room, so it’s not relevant. But how can it not be relevant? If we’re going to argue that higher education is a public good, what or who is this public that it is good for? Nixon writes: ‘the future is cosmopolitan and cosmopolitanism requires us to acknowledge our differences and recognise our shared humanity’ (p110). There may be differences between the religious and the non-religious, the upper class and the working class, between natives and immigrants. There are presumably also differences between graduates and non-graduates, and it may be that these are particularly problematic when it comes to the great debates of our time. Are universities actually driving a deeper rift through society? According to some reports, we are approaching 50% participation in higher education. Information is everywhere and we all think we know what’s what, which is an interesting state of affairs in a democracy, especially when governments bypass representation and make us decide things ourselves.

One of my early ideas for my thesis was on speaking with members of the public without personal experience of higher education, about universities. I put it to one side, realising that I had a lot of assumptions about the insider view I needed to question first, and that I needed to hone my skills as a radical pluralist translator (ha!) before letting myself loose on the outside world. I’m definitely not ruling it out as a future piece of work.

As I mentioned in my previous two posts, I found quite a lot of resonance between Nixon’s chapters on Arendt and Nussbaum, and the anthology I’ve been reading on Free Will (Pereboum 2009). I’ll outline some initial thoughts here.

An issue I have with a lot of the free will debate is that it draws on examples of individuals making decisions in isolation. I get that this is a simplification that probably works for the case the particular writer is making, and of course Pereboum’s anthology isn’t about education, but when your primary concern is education, there are a lot more connections and influences to consider. It’s easy to dish out advice on what to do – not so easy to take it yourself, and teaching, to a large extent, is about motivating and advising others. I’m really interested in this in relation to the free will debate, because when we act as a teacher our actions are intended to influence someone else’s actions. Taking Strawson’s model of C factors and S procedures, are we – the educators – the C factors or the S procedures in a student’s life? Are we enacting our own will freely when deciding how we should influence them, or are we all just part of one huge interdependent matrix that is so necessarily complex it appears chaotic – random, even – and gives us the illusion of free will? Nixon talks about this in the chapter on Open Futures (p114) – our life trajectories as acting upon and being responsive to the trajectories of others (at this point I googled ‘is there anything that is totally random’, which I really don’t recommend you do unless you’re okay with circularly polarised photons and hidden state variables).

I made a pretty massive decision recently; or at least on one level I thought I did, but at the same time it didn’t really feel like I was making it. It felt like it was happening, and I was coping with it as best I could. This is one reason why I’ve become very interested in the free will question. Another is that I’ve been having treatment for a long-term impulse control disorder, which has taught me that in-the-moment decisions don’t feel very free. It seems that the decisions you can make in advance and plan for – e.g. to watch your sugar intake, to meditate, to exercise – do feel more like free decisions, and provided you choose to follow the right routines and develop particular patterns and habits, the frequency and and power of the impulses are reduced. I think this is highly relevant to education in general, and I’m aware this might sound quite provocative, because I don’t think we like to think that our emotions and impulses have so much of a hold on us. We like to think of ourselves as rational, autonomous beings. We like to think of ourselves as having free will.

Regarding the big decision, I think engaging with the free will debate helped a lot. Not necessarily the ‘making’ of it – if that’s what I did – but definitely in coping with it and maintaining near-normal functioning in my life while it was going on. What also helped was stumbling across Ruth Chang, an existentialist with a wonderfully accessible line on hard decisions; we often look at them in the wrong way; as being very ‘high stakes’ in the sense that if we get it wrong, the consequences will be awful. But when you think about it, the reason it is a hard choice is because there are benefits (and yes, potential drawbacks to both); neither is obviously better nor worse than the other; they are ‘on a par’ with one another. Looking at a hard decision in this way helps us to stop the agonising and catastrophising, and see the dilemma as an opportunity to be the author of our own lives. This perspective seems to be in support of the notion that we have free will, but – yet again – the more I read, the less significant the differences appear to be.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Nixon #2: the four thinkers

Nixon, J. 2013. Interpretive Pedagogies for Higher Education: Arendt, Berger, Said, Nussbaum and their Legacies. London, Bloomsbury.

Nixon uses the middle section of his book to develop his ideas around higher education as interpretation through four thinkers; Hannah Arendt, John Berger, Edward Said and Martha Nussbaum.

I’d come across all of them before, and bought Berger’s famous book ‘Ways of Seeing’ shortly after his death earlier this year, but it was satisfying to have their viewpoints brought together in this way and to see explicit links made with higher education.

I first heard of Arendt through reading about Martin Heidegger, with whom she had a long-term on and off relationship – despite being a Jew and him a one-time Nazi. A lot of people would probably wonder what on earth was going on there, but I get it. I too am intrigued and attracted to people with different viewpoints to myself, because I know I’ll be able to learn something from them. It doesn’t make life easy, but I don’t like things to be easy. Arendt was also clearly someone who liked to challenge herself and engage with as many different viewpoints as possible.

Nixon focuses on Arendt’s ideas about thinking, and her own approach to thought itself. Arendt saw thoughtfulness as constant, endless questioning. Thinking is difficult, and the relationship between thinking and acting is complex and indeterminate. Thoughtfulness alone can’t enable us to achieve collective agency.

I’ve been simultaneously reading up on free will, and this of course relates, but I’m not entirely sure what side Arendt would have placed herself (in fact, as I read, the more I wonder whether there are in fact two sides), as she argued that there is no clear path between the realm of thought and the sphere of action.

Arendt was in favour of thinking without method (‘without pillars and props’) – and as something that can only be done alone. That’s a really interesting distinction, and it doesn’t sit comfortably with me; I feel like I’ve had some of my most memorable insights in discussion with others, which has forced me to sharpen my focus and think a bit deeper than I would have by myself. But Arendt also stressed that thoughtfulness is plural in that it demands thinking from the standpoint of others; what she called representative thinking. I’ve been talking about this recently with Richard – the ability to simultaneously appreciate different standpoints – but I feel like we haven’t reached a point of mutual understanding on that yet.

Plurality is a key theme that runs through a lot of Arendt’s thinking about thought. She describes as ‘plural’ the relationship between thought and action, and also describes thinking as herself being with herself; an activity where she is ‘both the one who asks and the one who answers’. (1978, p185). I think that’s a really lovely way of putting it, and her assurance that she is alone but not lonely when thinking in solitude is really helpful for me personally, given that, right now, I’m adjusting to being alone a lot more than I’ve been in the last few year or so. Arendt argues that thinking is an activity – not an action, even an inner one. We are only with our self while thinking, whereas when we act we are in the company of others (2003, p105-106).

A couple of other points, which I’ll probably return to (maybe in my thoughts about free will and responsibility), include Arendt noting the easy ordinariness of evil and the tremendous difficulty of being good. Also that – without recourse to specified methods and procedures – thinking is unpredictable and has unspecifiable consequences.

In comparison to the chapter on Arendt, I’m not sure the chapter on John Berger spoke to me that much. Maybe working at UAL for seven years hasn’t influenced me as much as I thought it had – or maybe it has, and that’s the point! The general message – that becoming attentive is a way of positioning oneself politically and personally – is insightful. I didn’t feel it was particularly contentious.

In the next chapter, Nixon relates the work of Edward Said to his theme of worldliness in higher education; an openness to new possibilities and horizons and a constant questioning of what is known. Nixon makes explicit connections between Said’s thinking and Gadamer’s, on building on fragile friendships (through argument, understanding and deliberation) to extend the bounds of solidarity (see From Oslo to Iraq and the Roadmap – 2004, p170), and the idea of ‘background’ (I guess what Gadamer refers to as ‘tradition’?) and how it ‘asserts itself into the foreground’ (p82). It might be worthwhile to check out the BBC Reith lectures Said did in 1993 on speaking the truth to power, where he speaks of weighing up the alternative interpretations, picking the right one, and then intelligently representing it where it can do the most good and cause the right change.

Said – again like Gadamer – highlighted the importance of the historical context when interpreting texts. Worldliness requires a recognition of the interconnectivity of texts, and the complex web of social relations that bind and distinguish them. We need global and transnational perspectives in our reading of social reality (I was reminded here that I still haven’t returned to Blessinger’s recent book Democratising Higher Education, which outlines international variation in HE policy, funding models, etc – and this is the advice Ron Barnett gave me as well. Oops).

An important assumption underlies Said’s approach, which is the mutual dependence of written texts, and their status as deliberate interventions. Texts have designs on their readers and a vested interest in how related texts are read and interpreted. Now, this is a very interesting point. It made me consider – what are the designs I have on my readers (not necessarily through my thesis, but the other texts that spring from its loins). What is my vested interest in how texts related to my own are interpreted? Another assumption Nixon picks up on is that the world is ‘escapably wordy’. We understand and represent the world and render it knowable through words; this is part of what the world is and what it becomes. Texts have authority; this is how they resonate with each other and their readers. They ‘invite their readers into their conversations’ (p88).

Said was against politics being taught in classrooms, but maintained that knowledge is always better than ignorance, without exception – and this was, in a sense, his politics. Nixon describes him as a powerful, rather than a forceful, figure, and Said also used this distinction, likening it to the difference between volume and intensity (or resonance) in music. Said also wrote about the later work of artists – rather than expressing reconciliation and serenity – as tending towards the troubled and complex, highlighting the ‘intransigence, difficulty and contradiction’ that artists communicate through their work toward the end of their lives. I found this really interesting.

Reading about Edward Said got me thinking about how texts change our interpretation of the world, particularly in light of Galen Strawson’s chapter in the anthology I’ve been reading on free will. I wondered whether Strawson would class such texts as ‘S’ procedures or ‘C’ factors. I suspect probably the former. I guess the more surprising or unexpected a text is, the more its potential for change – but too far and the reader will not engage, or react in a way that ultimately serves to reinforces their existing view (this balance was very much in my mind when writing a feature for the Mail on Sunday a few weeks ago).

The chapter on Nussbaum also connected strongly with the free will debate. Nixon describes her work as ‘deeply Aristotlean’ in terms of her assertion that we are vulnerable to factors outside our control (‘much that I did not make goes towards making me whatever I shall be praised or blamed for being’ – 2001a p5), and how this affects our moral appraisals of one another. Nussbaum argues that we have a moral responsibility to be responsive to one another’s needs, and this, I assume, is what Nixon is relating to higher education – an aim to develop this capability in students.

Are we good/bad because of luck? Or because of our goodness/badness?

I’ve not read Nicomachean Ethics (yet), but I really like the sound of Aristotle’s approach as described by Nussbaum (2001a, p319-320); to carefully examine the extreme positions of luck-supremacy and agency-supremacy through exploring the motivating concerns in each case; i.e. what might prompt someone to adopt either view, and in doing so to preserve both ideas. I also like what Nussbaum says about emotions being a form of judgement (similar to the Greek Stoic view) on certain things beyond our own control. She suggests these affective judgements have their origins in our helpless, purely responsive infancy and are connected to the development of practical reason and a sense of self.

But… I think this idea of education as developing learners’ capabilities to affiliate oneself with others raises more questions than it answers. I think we all affiliate ourselves with others; what divides us is who or what we include in those circles of affiliation. Some – like my friend Libby – a vegan who founded the refugee aid charity Calais Action – have a seemingly very wide circle of affiliation that includes all humans and animals. Some – like myself, for whom empathy and social imagination doesn’t come naturally, and human connection is exhausting, might appear to have a smaller circle. Most of our mutual friends would say that Libby is the better person. I’ve had a lot more formal education than she has, but she has love and imagination in spades (except perhaps for political conservatives, people who neglect or harm animals, and anyone who voted for Brexit). While I spend my evenings and weekends immersed in philosophy, moral psychology and policy in a quest to understand the Other (especially political conservatives), she is out collecting and distributing emergency supplies for the distressed and displaced of the world. I guess we are both cultivating our humanity – and our global citizenship, and our respect of difference – in different ways. Are both our ways valid? What were the educational influences on our approaches? Are we working towards the same ends? These are all interesting questions that I’ve found myself pondering in reading about moral psychology, and I’ll come back to them.

In his conclusion, Nixon describes the human condition as dealing with having no control and needing to have total control; the ‘complementary neuroses of late modernity’ (p109). We are aware that our actions interconnect and interrelate to a vast extent and in myriad ways; so much that we can never get a handle on the details. That bit was great – it blew my mind a little – but the rest of his final section descends into polemic, and I’ll chew over that in my next post.

Posted in Thesis | Leave a comment

Nixon’s ‘pedagogic university’ #1

Nixon, J. 2013. Interpretive Pedagogies for Higher Education: Arendt, Berger, Said, Nussbaum and their Legacies. London, Bloomsbury.

I found this a rather unusual book. It gripped, then it intrigued, and ultimately disappointed. And now I have the fun of articulating why that was! I made a lot of notes, and simultaneously took a couple of interesting tangents on free will and relativism/absolutism, so this might extend to two or three posts.

Nixon proposes that the current economic crisis has exposed tensions and contradictions in the future of the university. I’d thought it was the expansion and marketisation of higher education that had caused said tensions and contradictions, and that the economic crisis was largely a fabrication, but there we go. In any case, Nixon observes that certain undesirables are on the rise in UK society – lack of stable employment, inequality, consumerism, etc. – and constructs an argument for the pedagogical university; a place of ethical flourishing through interpretive enquiry and ongoing dialogue. That’s obviously why I’m reading his book – it pulls together the idea of the university and the interpretive tradition, and makes some great connections with Hans-Georg Gadamer into the bargain. The first section is great; very much along the lines of what I was going to write for my literature review (and now I’m going to have to do something else, oh well). The middle section considers higher education through the lens of four thinkers – Arendt, Berger, Said and Nussbaum – each with distinctive contributions to interpretive scholarship and thinking around interpretation. The final section explores epistemological and ethical implications for higher education practice.

In the first section Nixon explains how pedagogy permeates the practice and structure of HE. For Nixon, key pedagogic themes include deliberation, dialogue and the centrality of the question (referring to Collingwood, which David and I discussed a couple of years back). He highlights plurality, incommensurability and contingency as factors impacting on human understanding, and the importance of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics.

I’ve been reading a bit more on moral psychology and theology recently, and it was interesting that Nixon picked up on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s call for faith communities to embrace ‘religionlessness’ and acknowledge unresolved disagreements on issues of value as well as matters of fact. The other day I came across Linda LaScola (through Daniel Dennett’s work on consciousness, while prepping for next week’s PESGB workshop), who’s been researching non-believing clergy of different faiths. It’s really interesting work (and I love the way LaScola answers questions about herself – like she’s observing wildlife).

I think a lot of people probably think the connection between universities and theology is purely historical, but this is important stuff; we’re talking about the difference between right and wrong and living accordingly. Nixon – like Bonhoeffer – argues that we need to hold the argument open until we at least agree on what the disagreement is; and that this ‘holding open’ creates the moral and ethical authority of the university.

At this point I turned to Google to remind myself of the difference between morals and ethics. I’m still not 100% convinced I get the difference, but I’m a very early-career philosopher:

Morals = difference between right & wrong & living accordingly.
Ethics = philosophy of how that morality guides individual and group behaviour.

Nixon argues that interpretation is intrinsically ethical, because it is concerned with how we interpret the world in light of others’ interpretations of it (p15). He feels that universities have a role in ‘ensuring we learn how to build together an interpretable world within a global context’ (p13), through producing students who are active interpreters of the world. His focus on learning to live with difference resonates with the work of Jonathan Sacks as well as Gadamer, and he emphasises that the quality of pedagogical and collegial relationships is key to achieving these ends, as dialogue and understanding require reciprocity and mutual respect in addition to academic freedom – the recognition of different viewpoints and a commitment to exploring those differences.

Nixon cites Collini (2011) in highlighting the danger that many undergraduates will be palmed off with a narrow training while children of the privileged classes continue to attend properly resourced universities, echoing the situation in the US where a small number of private universities with high fees suck out the resources needed to sustain good public universities. There is an assumption underlying UK HE policy that market forces will drive up standards and drive down prices, but we’re not seeing any evidence of the driving down of prices; everyone is struggling to survive and finances are increasingly being diverted away from teaching and into recruitment, administration and management.

Is public education about social control and reproduction, or liberation and transformation? Nixon cites Bauman’s description of the majority being educated into obedient compliance and socially useful occupations, and the social and economic conditions enabling the enlightenment of the few crumbling with the post-enlightenment ‘liquid’ modernity. Freud, Marx and Nietzsche all had radically different visions when it came to education, but all envisaged a new order of thinking people independent from state and societal control; public educators as public intellectuals speaking for the public, where necessary against the state and societal norms.

Nixon argues that crucial to our survival will be a radical pluralism, a new politics of difference requiring a new kind of specialist; those able to act as translators between specialisms and cultural traditions; able to form ‘interpretive frameworks within which radical differences can be held in critical tension’ (p19). This is what Bauman (1987, p.143) refers to by the ‘art of critical conversation’ – ‘to talk rather than fight, to understand rather than dismiss’ – and this is exactly what I had in mind when I initially conceived the idea for my thesis; I wanted to try this mediating role out for myself.

Nixon presents a thorough treatment of the ‘two cultures’ divide (exemplified by the debate between C.P Snow and R.R. Leavis in the 50’s and early 60s) – the drive in the humanities being to understand and in the sciences to control. This prompted me to wonder about my own thesis and whether my methods and intentions hang together. Yes, I want to understand – but what is my eventual aim? Do I want to control? I do want to effect some kind of change, but I think I’m fairly open-minded about what that might be. I suspect the most significant change will be in myself…

Posted in Thesis | Leave a comment

Supervision #2

I met with David at Brunel on Monday for a supervision meeting and gave him a brief update on what I’ve been doing and what my plans are over the next few weeks. It really is action stations at the moment because I’m scheduling in conversations with my participants, and putting together my literature review chapter. The data collection part of my schedule has slipped a bit, but I’m still aiming to get a first draft of the literature review done by the beginning of May:

The main thing we discussed was possible approaches to the literature review. David encouraged me to consider interesting stylistic ways of structuring it, and suggested a deep reading of a core text; using this as a central thread from which to make outward connections with the other sources I’ve been engaging with. The core text would need to be something quite fundamental and David thought Newman’s The Idea of A University would be a good choice. I really wasn’t sure about this at first because it seems so very dated, but I quickly came around to the idea. It should actually give me lots of opportunities to compare and contrast present and future conceptions with the origins of the university. I’m a lot more comfortable working with the theological aspect of these origins now as well, after my little sideline into psychedelic phenomenology, several months of PESGB seminars where God features quite a lot, and reading Barnett and – just for fun – a comprehensive anthology on the philosophy of Free Will. If there are bits of Newman’s Idea that seem to be of no relevance to the hear and now, then that could be a point of interest in itself.

It’s been done before of course – here’s a short Guardian article from 2010 and a much longer paper given by the Reverend Ian Ker in 2011, both of which deal with the relevance of Newman’s Idea in the 21st century. The timing of these is pertinent; the dramatic rise in tuition fees payable by students and the associated marketisation of higher education prompted a good deal of reflection about what a university is and what it is for.

I thought it might be useful to look out for a couple of examples of this ‘deep reading’ approach, but then again maybe it’s best to find my own way with it. I found a neat little resource on ‘close reading’ from the University of Wisconsin’s Writing Center, which might come in useful if I run out of ideas. And this excerpt – I’m not sure what book it’s from – has some good questions to ask when reading Newman.

What I know I’m at risk of doing is continuing to read all the other interesting things (including Jon Nixon’s book on Interpretive Pedagogies, which rather annoyingly sets out very well the kind of thing I was planning to write about conversation and education), and putting off the actual drafting. So before the end of this weekend I plan to sketch out the main concepts in Newman’s Idea and start overlaying connections with the other sources I’ve looked at.

Looking ahead to the Methodology chapter, David suggested I get in touch with another PhD student Ido Gideon, whose thesis on communities and the moral foundations of citizenship education also utilises conversation as a research method. I met Ido at last year’s PESGB conference, and hopefully he’ll be there in a couple of weeks’ time so I can pick his brains.

Aside from a little tangential discussion of Arendt, Heidegger and romantic love is/as education (touching on jealousy, possessiveness and polyamory), that was pretty much it; a really focused, useful meeting. Boom.

Posted in Supervision notes, Thesis | Leave a comment

On work, fun, and capitalism

Last week I had the urge to clear out my desk space at work, and came across a little brown envelope. Inside, I discovered a memo I’d been required to write to myself at our first EdD seminar, three and a half years ago:

I was so happy to read this, because I don’t feel conflicted anymore – at least not about that. I am having a whole tonne of fun.

But, it ties in with a few things I’ve been thinking and reading about recently, and links to my previous writing on employability and economics. I guess we all have our internal conflicts, and one of mine is that, while rationally I think we should all be working less for the sake of our health and the planet (see the NEF report on the 21 hour working week, and Tim Jackson’s CUSP report on sustainable prosperity), I have a competitive personality and something of a work ethic. This cognitive dissonance came to the fore in the last few months when I started to get cold feet about the plan we’d made to move up North and downsize. I realised I didn’t want to; I enjoy the fast pace of life in London, and its intellectual challenges. I had been ambivalent about going part-time and raising a family; now I was decidedly apathetic.

There are several mechanisms at play in the rise and resolution of this internal conflict. I was raised – explicitly and by example – to compete, to keep busy, to keep learning, to be independent and to plan for the future. In slight contrast my partner’s upbringing was explicitly socialist and (half) Catholic. This instilled values in him such as collectivism and a disinclination to accumulate wealth (which seems to include putting money aside to pay his tax return, annoyingly). He’s been a significant influence on my political education over the last few years – and has introduced me to new ways of having fun – to the point where I started to question the value of all this hard work and individual achievement.

I think it was probably a number of factors that converged to pull me back to what I recognise as my natural way of being. The first was getting called out at work for not doing a very good job on something I was supposed to have been working on over the summer, and not even having a completed registration document and UREC form to justify my slackitude. I suspect my subsequent forays into microdosing, and menopausal epiphany – ‘this is who I am and this is what I want’ – were also implicated, and it was also around that time that I started attending the PESGB seminars, which inspired and motivated me, while introducing a fun, social element to my academic vocation. My research shifted my thinking, as I began in earnest to explore viewpoints other than my own, seeking in particular to understand the neoliberal ideology. The nail in the coffin might have been Brendan’s tax return.

I’ve had several people recommend I read Weber, and I finally got down to him last week (this was ultimately Richard’s doing; he was getting all excited about the Protestant work ethic and I immediately saw the connection with my thesis). Weber gave me exactly what I wanted; a theory about the evolution of the capitalist spirit, and a substantial history lesson besides.

I learned about the Protestant Reformation; a split from Catholicism initiated by Martin Luther, who interpreted that human salvation can be obtained only through faith (‘sole fide’) – i.e. not through good deeds. This laid some of the foundation of the capitalist spirit as it meant that one can potentially attain salvation through any form of life. Luther also introduced the idea of one’s daily work as a divine vocation – a ‘calling’. However, Lutherans still frowned upon the accumulation of material wealth beyond one’s personal needs, particularly if it was obtained at the expense of others.

This concept of divine providence was – and continues to be – influential; the idea of God allocating you a station and a vocation in life. Yes, ‘social mobility’ is all the rage these days, but it wasn’t very long ago that having ‘ideas above your station’ was frowned upon – even considered immoral.

A point of note is that the emphasis on the ascetic importance of a FIXED calling provides an ethical justification for the modern, specialised division of labour; an ideal that began to dominate worldly morality and played a huge part in building the modern economic order. Machine production determines our lives; where the Puritans chose to work in a calling, many of us are now forced to. It is interesting to compare this with the utopian society Huxley imagines in Island, where only light subsistence industry is permitted, and citizens have a specialism they undertake part-time in combination with a rotation of different kinds of work.

Calvinism (also known as Reformed Christianity) was a subsequent major branch of Protestantism, and this is where things get a bit complicated with various sub-branches – Methodism, Quakerism and so on. The important thing to note is the Puritanical aspects of Calvinism and the related traditions, in particular the principles of ascetism (which arose from various dogmatic foundations) and predestination – the idea that we are either chosen, or damned, and we can’t earn our salvation (through, for example, good works). That having been said, the later Calvinist traditions – Quakerism in particular – held a view of one’s life’s work as an exercise in ascetic virtue; one’s conscientiousness as proof of one’s state of grace. So, there is a funny backwards logic at work here; the Lutheran view that we are allocated our lot in life stands, but if we believe that a conscientious attitude is proof of being among God’s chosen few, all it takes is a little faith, and then we can be conscientious and count ourselves among the chosen.

It’s important to emphasise that these religious reformers (Luther, Calvin, Wesley etc.) were only concerned with the salvation of the soul; they were not interested in social/ethical reform. Ascetism and predestination could be said to be religiously superficial, even incidental, but Weber argues that they played a part in a complex interaction of historical factors that had major cultural (and economic) consequences. These consequences were not foreseen by the reformers themselves, and in some cases were in direct contradiction to their intentions.

So – back to the vocation. Does it matter what it is? While in modern times we might assess the moral worth of a particular calling through its value to the community, the Puritan view provides an intriguing twist, as Puritans see the hand of God in all occurrences. Therefore, if God shows one of his elect a chance of profit, then they should take that path, with the caveat that one accepts the gifts and uses them for only in God’s service. In other words, one labours to be rich for God, and the temptation to use that wealth to fund one’s own leisure and pleasure must be resisted. The parable of the servant and the talent even indicates that it is not sufficient to hold ones riches undiminished for the glory of God; we should strive to increase them.  Hence the imperative not only to save, but to invest and accumulate.

It seems that being wealthy would be particularly burdensome given these conditions (and at this point I guiltily recall giggling at the woman complaining about the ‘great responsibility’ of being rich in the BBC documentary The Price of Inequality).

While indulgence was definitely not approved of, the Puritans acknowledged that financial wealth lent a certain ease to life. They accepted as unproblematic the notion that God blesses the chosen in this life as well as the afterlife, and that unequal distribution of the goods of the world is a dispensation of divine providence with secret ends unknown to men (that convenient get-out clause of God working in mysterious ways). Wesley’s advice was that those who gain and save should also give; a good conscience becoming one of the means of enjoying a comfortable bourgeois life.

Weber points out that the full economic effect of these developments came only after the peak of religious enthusiasm passed. Puritan ideals often gave way under pressure from the temptations of wealth, the unsustainable nature of the ideals effectively killing off the religion. As John Wesley wrote: ‘religion will produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase so will pride, anger…desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away.’  The pursuit of wealth has become stripped of its religious and ethical meaning.

So, even at the time of writing (1905), ‘the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs’ (p109). I love that sentence – there’s something very poetic about it.

Posted in Thesis | Leave a comment

Employability, Tragedy and the Meaning of Life

The day after the PESGB seminar on entrepreneurship and the performing arts, I attended an education research seminar at Queen Mary on engagement with employability and graduate attributes. The seminar was given by Finola Farrant, a lecturer in Criminology at Roehampton, and for me it raised plenty of juicy questions of the type that are likely to arise in my conversations, the first one being – what is the problem that ’employability’ is the answer to? 

This question – along with most of the others I scribbled down during the session – is chewed over fairly comprehensively in the HEA’s recent report – Employability: A review of the literature 2012 to 2016. So I’ll bring the two things together if I can.

Citing Kettis et al. (2013) and Rich (2015), the HEA report describes a fault line ‘between those who argue that higher education’s primary purpose is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and those who argue that higher education serves a research and development function for the country along with the development of a skilled workforce’ (p13).  The research and development agenda (as promoted by CP Snow in his 1959 Rede Lecture The Two Cultures) was no doubt a major influence on the 1963 Robbins report and the subsequent expansion of higher education. The skills-shortage argument can be questioned, particularly in terms of this expansion. Is it true, for example, that there are lots of vacancies for criminologists that cannot be filled due to a lack of suitably qualified candidates? Here’s another question I wrote down in the seminar:

If we imagine a highly employable person, what are the skills or attributes that makes them employable? Are highly employable people taught these attributes at university? Could they be?

I felt these were important questions that were glossed over at the QMUL event. I’ve recently been reading Baroness Alison Wolf’s 2004 book Does Education Matter, which questions whether the skills employers are actually using and looking for are those gained at university (rather than those gained at 14, 16 or 18, for example). Wolf argues that the skills most wanted by employers are ‘the ability to read and comprehend, write fluently and correctly, and do mathematics’ (p37) – traditional academic skills that are taught at school, and – it could be argued – that all those headed to university already have.

The HEA’s 2013 Framework for embedding employability (which features heavily in the 2015 report), describes and defines employability in terms of key aspects (p10):

  • confidence, resilience and adaptability;
  • experience and networks;
  • attributes and capabilities;
  • specialist technical and transferable skills;
  • knowledge and application;
  • behaviours, qualities and values;
  • enterprise and entrepreneurship;
  • career guidance and management;
  • self, social and cultural awareness;
  • reflection and articulation.

The Government’s 2015 Employer Skills Survey seems to support the theory expounded by Wolf – that the skills employers are finding in short supply are those that are supposedly learned at school – numeracy, literacy, time management, etc. – as well as specialist and operational knowledge that is best learned ‘on the job’. While the survey findings have been used to argue for greater state investment in vocational education, they surely provide a better argument for employer investment (in apprenticeships, traineeships, etc). Their relevance to higher education seems debatable.

As an aside… it’s the glaring, unacknowledged contradictions in reports like these that cause me to reach for the salt when digesting their conclusions. For example, the report presents a concern about under-utilisation of skills, which apparently ‘represents not only a waste of individuals’ talent but also potentially a missed opportunity for employers to increase performance and productivity, improve job satisfaction and employee well-being, and stimulate investment, enterprise and innovation.’ (p8). But the most common reason given by employers for such under-utilisation was that staff were not interested in taking on a higher level role; i.e. they made a personal choice in the service of their job satisfaction and wellbeing. We are dealing with people here, not machines.

Back to the HEA report – which cites Speight et al. (2013) in reporting that some see the employability agenda as a threat to disciplinary learning. It is this aspect of the ‘fault line’ that intrigues me and is the foundation for my thesis. I’ll nail my colours to the mast – I’m still right up there with Pádraig Hogan, defending the intrinsic value of education – but I’m happy to acknowledge that the other side has a point, albeit a secondary one. I went to university in the first instance both because I liked learning and it was a prerequisite for the kind of work that I thought would suit me best. Embarking on an MA and then an EdD was prompted by a similar motivational blend (and a pretty standard one at that, I guess – to survive and be happy?).

In their report, the HEA argues that it is possible to combine the two viewpoints through careful revision of the employability agenda to integrate academic and employability learning, and cites Rust (2016) in claiming that many people operate somewhere between these two poles (something I’m curious to discover through my institutional conversations). The report offers the following definition:

‘Employability in higher education (HE) is about preparing students to become workers, citizens, community members and lifelong learners.’

It could be argued that universities have many responsibilities to the young people they take on – and this broad description touches on several of them. But the statement in the HEA report that universities have a moral duty to educate for employability on the basis of student investment and expectation of improved life chances does not sit comfortably with me. For me, a more pressing moral imperative is to curb the excessive inequalities in society that validate such dubious statements (another suggestion in the report that really irked me was that universities were partly to blame for the financial crash of 2008, by not producing graduates with the right skills). I don’t want the life chances of graduates to be ‘better’ than those of non graduates. Different, yes – but not better.

The consensus presented in the report (citing Cole and Tibby 2013) that employability is about meaningful participation in society rather than simply getting a job is all very well, but ‘meaningful’ is a difficult word. Let’s google it:

  • Significant
  • Relevant
  • Important
  • Consequential
  • Worthwhile
  • Purposeful

…see where this is going? When we describe an action as ‘meaningful’, we acknowledge it is a means without commenting what it is a means to, i.e. a specified end or purpose.

In a recent interview, the philosopher David E Cooper had this to say about ‘meaning’: “I don’t think we should just ‘muddle through’ and ignore the question of life’s meaning. Or better, perhaps, I don’t think it is a question that can be ignored once the business of asking about the worth and significance of what one is doing – one’s work, one’s pleasures, one’s ambitions and so on – has got going.”

So, there’s the rub… that’s my issue with the employability agenda, that’s where I think the fault line arises, and that’s why I’m with Pádraig. I want to live in a society where it is commonplace to interrogate the purpose of our actions; their worth, their consequences, etc. I would like that to be the foundation of employability education.

Here’s another question I wrote down during the QMUL seminar – it might seem a bit obtuse at first, this one, but bear with me:

Can we imagine a person whose employability attributes diminished through going to university?

This question doesn’t really feature in the literature as far as I can see; the assumption is that university increases employability; it’s just a question of how and by how much. But having had a rough time at university myself, and spent a year working as a resident tutor looking after others who were having a rough time, this is an issue I really care about. The transition to independent study and living can lead to problems such as a decline in mental and/or physical health, risk-avoidance due to stress of debt, substance abuse, etc. Personally, I found school and college pretty easy, but I really struggled to cope socially at university. I found living with other students intolerably invasive, and the expectation that I would make friends for life only increased the isolation I felt. Having alienated virtually everyone I met over the three years, I left immediately after my final exam to take up a job at the other end of the country. Getting the job was easy; it was a small educational publishing firm run by a guy who thought he wanted a bright, eccentric young woman on his writing staff.  But the fresh start I was expecting turned into more of the same, and again I failed to connect with people in an appropriate or normal way. I soon became acutely depressed and was fired due to erratic behaviour, ending up on Jobseeker’s Allowance of £46 a week. I struggled to get another job, and it took several years of temping and bar work (and the rest… better not ask) to put myself back together.

The thing is, I know I’m not alone in this. My experience as a resident tutor at Bath revealed how other kids struggled to adapt to university life, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Lots of them had a great time, of course – and that’s why it can be really hard to admit to having a bad one; you don’t want to rain on everyone else’s parade.

Looking at this from another angle, I now work in a specialist arts university, and I often stumble across the suggestion that angst, adversity, tragedy – even mental illness – can be the basis for great art. In another recent 3:am interview, my friend Richard asked philosopher Dennis Schmidt whether tragedy is ‘the perfection of the possibilities of art’. Schmidt responds, first citing Hegel and Nietzsche, that ‘if we are beings who are multiple and full of irreconcilable conflict, and if we are beings who make artworks in order to understand ourselves, then tragedy is at least “a” if not “the” perfection of art’s possibilities.’ Schmidt believes that the technological world has shifted the possibilities of art – perhaps in productive and creative ways but also in restrictive ways.

The last couple of questions I wrote down during the seminar sound mildly facetious, but they come from the heart:

In response to Roehampton’s Graduate Attributes, one of which is ‘Curious and creative with a passion for knowledge’, I wrote: How does the love of a subject and learning assist someone in a common graduate desk job? Wouldn’t it just make them more bored and frustrated?

On hearing Farrant’s own reasons for going to university (‘I wanted a job that was fulfilling, engaging and interesting, and hopefully offered me suitable recompense’), I wrote: If you have been fortunate enough to succeed at school and university and land a job that is fulfilling, engaging and interesting, what exactly is society compensating you for?

This last one really got me thinking. Other than increased competence and/or experience (productivity hmm), what are justifiable grounds for one person being paid more for their time than someone else? I jotted down a few ideas:

  • Unsociable hours – e.g. tube drivers
  • High-stakes (emotional stress) – e.g. surgeons
  • Low autonomy – e.g. factory operative

Why are graduates paid more than non-graduates, just because we got to faff around going to lectures, reading books, getting shamefully drunk on cheap beer and playing Ultimate Frisbee while they were putting in an honest 37 hour week? I just don’t get it, and it’s important, because the entire issue of HE funding and the public/private good debate hangs on it.

Farrant finished off her seminar with three questions for us to ponder, so just for laughs I’ll show you my responses:

Q1: What do you wish you’d known at the outset of your career?
A: That trying to make your parents proud of you is a futile, empty goal that will occlude and obstruct your own aims and desires.

Q2: What has been the most valuable advice you’ve received?
A: When things get hard, just keep breathing. Also, if someone asks you ‘what do you know about (x)’, never say ‘nothing’. Always say something.

Q3: How might you take forward employability on your programmes?
A: Now, there’s a question…

Posted in Thesis, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Becker, Barnett, and ‘building networks of mutual help’

Howard Becker’s How to Start and Finish Your Thesis (2007) is a nice easy read. I should probably start every month with it! A piece of sage advice that I’ve been following is to actively build ‘networks of mutual help’ (p175)

I’m really happy to include Ron Barnett in those networks, and I went to see him last Wednesday. It was fun – and slightly weird – to get the train out to the suburbs and take my tea in a proper cup with a chocolate hobnob. I gave Ron the lowdown on my job and my future plans, and on my thesis. We talked about the particularly pernicious systems of evaluation we have now in UK Higher Education, and the subsequent pressures on institutions and individuals. He told me about the case of Professor Grimm at Imperial College, who tragically killed himself under pressure to raise three times his salary in research funding. Having acknowledged that times are hard, we then steered the conversation into a happier place.

I was drawn Ron’s series of books about the future of the university because of their pragmatism and cautious optimism. During our chat Ron stressed that sometimes the walls do fall and systems of domination can crumble (citing the end of Apartheid and the fall of the Berlin wall). He pointed out that universities are still transforming students in an amazing way, and inspiring people are striving to make universities more open and more radical. Ron feels that we have a responsibility to be realistically cheerful. He believes that if we look carefully enough we can discern nuggets of possibility; I guess he is interested in my thesis because it takes up this particular quest. He gave me some useful advice which I will summarise here:

Take a global perspective when exploring the literature on higher education policy and governance – there is much to be learned from higher education systems in other countries, which often vary greatly from our own.

This is a valid point and I can see how having a better grasp on other countries’ HE systems has the potential to add depth to my conversations with participants. I have Patrick Blessinger’s recent book on this – Democratizing Higher Education – so will revisit it. It’s a bit dry, but rich in information.

Don’t be afraid to critique Gadamer’s view of ‘horizons’. Horizons are not internal to ourselves; they are imposed on us by global and national forces and we become unwitting carriers of ideology. Our horizons are not fixed either; objects on the horizon may approach or recede.

Ron felt that this particular line of critique had legs and that I might even try to knock out a paper reconstructing the idea of horizons – for art education, in higher education, or whatever. I explained to him that there is some tension between situating my work explicitly within art education and aiming for wider relevance, particularly considering I may not be working within art education forever (although I’m very happy where I am!). That tension is probably going to cause me some issues in the next few months; it might be worth dealing with it soonish – perhaps just a blog post to start with?

I wondered at this point of our conversation about the translation; whether the German word for ‘horizon’ bears exactly the same meaning. On googling, I found that the Germans have two words that translate into English as ‘horizon’ – horizont and gesichtskreis. Horizont has the exact same meaning as our word horizon. Gesichtskreis also means ‘horizon’, but is more commonly used to mean field of vision, or outlook. So, I wondered whether Gadamer was using gesichtskreis. But according to Eberhard (in The Middle Voice in Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, 2004, p79) he did use horizont… he also uses gesichtskreis – to explain the use of horizont. Germans are funny (I am one quarter German so I’m allowed to say that, I think).

We finished off our conversation with some practical tips about writing and structure. Ron suggested aiming for a book-like structure, with eight chapters of around 6000 words each, in 2-3 parts. He advises keeping to two or three paragraphs per page to retain optimum grip on the reader. He felt that two of the chapters could explore the concept of horizons; one in terms of the wider context and background of higher education, and one on conversation and dialogue. That approach would fit with what I’m reading and, as I ponder on it more, I think I like the framing. Then Ron went into fantasy land by suggesting I draft a chapter every month… but of course he’s right – if I want to have my draft together in a year’s time, that’s what I need to do! Two things I can do right now include writing a 200 word outline (like the one in Becker, p53) – to ‘lay out the map of the trip the reader will be taken on’, and drawing up a contents page. A quick flick through Becker’s How to Start and Finish Your Thesis reminded that while there is no right way to write your thesis, the most important thing is just to get started with the drafting. It’s not going to be right at first, and the redrafting is going to take plenty of time. I think I’ll try Becker’s freewriting technique before the outline – just spew all my ideas down and see what’s there and how they fit together (or not).

I’m very conscious that I said I would have a first draft of a literature review ready by the end of April (ok, let’s say the start of May), so some micro-planning and calendar work is in order here. If I assume that this will constitute two chapters – one on the idea of the university and the other on conversation and ideological conflict – that’s 1000 words a week, from now. So I’m going to commit to that.

Becker summarises Stinchcombe’s six uses of the literature, including sourcing fundamental ideas (which should be clear before I start writing), locating solidarity between people in a field, exemplifying of well-organised and aesthetically pleasing work, and identifying yourself with a particular group or tribe. I’ve got so much on the reading pile at the moment and I probably need to stop buying books for now if at all possible, and split up my book-wading with a few articles. Maybe some empirical work similar to mine? I’ll put some feelers out.

Becker’s main advice regarding the use of literature is to say something new while connecting what I say to what’s already been said. I’ve picked a good topic in this respect I think – the Idea of the University is a topic that people have enjoyed talking about for years, and one that is constantly in flux, and particularly so at the moment. ‘Use the literature, don’t let it use you’, is a great mantra.

Actually – Becker’s example of the Waller quote about the original conflict of desires between teacher and pupil also piqued my interest. Is there an original conflict of desire between the student and the university? Both want to survive; for the student this means their happiness and future prosperity. But for the university these ‘ends’ of the students’ – through NSS and DLHE – may not be shared as ends but perhaps viewed as simply means to achieve survival and preservation of the organisation as it is (staff roles, working practices, etc). That might be an important insight.

I like Becker’s analogy of making a piece of furniture and leaving spaces for the bits you know you can get ready-made – drawer handles, turned legs, etc – ideas you can quote and summarise. It’s still a table you made despite some of the parts having been prefabricated.

I also think his point is important about paying too much attention to the literature and allowing it to deform the argument you want to make – ‘what you want to say has a certain logic that flows from the chain of choices you made as you did the work’. I think this is relevant to me as I suspect I am seeking a different kind of answer to the dominant approach to interrogating the idea of the university. My argument will make sense on its own terms, not if I try to fit it into the terms of the dominant approach. I *will* be somewhat at a disadvantage; my approach may seem strange and unreasonable – so I will need to explain why I haven’t asked those questions and got those answers.

So… next steps:

  • Purchase book rest for desk (Done! Arrives tomorrow)
  • Freewrite fundamental ideas
  • Draft outline
  • Draft contents page
  • Literature-focused chapters: Assemble ‘prefabricated parts’ and check for gaps
  • 1000 words by 5 March!
Posted in Thesis | 2 Comments

Entrepreneurship and Employability #1

Clark, J. O., and Jackson, L. 2017. Ideology in the Academy: The Entrepreneur and Neoliberal Higher Education. Paper presented at PESGB London, Institute of Education, 15 February.

In his 2008 book The Craftsman, Richard Sennett writes about the decline of craft in the age of capitalism. The imperative for the young creative to find a niche leaves no time for the slow learning and habit required for craft acquisition, and the pursuit of profit erodes the desire to do a job well for its own sake.

Clark and Jackson’s view appears to correspond with Sennett, who writes that ‘good craftmanship implies socialism’ (2008, p288). Their critique of neoliberalism is founded on its status as a political ideology (with assumptions, beliefs and displacements that oppress the ‘other’). As socialism is also an ideology, I decided to ask them about that. I was surprised to receive a very short answer – that some ideologies are clearly better than others, and socialism is, of course, a better ideology than neoliberalism. Maybe I’m not as confident as I thought I was at arguing at these things. I just said, ‘okaaay…’ and left someone else (Richard, as it happens, who thankfully saw what I was getting at) to pick up the baton. What I wanted – and expected – was for them to explain what they mean by one ideology being ‘better’ than another, and to acknowledge that such a response might undermine their critique (e.g. ideology as oppression). I imagine all those present at the seminar were in favour of a more equitable society, but I think many of us would have been keen to chew over a philosophical rationale for that. If socialism really is a ‘better’ ideology than neoliberalism, how come neoliberalism is so clearly winning? It’s a bit like someone maintaining that Manchester United is a ‘better’ team than Accrington Stanley when they’ve never won a single game against them (which happens to be true – they’ve drawn every time – but possibly a bad example).

Sennett (in Gielen & De Bruyne’s excellent 2012 book Teaching Art in the Neoliberal Realm) distinguishes between art as individual self-expression and craft as a collective endeavour, and says that in recent decades art schools have privileged the former at the expense of the latter. Presumably this is related to the academicisation of art schools and subsequent changes to assessment practices, which have become more granular, criterion-based and individualised.

Collective endeavour cannot be neglected in the performing arts; music, theatre and dance are intrinsically collective and collaborative. Even solo performances generally rely on collaboration and interpretation between performer and composer, author or choreographer. This characteristic lead us to question how entrepreneurship is appropriate or even relevant to performing arts education.

I think we need to leave aside the question of whether entrepreneurship should be taught until we’ve agreed on what entrepreneurial skills are, and whether they can be taught. I’m not an expert on entrepreneurship, but to me it seems more like a set of attitudes – to seek profit, to enjoy responding and adapting to a market environment, and to find satisfaction in a volatile and uncertain life.

I think there is a widely-held preconception that those who study art at university don’t tend to do so well in the world of work, but that of course depends on your measure. The OECD lifetime earnings stats indicate that art & design subjects don’t lead to high salaries, but UAL doesn’t do badly with regard to post-study employment; we have positive flags in the TEF metrics for the percentage of our graduates in employment generally, and in highly-skilled employment. Of course, that just means we do better than expected (I’m imagining that creative subjects would have lower benchmarks)… so, who knows. At the end of the day, in spite of fees and underfunding (and low NSS scores), arts-specialist institutions are surviving, and (more importantly?) our graduates are surviving too.

So, my question is, what is the problem that entrepreneurship and employability education is trying to solve? Are we, as a society, lacking suitable skilled individuals in the creative and performance arts? Or is it a matter of creating a more level playing field; ensuring that tacit knowledge and skills are made explicit to everyone (not just the rich, white males who make up the vast majority of those self-identifying as ‘entrepreneurs’).

And – wouldn’t it be more useful (and more exciting), to look at this issue as art presenting a challenge to educational bureaucracy, rather than the other way around? The language used in measures like the NSS certainly exerts pressure on arts courses to become less like arts courses; steering course organisation, management, curriculum and assessment practices in directions that may not be appropriate to the discipline. So, perhaps we need to ease off on the slavish chasing of metrics and redirect our energies into creating a strong narrative around what arts education is and why it is good. But maybe that’s exactly what the metric-plus-narrative approach to the TEF has enabled us to do? I guess we wait and see…

Posted in Thesis | Leave a comment

Self-education and seeking the truth through conversation

I had a great chat with David on Friday about my literature review, through which I want to build a strong bridge between my methodology (conversation) and the subject matter (aims/purpose of higher education). He suggested a few things to read, including a chapter about Heidegger and higher education, some more Gadamer, and a couple of writers on character education. He also encouraged me to take Ron Barnett up on his offer of a chat, and – in light of my recent interest in Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory – put me in touch with another doctoral student – Oliver Bridge – who is doing his thesis on philosophy and moral psychology.

I fully intended to dig out my SCONUL card and pick up Michael Peters’ Heidegger, Education and Modernity from the IoE library, but then I got paid and caved in to the call of amazon. I now have two of Peters’ books arriving next week, along with a voice recorder (plus windjammer!) for my conversations. The Gadamer translation and its accompanying paper was easy to find online, and it was straightforward to set up meetings with Ron and Oliver – I’ll write about those later.

So – more Gadamer…

Gadamer, H-G, 2001. Education is Self-Education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 35 (4) p.529-538, and:

Cleary, J., and Hogan, P. 2001. The Reciprocal Character of Self-Education: Introductory Comments on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Address, Education is Self-Education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 35 (4) p.520-527

The first item is a translation (by Hogan and Cleary) of an address Gadamer made in 1999 in the lead-up to his 100th birthday. The essence of the address is that conversation is essential for human flourishing.

One very important point he makes – relevant for my thesis and life in general I guess – is how language pre-forms our thoughts. The norms and presuppositions of our native language, and the options we select within that, affects how we think and feel. I first encountered this idea many years ago when studying REBT to combat depression, and I’ve become very conscious of it recently because of what I’ve been reading (on conversation, conflict talk, moral psychology etc), and other events and influences in my life. For example, I recently started encouraging my partner to try not to swear quite so much, because I think that finding gentler, more positive ways of talking to yourself and others can transform a situation. That’s slightly different to what Gadamer meant, I think, but relevant.

I found the following sentence of Gadamer’s particularly intriguing: ‘only through conversation does language fulfill itself’ (p535). I guess some might argue there are many great works (the songs of Bob Dylan, for example) that stand alone as one-way messages that fulfill language, and in that sense I’m not certain what ‘counts’ as conversation. But it’s a beautifully poetic sentence, and it draws together a lot of strands. Philosophy *is* a conversation. Teaching *is* a conversation. Higher education *is* a conversation…etc.

When Gadamer made this address in 1999, he saw the telephone as a threat, and television as of no benefit whatsoever. He made no direct reference to the internet, which was still in its infancy, only saying ‘many new things now confront us’ (p536), and emphasising that we must learn to deal with these new methods of communication and the threat they pose. Fewer than than twenty years later and we consider a good old-fashioned chat on the telephone to be a relatively high quality interaction. I wonder what Gadamer would think of this if he were alive today. I’m almost glad for him that he isn’t, but if he was, no doubt he’d be pushing this idea harder than ever – that ‘the humane capabilities are the ones to stress if one is to educate and to cultivate oneself… [and to] survive without damage from the progress of technology and technicity’ (p537). This self-education and cultivation is what the Germans call Bildung – and it’s illustrative that the Germans have a word for it and we don’t, like the British don’t like to acknowledge its existence as a thing (as with Kummerspeck – the German word for the weight gained from emotional overeating).

Reflecting on the essence of Gadamer’s address, I realised that this is what motivated me to start attending the Wednesday evening Philosophy of Education seminars at the IoE. I wanted to talk with other people who wanted to talk – to really talk with the primary intention of educating and cultivating ourselves. I’m not saying it’s impossible to educate yourself on Twitter, but face-to-face conversation has certain rules and traditions that yield very different results; these have to do with exchange, response, equality of contribution, how interactions begin and how they end, etc. What I really like about the relationships I’m building at the IoE is that they are almost entirely conducted face-to-face. 

Gadamer describes his experience of going to university during the first war – with a ‘circle of cultivated and nice girls’ who – it appears – got him into reading Theodor Lessing and the great Russian, Scandinavian and Dutch novels. Similarly, through the IoE group I’ve been lent books and given film recommendations, and I’m starting to appreciate things that I didn’t think I liked before. 

My partner often suggests books (fiction) he wants me to read; partly because he thinks I’d enjoy them and also because he wants us to talks about them together. Some of them I’ve loved (Pullman, Asimov), others not so much, and he’s found it hard seeing me avidly reading things that other people have recommended. It’s caused a fair amount of tension between us, especially when the relevance to my thesis seems tangential, and I understand why; reading something that resonates with someone else is a great way of getting inside their heads (an imperative that tends to loses its urgency with someone who you already know inside out). Reading between the lines I guess that’s what was going on with the young Gadamer and his female fellow students, and I certainly think that this is the kind of thing Gadamer means by being-with-one-another as learners; the self-education of seeking-out and getting-to-know the people with the interesting experiences and the interesting questions who are going to challenge my ideas and introduce me to new perspectives. 

I’ll finish with one of the key points Hogan and Cleary’s took from Gadamer’s address, because it really does capture the essence of what I’m aiming to do with my thesis, and explains the approach I’m taking:

‘The self-critical venturing of different perspectives provides a more promising path in the search for truth than does any traditional epistemological quest for certainty.’

I have a stack of books on my shelf at home bemoaning the marketisation of higher education and its transformation from public good to private investment. They are well-argued and persuasive, and new ones seem to be published every month. I want to try something different; I want to find out what happens when people who think differently come to a dialogue seeking the truth. I’m bored of the polemic already; I’m surprised it’s not bored of itself.

Posted in Thesis | 2 Comments

Ricoeur’s ‘testimony’ and conceptions of the university

Lythgoe, E. 2011. Paul Ricoeur: Thinker of historical testimony. Analecta Hermeneutica (3), p1-16.

At my last supervision, Ian suggested I might find Paul Ricoeur’s definition of ‘testimony’ to be relevant to my thesis on Conversation and the Idea of the University.

I think… it kind of is… and it kind of isn’t. If any of it is, it would be his writings from the 80s, where he describes testimony as a ‘natural, dialogical institution’, with a moral constituent, and reference to the future as well as the past. I guess what Ian was thinking is that my conversations with participants are going to generate a form of testimony; a ‘witnessing of’ the university. My participants may also have clear views themselves about what and how universities should be, and their testimony may be presented as evidence to support those views – either implicitly or explicitly.

The trouble is, Ricoeur changed his mind about what he means by testimony; his later works seemed to distance the prophetic or vocative aspects – the future constitutent – from the concept, and so much of this work is less obviously relevant to my thesis. My participants’ views and imaginations of the University as it is now and as it could or should be in the future are of more direct interest to me and my thesis than their personal experiences of it.

Of course, I don’t know for sure what’s going to come out of the conversations I have. It might well be that for many participants their own personal experiences will have informed their idea of the University and they feature heavily in our conversations; it’s a lot easier for me to see the relevance of the concept of ‘testimony’ in this sense. But does Ricoeur’s thinking add anything of value for me? I’m not sure.

Overall, what I got from reading Ricoeur on testimony is that it is a slippery concept, and perhaps yet another example of how we get caught up in language and tie ourselves in pointless knots. I’m reminded yet again of Huxley’s (1954, p47) call for us to learn ‘to look at the world directly’ rather than through the ‘half-opaque medium of concepts’, and Watts’ (1971) warning not to ‘confuse that system of symbols with the world itself’. That’s what psychedelics do for you I guess.

Posted in Thesis | Leave a comment