Drapers’ lecture 2017 – Whose property are international students and researchers?

On 25 January I popped along to the annual Drapers’ Lecture at QMUL to hear Dr Jo Beall, Director of Education and Society at the British Council, talk about ‘Intellectual Property: Rights, Risks and Rebellions in International Higher Education‘.  I was hoping it wouldn’t actually be about IP (copyright etc… yawn), and it wasn’t… I think the two nerds in front of me were pretty disappointed. In asking ‘whose property are international scholars?’ we question the implications of the international movement of students and researchers for the creation of knowledge, national economies, and competition between nations and institutions for the brightest and best minds. We take dominant ideas about the purpose of universities and the aim of higher education, and tie them in knots.

The benefits of knowledge creation act on many levels below the big picture of development and progress. Individual researchers gain prestige, universities (through the REF) and research centres benefit through funding awards. These benefits appear to increase when we collaborate internationally. Nobel prize winners tend to be internationally mobile, and papers with authors from more than one country tend to get more citations (correlations not causation, obvs). 47% of UK doctoral students are international. The UK has always ranked highly in the so-called knowledge economy; we may have less than 1% of the world’s population but we produce 16% of the most cited papers (it helps that we speak and write in English, of course). But we’re definitely not resting on our laurels or thinking about giving someone else a turn… the competition is still very much on. Countries leading with us on research impact include the US, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden. Leading on publication volume are our four top collaborative research partners – the US, Germany, France, and Italy – so it will be interesting to see the impact of our exit from the EU.  Emerging contenders in the research arena correspond with the ‘BRIC’ group of countries at a similar stage of newly advanced economic development: China, Malaysia, India, Brazil and Saudi Arabia.

Worldwide, demand for tertiary level education tends to be linked to demographics; high population growth, youth ‘bulges’ and a low supply are obvious factors.  International student growth in the UK is still quite far behind the US, Canada, Australia, Japan and Germany, and the loss of the UK post-study visa is thought to have limited the diversity of our international intake. There has been a marked decrease in the number of students coming from India, for example. A lot of our student ‘flow’ comes from Europe, so Brexit will impact here as well. International student mobility is strongly correlated with historic and cultural links; if we already trade goods with a country, we tend to trade students with them too.

The British Council has been doing some research on transnational education and its impact on individuals and educational systems. Transnational education often involves collaborative partnerships between HEIs in different countries, ‘flying faculty’, offshore campuses, online learning and so on, usually with the aim of providing a ‘quality’ education at a lower cost (drawing on the reputation and teaching methods of the host institution) plus cultural and/or language benefits. Transnational education places questions of public/private and civil engagement in a yet another different light, and has prompted criticisms of commercialisation and commodification. Ultimately, countries tend to prefer long-term partnerships that assist them in developing their own HE system.

One interesting question to discuss around international teaching and learning is: What do we think we are exporting? And what should we be exporting? ‘Should’ questions are conditional, of course – if we want to achieve X, what should we be exporting? Similarly, if we want to achieve X, should we continue to expand higher education? It’s the X that I find intriguing and incredibly elusive. Hence my thesis.

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A Political Theory of the University – some thoughts on a paper by Morgan White

Tonight’s PESGB seminar at the IoE is going to feature Morgan White talking about a political theory of the university. I read his paper (which I’m not sure is publicly available yet) and had some thoughts…

White argues that democracy is ‘always already in crisis’. Sure, it requires ongoing deliberation, but it doesn’t follow that it’s always been in ‘crisis’. Most of the philosophers I’ve been enjoying recently (Gellner, Gadamer, Watts) demonstrate how any expectations we might have of reaching a settled, safe state are illogical.  Nothing certain but death and taxes, etc…

The refrain throughout the last century is that democratic politics are populist, corrupted and technocratic. I’d agree with that, but I think we need to be more specific than saying our democratic systems are not keeping pace with social change… that’s so vague it’s almost meaningless. One thing that seems obvious to me is that, while Media, Marketing and PR are activities that have embraced technological advancement, the machinations of political decision-making are stuck in the dark ages; like the Houses of Parliament buildings themselves – ancient, outdated and unfit-for-purpose. This means that whoever already has power can easily retain and increase their power, because the technologies they have to hand can easily outwit and undermine our aging democratic system. Parliamentary and voting systems remain largely unchanged from a time before we before we had specialised ‘psephologists’ and the capacity to develop intricate statistical modelling programmes to gauge public opinion and voting intention. Offshore media moguls, operating with the primary aim of retaining their paying readership, have formed mutually beneficial alliances with the politically powerful. It is difficult to see how the common man can possibly fight such a beast.

White often mentions the increasing complexity of society. Society – particularly in terms of our political leanings – does not seem to be getting more complex to me; it seems to be becoming black and white… and strangely evenly split! 50-50 Trump-Clinton, 50-50 Leave-Remain (approaching 50-50 graduates-non-graduates by the way… coincidence?). We have us and them, two different tribes, finding one another increasingly offensive and resorting to voluntary segregation in echo chambers. In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt proposes that our split political leanings are explained by his five-foundations theory of moral psychology; right-wing, conservative politics and rhetoric are designed to appeal to those who value the moral foundations of loyalty, sanctity and authority, and hold a proportional interpretation of the moral foundation of fairness; i.e. they believe that those who put the most in should get the most out. Left wing, liberal politics appeal to those who value the moral foundations of care (for the vulnerable) and a redistributive interpretation of fairness (with the aim of addressing pernicious inequalities). When viewed like this, viewpoints often described (and pejoratively so) as ‘populist’ seem less mysterious. But not many people think about moral foundations in these terms, and social media makes it easier and more acceptable to express our views and segregate ourselves. News media plays on our moral foundations (and natural, groupist tendency to righteous indignation) to maintain their readership and continue to make money. That’s what’s happening here. So we do have different literacies that talk past each other, and increasingly so. I agree with White that democratic literacy is needed, with a particular emphasis on the power and workings of the media and the other mechanisms that preserve social privilege. But – crucially – we also need to emphasise what *is* simple and what we have in common (e.g. having beliefs that are founded in morals and emotion) – rather than stressing complexity and difference.

I don’t agree that we’ve lost our political imagination; a lot of people are very excited right now about what’s happening in the UK and the US, and everyone has an opinion on it. Social media *may* seem like a cacophony or a void but it does function as quite a democratic system; popular, divisive and insightful views rise to the top through crowdsourced promotion; I’ve fallen out of favour with Twitter over the last decade, but it may be the last genuinely democratic platform we have left.

I’m glad White picked up on Bauman’s liquid modernity as a source of ontological uncertainty and narcissism. I wonder though whether the more prescient problem is not our ontological uncertainty but our unreasonable expectations of ontological certainty (see first para above).

White says we need better media and better politicians. Agreed, but the two are inextricably linked. I don’t agree that it’s concern with our self-image that puts good people off politics. I rather think it is a justified sense that the public *do* care about image, and the media moguls *will* tear that image apart in order to sell their papers, so no-one will actually take us or our ideas seriously, and in becoming a laughing stock we will probably end up making the situation even worse. 

Regarding market values, these also relate back to Haidt’s moral foundations theory. The moral foundation of proportional fairness is very much dependent on a belief that humans *do* have free will, and an assumption of equality of opportunity. It relates to the concept of ‘work ethic’, a preference for competition over collaboration, and a theory of human motivation that leans towards extrinsic over intrinsic reward. I’m not sure why White doesn’t think the public is a market. It’s totally a market. Isn’t it?

Given my thesis topic, I was particularly interested in his point about academics turning away from the democratic horizon (because it’s too big a topic, and we’re being forced into putting out small, manageable research outputs… also because of risks to career progression). White argues that metrics like the REF are steering us into the wrong sort of self-seeking (back to the theory of human motivation)… well, yes. That’s how the metrics act on us. But we still have a choice (see Gonzales 2015 for some examples).

Likewise, turning the power on and connecting to the cacophany of information overload is still, I believe, a conscious choice (we are not yet to my knowledge living an episode of Black Mirror). Resisting, and carefully selecting who to read and listen to can, I think, be a political act, particularly given recent overlaps between politics and celebrity. And perhaps if we don’t we will one day lose the option to do so.

White’s writing on the public sphere – particularly that relating to the workings of ancient Greek society, were interesting and puzzling. I get the Kantian principle of publicity (rational-critical public debate that bridges politics and morality) – I liked Conflict of the Faculties. But then White brings in a different kind of publicity – the modern-day, promotional sort. Promotional publicity is a decidedly one-way form of communication, so I’m not sure what the connection is between this and Kantian publicity. Sure, a ‘public’ university in the Kantian sense would prioritise rational-critical discourse, but this is arguably a separate issue to the marketisation of higher education, and I wouldn’t place a lack of rational-critical discourse top of a list of problems with universities. So, this is an interesting conundrum. The paragraph on public attitudes (p11) makes the link between the two concepts more coherent, but I’m still not sure about it.

So, is – as Chris Calhoun thinks – our ‘vibrant public sphere’ under threat? In some ways, maybe, but we could just be looking at the past through rose-coloured specs. Vibrant, Kantian publicity is flourishing in places with innovative courses and approaches (MA Fashion Futures at LCF springs to mind) that aim to subvert current norms and practices, rethink entire industries, and produce graduates with the attitudes and attributes to reshape the world rather than slavishly reproducing it.

There is some metric-bashing in White’s paper that is a bit band-wagony and lacks critique. I’m not sure about the implication that high satisfaction ratings on the NSS are just another statistic to use in marketing. They *can be* a reliable account of sorts. The stories behind the lower scores can be surprising (or just plain confounding), but a 100% satisfaction rating is difficult to argue with. Same goes for the stuff on managerialism; yes, we need to retain academic freedom BUT we’re still human beings and many of us benefit from a little management and a little extrinsic motivation. Duke Maskell’s personal account of the rise of managerialism and professionalism in a transitioning post-92 university (in The New Idea of a University, 2002) gives a well-balanced perspective.

At the end of his paper, White asks how the educator’s authority is affected if the student’s expectation is that the course will help them to get a career. I think that’s a conversation that educators and students need to have – and ideally on an individual basis; why are they here? What do they want to get out of this? They are, after all, paying. So what are they paying for, and why? If you’re going to shell out a load of cash, you should really have engaged with a cost-benefit analysis. Not many undergraduates (in fact, hardly any university teachers in my experience) know that the full cost of their higher education to the state is more than double the amount of the loan they are taking out. On the other hand, they should also be aware that increased taxation on higher earnings over the course of their lifetime would cover the full cost of their degree – on average three times over. Financially, it’s a complex picture, but if they’re bright enough to do A-levels it shouldn’t pose them a problem.

Ultimately, I would argue that it’s not those who go to university who need a political education the most. Yes, the marketisation of higher education may promote individualism and self-interest, but individualism and self-interest were doing pretty well already. The current generation of university students have been completely shafted, and as far as I can see they remain remarkably public-spirited.

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Supervision #1

I had my first formal supervision meeting a couple of weeks ago, and then got sucked into a maelstrom of new students. I just about found the time to print flyers and posters and send some feelers out for participants, which I’m really pleased about as I really needed to get recruitment underway. I know that once I’ve actually got conversations booked in then things will start ticking over.e-flyer

The supervision meeting was motivating; short and energetic, with a good blend of challenge and constructive suggestion. it was great to re-engage with everything after my brief foray into tabloid journalism over the Christmas break, which I’m hoping will pay off my overdraft so I have one less thing to worry about this year.

We went over my research question and proposal, and I shared a new version of my schedule, which I know is rather ambitious, but I like a challenge and it does allow for a couple of months’ slippage somewhere along the line:


I got some more reading suggestions from the team; I’ve since ordered Jon Nixon’s Interpretive Pedagogies, which I flicked through the other day – it looks good. I also downloaded a paper on Paul Ricoeur’s concept of Testimony (one of Ian’s suggestions).

I’m going to reinstate the reading schedule I used in years 1 & 2 to plan my reading and ensure I don’t slip behind. While I’m going to continue attending the London PESGB seminars regularly (I need a bit of fun in my life), I did a little reality check and decided not to continue with the London School of Philosophy classes on Kant and Religion & Politics; I can use those hours more strategically given my ambitious schedule, and there are particular areas of reading I want to prioritise. I’ve already done a lot of reading on the aims and purpose of higher education but the books have continued to fall through my letterbox. The main foundation of the first iteration of my literature review will – I think – relate conversation as a phenomenon with the emergent nature of the university phenomenon itself. My aim is to link up conversation and dialogue with learning, education and change.

My plan of action to move forward with the literature review includes for starters:

  • Reviewing past reading & notes on the idea of the university and speed-reading the texts on the shelf that I didn’t get to before – Jon Nixon, also Bill Readings, Chris Newfield, Barnett’s Future University.
  • Arranging conversations with John White and Ron Barnett on the aims of higher education.
  • Finish Haidt’s Righteous Mind and relate to Sacks’ Dignity of Difference – the two texts complement one another well.
  • Speed-read Gadamer in Conversation and relate to prior reading.

So, I’ll be spending more time on the Number 55 bus with my earplugs…

I’m also going to get together with Paul Wickens from Brookes, who just happens to be an expert in Conversation Analysis – quite the stroke of luck! My plan is to have a short ‘test’ conversation with a friend about the aims of higher education, have a first go at transcribing with CA markup and then going through it with Paul. I realised my feasibility study transcript won’t be of much use in practicing CA as we were so agreeable with one another, while I have a philosophy of education friend in mind who can and will argue about anything. So that’s my CA training sorted.

<Supervision record 12.01.17>

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The myth of the autonomous teenager

White, J. 1997. Philosophy and the aims of higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 22 (1), pp7-17.

I got a bit low constructing a response to this paper, because it was published in the same year I went to university and it got me thinking about my own undergraduate experience. I don’t want to depress anyone unnecessarily (especially not on Blue Monday), so I promise not to dwell on that bit.

John White gave a paper last week at the IoE on the place of love in education, and I figured that now that we’re mates and everything (I’m going to use his first name from now on to prove it) I should read this one, and then I can talk with him about it over a beer. It’s highly relevant to my thesis as it questions the role of philosophy in determining the aims of higher education.

I used to have clear ideas about what higher education *should* be; I felt that the entire education system – including higher education – should provide a steer towards sustainability; subverting the neoliberal, consumerist agenda rather than supporting it (I’m a personal fan of Barnett’s utopian ecological university). Now, of course, I realise that this a personal preference based on my own moral philosophy; the values and idea of the good life I have attached myself to. It transpires that I would have more of a philosophical leg to stand on if I advocated that universities should be focused on serving God. Hence my thesis…

I’m going to put the critique of Barnett’s argument for emancipatory aims of higher education to one side for now, as John’s own arguments seem sound but I really want to take a look at what Barnett said first hand (and also Paul Standish’s review of The Idea of the University). I was under the impression that Barnett fully acknowledged higher education’s surfeit of aims. In his 1988 paper Does Higher Education have Aims he even argues that ‘talk of aims in relation to higher education is in several senses inappropriate and misleading’ (p239).

What I want to respond to today is John’s argument against philosophising on the aims of higher education, on the grounds that, while children do and must have aims imposed on them, HE students are ‘autonomous persons’ who decide for themselves what their goals are. Many years before before students actually became protected by consumer law and universities were formally classified as ‘traders/sellers/suppliers’, he writes of ‘consumer sovereignty’ – of aims that reflect the different goals students have in mind. Interestingly, having said here that ‘all but the oldest children are typically too ignorant and… immature to know what is best for them, educationally speaking’ (p12), the paper John gave at the IoE this week supported an extension of learner autonomy to compulsory schooling, with a taster curriculum that allows pupils to develop their own interests. I’d like to ask him more about this with reference to his views about aims in higher education. It feels to me that a general move towards developing and supporting learner autonomy brings together some big ideas – including emancipation.

I am deeply uneasy about these assertions of the autonomy of (primarily) 18-year-olds. I can think of many ways – implicit and explicit – in which the state, the business community and academics can and do impose aims on students (fee loans, internships, graduate attributes, assessment criteria). Families can be a huge influence on the goals of these so-called ‘autonomous persons’, particularly if they are offering cash or freebies. I went for a swim halfway through reading John’s paper, and overheard two mothers in the shower strategising about their children’s university education. One was putting £25 a month aside (I did the maths… disappointing). The other was wondering whether her son would be up for moving to live with his grandfather in Norway at 14 in order to do the IBacc and get a (free) place at a Norwegian university.

As promised, I won’t depress you with my own story, other than to say that parental influence deeply influenced my university choices and my actions and experience as a student (on the bright side, it was probably my deep need for parental approval that kept me going). This won’t have been everyone’s experience, and that was 20 years ago. It would be nice to think that as students *are* being saddled with huge amounts of personal debt when they apply to university, they are at least making that decision autonomously. But I doubt it. If I’m right, does that mean we can reopen the philosophical debate on the aims of higher education? Actually, thinking about it, I rather feel that we should stop encouraging teenagers to go to university. 

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Gadamer and solidarity

After Truth and Method, Gadamer shifted from writing about tradition to solidarity. Both concepts relate to deep-seated agreements about the way things are or should be, but solidarity bears an element of forward-thinking, of future aspirations with a basis of ethical and/or political values. This turn presumably helped Gadamer to address criticisms that the ideas in Truth and Method were focused on the past and lacked relevance to the future.

Gadamer held a clear belief in the idea of moral progress, which he described as an extension of inclusivity; an emphasis of similarity over difference. We often think of left-wingers as more inclusive than right-wing thinkers; of having a broader definition of ‘us’, but I found myself thinking yet again about that time I went to the Conservative party conference to talk with delegates and get to know about their lives and values. I found them surprisingly willing to talk with me, and I *did* feel that they wanted to find common ground, which was an interesting contrast to the them-and-us mentality I experienced while among the protesters. A similar pattern was found in a study by the Public Religion Research Institute in the US that looked at following and unfollowing on social media – liberals were much more likely to unfollow those with different views, and did so faster. It’s a very interesting conundrum that has been chewed over a thousand times in the press since the EU referendum and the US presidential election; made even more complex by the suggestion that the ‘winning’ voters are being manipulated and lied to by the powerful. Jonathan Haidt writes about these phenomena in this book The Righteous Mind, as does Joshua Greene in Moral Tribes. Haidt theorises that moral judgement plays a role in helping us to form communities. We may like to think that morals are just about justice and equality, but authority, sanctity and loyalty not only come into play, but often matter more.

On first reading, Gadamer’s ideas about moral progress seemed to contrast sharply with another philosopher I’ve been reading for fun recently; Peter Sjöstedt-H, who writes about metaphysics and meta-ethics in the context of psychedelic phenomenology. Sjöstedt-H attempts to dismantle any idea of a universal morality, arguing that morality is more akin to fashion than technology, and that in the absence of a God/creator, humans have no prescribed purpose, therefore our characteristics and behaviours cannot be described as supportive (‘good’) or undermining (‘bad’) of any such purpose. He challenges egalitarianism, contractarianism and utilitarianism, giving examples of individuals and cultures that value valour and adventure over peace and stability. Like Gadamer, Sjöstedt-H links morality to power, but he focuses on how moral prescriptions (what we ‘ought’ to do) merely express a desire for one to change the behaviour of another (the authoritarial aspect of prescriptive morality discussed by Haidt).

But what links the two authors is that Gadamer’s moral progress relates to descriptive rather than prescriptive morality. Towards the end of his long career Gadamer became preoccupied with what, like Zeldin, he saw as a major defect in public life; our tendency to emphasise the different and disputed. Our political system is set up for confrontation as a default; our historical education and entertainment media focus on conflict. Like Hogan, he asks questions about specialisation and its tendency to drive us apart, claiming that instrumental reason seeks a control of language and the world that would be impossible to realise.

I’ll close with a passage from Misgeld & Nicholson’s (1992) book Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry and History, as I feel it encapsulates what I’m trying to achieve with my EdD thesis:

I am convinced that even in a highly bureaucratized, thoroughly organized and thoroughly specialized society, it is possible to strengthen existing solidarities. Our public life appears to me to be defective in to far as there is too much emphasis upon the different and disputed, upon that which is contested or in doubt. What we truly have in common and what unites us thus remains, so to speak, without a voice. Probably we are harvesting the fruits of a long training in the perception of differences and in the sensibility demanded by it. Our historical education aims in this direction, our political habits permit confrontations and the bellicose attitude to become commonplace. In my view we could only gain by contemplating the deep solidarities underlying all norms of human life.

Hans-Georg Gadamer in Misgeld & Nicholson 1992, p.192

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Gadamer, Kafka and interpretation

gadamerLawn, C. 2006. Gadamer: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum, New York.

Gadamer was a traditionalist. He didn’t like the way the dominant scientific method focuses on the future and forgets about the past. He believed that knowledge is interpretation, and that the hermeneutic circle can and does apply to everything, with layers and layers of parts and wholes (of which we are always a part), influencing one another and causing meaning to be constantly shifting.

Gadamer built on the work of Schleiermacher but claimed to disagree with him on certain things; he felt that Schleiermacher did not emphasise the universal application of hermeneutics, and put undue emphasis on the psychological or empathetic aspect of interpretation; where one seeks to get inside the mind of the author – to come to know the author better than the author themselves – in order to more interpret their words more accurately. Gadamer felt that this emphasis subordinates the text itself, and the power of language itself to disclose truth. Did he simply mean that our words often communicate more than, or something other than, we intended to express? That would make sense. Gadamer also felt that the emphasis on the biography and psychology of the author subordinates that of the interpreter; he was in favour of interpretation that is dialogic and interactive; a collective divinatory act.

Chris Lawn, whose writings on Gadamer I’m reading, having tried Truth and Method and felt truly and thoroughly perplexed, feels that the difference between the grammatical and the psychological is not as emphatic as Gadamer claims it to be. Psychological features, after all, are made manifest through language; we find the psychological trace through the text. But when we conceive a ‘text’, where are the boundaries around it? For example, my friend Richard recently got me to read Kafka’s The Trial. There was a lot I liked about The Trial (not least that it taught me a lot about Richard and the way he experiences the world), but something I found particularly enlightening was the note at the back that explained Kafka’s dying wish that all copies of The Trial be burned, as he did not feel the work was significant or otherwise worthy of merit. Now, I would include such information – particularly as the publisher chose to print it within that edition of the book itself – as part of the text that added something to my interpretation of it. It would appear that Kafka did not even intend me to read The Trial; let alone to read it and to know that he felt it wasn’t worthy of merit. But I can still take all this information and make what I want from it. It seems a little unethical, and at odds with Gadamer’s vision of congenial, dialogic divination, but we all know that if writing is the vocation you choose, then this goes with the territory. It’s like trying to take down your own tweets, or courting media attention and then complaining about lack of privacy.

Incidentally, it was interesting to discuss The Trial with Richard and to compare our interpretations of it. They overlapped a lot; obviously it helped that I knew a little about Richard and that he felt this book was highly significant to him, but there was one key point of departure between our interpretations. Near the end of the book, the beleaguered lead character is told a parable by a clergyman; a story of a man who finds a door that leads to Truth. The door is open, but guarded by a doorkeeper, who doesn’t let the man through. The man stays with the doorkeeper, trying to persuade him to let him in, and remains there until he grows old and dies. At the moment of death, the doorkeeper closes the door. My interpretation of the parable was that it illustrated the insanity – and the paradox – of an obsession with truth; why spend our lives doggedly and pointlessly trying to get at it, when we could choose to walk away, out into the sunshine, and go skiing, or dancing, or learn to surf? Crucially, what paltry, half-assed, incomprehensible truth can possibly lie beyond that door if we’ve spent the only life we have sat on a stool next to it?

This was not how Richard had interpreted it; I rather think he quite admired the man’s determination, and shared his intrigue about what lay beyond the door of Truth. Which just goes to show how important our own biographies and psychologies as interpreters are in finding meaning in texts.

The relevance of all this to my thesis project is because I’m going to be exploring, interrogating and interpreting other people’s views about the purpose of universities. In seeking to be an equal partner in conversation with my participants I am explicitly and intentionally stepping within the hermeneutic circle; I make no pretensions of being a detached, objective observer. My interpretation of the conversation and its implications will be deeply influenced by my own position and biographical context.

This approach also has potentially weird and wonderful implications for my chosen method of Conversation Analysis. CA was devised for the analysis of naturally-occurring speech, and the speech I’m going to be capturing is not going to be wholly natural; also, half of it is going to come from me. I managed to stumble across one of the tutors at Brookes on Tuesday who happens to be a bit of a CA expert and I need to pick his brains about this… Perhaps it would be best to simply get the conversations done as soon as possible, before I get too familiar with the CA technique… otherwise the knowledge of what I’m going to be looking for is likely to influence what I say and how I say it?!

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On pure experience

In an assignment I wrote recently on psychedelic experience and education, I cited 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 also Watts’ (1971) warning not to ‘confuse that system of symbols [language, calculation], with the world itself’.

A friend/colleague very generously provided me with some comments (after I’d submitted it), and I am really enjoying exploring his suggestions. Against the above, he wrote the following:

‘You’ll know that John McDowell argues that it is impossible to look at the world directly, if by that you mean to have unconceptualised experiences. See his Mind and World. He bases his argument on Sellar’s idea of the ‘Myth of the Given’.

I didn’t know of John McDowell, and I haven’t got myself a copy of Mind and World (yet), but I did come across a really nice review by Wayne Christensen of a book by Joseph K Schear on ‘The McDowell-Dreyfus Debate’. While McDowell argues that everything we perceive is pervaded by conceptualisation – a view I didn’t think I agreed with at all – at least his definition of conceptual understanding is not restricted to that which can be coded in language. Christensen cites the example of an individual who perceives a shade of colour for which there is no name, but can retain the experience in memory and refer to it in their mental processes. This is a rather simple example, compared to some things I’ve perceived that couldn’t possibly be recounted, and also, annoyingly, evade capture by the memory (I may only recall, for example, that I perceived something of great significance while fetching a teabag from the cupboard above the kettle, and it was wonderful and reassuring and I wanted so badly to write it down but I couldn’t). The example of the nameless colour brings to mind Philip K Dick’s ‘pink light’ in Valis. It also reminds me of an embarrassing moment I had one Christmas with a boyfriend’s family; being asked to describe a china tea set to his sister, who had been blind since birth. How should I explain ‘gold’? or ‘green?’ Should I even try? Since then, I’ve googled ‘how to describe a colour to a blind person’ and realised that she was probably testing me. Ha.

I came across Hubert Dreyfus and his five stages of expertise before when I was writing a book review of Transformative Learning & Identity. I recall liking his suggestion that the most proficient, most expert practitioners actually think less about what they are doing, not more. It seemed to counter Schön’s dogma of the reflective practitioner, which I’d found irritating. It does depend on what one means by ‘thinking’ though – as Wittgenstein noted, there are many different kinds of thought. I’m willing to bet that there is plenty of brain activity involved in what Dreyfus called ‘absorbed coping’. Charles Limb’s brain scanning of musical improv artists may be a case in point (although I don’t know for certain if his research subjects would have claimed a lack of conscious awareness of what they were doing). If the brain *is* indeed highly active during the highest levels of competent practice, can we claim it to be non-cognitive? Perhaps it is sometimes the case that the more expert we are, the less we are aware of our thinking, hmm? Christensen argues that our conceptual self-awareness is often inaccurate, citing a study that found professional batsmen do not, in fact, keep their eye on the ball (as they thought they were doing).

I looked up Barbara Montero after reading Christensen’s review and I love her perspective. She has digested a lot of thinking from across the disciplines about cognitive activity and expert performance, and built a strong case that expert action can be ‘richly minded’. A ballerina herself, she argues that ‘autopilot’ performances are dull for both the dancer and the audience. It makes sense to me that different kinds of skills demand or benefit from different kinds and degrees of absorption when performed at an elite level, and that this may even vary significantly between individuals. There is more than one method of skinning a cat, and there is more than one method for producing a note-perfect performance of Chopin’s Waltz in A minor.

The awareness and conceptualisation of thought is such an interesting topic; its study has been shown to benefit from interdisciplinary approaches including phenomenology, neuroimaging, eye movement tracking, etc. These same approaches have been utilised in the study of psychedelic experience. Both areas of research flirt with the boundaries of what can be articulated, and that is what is so intriguing and exciting about them.

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On economics

Lurking behind my thesis topic of the purpose of universities in society are questions about how society is organised; i.e. how we put our various resources to use and to what ends. My interest in these questions has directed me towards texts about economics, some of which – e.g. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ The Dignity of Difference – I started reading without realising economics was a big part of what it was about. When we talk of difference in and between classes, cultures and civilisations, we mean differences in our values and priorities, which influence how we allocate and use resources.

I suppose what really bugs me – and what is motivating me to do my thesis project – is the extent of disagreement about the means to which we work towards our end of universal prosperity. In his 2016 report for CUSP on consumer capitalism, Jackson defines prosperity in terms of its social and psychological dimensions as well as its material ones. This would include the respect of peers, the contribution of useful work, a feeling of belonging, and a sense of security in the face of uncertainty.

That all makes sense to me. But does everyone feel the same? And how difficult is it to remember that ‘meaningful participation in the life of society’ is what we actually want, when we’re bombarded with conflicting messages by people and companies who seek to manipulate us for their own financial gain? We are adapted for selfishness as well as altruism; some of us more than others, it would seem.

I’ve recently finished reading ‘Island’, in which Aldous Huxley imagines a utopian society where, among other innovative practices, pre-school children are tested for certain tendencies and educated appropriately. For example, those with a tendency to seek power over others are taught awareness and sensitivity, and given physically strenuous tasks that ‘satisfy their craving for domination’. I wonder how such a scheme would go down in modern Britain; would it be spun as labeling, differential treatment, and a compromise to our individual freedoms (bad), or early intervention and prevention-over-cure (good)? We already have national schemes for the identification of sporting potential (including mental attributes), but it’s not compulsory to take up the resulting opportunities, and it is probably less troubling for an individual to be identified as a future athlete than a future megalomanic.

While I did recently encounter an advert for a couple of PhD studentships in what sounds like a similar area of activity, I expect the idea to languish in the realm of fantasy as we slip further under the control of Huxley’s ‘Peter Pans’ and ‘Muscle Men’. But let’s move on…

Economics – how we put our resources to use – is a field of study that is constantly in flux as we discover new resources or applications, learn how finite they are, and what the effects and opportunity costs are of using them, among other things.

As well as being constantly in flux, economics is highly contested. Even if there is a broad consensus on the utilitarian view that we seek the greatest prosperity for the greatest number, and even if we agree on what prosperity looks like, the limits and boundaries we conceive around this principle are fluid. Are we concerned only with the prosperity of our own nation, or humanity as a whole? What about future generations? Other species, even? It is tempting to focus only on the here and now; indeed, to do otherwise demands more knowledge from us than we have. Maybe this is why sustainability debates can get so heated; no-one really knows what they are talking about; the absence of a scientific explanation for the end of the last ice age, for example, is convenient for those who believe that climate change is independent of the activities of man.

Jackson points out that the financial economy exists in the service of human prosperity. Why are they so often conflated? One reason for this may be that that GDP is perceived as easier to measure than happiness. I’m highly skeptical of this view; not only does the World Happiness Report seem to be going strong as a comprehensive measure of social and psychological prosperity, it also appears that GDP includes consumer spending and business investment; both highly dependent on debt that – in the UK – is literally created by banks. According to Jackson (2016), 95% of the money in the UK is created in this way; when banks agree loans. When ‘real’ money is subsequently ‘made’ and paid back to the bank, then all good; the cash comes into its promised existence. If it isn’t then the balance sheets become very fragile; a state of affairs that apparently led to the financial crash of 2008. Is it the case that our position (5th, I believe) on the GDP-per-capita league table is down to high levels of lending? If so, I’m not impressed.

Another reason why money is conflated with prosperity may be its ubiquitousness; money is the currency through which we are most commonly remunerated for our work and with which we obtain goods and services; an exchange that can become rather circular. I saw the Dalai Lama on a rainy Sunday morning at Glastonbury a couple of years ago, where he shared the following gem:

‘Man sacrifices his health in order to make money.
Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.’

He didn’t attribute it as such, but this happens to be word-for-word identical to a 2001 poem by James J Lachard called An Interview with God, itself reminiscent of the 1975 Eagles song Take It To The Limit:

‘You can spend all your time making money.
You can spend all your love making time.’ 

Many believe that industrialisation improved living standards across the board, and over the longer term this could be argued to be so. But Jackson (2016) agrees with Marx (1867), that industrialisation and capitalism has contributed to the concentration of financial wealth in the hands of the few. Polyani (1944) also noted how the emerging capitalist economy had ‘disembedded’ economic activities from social relations, leading to a loss of accountability in economic relationships; a point that was more recently taken up by Sacks (2002).

I attended a book launch in September for Rethinking Capitalism (Mazzucato & Jacobs 2016), which takes a similar line to Will Hutton’s (2015) How Good We Can Be. Both take a well-reasoned approach that is framed independently of beliefs about human motivation and purpose. Hutton is big on addressing national inequality but not so vocal on global issues and the environment. I rather suspect this is because he doesn’t want to risk being written off as a hand-knitted lefty or enemy of progress, rather than because he doesn’t care. While Hutton, Mazzucato and Jacobs are definitively pro-growth and Jackson is not, all of them provide excellent ideas for ways in which things could be better – far too many to summarise here, but none of it is rocket science. They all constitute a call for action – but to whom?

Even more interesting than the contents of Rethinking Capitalism was the make-up of the discussion panel at the launch. Joining Mariana Mazzucato and Michael Jacobs were Wendy Carlin, an economics professor at UCL, and a chap called Richard Davies, former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers at the Treasury. What I found intriguing (and also, not surprising) was that Davies, with his position of great influence, didn’t seem to agree with anything in the book. Despite the editors citing powerful examples like Huawei and Eriksson reinvesting all profits, the direct investments of the German State Bank into green technology and transport R&D, and the golden days of NASA when the top rate of tax was 90%, Davies believes that the economy can be left largely to market forces and that competition (rather than state support) drives innovation. 

Essentially, if the advisor to the Chancellor doesn’t agree with you, then the prognosis for your ideas is possibly not good. I could have suggested this during the questions at the end but instead chose to ask the panel why they thought growth was so important. I wasn’t satisfied by Davies’ response that we get better (i.e. more effective/efficient) at what we do year on year. I lean towards Jackson’s (2016) view that productivity gains and increased automation justify us working fewer hours (as Keynes himself suggested in his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren), and shifting to areas of activity that are inherently labour-intensive and sustainable such as care, craft and culture. I suggested as much to Davies but he dismissed it, claiming that humans are ‘naturally competitive’. Certainly many of us are. If only we could catch them early and perform some sort of intervention…

*with 91% of growth going to the top 1%, according to Mazzucato & Jacobs (2016).


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Some notes on knowledge disciplines and God

Back in March I wrote about Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Fox and the Hedgehog, where he proposes two different categories of thinker/writer; those who view the world through the lens of one defining idea (hedgehog), or those who draw on a range of ideas and experiences (fox). In his book ‘Curious’, Ian Leslie proposes that as individuals we benefit from nurturing both ways of being; to be a ‘foxhog’ who develops a specialist view of the world along with a broad range of knowledge that enables one to empathise, connect and adapt. 

As a field of study, higher education draws heavily on the disciplines of economics, politics and philosophy. I have set out to read in these areas assuming breadth, but I increasingly feel that economics and philosophy in particular are fundamental to my specialism. I no longer feel that I’m going off on a tangent by reading Piketty or (trying to read) Nietzsche. It all relates and connects, often explicitly so. In the last month I have seen the same references (e.g. Adam Smith, John Locke, Karl Polanyi) cropping up in pretty much all my reading matter – from Rabbi Sacks’ Dignity of Difference to Tim Jackson’s working paper for CUSP, and a new book on economics (Rethinking Capitalism – Jacobs and Mazzucato 2016) that I attended the launch for last month.

As news came in yesterday of Finland mandating the introduction of transdisciplinary, topic-based teaching for all school-age pupils, I coincidentally found myself reading a lovely paper by David Jardine and Kim Grant (2011). It captures an email exchange prompted by a classroom discussion about the industrial model – the breakdown of things into detached parts – influencing schooling from the early 20th century (Ken Robinson also talks about this in his TED talk on schools killing creativity).

Jardine and Grant’s conversation draws on literature ranging from Gadamer and Aquinas to C.S. Lewis and Calvin and Hobbes (yes really) in exploring Jardine’s question: ‘What about our knowledge of the world? What (if any) good is it?’. This is a key angle on the debate about the purpose of higher education, and I was reminded of Paul Standish’s paper on the ‘given’ in educational research, as the value of knowledge is so rarely questioned in everyday life.

During the conversation, Grant refers to Parker Palmer, writer of much lauded self-help books for teachers such as The Courage to Teach (1998), in which he describes the vital need that teachers have ‘to investigate connections between our subjects, our students, and our souls that help make us whole again and again.’ (p.120). Grant writes of her realisation that ‘we have broken things apart…in order to better grasp them and pin them down long enough to teach about them.’, claiming ‘…it does strike me as ironic because my passion in teaching has always been about showing the connections.’ She also ponders whether all ‘great things [are] filled with sufficient grace’, and whether/how ‘different ones of us attuned to different fields of grace’, citing how, while maths leaves her ‘cold’ despite having had great teachers, she loves to study history.

Grant describes how the study of cells may fulfil a biologist and the study of musical theory may enliven the writer of symphonies, and proposes the disciplines are different ‘worlds’ through which ‘God’ reveals himself, quoting Aslan at the close of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: ‘[in your world] I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.’

Grant, K, and Jardine, D. 2011. “We Need a Saviour“: An Irreconciling Conversation about Curriculum. Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies, 7.

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Some notes about Ludwig Wittgenstein

ludwig_wittgensteinI’ve resolved to brush up on my knowledge of a few key philosophers. Today I’ve been reading more about Wittgenstein’s life and philosophy, inspired by Ian Ground’s PESGB lecture last week and also because I felt his thoughts about language are potentially relevant to my thesis.

Like me, Ludwig Wittgenstein grew up in a house full of pianos and depressive siblings, doubted his effectiveness as a teacher, hated office parties and liked working with his hands. Other things we have in common are a love of Schubert and cooking, techno-skepticism, and disdain for the press. I think we would have got on pretty well.

Originally a student of maths and engineering, Wittgenstein’s interest in logic and structure evolved into a passion for the limits of language and meaning. An analytic philosopher, he describes philosophy as the logical clarification of thoughts. A thought cannot be shown, so we have to use representation; as musical notation and the grooves on a record are representations of music that have homologous form with it, but are not the music itself.

Here are some basic Wittgensteinian ideas that I think I’ve grasped:

  • Logic deals with information in its purest form, i.e. free of emotion.
  • Thoughts can be logical without being true.
  • Tautology and contradiction are not propositions; they are not proposing anything and mean nothing. But they are important as they demonstrate the nature of logic.
  • Not everything is explainable.
  • Logical necessity is the only kind of necessity.
  • Causality is superstition.
  • We cannot describe the limits of language (as we are limited by language!)
  • Different uses of a word share a resemblance. The strength of a word as a symbol is a product of its multiple different uses.
  • We can only ever make inferences about another’s inner world.
  • There is no difference between the content of experience of wishing and intending; the difference is in the way they are articulated.

At first I thought the implication of that final point was that we could articulate our wishes as intentions and change the world, but I really don’t think that’s what Wittgenstein was driving at. He wasn’t known for his optimism.

In the years following the publication of his main work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (literally a ‘handling’/discussion of logic and philosophy) other philosophers prompted him to question some of his original principles, including the one that all propositions must have logical form (we can debate whether certain propositional hand gestures have logical form, for example).

Wittgenstein came to agree with the Ancient Greeks’ idea of philosophy as a kind of therapy; a way of developing thoughts that are ‘at peace’, by challenging the habits of thought and taken-for-granted forms of everyday speech that are entwined with the way we live. (see p85 quote.) One suggestion he made was that we should do away with all attempts to explain and stick to description; this reminded me again of the ‘pathic’ writing activity David had us do in Year 1; the treatment of a critical incident though a descriptive, pre-reflective account.

Wittgenstein felt that the job of philosophy is to defend our intelligence against bewitchment by language. He highlighted how thought appears simple until we reflect on it and realise that it is not one kind of activity; there are many, many different sorts of thinking. It occurred to me reading Wittgenstein’s ideas about thought that the perceived effort we experience in thinking ‘hard’ is due to things other than the thinking about the problem; ‘stress’ or ‘overthinking’, perhaps the pressure to look like we’re thinking. Maybe they actually get in the way of the thinking? Wittgenstein says that thought is not an inner process that occurs in our heads. It is our thought, but we do not transfer it from one person to another. I may express the thought, and you may hear it, but you do not need to have the thought yourself in order to understand.

Another interesting point Wittgenstein makes about language is that it is dependent on non-linguistic features; for example to respond appropriately to a joke requires a sense of humour. It also helps to have familiarity with the person telling the joke.

I now totally get what Ian Ground was saying in his PESGB lecture about the relevance of Wittgensteinian thought to a consideration of animal consciousness. Wittgenstein supports what I wrote in my last post about human life being bound in language; we can’t step out of language; we can’t even describe its limits. Mathematics, like language, mirrors our form of life. If we saw and perceived objects differently, we would have a different mathematics.

I do, however, believe certain activities can provide us with a hint – a glimpse – of what lies outside. This upcoming online course by Stanislav Grof looks absolutely intriguing. If it’s free, I’ll do it.

Now, a lot of people who click on that link will probably denounce it as irrational, corny new-age delusion (as apparently many of Roy Bhaskar’s fans did when he published From East to West). But Wittgenstein points out that we seek satisfactions of different kinds, which do not necessarily contradict one another; for example Darwin’s account of evolution and the account of creation in Genesis. If we assume that magic is trying to achieve the same ends as science, we will look down upon it. But magic does not seek causal explanations; it is a language of gestures that brings different satisfactions (this is what Wittgenstein means by ‘the spirit in which one acts’; he means the satisfactions that we seek). Whereas a lot of philosophers seek the identification of founding principles, it is said that Wittgenstein’s theme of language games makes his philosophy more rhizomatic.

It struck me again, reading about Wittgenstein, what can be achieved by bright individuals when they are freed from the necessity to make a living. Wittgenstein came from an incredibly wealthy family. Not a happy one, it seems (all three of his brothers committed suicide… incidentally, he did argue against the existence of happiness as a state of mind). Ultimately, having chosen to walk away from the family fortune and carve his own individual path through life, it’s clear he was under no illusion that money equates to wealth. One key argument in favour of universal basic income if that is we are released from our wage-slavery we can follow our passions, develop our own particular talents, and do and achieve truly great things for humanity.

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