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.

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