Breaking Convention 2017: Part 1

Okay, so here’s something I learned in the last year or so: The best conferences happen at weekends. Obvious, really. If they’re worth giving up your weekend for, they’ve got to be good.

What *is* a hippy?

I just got back from Breaking Convention, and I can honestly say it was one of the most fabulous, educational and inspiring events I’ve ever been to. I arrived at tea time on Thursday and went for a quick run in Greenwich Park in the late afternoon sunshine before picking up my delegate pack from the university. While at the desk I was greeted by the incredible half man, half teddy bear Cameron Adams, who I felt a spontaneous urge to hug. This was surprising, and probably a little awkward, as we were shaking hands at the time.

The next morning, keen to avoid overthinking my own skit, I went along to the Philosophy and Mysticism sessions where I met Peter Sjostedt-H (who Richard and I recently interviewed for 3:am magazine), Chris Lethaby (who I’ve also sent questions to… watch this space), and Alessio Bucci. Alessio is a philosopher and cognitive scientist (or philosopher of cognitive science?) at the University of Turin, and his session sought to gain conceptual clarity around consciousness.

In The Conscious Mind, Dave Chalmers outlines some ‘common’ conceptions of consciousness that aren’t really consciousness at all (‘awareness’, etc), but this was next-level stuff (I’m sure Chalmers gets there eventually, I just didn’t get that far through the book yet). Alessio cited Jonkisz’s four-fold taxonomy of consciousness, explaining how the various conceptions of consciousness proposed by cognitive scientists and philosophers refer to four different sorts of criteria: epistemic (concerned with kinds of consciousness), semantic (dealing with orders of consciousness), physiological (reflecting states of consciousness), and pragmatic (seeking to capture sources of consciousness perhaps?).

An ‘altered state’ of consciousness therefore refers to a physiological model of consciousness. Alessio pointed out that – of course – when we talk of an ‘altered’ state we mean relative to a baseline. But what is that baseline? A notion of baseline consciousness may be useful, but it may also be too rigid. This – Alessio claimed – is why neuroimaging is useful for philosophers – they don’t have to just rely on phenomenological reports; they can triangulate.

I was very interested to hear him say this, because when I spoke at the Philosophy of Education conference I got the sense (and also a little explicit feedback) that philosophers of education have a deep distrust of brain scans. I learned a bit more about why this weekend, and I suspect I actually misrepresented the scans when talking to the PESGB. The ones I used were the ones from Robin Carhart-Harris’ 2014 study (another truly lovely person I met at BC) that showed the degree of integration – connectivity – between parts of the brain. There is a much higher level of disorder in the brain on LSD (Robin also talks about high ‘entropy’ and ‘criticality’) compared to the brain on placebo. Integration is obviously a more complex measure than blood flow – the meaning of which isn’t clearly theorised in any case – and is clearly of particular interest when examining altered or unusual states of consciousness. Apparently, low entropy brain states include deep sleep, coma, and psychologically fixated states like OCD and depression.

The implicit ‘baseline’ of consciousness would seemingly be that seen in normal, ‘healthy’, waking subjects. But Alessio claimed consciousness is ‘plastic’ and multifaceted. He cited Clark (2015), and Friston’s (2009) principle that brains are predictive machines. They are constantly in the business of predicting their own internal states.

I could see how this resonated with what I wanted to say in my own talk about the intertwining of education and therapy. Therapy is not simply one type of education. All deep learning involves thinking about how we think; i.e. metacognition. Psychedelics disrupt the hierarchy of prediction. The hypotheses that are subsequently deployed by the brain are less stable, and information is sought and received from unusual places.

I asked Alessio if he’d experienced much resistance from other philosophers about his use of neuroimaging data, and he said he hadn’t – not in the circles he moves in. He emphasised the importance of being aware of how the data is collected and the limitations of what it represents, before the data can be applied to the context. I think these are wise words whatever data you’re collecting really (even conversations with senior managers of universities… especially those).

I really enjoyed Chris Lethaby’s talk too. Having read almost his entire back catalogue of papers to prepare the questions for his 3:am interview, the contents were familiar to me, but he’s a great speaker and I found his talk really engaging. He addressed the question of whether the joyous cosmology of psychedelic consciousness was simply foisting a comforting delusion on the sick and the dying. He concluded that, while psychedelic therapy has epistemic flaws, it also has epistemic benefits. In experiencing phenomena that may not be ‘real’, one gains ‘real’ knowledge into one’s mind and its possibilities. So, Chris was also talking about metacognition. Psychedelic subjects gain experiential knowledge of their own psychological potential, and of the constructed nature of their sense of self.

I brought this idea into my own talk in the afternoon session. It was immensely enjoyable to tell the story of autoethnographic writing about psychedelic experience, and I got some heart-warming feedback from the audience over the weekend. Lots of people told me that writing openly in an academic context about how psychedelics had benefited me was a brave thing to do, and was valuable for the community in the way I had intended. They also appreciated the reflexivity I’d applied to the interactions I’d had with tutors and colleagues. I have the conference to thank for that, really, as it was in putting together the talk that I revisited the various email exchanges and discovered things my former self had written, done and felt that I’d completely forgotten about.

I was reminded throughout the conference that my own approach to disclosure is at one end of the spectrum. A lot of the really big names in psychedelic research have had the privilege of experiencing a range of psychedelic substances within clinical trials (not necessarily as a research subject; many trials require the therapists to experience the substance for themselves), but it’s not really about legality as there are many situations where we can and do take these substances legally (on psychedelic experience weekends, ayahuasca retreats, etc). It’s more the case that many researchers – especially those working in the hard science fields – feel that admitting to having personal experience of psychedelics would undermine the objectivity of their research.

One researcher whose work I particularly admire told me he doesn’t talk about what drugs he’s taken, like he doesn’t talk about his sex life. Personally, I’ll talk about my sex life to anyone who asks, but that didn’t seem like a wise point to make at the time, so I slunk off to talk to someone else (about sex, as it turned out. Funny that… or not).

Having had a gloriously long sleep (again, unusual and surprising), I literally ran to the university to catch Ken Tupper’s talk on entheogenic education. It was so good; he took us through a potted history of knowledge – about how natural philosophers became scientists, astrology gave rise to astronomy, alchemy to chemistry and so on. He also – echoing that first ever blog post I wrote almost a decade ago – cited Vygotsky in illustrating how our minds change with the development and application of cognitive tools. Such tools include mnemonic symbols, behavioural techniques; codes, reading/writing, schemes, arithmetic, psychedelic drugs, works of art; anything we use – or that can be put to use – to direct the workings of the mind. Even learning to use an abacus changes our neural architecture. I was reminded here of Ian Munday’s lecture at the IoE last Wednesday about film, and the discussion we had about film techniques influencing our mental narratives.

Ken explained that certain forms of knowledge are promoted by certain cognitive tools, and that some tools are particularly powerful; they have a ‘ratchet’ effect. He gave the examples of notches on sticks used to keep track of debts, and the Arabic/Hindu system of the numbers 1-9 that made arithmetic so much simpler. He cited a rather interesting-sounding book on how the merchants of Venice created modern accounting, and the societal impact of double-entry bookkeeping with credits and debits.

And then – resonating with the tone of other talks I saw, notably Nadia Erlam’s paper on cognitive dispossession and ‘neuroqueering’, and Adam Aronovich’s Sunday morning session – Ken spoke of statistics, the bell-shaped curve and the introduction of the concept of statistical normality which developed into a common sense of normality – ‘how things ought to be’ – and also its inverse; deviance and how it has become pathologised.

While psychotropic substances had a history of description as telescopes or microscopes of the mind, it was as early as the late 19th century that self-experimentation began to be thought of as unprofessional in the sense that it compromises one’s objectivity. Ken posed the question of the desirability of first hand knowledge:

  1. To establish empathy with research subjects
  2. To validate the interpretation of data
  3. To participate in emerging of discourses of intersubjectivity

He asked – what can we really know from not having the experience of psychedelics? What is the status of Traditional Indigenous Knowledge (TIK)? Why is modern Western quantitative science the touchstone for epistemological validity? Are we inappropriately imposing our Western scientific framework?

I asked Ken to elaborate on this in the discussion as I was curious to know how he felt Western science and TIK could be mediated; whether we can we find a common language. He gave me a couple of gems to follow up; one was Jeremy Nardy, who is currently working in this area in Canadian universities, and the other was Joseph Bastien – an anthropologist who worked in the Andes in the late 1980s.

The afternoon session continued the theme of cognitive tools with Tom Roberts, an educationalist from the US who’s been teaching a module on psychedelics for several years. I’d met Tom the day before after my talk as he’d very kindly scribbled the name of a couple of his books on a postcard for me (I have since ordered them both). Tom was asking a question that interests me greatly – what is the fullest development of the human mind, and how do we reach it? He proposed an alternative direction for the field of ‘artificial intelligence’ that focuses on the possibilities of neuroscience rather than those of digital technologies. He suggested that the cognitive tools of today – yoga, mindfulness, meditation, psychedelics, etc. – could be combined in myriad ways to powerful effect. An obvious point, perhaps, but not a common topic at the conference, unless you count the drug part and the therapy part of psychedelic therapy as separate tools (most people wouldn’t, I think). At the moment the community is very focused on demonstrating the potential of particular, specific substances and therapies, and the scientific method demands controlled testing. But anecdotally, people are certainly using a range of tools in their own exploratory practice and finding complementary groupings.

I’m only halfway through the conference and halfway through my notes at this point, so I’ll have to make this a two-parter! Part 2 will cover psychiatry, MDMA, DMT, the pineal gland and near-death experience, the relationship between plants and humans, value memes, hippies, war veterans and an overwhelming sense of optimism. BRB.

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Bildung, powerful knowledge and downward mobility

I referred in an earlier post to Von Humboldt’s specification of Wissenschaft (the ‘broad science’ that goes on in universities) as a communal endeavour in the service of Bildung.

Bildung was the topic of this week’s PESGB seminar at the IoE, which was given by Asger Sørensen. Adorno described Bildung as the subjective aspect of culture; it refers not the Kantian idea of culture itself, but to its acquisition. I’m not sure why it’s considered notoriously difficult to translate into English. I think ‘cultivation’ – cultivation of the self – is fine. Isn’t it?

Sørensen’s abstract was as follows:

In German, the term Bildung has a special status in discourses on education, upbringing and formation, by some hailed as the ultimate ideal, by others dismissed as just another ideological construction. Trying to stay clear of these extremes, I will employ the idea of Bildung to develop the notion of Citizenship Education, discussing in particular how Habermas uses the concept in his theory of democracy in Between Facts and Norms. The hunch is that a “discursively formed public opinion can represent a process of Bildung or education in which citizens build better foundations to their opinions through discursive interaction.

Clearly these ideas have a great deal of relevance to my thesis on the purpose of universities. Also, I’ve just bought Habermas’ The Future of Human Nature to inform my work on cognitive and moral enhancement, so this was all very interesting. I was puzzled when Anders told us that, initially, Habermas described the connection between education and power/wealth as ‘illegitimate’ (that’s something I wonder about all the time – why should graduates get paid more than non-graduates? I just don’t get it), but later took on a view that resonates with Michael Young’s concept of powerful knowledge; a can’t-beat-them-join-them stance that entails comprehensive inculcation of high culture, so that all have the opportunity to be powerful.

My ‘fun’ reading this week is Owen Jones’ first book Chavs: the demonisation of the working class. Reading this, and hearing Anders talk about Habermas and his view on enculturation, reminded me how I felt when David gave us a book chapter on culture by E.D.Hirsch. Hirsch – and I feel uncomfortable writing this because I’m sure I often do as well – comes across as a snob. At the time I felt like he was trying to articulate why his tastes are ‘good’ and others are not, but his rationale didn’t quite hold water.

Since then, I’ve often thought how certain kinds of art, literature and music might be said to be ‘better’ than others. I came to a view that the good ones must make a greater, deeper contribution to our wellbeing than other kinds (because that, to me, is our ultimate aim – wellbeing). Some examples of obviously bad works in this sense include ‘lifestyle’ magazines that are explicitly designed to make us feel flawed and deficient, and romances that leave us feeling disappointed with the reality of love. Near the beginning of this talk, Alain de Botton accuses Walt Disney of peddling the kind of false hope that is a root cause of our anger, and explains how it is the job of philosophy to ‘let us down gently’.

Moving beyond the immediately obvious – and maybe this is what Hirsch was trying to say and I just didn’t see it at the time – but a lot of pop culture – films, novels, TV and music – tends to ignore complexity, cut out the harmonious (and mundane) elements of life, and present only a thin slice of conflict, drama, violence and/or eros. I don’t think this is good for our wellbeing. Zeldin writes about an aspect of this; he argues that in order to see alternatives to violent conflict we need more works that portray people getting along, embracing difference and learning about one another and themselves. Nehamas also alludes to similar matters when he speaks about the difficulty of portraying friendship – particularly visually – without drama. You can see that on the cover of his book (see left) he resorts to using fruit.

I enjoy films that people like E.D.Hirsch would consider ‘high culture’; films that portray situations and characters that are complex, nuanced and unpredictable. I like films that give you plenty of time to really notice and think about what you’re seeing. These are the kinds of films I watched at home with my dad when I was a child, and it’s highly likely they were instrumental in my becoming a deep and critical thinker. If I’d been raised on Disney and action movies, would I have seen the world more in black and white, good and evil? I don’t think a polarised way of looking at the world – or people – is healthy for us as individuals, or for society. So, maybe that’s a way in which ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture differs, that I can get behind.

The idea of ‘powerful knowledge’ just doesn’t wash with me. For a start, it appears unashamedly arbitrary in its content – this is what powerful people know, like and appreciate, so if you know and appreciate it too, you can join their gang. But my primary issue with it is that in the UK today we have an incredibly unequal society where wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of very few. An ‘enculturing’ education with the end of upward social mobility for the lower classes is not going to fix that. Unfortunately for those with the wealth and the power, we also need to apply pressures that create downward mobility if we are to achieve a more equal society. Sorry guys.

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Changing ourselves, changing others

I want to return to something I wrote in my last post about encountering different approaches to life. I was responding to Karl Jaspers’ claim that tension between the individual and the world is necessary for self-knowledge and a true life; that we can never truly know another’s experience, but become ‘more whole’ by encountering the boundaries. There is a common thread running through this and the Nehamas interview, and Gadamer, Zeldin and Sachs’ writings on conversation and difference. Newman touches on it in his Idea of the University when he speaks of ‘a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every corner’, and it is this universality that many still consider the archetypal feature of the University.

A similar concept lies behind some highly successful TV shows; Wife Swap, Undercover Boss, Faking It, Rich House – Poor House, Supersize/Superskinny. Every episode sees the protagonist stepping into someone else’s shoes, immersing themselves in another life and coming away not only with a deeper understanding of the other, but also a fresh perspective on themselves.

One thing that hooked me into the Nehamas interview was his argument that there is no universal morality (I like this line of thought). While rejecting moral relativism, Nehamas points out that moral laws do not assume there is a single type of life that is good for all. If morality were universal we would not need rules. We construct laws – and social norms – that are applicable down to the ‘lowest common denominator’. Adjusting to them can, however, prevent us from living well; ‘rules’ for becoming an individual can be self-undermining. Nehamas likens the becoming of a person to the production of a great work of art, in that there is no recipe, no rule; we can only formulate the principles afterwards. He argues that certain lives are particularly admirable because of their differences from the lives of those around them, and so it is with art. To model life on the making of art – to engage in the ‘art of living’ – is to go one’s own way; to take ‘the road less travelled’, as Scott Peck would say.

When Richard asked him if living is an art that can be taught, Nehamas’ response seemed to underscore a conception of a ‘good’ or ‘admirable’ life as one that is, in some way, emergent or exceptional. I think – I suspect – that this Nietzschean concept of the ubermensch is often spoken of in these terms, and I find it problematic.

Consider again Carl Rogers’ presentation of what one might describe as a common process for learning to live well; a process that is founded on authenticity, acceptance and understanding. Rogers was a psychotherapist. His view of human becoming is one of mending what is broken; making the dysfunctional functional. If we view becoming from this angle, the analogy between life and art breaks down. When we describe an artwork as ‘good’, we generally mean there is something exceptional about it. If we speak of artworks as ‘good enough’ or ‘satisfactory’, we imply a lack of sorts; a disappointment. Art is art by way of its exceptionality. Why might we have higher standards for art than we do for our lives? Perhaps it is because with art we start with a blank canvas, whereas in ‘creating’ ourselves, our lives, we have to work with what is already there at the point that we start to become autonomous. By this time a lot of damage has already been done!

Design is judged differently to art. Design’s beauty is functional; we may find its form pleasing, but design may equally be considered ‘good’ by virtue of its unobtrusiveness, or its ability to make a difficult task easy. I would like to argue that living well has – or should have – more in common with design than with art, and that perhaps there is – as Rogers suggests – a common process that will set one on a trajectory to the good life. 

Rogers’ recipe – authenticity, acceptance and understanding – brings us back to the question of our relations with others, and the value of universality. In being authentic and working to accept and understand the other, we learn about the world and ourselves.

We’ve just had another general election, and what is truly remarkable about the result to me is that it shows how stable (or stubborn) our individual political leanings are. It seems that the significant shifts in voting have been from those who didn’t vote before, and those who voted for a smaller, more radical party in 2015 out of frustration with a watered-down primary opposition. What these groups want hasn’t changed; it’s just that no-one with a cat in hell’s chance of winning many seats – let alone a parliamentary majority – seemed to be offering it. It’s not so much that the public mood has shifted; more that the primary opposition is finally offering what these people want.

Now there are post-election polls showing that this effect is continuing; that the belief in the ability of the opposition to form a government is strengthening, and that were we to have another election soon we would be looking at a different result again. But I don’t think anyone is actually suggesting that blues will turn to reds in significant numbers. Do we have ‘floating voters’ that oscillate directly between Tory and Labour? Is that a thing? Has it ever been?

On election day I considered telephoning my German grandmother. She lives in East Hampshire – a secure Conservative seat with a high voter turnout. She never votes. Her companion (lodger/whatever) Ron voted to leave the EU. I thought we could discuss the the implications of privatising the NHS (Ron has diabetes, she has dementia), and selling her house to pay for care. That’s a policy that doesn’t bother me personally – it’s not like she’s going to need it – but it would bother her (and where would Ron live? Not with me).

I wanted to get them out to vote at least. If they voted Tory, what the hell, but at least they would have needed to think about why, because I would have asked them to. And if they’d chosen to share those reasons with me – Ron never holds back with his political views – I hoped I’d be able to listen, and accept, and try to understand. But it all seemed too difficult, and awkward, and ultimately pointless. Crucially, I heard my mother’s voice in my head, screeching ‘what were you doing, getting her all panicked like that? She’s in her 90’s for god’s sake, and East Hampshire would vote for a rotting corpse as long as it was wearing a blue bloody rosette.’

I still wish I’d called them. I was being a wuss. I took the easy option and told myself it didn’t matter. I think a lot of this hinges on our need to feel that others approve of us, and I’ll come back to that.

Last year Julie Beck also did a nice interview with Nehamas that focused on friendship and art. Nehamas’ view on friendship is both complex and simple; he explains at length why friendship is not intrinsically ‘good’ – and here we realise that, while Nehamas has ideas about the good life, he is ambivalent about whether friendship contributes to that. While it would be fair to assume that we like our friends because of what we have in common, Nehamas argues in both interviews that the opposite is also true; we are drawn to others because they are different to us, and we believe that our lives will be different – better – with them in it. But friendship, like beauty, is a non-moral value; it is double-edged and can be dangerous.

For Nehamas, friendship is a means to transformation. He claims that ‘when you feel that your relationship with somebody will not change you in any way… the relationship is over.’ This resonates with me a great deal. The idea that other people enter relationships for the purposes of self-development is startling (I thought it was only me that did that), but the more I think about it, the more I think that Nehamas is onto something here.

It is easy to read Gadamer, Zeldin and Sachs and be carried away by their enthusiasm for conversation and mutual change and the seeking of new solidarities. They make it sound more effective than I am finding it to be. I did my final thesis conversation today, and I enjoyed it immensely (my new book on The Art of Conversation has been very helpful). I’m still not sure that I’ve captured any real disagreement, and maybe that’s never going to happen when two individuals get together in private, away from the cheerleading or judgement of our peers; our instinct to get along is too strong. One counter-example I can think of is when Toby Young pulled a similar stunt to me at the 2015 Tory party conference, but given that he explicitly set out to create newspaper-worthy friction and usually doesn’t hold back in his derision of lefties, his account is surprisingly tame (I wrote about my own experience here). I’d love to see a full transcript of his conversation with the protester; I bet they actually warmed to one another, not that Young would admit to that. Reconciliation, peaceful conflict, whatever we call it – it requires us to put our energies into being kind rather than being right, which it’s very difficult to do when you’re convinced that the other person is wrong.

Colleagues and friends working in education often tell me they would find it very hard to talk to Toby Young, and they don’t see what it would achieve for them to accept him and to understand his perspective. They may even consider such an approach dangerous in its supposed quietism. Carl Rogers (1967) recognises this as a natural educational reaction:

‘What is life for if we are not going to do things to people? What is life for if we are not going to teach them the things that we think they should learn?’ (p21)

But, he maintains that

‘The more an individual is understood and accepted, the more he tends to drop the false fronts with which he has been meeting life and the more he tends to move in a direction which is forward.’ (p27)

We are scared to try to understand another, because it might change us. And yes, the more we are open to being ourselves and accepting the other, the more change is stirred up. But according to Rogers, all this is change in a positive direction. So, if I were to have a conversation with Toby Young along these lines, it is likely to change me in some way; but in a positive way. Not (necessarily!) the blatant persuasion that Toby had in mind at the conference; there many other ways in which such a conversation might change both of us for the better.

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Karl Jaspers: universities, love and leadership

Wyatt, J.F. 1982. Karl Jaspers’ The Idea of the University: An existentialist argument for an institution concerned with freedom. Studies in Higher Education 7 (1), pp21-34.

I’m still playing around with Newman’s Idea of the University and have been delving into other ‘Ideas’ to lend my reading of it more depth. I’ve also been trying out a few of my thoughts about Newman’s Idea on my research participants. Transcribing these bits has been, well, interesting. I do have a tendency to go off on one when I’m talking about something I’m really into.

I came across this piece on Karl Jaspers the other day. It was one of those serendipitous right-hand-column discoveries you make when browsing Taylor & Francis journal articles. It’s almost as old as I am, but – like me – still fresh as a daisy 😉

Karl Jaspers wrote the first version of The Idea of the University shortly after the first world war, and published an extensively revised version at the end of WW2. It was translated into English in 1960 during the period of intense public debate on higher education that preceded the Robbins report. In his Idea, Jaspers – an existentialist – presents the search for truth as paramount and equates it to the human search for wholeness. Like Newman, he identifies the ultimate end of this search for truth as ‘human development & advancement’, while maintaining a decidedly conservative view of how this is to be achieved. He emphasises the transmission of culture – a complex concept, but primarily disciplinary culture – in addition to, and as distinct from, the other two objectives of the university – research and the transmission of knowledge. Distinct, but inseparable; these three activities join forces to ‘direct the individual to the frontiers’.

Jaspers identifies three modes of learning that take place in universities; schooling, apprenticeship and Socratic dialogue. He places particular emphasis on the latter. Jaspers’ ideal university is a ‘community of thinking’ that seeks wholeness and truth through a Socratic system. For him, this is ideal because it is formative, not isolated, and moves its participants towards ‘meaningful freedom’; a phrase also used often by his pupil Hannah Arendt. ‘Freedom of the intellect’ – academic freedom –  is for Jaspers the archetypal feature of the university.

In this respect, Jaspers is thought to differ somewhat from Von Humbolt, and more so from Heidegger (I’ve been reading a recent piece by Mark Sinclair on these two). Von Humbolt was all in favour of the unencumbered pursuit of Wissenschaft (rough translation – broad science), but specified it as a communal endeavour, in the service of Bildung and bound to Geist. If there is anything about the Humboltian ideal that Jaspers was explicitly rejecting, I suspect it would have been these slippery notions and their susceptibility to appropriation (they may seem more slippery to me because I am only 25% German). Indeed, Heidegger – during his brief period as the National Socialist rector of Freiburg University in the 1930s – was said to have radicalised Von Humbolt’s position, criticising Lehrfreiheit and arguing for a Gemeinschaft – a genuine community – as opposed to a fully autonomous Gesellschaft (yet again I am struck by how the Germans really have got the better language for discussing these matters!).

Jaspers classified knowledge into two different types; the ‘universal’, and the ‘individual’ or ‘unique’. It sounds like this division corresponds pretty well to what we might call the sciences (including e.g. sociology) and the arts, but Jaspers’ labelling is interesting; it highlights that ‘universal’ knowledge is about identifying rules – laws of nature. This led me to consider whether the other kind of knowledge  – I think ‘particular’ is a better term – is concerned with exceptions. I’m still wondering about that.

Jaspers was of the mind that the quality of an institution was not determined by what it taught, so much as the methods of teaching and the quality of those who teach. He writes about the courage to educate – an idea echoed by inspirational writers like Paulo Freire and Parker Palmer – claiming that teaching requires us to trust in the dormant possibilities of human nature. For Freire, ‘education is an act of love, and thus an act of courage’, and I propose the two are saying (roughly) the same thing. In loving, we give something of ourselves that we may not get back. We make ourselves vulnerable; we invest with no guarantee of return. This may sound less like trusting in the possibilities of human nature than gambling on it, but if the giving – the work we do – is rewarding in itself, then it is not a gamble. Many wise people feel that way about love as well – that to love without need or expectation is, paradoxically, the most rewarding way to love.

Wyatt calls attention to the problem of an existentialist arguing for the maintenance of an antiquated institution such as a university, and explains how Jaspers reconciles this, particularly given the particularly rigid departmental structures of German universities in the interwar period. Jaspers was writing about what the university should become rather than what it was, and his ideal was focused on the human possibilities of becoming whole. Key to his Idea is that tension between the individual and the world is a necessary condition of existence; it leads to self-knowledge and a true life. We can never truly know another’s experience, but we become more whole by encountering the boundaries. This resonates with Richard’s recent 3:am interview with Alexander Nehamas on Nietzsche and friendship, in which Nehamas explains that, while morality depends on similarity, friendship depends on and encourages difference. Friendship is essential to our becoming a person in that it enables us to try different ways of being; different approaches to life. I like that interview a lot – it certainly encapsulates why I’m friends with Richard 😉

Jaspers joins Newman, Heidegger and Von Hombolt in their call for unified universities, arguing that specialist institutions break up the opportunity for communication between the forms of knowledge. He argues for ‘a form of [collective] thinking which constantly strives to connect the various modes to form a totality’; to make possible the shared pursuit of truth. There are genuine basic differences between forms of knowledge, and communication gives us an awareness of these differences. Such conversations should aim to be productive and educative, not necessarily reconciling. This is a crucial point, and worth underscoring given my earlier attempts at titling my thesis. Am I hoping to reconcile different imaginations of the university? Is this possible? Advisable? Possibly not.

While Newman is clear on the kind of (responsible) character a university education produces (providing a list of specifics to rival Darcy’s ‘accomplished woman’), Jaspers argues that this should be considered a by-product rather than a conscious aim. He claims that it is not a university’s task to produce leaders of the people; the qualities of a good leader and a good scholar are not the same.

I might accuse Jaspers of contradicting himself here, but that’s because we disagree about what makes a good leader! Jaspers would cite willpower, resoluteness and pragmatism, while I – echoing Carl Rogers (1961) – would emphasise authenticity, acceptance and understanding. Rogers attests that these qualities are applicable to all human relationships, and I would add that looking at leadership from a relational perspective explains why we lead more effectively in some contexts than others. For example, I am good at my job because I am at ease among academics and teachers, have developed a warm regard for those I work with, and have come to understand their frustrations. Conversely, volunteering for Crisis at Christmas, where I felt unsure of myself, and the guests’ hardship was beyond my understanding, I was barely fit for guarding the janitor’s cupboard. At the time, my incompetence surprised and upset me. This is the problem with assuming that effective leadership is comprised of fixed personal traits like determination and pragmatism; it does not prepare us for the re-learning that is required – the relational work that needs to be done – when we find ourselves in a completely different situation.

Life has many facets and we may all in some way be leaders, but according to Jaspers and Newman we are not all scholars – nor should we be. Jaspers is clear that higher education *should* be preserved for the few; an ‘intellectual aristocracy’ that represents the possibility of mankind. I was not wholly convinced by Newman’s argument on this, and Jaspers’ view – as Wyatt observes – also comes across as elitist and paternalistic. Collini’s (2012) argument for reversing expansion is persuasive on practical grounds, but philosophically I find it jarring. I like to imagine a world where we are all engaged in the pursuit of truth, but not by sending increasing numbers of 18 year olds to university… something more universal, more inclusive than that. Not sure what yet.

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Oakeshott’s definition of the university

Oaskeshott, M. J. 1967. The Definition of a University. The Journal of Educational Thought / Revue de la Pensée Éducative, 1 (3), pp. 129-142

Writing four years after the publication of the Robbins report, Oakeshott responds here to a ‘confusion about the nature of a university and the character of a university education’. We could call it confusion. We could also call it ‘diversification’, or simply ‘change’.

I need to remind myself what benefit(s) Robbins had in mind when he decided that such a significant increase in the proportion of the population would benefit from a university education. Did he imagine that the influence would work both ways? That the university would indeed have an effect on this broader population of students, but the students would have an effect of equal significance on the university? Students are not the only agents in the system; students’ families, and those who employ their skills post-graduation, also push back on the structure of the university.

Unlike before, I found myself irritated by Oakeshott’s prose. For some reason, today, I seem to have projected a pompous tone onto it. The idea of a university as ‘resisting attempts to define it’ is irksome; the university is surely more a structure of our own construction than an actor in itself. He makes unsupported assumptions that students come with mixed or uncertain expectations. I have little sympathy for his discomfiting ontological doubt – I’m sure he would rather his own position was more stable. Wouldn’t we all. Welcome to supercomplexity, Michael – I imagine you still retired with a decent pension and a spare bedroom.

Oakeshott acknowledges the impact of the students – where they have come from, where they are going – on the university. (p134). He argues in favour of its place following on from compulsory schooling; ‘the most impressionable years’, where interests and relationships are formed for life, and momentous decisions are made. He is of the opinion that a university is a more ‘favourable’ context for these happenings to occur (this would be an interesting argument to interrogate). He does, however, describe these happenings as ‘chance opportunities’ rather than the ‘gifts it intentionally affords’, drawing on the rather dubious simile of a railway station as shelter from the rain.

I think what he goes on to say on p135 exposes the blurred boundary between the two; a boundary that Newman – writing 100 years earlier – did not attempt to draw.

Oakeshott describes a university education as a specialisation; the acquisition of a single skill, incorporating a body of ‘strictly limited’ information. The aim as he sees it is for man to fill a specific place in his society and to satisfy a current demand; to sustain a current manner of living. This vision is wholly conservative. Even his ‘different and complementary way’ of regarding the ‘inheritance of human achievement’  is concerned with understanding, explaining and sustaining our existing condition, rather than imagining and creating any future condition.

And then, out of nowhere, he describes these as ‘the skills we need for transforming the world’. Where did that come from? He also acknowledges that studying history or science, for example, when one is not oneself going to become an historian or a scientist, may be a defensible course of action, as the world needs those who can recognise and appreciate great works without necessarily participating in (creating?) them. So I’m left doubting the certainty of his position.

I like this bit…

“not being comparable to a light-industry (having no product, in the strict sense), nor to a store (having no sales-list of items for disposal), a university is apt to confound the accountants. Profit and loss, cost and return on capital are not easily calculable; indeed, there is something inappropriate in making the calculations. It illustrates the truth that there is nothing great in the world that does not involve waste, and that the human propensity to avoid waste (which has itself been erected into a science) is, perhaps, one of our greatest intellectual vanities.” (p139)

…and what really illuminates how much has changed since Oakeshott’s time is his recollection of his own experience at university, which as I am finding through my own conversations is a crucial factor in our individual understandings of the university as a concept: ‘…the feeling of being emancipated from the pressures of immediate achievement… the opportunity to make mistakes without having to pay heavily for them.’ (p140-141).

Here, Oakeshott repeats his claim that the university was the way it was because of his own wants and expectations, and those of his companions. He feels that if these had been different, the university as it was would have dissolved. He focuses in particular on the perception of a university degree as a ‘passport to social prestige, to power and to emolument’ (now, that’s a lovely word!). He observes that – even in 1967! – we have gone too far in this direction, and says that ‘we are wrong to confine our admiration to these [qualities]’ – again, a statement that is ripe for unpacking.

“The time may come when, in the face of the vulgarity of a single-minded devotion of the exploitation of the world and of the barbarism of instant affluence, learning will have to hide its head, and universities will survive only by the exercise of the courage of their calling and by becoming retreats devoted to keeping alive, in hostile circumstances, the great disinterested enquiries of mankind. But that time is not yet.” (p.142)

Is that time now, or is it too late? Did we already sell ourselves down the river?

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Possibly the dullest book in the world

Blessinger, P. and Anchan, J. P. 2015. Democratizing Higher Education: International Comparative Perspectives. Routledge.

I bought this book over a year ago for a princely sum, fresh off the first print run. When it arrived I was disappointed – not only because of the boring black spine with white letters (my bookshelves are ordered by colour) – the content looked pretty dull too.

I’m pretty confident the editors won’t read this (I wrote to Patrick Blessinger once and he didn’t reply), so I’ll be candid. For a start, it reads like the authors themselves weren’t particularly interested in what they were writing. Another major issue is the amount of unnecessary padding. A degree of repetition is understandable – necessary even – if you are setting up a novel and complex argument. If all you want to get across is that higher education systems are generally getting messier (except perhaps in Scandinavia, which is undergoing a sort of higher education spring clean, and Russia, where we’ve really no idea what’s going on), and that an understanding of global trends in HE policy and governance enables those who work in HE to view their practice in context, I don’t think that needs repeated explanation.

sad face

When I met Ron Barnett for tea and hobnobs, he impressed on me the importance of gaining a global perspective on these matters, given my desire to generate novel imaginings of the University. In hindsight, I should have just picked a diverse selection of countries and read about their HE systems on Wikipedia, but I paid good money for this book and I refuse to let it get the better of me. I also refuse to spend any longer on it after today. This post is getting written tonight, then I’m going to watch an hour of Bladerunner (which I’ve been told will fill a gaping chasm in my cultural education), and then I’m going to go to bed. Tomorrow will be a new day, without this book in it.

I’m going to run through the countries & regions covered in the book and just pick out things that were novel and of interest to me.

The US
I knew about the whole community college/public university/private university split (mainly from watching the surreal comedy series Community). What I didn’t know was that racial segregation still has a pronounced legacy in the US HE system, with over 100 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). I enjoyed reading about these on Wikipedia; there are some interesting stats there about student wellbeing, academic support, etc., that shed some light on the attainment gap we have at UAL. It seems that in the US the stratification or clustering of HE institutions into different types is more pronounced (and more accepted?) than in the UK, where standardised metrics (REF/TEF/NSS) nudge us towards homogeneity.

Tuition fees at public universities in the US are similar to the UK, but have been that way for much longer, resulting in student loans being second only to mortgages in consumer debt. Most of the debt is federal, but there are several private student loan companies too (maybe you need a private student loan to attend a private university?!). The state of Oregon wants to pilot a graduate tax scheme called Pay It Forward, but that fact that it would take 20 years to pull in a surplus is apparently making everyone a bit too twitchy. Oh, short-term world.

There is no national education system in Canada; education is governed through the provinces (10) and territories (3). The full cost of university tuition is expensive – around twice that of the UK and US – with government funding focused on providing financial aid to the poorest 30%. Canada’s vast, rural territories are a real challenge to universal access. Long distances are a big issue. Canada led the way in ed tech development, but internet connectivity in rural areas is pretty poor too. First Nations people are underrepresented in Canadian universities with only 8% holding degrees.

I knew about the Bologna process and its aim of making credit frameworks compatible and facilitating the international movement of students. I didn’t know that the European HE Area had set common aims around widening access and quality assurance as well. Given that this is the case, I was a bit shocked to read that only half the Bologna countries systematically monitor participation in HE (by e.g. disability, gender, educational background etc). I guess I’m pretty used to everything being measured here.

I found it quite amusing that the EHEA doesn’t compare the quality of education itself – each country has its own QA measures, so it is the robustness of these quality assurance frameworks that is measured and then compared.  Ha. Measuring the quality of quality. Love it.

Portugal has access strategies in place that lower entry requirements for certain groups. They sound a bit blunt, a bit clunky… but hey, it’s a small country. I like Portugal. Great place.

Scandinavian countries have always had a strong commitment to the public funding of higher education. Saying that, neoliberalism does appear to be peering over the wall, notably in Denmark with the introduction of the Danish Productivity Commission. The rate of participation in HE is growing across Scandinavia and the current trend is towards centralisation, and merging of institutions.

Denmark has seen a massive reversal of the diversification of its HE institutions since the millennium, with large-scale mergers resulting in a shrinkage from around 150 institutions to only seven regional university colleges, nine business colleges and eight universities. Tuition is free for school-leavers, but a parallel system of work-based higher learning is only part-funded by the state.

In Sweden HE courses are free to all European citizens; other applicants have to pay full fees. Norwegian higher education is still free for everyone.

Most Scandinavian students leave home to go to university and, while financial support for students is relatively generous, many work to support themselves. Living costs in Scandinavia are relatively high – with the post-Brexit exchange rate, student living costs are comparable to London.

New Zealand appears to be grappling with similar issues to Canada regarding the educational attainment and social equality of its indigenous people (Maori and Pacific Islanders). New Zealand has eight universities, 20 polytechnics and three Wananga; publicly-owned institutions that provide university level education in a Maori cultural context.

Students contribute to tuition fees at a more modest level than in the UK/US, but this is on the rise as participation increases. Student loans have been interest-free since 2005. There is a shortage of graduate-level jobs. While there is a concern that NZ universities are slipping down the league table rankings due to policies that favour low student fees, modest public investment, and increased participation, the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) is primarily concerned with the influence of universities on the economy.

South Africa
The South African HE system underwent complete restructuring since the end of Apartheid in 1994 and the dissolution of the Black (‘Bantu’) Education Act. Old institutions have merged and new comprehensive colleges have been set up. The country is aiming for a differentiated system of universities and community colleges, similar to the US, but the system remains unstable and the prognosis is uncertain. Internet connectivity is an issue.

Higher education has always been under state control in Russia. There have been periods of greater independence, for example following perestroika from 1985 to the 1990s. The chapter on Russia makes frequent allusions to ‘distorted measurements’ and gaps between official data and reality. The mobility of students between states is restricted because of the funding infrastructure, and international mobility is hampered by a number of factors, including money and language as well as differences in curriculum and credit transfer. 50% of students study on correspondence courses. Participation is decreasing, as is the number of higher education institutions. Closures and mergers are being executed in line with criteria that sound rather more absurd than those of the TEF. So we should count ourselves lucky, hey?

Hong Kong
High demand for undergraduate study in Hong Kong has resulted in a second tier of institutions offering sub-degrees; the limited number of publicly-funded institutions offering these having higher status than those requiring self-financing. This has some similarities with the community college system in the US, and the growth of community colleges in India.

Malaysia appears to have gone the whole hog with expanding and marketising its higher education system. The rhetoric in this chapter is very familiar – it is all about excellence and is unashamedly corporate.

In the penultimate chapter, Blessinger links back to Dewey’s seminal work Democracy and Education, I guess to make some sort of justification of why it is right and proper that higher education should be moving in the direction it is. He argues that as our social systems become more complex and interconnected, we need more formal, prolonged systems of learning to function properly within them.

And that’s about as much as I can take of this book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch this space for some serious strangeness!

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Sacred plant medicines and other tangents

I had a pretty long meeting with David on Friday. We talked a bit about my thesis but the main point of the meeting was to discuss ideas about the workshop I did at the PESGB conference a couple of weeks ago on psychedelic education. I’m keen to develop these ideas into an article or chapter. David’s pulling together a number of pieces on cognitive enhancement and thought this would probably be a good fit.

He’s going to send me a description for the special issue – and also promised to send over what he’s got been working on about Eros and education (which intrigues me).

His advice for approaching the article or chapter on psychedelic education included shifting from talking of spirituality to sacredness and/or reverence, to focus on phenomenology, and to resist the temptation to resort to persuasive but reductive neuroscience. I think he wants me to leap further into the profound. That’s not a comfortable place for me to go, but perhaps some inspiration might help. He’s still encouraging me to watch Jacob’s Ladder (eek), and read Carlos Casteneda.

David thought the notion of preparation in psychedelic education was particularly important, and there’s a lot of literature I can draw on around that.

Pretty much all these ideas are touched on by Peter Sjostedt-Hughes in his recent interview for Psychedelics Today. Peter’s interests overlap significantly with my own, and I suspect he’s much more qualified to write this piece than I am. I may have the edge on the philosophy of education angle, but only just!

I spoke to Peter this weekend about it and we’re going to meet up to discuss this and some other things, at the Breaking Convention conference if not before. And he’s agreed to do one of Richard’s Philosophy at 3am interviews, so I’ve been working with Richard on getting the questions together for that. That little task stretched me in good ways, because he works at the speed of light and I felt compelled to knock out thirteen questions as soon as I got the nudge. Concentrating on one task is something I’ve started to really struggle with; it makes sense that as my mind has become more free and open to new connections, it’s become less focused. I’m not sure it’s possible to have both.

But, I recognise that I am going to have to take action to switch to focused mode in order to make real progress with all this reading and writing. My chat with David yielded a couple of great ideas, and since then I’ve downloaded a simple, free social media blocker app for my phone, and subscribed to a programme called ‘Freedom’ which makes it really easy to turn off access to social websites and really hard to turn them back on again. So hard, in fact, that I still can’t access them two hours after my last session expired, and I have no idea how to get them back again. So I don’t think I’m going to be tweeting much.

I found a playlist called ‘Natural Concentration’ on Spotify which seems to really help to maintain my focus, and if the birdsong gets too shrill I turn to the Honest Guys’ youtube videos – particularly ‘River in the Shire’ and ‘Windy Enchanted Forest’ 😉

I think more in relation to my thesis, David told me about a book that brings together Newman and Gadamer in the context of religious education. Waterstones said they could get it for me for only £16 so I pulled out my birthday book token and signed on the dotted line. This foray also led me to the wonderful Waterstones Marketplace, which looks like a great alternative to Amazon. Noted.

David also suggested I read the chapter by Hubert Dreyfus in the Cambridge Companion to Heidegger on the Ontology of Art. I found a pdf online of the entire book (weird), so I’ll just print out the relevant section.

I think both the above sources are relevant to both my thesis and my interest in psychedelic education. In fact, the more I read, the more crossover I see. The paper I was reading on Friday for example – Carolin Kreber on ‘graduateness’ – argues for higher education as the development of certain dispositions such as responsible engagement and an ability to cope with the strange and uncanny. I have a few notes on that paper which I’ll be posting up over the next few days, along with some thoughts about the Stefan Collini lecture I went to last month, and a couple of other things.

My deep reading of Newman’s Idea of the University is progressing pretty well – I’ve had plenty of insights and it was a great thing to go through and consider every sentence.

So… all ticking along!

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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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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.

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