Wednesday, March 28, 2007

We would have lively discussions about the texts, analyzing themes, metaphors, symbolism, etc.

Larval Subjects Larvae are creatures in a process of becoming or development that have not yet actualized themselves in a specific form. This space is a space for the incubation of philosophical larvae that are yet without determinate positions or commitments but which are in a process of unfolding.
Yesterday we began reading Mill’s Utilitarianism in my Ethics course. Do not worry, I am not a utilitarian. Rather, the course is a survey of ethical thought throughout the history of philosophy where we read selections from Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Epicurus, Epictetus, Kant, Mill, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. As many of you, I’m sure, know, Mill draws a distinction between the quality of pleasure and the quantity of pleausre involved in making ethical deliberations. In other words, we must not simply evaluate the quantity of pleasure an action is likely to produce for those involved in making a decision as to whether something is right or wrong, but must also evaluate the quality of that pleasure and whether it is befitting of a flourishing human life. As Mill famously says, “It is better to be Socrates dissatisified, than a pig satisfied.”
Mill thought about ethical questions in their social context, and recognized that human beings must undergo a process of cultivation or development so that they might become capable of enjoying those things (literature, philosophy, art, science, mathematics, etc) that are open to human beings. As such, he recognized that it was not enough to simply transform oneself, but that social institutions must be transformed as well. Mill was a passionate advocate for reform in education, labor structures, economic structures, gender relations, etc. What seems implicit in Mill’s thought is the idea that humans always individuate, actualize, or develop themselves in a social environment such that we must think about their capacity (and limits) of happiness within such contexts.
This discussion led to a discussion of education in the United States, and I found myself horrified by what my students told me about their highschool education. These students related how all of their education had been organized around taking standardized tests, referred to here in Texas as “TAKS” tests. The entire curriculum during the school year was devoted to teaching what would be covered on these texts and developing strategies for effectively taking these tests. I found myself particularly bothered by what they said about their English classes. On the one hand, students were trained to write short, one page, five paragraph essays that summarized whatever material they were being asked to “analyze” (no critical interpretation). On the other hand, their literature courses focused on plot summary and they were told that this is the one interpretation of say Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. Even where there was disagreement over interpretation or possibilities of alternative readings, the students were told that this is what the test graders would be looking for so this is what the students need to be able to repeat or replicate. Somehow this filled me with a sense of dread, sensing this was what Benjamin worried over in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” taken to its extreme. Some of my colleagues complain that students are today lazy, that they don’t know how to read, that they cannot write, etc. However, I think these judgments fail to take into account the ways in which students have been trained by the public education system and the way that they’re developing in our contemporary technological environment. We need to find ways to work with these challenges, not to blame students and teachers.
When I took English courses in highschool we would sit in a large circle and read whatever work we were studying line by line. We would have lively discussions about the texts, analyzing themes, metaphors, symbolism, etc., and how the text might resonate with contemporary issues. In engaging in these activities we learned how to read and learned that reading is not simply the ability to read the words on the page, but consists of actively engaging with texts, animating them, extrapolating from them, and drawing them out of themselves. Reading here became an occasion for theory building, where the students built sociological, anthropological, psychological, metaphysical, and ethical theories regarding the world. When we read Orwell’s 1984 we built a theory of ideology and attachment to power. When we read Sophocles’ Antigone we developed theories pertaining to why humans explain the world in terms of the concept of “curse” and other similar themes. Literature was a way of knowing the world.
However, literature also functioned as a way of shifting from immediacy, to tautological ground, to real ground. In immediacy objects, persons, and events are simply taken as they are, in their abstract immediacy without need of further explanation. The world is simply taken as it is. Tautological ground encounters objects, persons, and events as mediated or differing from themselves, requiring a ground of explanation. For instance, one says “objects fall because of gravity.” “Gravity” is a tautologous explanation in that it is identical to objects falling. It adds nothing more to our understanding of the object but merely repeats what it does. Or put more precisely, it changes nothing in our cognition of the content of the object. However, it does change the form of how we relate to the object in that we now recognize that the being must be grounded in something else, that it requires an explanation. Real ground then would add something to the content through giving an explanation. Literature took us through these stages of cognition, transforming the abstract immediacy of the world around us into something requiring explanation. The novel, the poem, the essay presented itself as an enigma to be explained and was thus a laboratory for “real world” thought.
Somehow the cynicism and cocerns of my students seem to resonate with a number of concerns haunting contemporary theory today. I am heartened that they could express cynicism towards this form of “education”, almost as if they instinctively sense that something is wrong here. Even though they have developed in such an environment, they still seem to recognize that alternatives are possible. The world of theory has taught us many dark truths in the last 100 years. Foucault has shown us how our relationship to ourselves and our relationship to others is pervaded by relations of power that give us form and identity. The structuralists have shown us how thought is governed by linguistic structures that organize how we think and relate to the world. Sociologists such as Bourdieu have shown us how or sense of self and interpersonal relations is organized by social habitus and power. Figures like Barthes, Baudrillard, and Lyotard have shown how signs and narratives organize our self understanding and world. Lacan and Freud have shown how the autonomous ego is a fiction in thrall of the unconscious.
In each case, the subject has become a sort of void or placeholder within a field of differential relations that contributes nothing of its own and which is buffeted like a small boat at sea by social forces beyond its control and comprehension. In this connection, I wonder what it could possibly be for a subject to be autonomous today.
  • What can autonomy possibly be given what we know now about the nature of subject formation?
  • How can we be self-directing humans when we are formed and actualized in this way?

Perhaps the most astonishing moment in Kant’s ethical theory comes when he argues that we ourselves are the legislators of the moral law. For Kant the moral law does not come from God, nor from parents or authorities, but we both create the moral law and bind ourselves with this law. This is necessitated by the formulation of the moral law that says “always treat rational beings as ends in themselves and never as means to an end.”

Were the moral law to come from elsewhere, we would become mere tools of the moral law. This suggests that there’s a perverse masochistic fantasy at work in the common religious belief that we’re a part of some unfolding divine plan, as we here see ourselves as tools or implements of Gods jouissance. Judge Schreber saw this clearly in his psychosis. That aside, given what we know about the nature of the subject today, is it possible any longer to think of ourselves as legislators or self-directing beings? Moreover, how can a pedagogy focused on rubrics and learning outcomes in this way possible promote the cultivation of autonomous, self-directing human beings? At the very least, a pedagogy that does not promote the division of the object from itself, its mediation and split nature, nor the division of the subject from herself– her lack of immediacy and identity with herself –fails to implement that void that would be necessary for acts of freedom and self-creation incalculable by social structure. ~ by larvalsubjects on March 27, 2007.

4 Responses to “Vague Thoughts on Education and Autonomy”
Perhaps a few separable issues here? One is the issue of technology, one the issue of the political push for “measurable” educational outcomes, and one the issue of how to conceptualise both the self, and context, such that we can more easily visualise potentials for autonomy within our present moment?
Personally, I’m still agnostic on the issue of whether recent technological shifts pose qualitatively new challenges for education - perhaps because I’ve been immersed in this stuff for so long, have worked professionally in the field, I may underestimate the significance of this shift… Not sure…
The focus on “outcomes-based” and easily measurable educational results is much more troubling to me - I don’t have a meaningful response, other than to say it was an issue I was heavily involved in when I was in the US, and that arises in a somewhat different form here, as well… At the individual level, I’ve focussed on trying to make my classes spaces where certain forms of reading, writing and thinking can be cultivated - resisting a distressing tendency I see in some other faculty to treat our students as “data” - as something given and unchangeable, as though our own practices and the relationships we develop in the classroom setting can’t have a meaningful transformative impact.
On the issue of self and context: I’m curious - from this post, but also from other comments here and there - at how strongly committed you are to the imagery you use here, which seems to suggest that the potential for the production of a free self resides, essentially, in the ability of that self to free themselves from context - to do something that lies fundamentally outside context? I’ve mentioned before that “context”, for me, is not something I perceive as a unitary thing, as something that contains only potentials for its own reproduction - I see context as shot through with contradictions and, as a result, I see room within context for the development of autonomous selves. I don’t, though, define autonomy in terms of the leap outside of context (to me, this always seems as though it points in the direction of abstract critique), but in terms of subjects positioning themselves actively in relation to the potentials we have collectively constituted in the complex and multilayered context we have generated, seizing the best of what we have taught ourselves is possible… Autonomy is thus contextual, for me - but its form is nevertheless far from predetermined…N Pepperell said this on March 27th, 2007 at 10:12 pm
I do think the sorts of writing technologies we use have an impact on us developmentally, though I only have anecdotal evidence for this. I think there’s a much different thought process involved in navigating hyperlinks and primarily visual technologies that differs markedly from what’s involved in reading a texting and composing a letter or essay. For instance, temporally you have to be able to retend what came before in a text and anticipate what comes next. Increasingly I’ve noticed that students have a very difficult time encountering texts as unities or wholes, seeing the text as a group of isolated moments. I don’t think this has to do with the intelligence of the students, so much as a certain way of experiencing time.
I think there are broader issues with outcome based assessment than what simply takes place in the classroom. Here I think Foucault’s analyses of micropower are really useful and that this is fertile ground for a Foucault-style genealogical analysis. What is taking place in these pedagogical approaches is a subjectivization, a certain structure of thought and experiencing the world. It would be worthwhile to analyze this subjectivization and the diagram of power it embodies.
I am open to the idea that there can be both autonomy and context, or that autonomy doesn’t necessarily entail a break from context. I am, however, trying to pose the question as starkly as possible. The motivation for this has to do with the theoretical moment we find ourselves in– or I find myself in –with regard to primarily French theory. The tendency has been to reduce the subject to “subject-positions” enacting scripts or narratives or to even reject the category of subject altogether (Althusser). In this connection subject is seen as simply seen as reproducing social structure (or whatever social body we care to evoke). larvalsubjects said this on March 27th, 2007 at 10:49 pm
This post was thrown together about twenty minutes before I had to teach, so the relations among the issues are a bit scattered. What I was thinking about was how the accountability and outcome assessment movement originally emerged in the United States. In my recollection this movement began to emerge about 10 years ago when it became increasingly evident that students were not performing as well as students in other countries. Now what’s interesting about this is that it was immediately assumed that teachers were the problem. Almost immediately there began to be calls for more educated teachers (now nearly all secondary school teachers are required to have master’s degrees) and “quality control” methodologies were drawn from the corporate world and applied to curriculum.
What’s interesting in this is that teaching methods and teachers hadn’t changed remarkably. Teaching methods current decades ago were still in use, yet it was teachers that were blamed for the decline in performance. In short, those analyzing the decline in performance did not examine whether something had changed culturally, socially, environmentally, or technology, producing a different type of student or subjectivity. My vulgar and simplistic hypothesis is that cognitively we develop differently in an environment saturated by communications technologies. Just as someone raised in a narrative culture as when Homeric poems were sung and known by heart thinks differently than someone actualized in a text culture, so too is the structure or “shape of consciousness” different in a culture saturated by communications technology. Of course, the weakness of my hypothesis is that it doesn’t explain why American students seem to be uniquely doing poorly in this way when other cultures that enjoy the pervasiveness of this technology are not encountering similar problems (and perhaps they are and I am just unaware of it). So that was the first point.
The additional issue surrounded looking at the “solution” itself and discerning the manner in which it is more a problem than the problem itself. The focus on rubrics and performance outcomes shares a number of similarities to theses in contemporary theory about subjectivization and interpellation that are worth taking a look at vis a vis issues of autonomy and what it means to be a free subject. larvalsubjects said this on March 27th, 2007 at 11:50 pm
Here: Increasingly I’ve noticed that students have a very difficult time encountering texts as unities or wholes, seeing the text as a group of isolated moments.
My reaction is probably too heavily conditioned by the fact that I spent a lot of time working with some fairly marginalised student populations - in my own work, this was an issue before it would have been plausible to blame it on the technology, but this doesn’t mean that exposure to technology doesn’t have its own impacts. I have a reflex scepticism that probably derives both from, as I mentioned above, my own embeddedness in the field at various periods, and also the tendency in many literatures to get (from my point of view) too caught up in the hype - not saying at all that you are doing this, just that the fact that there is enormous (positive and negative) hype, means that I’m very wary in how I approach empirical work in this area, as I think we’re in a period where it’s very easy to over-attribute shifts to technology that may not exist, or not be as strong as we think, or be due to other factors. But this is not an in-principle objection to your point - and I emphatically agree that, whatever may or may not have changed, we aren’t talking about anything related to the intelligence of the students.
I also agree with you that outcomes-based assessment isn’t something that should be addressed at an individual classroom level - apologies, this had occurred to me when I wrote the original post, but I was in a rush. The movement has been underway for longer than 10 years - in Texas specifically, there were early stages of this when I was in middle school, and this was a major issue in the work I was doing with educational institutions in the 1990s. (And, of course, things similar to outcomes-based learning are one pole in a dichotomy with a much longer history, but the issue at hand is how all this manifests more recently.) This was, in a sense, a “bottom up” educational “reform” movement that has more recently gained a heavy dose of “top down” pressure, as well… And it has generally been quite hostile to the teaching profession (and, in various periods, was related to some not-so-subtle attacks on the level of unionisation in the profession - at least in the skirmishes in which I was involved… A sort of deskilling and industrial mechanisation of the concept of education…)
I’m curious that you take for granted the “decline of performance” claims - I’ve been out of this field for some time now but, when I was still working in the area, discourses of educational decline often had a sort of “moral panic” status: you would disaggregate the statistics, for example, only to learn that what looked like a decline, when students were viewed in aggregate, was actually an increase in educational performance in most or all subgroups - but in a context in which the relative numbers of marginalised or educationally disadvantaged subgroups had increased - thus dragging performance “down” when the stats were viewed in a superficial way. So what, from one perspective, could be seen as the educational system dealing better than it ever had before with an increasingly complex economic and cultural situation, was reinterpreted as a decline, and mobilised to support a quite conservative narrative.
But my empirical knowledge is essentially Reagan and Bush I era - I couldn’t tell you whether anything similar underlies the “crisis of education” discussion now. It’s just that my earlier experience with this has left me with an entrenched impulse to scrutinise such claims very, very closely: it may, in fact, be that there might not be a problem to solve. This would, of course, then react back on how we might interpret the impact of technologies or other social shifts…
Apologies - I’ve just added several more layers of diffusion to the discussion. And my direct knowledge on these issues (other than as they arise immediately in the Australian context) is badly dated and rusty…N Pepperell said this on March 28th, 2007 at 12:36 am

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