Monthly Archives: July 2015

Formation, Part 2

Schools, of course, produce an “academic” frame of mind. As Pierre Bourdieu was fond of pointing out, the root meaning of “school” is leisure; the learning we engage in there is detached from the day-to-day labor that social life requires. In school, we learn to justify our beliefs, not in terms of our experiences, but in terms of the evidence that can be adduced for them. We learn to construct arguments for our claims rather than appealing merely to our own authority or that of others.  That does not, of course, deny that authority exists. In real life, we do sometimes just have to do as we are told. But in the relative leisure of school we learn another kind of legitimacy, the authority of “right reason”. We are taught a rational procedure for forming beliefs.

In my last post I talked mainly about primary education. In my next post I will talk about higher education–universities, or what is also called “post-secondary” education. In between, then, there is something called “secondary” education–high schools and “prep schools” in North America,  the lycée in France, gymnasium here in Denmark. It is here that the academic habit of mind is really supposed to form, to “prepare” the student for a university education, or demonstrate very clearly that the student is not suited, either by ability or interest, for such an education. Interestingly, this happens during the student’s adolescence, which is a formative period in many others ways as well.

During their secondary education, students not only continue to develop distinct academic competences, they also develop their sexual interests, orientations, and competences, their political views, their sense of style, their athletic ability, their artistic talent, and so forth. Much of this is integrated into their school experience, some as part of the curriculum, some as extra-curricular activity, and some as part of ambient social life. Although middle-aged adults often don’t much recognize their teenage selves in their current beliefs and attitudes, much of our personality is no doubt grounded in our experiences in these years. And with this personality there is also what may be called an intellectual style.

Since my focus is on the formation of the academic habit of mind, I would like to identify distinctly scientific attitudes by first distinguishing and then connecting them to distinctly political attitudes. Both sets of sentiments, if you will, are explicitly educated in school–in the science classroom and the civics (or social studies) classroom. As I pointed out in my last post, we are trying both get them to think in a certain way to think particular things. In the science classroom we want to develop a general “empirical” frame of mind in students, and also get them to understand a specific set of truths. In the civics classroom we want them to develop a healthy “deliberative” approach to politics, but also a belief in the virtues of democracy and the rule of law. If schools produced a lot of climate-change-denying fascists, for example, we’d consider them a failure.

But should we also be worried if our schools produced a few climate skeptics, a few fascists? Should we make students who don’t arrive at the orthodox scientific and political conclusions before they reach the age of eighteen feel “wrong”, or “stupid”, or even “evil”? Is it really so bad for a high school student to be unconcerned about global warming or sanguine about the prospect of dictatorship? What of the student that simply doesn’t believe the climate is changing? Or believes the change is natural, like the coming and going of ice ages in the past? What of the student who isn’t convinced that our democracy is working or, having listened a bit too much to George Carlin, that the country is run “by the owners for the owners”? What do you do with students who are just a bit too skeptical, or a bit too cynical, to “buy in” to what normal, decent people believe about our world and our history? What sense of their place should they have as they graduate from high school?

My sense is that educators are a bit too worried about what the students believe when they are eighteen. And they are not worried enough about what the students are able to do at the same age. In fact, it almost seems like they are worried that the students think too much and believe too little. The students themselves internalize this anxiety and, depending on their natural degree of conformity, look for beliefs they can either subscribe to or rebel against. Their teachers differ, of course. Some inspire them to conform, others inspire them to rebel, but the effect is the same. They become oriented around the doctrine, not the inquiry. The students want to be told what to think, not how to think. Or that, in any case, is what I worry is too often the case.

Perhaps, in high school, it is too soon to talk about climate change and democratic process. Perhaps, as the case of biology and evolution in primary school, there are simpler processes, smaller machines, to think about and understand before the students should be asked to apply them to understanding global weather patterns and national election results. Perhaps students could be taught about relatively familiar institutions, like money and family in the civics classroom. Perhaps they could be taught about ocean circulation and cloud formation in the science classroom. Learning to understand these things will also teach them how to gain an understanding of the larger issues when, as adults, they will need to engage with them directly, as member of the citizenry.

They will then be able form a qualified opinion about carbon taxes and campaign funding. They will understand how the basic components work and what proposed changes might accomplish. As they learned these basic components, they will have been treated as serious thinkers with open minds that don’t have be “made up” in a hurry. They will come out of high school, perhaps with a wide variety of provisional beliefs about the world in which they live, but also with an understanding that those beliefs are likely to change over the next eighteen years of their lives as they get confronted with new evidence.

They will not see their current beliefs, but their ability to think,  not how they they now experience the world but how they evaluate evidence, as the foundation for the next phase of their education, whether that be in college or the school of hard knocks. No matter how “dangerous” their ideas are at this point, they will not have gotten the sense that their teachers (and therefore their culture) found them threatening. Their minds will have been kept open for further participation in the “ongoing conversation of mankind,” at their leisure.

Formation, Part 1

Education is a formative process. At school, we learn not just what to think but how to think, and those two kinds of learning are, famously, not always pulling in the same direction. The better the students are at critical thinking, the better those students are at resisting your attempts to indoctrinate them. This is why you had better be selective in your choice of what to get them to believe. Basically, you want to make sure you know how to get them to rationally think what you want them, ideologically, to think. If you don’t respect their (correct) reasoning, you are going to do more harm than good, even if the end result is that they believe what you tell them, and even if what you tell them is true. It’s the process by which they arrived at the conclusion that matters.

Now, at each level, there are some truths that, as ends, seem to justify the means. Most curricula have a body of “doctrine” that it is deemed very important for students to learn. This is the legitimate content of, precisely, “indoctrination”. At the beginning, you don’t just want to teach them how to add, you do actually want them to think that two plus two is four. Later on, you don’t just want them to be able to read the classics, you want them to know that it was Polonius, not Hamlet, who said “This above all: to thine own self be true.” The point, however, is that you can, hopefully, get them to believe these things by reference to the evidence of their senses. You can put two apples next to two other apples and count. You read scene 3 of act 1 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with your students and note the speaker of line 564. That is, you can persuade the students of the rightness of the doctrine without offending their sense of reason.

I wonder if we respect this principle as much as we should. Do we confine ourselves, at each level, to expect students to believe us only about those things that we can defend with reasons? Do we sometimes say things that, though true, and though we do have reasons to believe them, we are unable, given the level of the students, to get them to truly understand? Do we sometimes expect them to believe things they can’t reasonably understand?

Let me take a perhaps controversial example, namely, the teaching of evolution in schools. There is a certain percentage of students, most famously in the United States, whose parents tell them that evolution is not true, and that God instead created them and made them the way they are. They would rather have their children believe that they are loved by God than that their dispositions are the result of a long, more or less random, process of mutation and selection. And their children arrive at school prepared to learn with that belief pretty firmly entrenched. We can say it’s not a “rational” belief, but it is one of the things they believe because the people they love most of all, namely, their parents, told them so. Believing what their parents tell them has, on the whole, proven to be a good strategy of belief formation for them. It has served them, so far, as a reliable “method”.

Then they arrive in school. Here they learn how to (better) read and write, add and subtract, observe and inquire. In the science classroom, these skills are then increasingly brought together as they learn how nature works. They see how dye diffuses in water, how larvae turn into moths, how full of life the water in the local pond is under a microscope. And they are told about a number of “theories” that explain these observations. They are told, for example, that a glass of water is really full of “molecules”, which are too small to see, but really are what the water is. (For fun, they go home and label the kitchen faucet H2O.) They learn the important concept of metamorphosis (if not the word) and get an insight into the life cycle, including, of course, the rudiments of an understanding their own progress from a single cell to the child they are. (For fun, they come home and announce they’d like to be butterflies when they grow up!) They come to understand that “life” belongs not just cats and dogs and trees, but also to very tiny things they can’t see with the naked eye. In other words, that life begins with something very small, and that there is, perhaps, some sort of connection between life and matter, between the smallest cell and the biggest molecule. (For fun, they imagine that God has a giant microscope he sees them through.)

In other words, they are learning some very basic things that they will need in order to assimilate the modern theory of evolution. There is still a lot to learn, both about natural history and about biological cultures, but they are well on their way. Given time, they may one day be able to understand how life on Earth might have started  with simple proteins and progressed, through millions and millions of years, and dinosaurs and mammoths and neanderthals, to us. But it’s a really big idea. It was only first really proposed less than 200 years ago, and the pivotal “neo-Darwinian synthesis” has only about seven decades behind it. It’s a difficult theory to learn, both for the culture and the individual. It took us about 200,000 years of being human to get there. It took Darwin about fifty years of being alive to come up with it. And it took Darwinians about another century to get it firmly established and integrated into our theories about life.

All along some parents were telling their children that they should be grateful for the life that their loving God (or Great Spirit or what have you) had given them. I think many people who talk about the importance of “teaching evolution” (and not teaching creation) forget what an amazing scientific accomplishment the theory of evolution is, and what an amazing intellectual accomplishment it is to understand it. The idea is literally as amazing as the idea that we’re here because some higher being loves us. And the thought that we descended from apes that in turn descended from bacteria is as profound as the feeling of being loved by an omniscient being. I think we do great harm to our children by rushing them into a “belief in evolution” at an early age, and certainly by denouncing a theory of life that they have been given by parents who love them. What we should be doing is forming their ability to observe nature and inquire into its working. We should be helping them to formulate the question, “Why am I here?” Not giving them the answer.

In time, as they grow into mature thinkers, they will come up with their own “great synthesis” of God’s love and nature’s wonder. Maybe some of them will have to abandon their faith in order to keep their heads straight. Others will decide that the scientific view of life is not for them. Why should anyone mind? If we teach them how to think, they won’t need us to do it for them. If we help them become reasonable people, we won’t need them to think anything in particular.


Literacy, part 2

Being literate is sort of like being conversant, except in writing. Now, some people are just all around good conversationalists, good talkers; but normally we say that we are conversant about something in particular, good at discussing some particular subject. The same goes for literacy. Being able to read and write organization-theoretical texts does not guarantee you’re going to be able to read and write about quantum mechanics. But this specification of the concept of literacy has, to my mind, been misapplied in the construction of extensions of the concept of literacy like “visual literacy” or, to hit closer to home here in the Library, “information literacy.”

I agree with Gunther Kress when he argues, in Literacy and the New Media Age (Routledge 2003), that we need to find “new terms for the use of the different resources” of communication:

It may be that when we speak in popular, everyday contexts, these metaphoric uses, extending infinitely–visual literacy, gestural literacy, musical literacy, media literacy, computer-, cultural-, emotional-, sexual-, internet- and so on and so on–are fine, though I have my doubts even then. I would want to exclude another currently fashionable use of the term, which is to indicate certain kinds of production-skills associated more or less closely with aspects of communication, as in computer literacy, or (aspects of) media literary. (p. 23)

Kress puts it well when he defines literacy as the ability to make (and take) messages “using letters as the means of recording”, that is, it’s essentially about reading and writing. It will not do to say that someone is “literate” about music just because they are really good at playing music, or have really good taste in music. Likewise, being a great lover does not make you a great writer or reader of love letters. As a writing coach, of course, I will always insist that improving your ability to write about music will improve you ability to make it. Improving our ability to write about it will also improve ability to make love. I have to promise a real-world, bottom-line pay off, right? But being “literate” about something is simply not the same thing as being competent at it.

I think these extended or metaphorical uses of literacy have distracted our attention from the specific competence of writing and reading. (Imagine if someone proposed to refocus our attention by “extending” the term again to include “reading literacy” and “writing literacy”!) But the notion of information literacy is a special case because so much of the information that we need to know how to find is recorded precisely in letters. So being a competent user of information already requires a certain measure of literacy, and, indeed, being literate involves a distinct information competence.

So what I want to do, I guess, is to get rid of the separate notion of “information literacy” and instead think of “information” simply as an important component of being literate in the information age. Kress has given me a lot think about in this regard. And I’m sure there are few more posts to come in my reading of him.

Literacy, part 1

We live in an age of specialization. The advantage of this is that we are able to devote resources to finding precise solutions to narrow problems. There is something very intellectual gratifying about “honing” the finer edge of our competences. The disadvantage, of course, is that we sometimes lose sight of the broader issues, which, if we neglect them, can overwhelm our more delicate efforts.

I talk a little about this this in my last post about the under-exploited resource of student effort–which is to say, deliberate practice–in writing instruction. All the resources we devote to teaching students how to write in the classroom will come to nothing if they don’t train their abilities on their own. We might say that there is nothing there to sharpen if they aren’t also getting stronger.

Hemingway famously pointed out that the “dignity of the movement of an iceberg lies in eight ninths of it being under water.” That is, the quality of your prose depends much less on what you put on the page than what you leave off it. And in order to leave it off, of course, you have to write it out at some point. The quality of every particular piece of writing you produce comes out of all the writing you’ve done before. Just as the speed and ease with which you run today’s 5 kilometers, come from all the other running you’ve done before.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in relation to the concept of “information literacy”, which has been gaining in currency since the mid-1970s. On the face of it, information literacy constitutes a narrow problem within the broader problem of literacy. Here’s what Wikipedia says about the latter:

Literacy is traditionally understood as the ability to read and write. The term’s meaning has been expanded to include the ability to use language, numbers, images and other means to understand and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture.

You’ll notice that this does indeed leave room for something like  “the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate, and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand,” which is how the United States National Forum on Information Literacy defines information literacy. Part of understanding the “dominant symbol systems of a culture”, especially a culture that calls itself a “knowledge society”, must include knowing when you need more information and knowing how to get it.

So my worry here, as with my worry about the ratio of teaching to training in writing instruction, is simply that we’re spending too much time and effort on improving the information literacy of students and not enough time developing their basic ability to read and write. It’s true that they will not be able to read and write the texts they need to if they don’t know how to manage the information they have access to. But no matter how conscious they are of the information problem, they will get nowhere if they can’t read and write in the traditional senses of those words.

What happens, I think, is that once a new and exciting frontier opens up–and the Internet is certainly an information frontier–we are eager to explore it. We then assume that someone will continue to do the maintenance on the “old school” skills that still constitute the bulk of the competence in question. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if students begin to worry about their information literacy to the detriment of their general literacy? Teaching someone who doesn’t know what a paragraph is to distinguish between Google and EBSCO seems rather pointless.

The solution, I think, is to integrate “information literacy” in the overall composition curriculum. In my next post I want to begin thinking about the proper balance of content.