Friday, 29 January 2016

The Parable of Pierre Menard

"Thinking, analysing, inventing are not anomalous acts; they are the normal respiration 
of the intelligence. To glorify the occasional performance of that function [...] is to confess 
our laziness or our barbarity. Every man should be capable of all ideas 
and I understand that in the future this will be the case."
Pierre Menard*

In an effort to salvage the legacy of Pierre Menard from an obscurity deliberately authored by his detractors, Jorge-Luis Borges elucidates the heroic and immeasurable labour the polemicist took upon himself in the latter part of his career. Though little of the work survives, there is no reason to doubt Borges that Menard was successful in reproducing verbatim, some 450 years after the original masterpiece and with only scant knowledge of the work, through sheer creative discipline, two or more chapters of Don Quixote.

Menard's work was not, however, carried out with the self-fulfilled innocence of the student who repeats ideas she has never heard before, radiant with certainty in her own originality. No, Menard relished the part of the teacher's role that requires us to deny our students the self-confidence of blissful ignorance. It is in that spirit that he assailed Cervantes's magnum opus, but Menard was not a teacher.

It is no wonder that, at the last, he burned his notebooks, and wonder less still that others have attempted to erase him from the memory of mankind. There were those who said it simply couldn't be done and risked their reputations upon his failure. Others said it was sheer folly, and in the name of reason turned their backs upon the evidence of his genius. Some saw value in his effort, and thereby proved their inability to grasp his meaning. All, in their own ways, would have granted Pierre Menard his dying wish, and I am forever grateful to Borges for bravely betraying him by testifying to his existence.

Knowing of Menard's Don Quixote, one can only gape at the paucity of the original, conceived as a self-contained masterwork. Cervantes merely engaged in a novel act of satire; Menard, in a satirical work of novelty. In Cervantes, knowledge of contemporary Spain and its burgeoning colonialist ambitions is silently presumed; In Menard, that knowledge is presumably silenced. We read Cervantes today and do not know what we miss; We read Menard and miss what we do not know.

As a teacher, I have often imagined rewriting the profession's standards from scratch, perhaps aided by others, perhaps alone. I have wondered whether I would fare better than the government has. In fact, I cannot deny that I have simply not tried. I have indulged this novel act of satire and allowed its colonialism of my professional life to remain silently presumed through nothing more than a prosaic fear of the unknown.

Thankful though I am for Borges's testimony of Menard's Don Quixote, I cannot agree with his final analysis that the Frenchman was satisfied of having achieved his aim. On the contrary, it is my contention that Menard could not bear the weight of his work. A nihilist, he had hoped to prove by his efforts that all human endeavour was a futile tilting at windmills. I believe that he came to the realisation that he had created proof of the opposite: The two Don Quixote's would forever derive meaning from each other, and neither would be forgotten.  

What explanation can there be for his attempt to destroy what he had created, and for his defenceless intellectual capitulation to his critics and inferiors? The simplest and most satisfactory is that the realisation of his power - to have imbued a work he had little regard for with value, and to have laboured himself at something of worth - did not sit comfortably with Menard's nihilism. 

I imagine a teacher of the future, held to account for her adherence to new teacher standards. They are the very same, word for word, as those we are subject to today, yet they are written by teachers. Teachers preside over this constitution and often seek to amend it, but each amendment yields no change to their stubborn language. Are they perforce futile? Menard has proven to me, though he would have hated to know that he had done so, that they are not. Despite their wording, these imagined standards are a work of novelty in which every silence is pregnant with the beautiful risk of freedom, and every unknown is a prompt to learn. 

How far into the future does my imagined teacher live? And how much of our nihilism will have to be overcome on the way to that future? How many times will we be tempted to burn our work in merry bonfires, and to run back to the safety of polemics?

I hear you now, Sancho Panza. "Now look, your grace" you say, "what you see over there aren't giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone."

"Obviously," I reply, "you don't know much about adventures."

*Borges, Jorge Luis et al. Labyrinths. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1979, p.70  

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Ctrl Shift Esc (From Performance to Networking)

In the first instalment of this series, I used Aristotle's Politics to show that to ask after the purpose of education is a linguistic trick that delivers schools into the hands of ideologues, with two chief consequences: the deprofessionalisation of teachers, and narrow conceptions of education that reflect their political agendas. In the second instalment, I used Aristotle's Rhetoric to explore what education is, rather than what it is for, offering as its three key features the personalisation, socialisation and qualification of citizens. In this final instalment, I return to the concept of purpose in education to show that none can truly be said to exist without the free agency of teachers and students.

Let us entertain a thought. though we do not accept it. Let us hold for a moment that education indeed has a purpose. We must ask ourselves for whom it has this purpose. If education is the process by which we become and are always becoming citizens, it stands to reason that my education serves a purpose primarily for me, and yours for you. Society benefits from my education and yours, but that is not its purpose. If it were, then my education could easily become the means by which my freedom might be limited or my development stifled. Assuming even the most benevolent of governments, still I would be deprived of the responsibility for my education if its purpose was to benefit society first, and me second.

Whether to serve ideological aims (ethos), rational socio-economic goals (logos), or utopian ideals (pathos), if decisions about my education are made for me in absentia, without my explicit personal involvement, then regardless of how well designed it is, it will remain by definition an incomplete education. I must be more than just an economic unit, more than simply a law-abiding citizen, more than a mere emotionally intelligent being. I must understand myself as all three, and I must choose to be these things. I must see the value in these things for myself.

So, if education has a purpose, it is to help the individual to achieve her own aims. It follows that any programme of education, be it a school or professional development curriculum, must at the earliest opportunity offer students chances to consider their own aims, so that they may begin to take responsibility for their education, every aspect of it. I am reminded of the fox in The Little Prince, who explains to the prince that "one only understands the things one tames". Whether it be knowledge, emotions or beliefs, to understand them, one must "establish ties" with them.

We have at present in schools a model that asks neither of students nor of teachers what their aims are, or does so seldom, patchily, and only within strictly defined parameters. Over-reliance on summative assessments and performance-related pay only exacerbate a disempowering culture.

As a result:
  • Students too often have little sense of what the value of their education is, other than in terms of a delayed gratification in the form of future prosperity. Their formal schooling is focused on extrapersonal knowledge, and targeted at extrapersonal incentives. 
  • Teachers too often have little sense of what the value of their professional development is, other than the approval of line managers and external inspectors.  Their professional life is focused on measurable progress data and targeted at their pay cheques. 
Aristotle shows us that this logocentrism is not wrong of itself, but wrong by virtue of being based on an incomplete picture of the citizen. It is evident that what this model is missing is a meaningful (ethos) and personal (pathos) engagement with its aims and objectives. It is equally evident that its consequence is to isolate teachers and students alike from each other and from their own aspirations.

This is not a romantic plea from the heart or for the heart of education. I have no urge to repeat the pathetic fallacy of a similarly incomplete view of education, founded on pathos alone. Nor is it an appeal for education to serve the needs of society and its ill-defined set of shared values, its ethos.

It is, in fact, not a plea at all, but a pragmatic approach to education in a modern democracy. For democracy to be sustained it must continually be chosen anew by its citizens. Democracy may be jettisoned, but I for one would prefer to see that done consciously rather than through lack of care. For all citizens to partake fully of this choice and all the other choices that affect their lives, their education must be whole, and must be protected from the pendulum swing of political priorities (from knowledge, to skills, to well-being and back to knowledge, as if any of these can mean anything at all if not in balance with the other two).

It is as close to a philosophical proof as you will find in a democracy-loving teacher's blog: Democracy requires that we empower teachers to empower students as citizens.

I hope to have convinced you that education can only have purpose for each of us alone, and must never have its purpose delimited in advance by another. And I hope to have opened a dialogue on mastery by it too, for it is my (albeit nascent) contention here that there are three distinct but interdependent domains of mastery: knowledge mastery, social mastery, and self mastery. Finally, what I hope to have presented across these three pieces is a robust defence of education as the making of the citizen, and that it is fundamental to it that teachers and students be the drivers of their own learning, not monitored and admonished from above but supported and encouraged in peer networks; so that, in short, each of us may be able to tame our own learning.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Ctrl Shift Esc (From Applications to Processes)

In the first instalment in this series, I set out the case that the language of educational purpose is an illogical discourse of power which can only have as its consequence the deprofessionalisation of teaching and a narrow concept of education itself. Here, I attempt an Aristotelian definition of education, and explore what this might entail for the purpose of schooling in a modern liberal democracy.

To live in society. To live in a web of communication, a culture of knowledge, traditions and beliefs. Not merely to inhabit such a world but to live in it: To uncover old and to discover new knowledge; to engage in and to engage with its traditions; To feel and to be felt by it. To communicate is not a contestable function of being human (neither beast nor god), but its essence.

To live in society. To be part of a state: a citizen. Citizenship is not a bolt-on, non-compulsory element of a school's curriculum, one of a five- or six-letter acronym. Nor is it a token bullet-point in the framework document of a schools inspectorate. To become a citizen is not a spurious purpose of education, but its very nature.

Education, in Aristotelian terms, is becoming fully a human being, and that is synonymous with becoming a citizen. Citizenship is defined most comprehensively in Aristotle's Politics as follows: "A citizen is both able and willing to rule and be ruled in accordance with a life lived in excellence." (Source) That final word, excellence, is the nexus of the politicisation of education. To define excellence, in accordance with some prejudice or principle, and from there to extol the virtues of a narrow purpose of education, has been the fare of too many. And yet excellence (an aim, a purpose) is secondary in this definition of citizenship to the ability and willingness to govern and be governed.

The King in The Little Prince reminds us that "Accepted authority rests first of all on reason." To rule and to be ruled, to govern and to be governed rests upon the ability and willingness to be authoritative, to communicate persuasively and to be critically receptive of persuasive communication. So, if education is becoming a citizen, and citizenship is the art of persuading and being persuaded, then perhaps an exploration of rhetoric will yield further insights into the characteristics of education.

"Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself." (Source)

As governor and governed, ruler and ruled, a citizen needs to engage with three modes of persuasion: She must be credible, critical of others' credibility, and accepting of others criticisms of her own. She must be knowledgeable, questioning of information presented to her as knowledge, and willing to have her knowledge challenged. Lastly, she must manage her own and others' emotions, while having the resilience not to let hers be manipulated.

Aristotle presents us with three domains of education by way of his definition of the citizen and exposition of rhetoric*:

  1. The first is the sphere of ethos, or the domain of socialisation**. In this domain, education consists of the development of interpersonal skills, by way of which a citizen learns to relate to others ethically.
  2. The second is the sphere of pathos, or the domain of subjectification. In this domain, education consists of the development of intrapersonal attitudes, by way of which a citizen learns to understand herself aesthetically.
  3. The third is the sphere of logos, or the domain of qualification. In this domain, education consists of the development of extrapersonal knowledge, by way of which a citizen learns to reason the world rationally.
If these constitute the fundamental characteristics of education, then it is reasonable to deduct that any education that does not foster all three aspects equally will be found to be deficient, with somewhat predictable consequences for the citizen, or group or class of citizens, for whom this is the case. Whether it is the purpose of school systems to educate (that is to say, to nurture the development of citizens in all three aspects), or merely to qualify (to make accessible a body of knowledge), remains a political decision, and one each citizen must be engaged with.

At the very least, we may come to some conclusions about the nature of citizenship education which may be of service to the Education Select Committee or any other body who erroneously set themselves the task of seeking the purpose of education:
  1. The citizenship curriculum has primacy over all curricula. Indeed, it is the very raison d'etre of all other curricula.
  2. The citizenship curriculum must include explicit knowledge of all three aspects of ourselves as social beings and the principled, value-laden reasons for their prescribed and proscribed uses in a modern liberal democracy.
  3. Any aspect of the citizenship curriculum ignored by schools will be developed, to a greater or lesser extent, more or less comprehensively, in other places, with consequences for individuals and society as a whole.

    Here, I hope to have made a reasoned case for the primacy of citizenship in any attempt to define education and develop a school curriculum. I have outlined an Aristotelian conception of citizenship as the ability to persuade and to be persuaded, and submitted for consideration what this entails for attempts to teach citizenship in schools. 

    The final instalment in the series will set out the only context within which it is acceptable to ask about the purpose of education, and explore what model of schooling might be most conducive to educating citizens, with implications for the role of the teacher. Click on the picture below to access it.

    * Gert Biesta makes allusion to three domains of educational purpose in the essay referenced below. The names of the domains echo exactly the domains of education inferred here from Aristotle. The question at hand is whether they are essential, a priori characteristics or optional, a posteriori purposes.
    ** Biesta, G. Good Education and the Teacher: Reclaiming Educational Professionalism in Evers, J. and Kneyber, R. (2016) Flip The System: Changing Education From The Ground Up, Oxford: Routledge.

    Ctrl Shift Esc (Education's Task Manager)

    I recently wrote, as much in anger as in consternation, about the Education Select Committee's newly launched inquiry into the purpose of education. Here, I return to the theme for a calmer exposition of the philosophical impasse, political cynicism and ethical abhorrence that this event represents. (I also offer some thoughts on ensuring such antics once and for all stop desecrating our great profession.)

    The Education Select Committee (ESC) wishes to know what the purpose of education is. They are evidently not alone.  A Google search for the exact phrase "what is education for" returns 152,000 results. Remove the quotation marks and you will be offered 2.6 billion pages to choose from, including Ted Talks, 'Great Education Debates' and Forbes articles. Answering the question is a veritable industry, and this industrialisation of our purpose is destroying the public service that is our profession.  It is all the more shocking in that the purpose of education is clear, and always has been.

    In Aristotelian terms, to ask what education is for is a perverse sort of deliberation, for it is either one about ends themselves, or one about means without ends. Let us explore each and what they say about our society.

    The first possibility, that we are 'deliberating about ends', debating our very goals, results in a shocking indictment of our society.  It hasn't a clue where it's headed or why it does the things it does. Imagine asking what medicine is for?  Quickly, you imagine a world without medicine and the answer is clear: Medicine is to avoid that at all costs. What is law for? Imagine a world without the imposition of rules.  What is education for?  You know as well as I: to avoid a world full of ESC member types perennially asking stupid questions (and wasting taxpayer funds doing it).  Why! We could make a fortune marketising that.

    The second possibility is that we are deliberating our means, as is proper, but that our means have no ends, which is preposterous. To expose the nonsensical nature of this proposition, we need only replace the term education in the ESC's question with any other process, activity or intervention, like so:

    • What is walking for?
    • What is the purpose of baking?
    • What is typing for?
    • What is the purpose of sex?
    You may add as many to this list as will drive you to tears of laughter or frustration, but the possible answers fall into only two categories according to nothing other than your mood and predisposition to engage with your interlocutor: the 'it depends' category, where the purpose of the activity is loosely encompassed by the enumeration of a number of contexts in which it might be carried out, and the 'look the word up' category, where the purpose of the activity is deemed to be sufficiently carried by its definition to buy you some peace.

    Logically, then, it is senseless to ask what education is for, though perhaps enlightening to explore what education is and some of the contexts in which it happens. A far more meaningful exploration of purpose would be directed at the institution of school itself.  It is not a mere semantic trick but a fundamental shift in the debate to ask instead: What is school for? Education is a defining, permanent feature of the human condition. School, by contrast, is a social institution imbued with value-laden objectives as changeable as the conditions of human cohabitation are varied.

    The language of education speaks to universality; it is philosophical; it is a leveller and those who speak it too often do so in order to find in it justifications for their agenda to control schools.  Anyone can speak of education and, by the use of this language, affect shifts in government policy and school practices. But the levelling of the discourse allows entry to privileged voices: the loudest, the best funded, and the ones closest to the ears of decision-makers.  Seldom, if ever, is that the voice of teachers.

    Ironically, seldom is it the ESC either (and then only on relatively small matters).

    Compounding the disempowering effect of this discourse, the use of the word education interchangeably with the school system devolves everyone but teachers from the responsibility of carrying out this vital social role.  In so doing, it justifies to society at large a system of ever increasing measurement of inputs and outcomes, a climate of managerialism, and thereby a continued deprofessionalisation of schools' workforce.

    I hope here to have made a persuasive case that the language of educational purpose is simply illogical, and that its use as a rhetorical device facilitates, justifies and reinforces power structures best served by a culture of anti-professionalism.

    Further, I will propose an Aristotelian definition of education, show how such a definition might set a clear context for debating the purpose of school today, and how such a debate properly carried out could only be led by a true profession of teachers. 

    Click on the picture below to access the second instalment, to take back Ctrl of our profession, Shift the terms of the debate, and Esc the top-down model of the Task Manager in our school systems.