The Matter With Things. Chapter 7. Cognitive Intelligence

I enjoyed this chapter. 

There are many aspects to intelligence. In Chapter 6, McGilchrist explored social and emotional intelligence as the means to truth. In this chapter he focusses on cognitive intelligence. Intelligence, he says, is difficult to define, but ‘we all know intelligence when we meet it, even if we can’t pin it down’. However, he does quote Linda Gottfredson’s definition published in the Wall Street Journal in 1994 and subsequently in the journal Intelligence in 1997:

Intelligence is a very general mental capacity which, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings – ‘catching on’, or ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do. (Gottfredson, 1997)

Intelligence is about understanding, and understanding is the strength of the right hemisphere. It is not the left hemisphere’s forte. The left hemisphere’s forte is carrying out procedures. Both hemispheres working together are likely to be superior to either working alone.

As we know ‘general’ intelligence (g) is commonly measured using IQ tests, but general intelligence includes both ‘fluid’ intelligence (Gf), and ‘crystallised’ intelligence (Gc). ‘Crystallised’ intelligence is more culture bound and context dependent, whereas ‘fluid’ intelligence, as the name suggests, can be applied to any new situation or problem, and responds to stimuli more quickly correlating strongly with faster reaction times.

In this chapter McGilchrist argues that ‘fluid’ intelligence is in decline, but according to the ‘Flynn effect’, general intelligence is increased between the 1930s and 1990s. McGilchrist’s question is therefore, if we in the West are relying more and more on the left hemisphere, and it is the right hemisphere that is responsible for fluid intelligence, arguably the more important intelligence, then shouldn’t IQ be declining rather than increasing?

It is unsurprising that several factors need to be considered; these include environmental factors, such as better nutrition in early childhood and more years in school, and the well-recognised practice of ‘teaching to the test’, which could well result in the population simply getting better at taking the test rather than an improvement in IQ levels. There is also the recognised problem of grade inflation in schools and universities. All these factors could account for the noted increasing IQ levels.

More recently a ‘reverse Flynn effect’ has been noted. Since the 1990s research suggests that IQ levels have not only plateaued but are declining by two to three IQ points per decade. There is now evidence that even when there was thought to be a rise in IQ levels, in fact what was happening was that the gains were at the lower end of the cognitive development spectrum, but there were large losses at the highest level. Flynn now believes that the increasing IQ scores seen between the 1930s and the 1990s, were related to a corresponding increasing tendency to see the world through ‘scientific spectacles’, so there was bias built into the IQ tests in favour of a particular way of thinking; higher scores went to people who can express things in a scientific way. For McGilchrist this privileges the left hemisphere’s way of looking at the world, but people with high IQs rely on the right hemisphere.

McGilchrist concludes this chapter by writing on p.238

Evidence from a number of sources suggests that the right hemisphere contributes the majority, not just of emotional and social intelligence, but also of what is ordinarily meant by intelligence (IQ) – cognitive power, or g. This appears to be particularly true among children and adults of the highest intelligence.

In the following video, McGilchrist discusses this chapter with Alex Gomez-Marin

References

McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

Gottfredson, L. S. (1997). “Mainstream Science on Intelligence (editorial)”, Intelligence, 24: 13–23

Martin Buber. The Knowledge of Man

I was moved by Martin Buber’s book ‘I and Thou’, which was read and discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network in August 2021, so I was looking forward to reading more by Buber. The Knowledge of Man was the choice of the reading network for discussion in June this year (2022) and I managed to secure a second-hand copy of the book, in very good condition, from Abe Books, my go to site for books to be read with this group. I prefer to have a hard copy than read these books online or on Kindle. So, I was prepared and enthused at the thought of discussing this book, but life and personal circumstances got in the way. Not only was I not able to read much of the book, but, due to many distractions, what little time I did have to devote to the book ended up as largely fruitless. Ultimately, I was only able to skim read a couple of chapters, in this distracted state, and I was not able to attend the zoom meeting when the book was discussed. The time was just not right for me to engage with this book.

But maybe it wasn’t only my personal circumstances that led to my failure to get to grips with this book. Whenever I find a book difficult, I hunt around for secondary sources, to learn from people who have appeared to understand the work, before launching into it myself. This time this did not yield much fruit. Unlike Buber’s ‘I and Thou’ which has been written about and discussed by many, many others (there are countless secondary sources on the web), I could find scarcely any secondary sources for The Knowledge of Man. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong place, or perhaps others, like me, have also found the book challenging.

The Knowledge of Man consists of six essays, plus an introductory essay by Maurice Friedman, and an Appendix – Dialogue between Martin Buber and Carl R. Rogers.

The six essays are:

  1. Distance and Relation
  2. Elements of the Interhuman
  3. What Is Common to All
  4. The Word That is Spoken
  5. Guilt and Guilt Feelings
  6. Man and His Image-Work

Each essay is quite short; between 20 and 30 pages long, so this is not a long book. I was able to spend a bit of time on the first two chapters and hope to return to the rest of the book at another time.

Distance and Relation

In this essay Buber considers the tension between distance and relation. On page 60, he writes:

‘.. the principle of human life is not simple but twofold, being built up in a twofold movement which is of such kind that the one movement is the presupposition of the other. I propose to call the first movement ‘the primal setting at a distance’ and the second ‘entering into relation’. That the first movement is the presupposition of the other is plain from the fact that one can enter into relation only with being which has been set at a distance, more precisely, has become an independent opposite. And it is only for man that an independent opposite exists.’

It makes sense to me that relation depends on and is compatible with distance. Relation and distance are necessary for one another. People in successful marriages know this, as do parents of growing children. As is written in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘… without the form of otherness there can be no confirmation of self insofar as the confirmation of the I is always mediated by the other who confirms me, both at a distance and in relation, or rather in the distance that is relation and the relation that is difference.’

My understanding from this chapter is that I-Thou relation is only possible if we recognise distance as integral to relation.

‘Man, as man, sets man at a distance and makes him independent; he lets the life of men like himself go on round about him, and so he, and he alone, is able to enter into relation, in his own individual status, with those like himself. The basis of man’s life with man is twofold, and it is one – the wish of every man to be confirmed as what he is, even as what he can become, by men; and the innate capacity in man to confirm his fellow men in this way.’ (p.67, 68)

‘Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfilment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness. When two men inform one another of their basically different views about an object, each aiming to convince the other of the rightness of his own way of looking at the matter, everything depends so far as human life is concerned on whether each thinks of the other as the one he is, whether each, that is, with all his desire to influence the other, nevertheless unreservedly accepts and confirms him in his being this man and in his being made in this particular way. The strictness and depth of human individuation, the elemental otherness of the other, is then not merely noted as the necessary starting point, but is affirmed from the one being to the other. The desire to influence the other then does not mean the effort to change the other, to inject one’s own ‘rightness’ into him; but it means the effort to let that which is recognized as right, as just, as true (and for that very reason must also be established there, in the substance of the other) through one’s influence take seed and grow in the form suited to individuation. Opposed to this effort is the lust to make use of men by which the manipulator of ‘propaganda’ and ‘suggestion’ is possessed, in his relation to men remaining as in a relation to things, to things, moreover, with which he will never enter into relation, which he is indeed eager to rob of their distance and independence.’ (p.69)

Elements of the Interhuman

In this essay, Buber continues to develop his ideas about how we communicate and develop I-Thou relationships, where we perceive the ‘other’ in his wholeness and are fully aware of him.

‘But what does it mean to be ‘aware’ of a man in the exact sense in which I use the word? To be aware of a thing or a being means, in quite general terms, to experience it as a whole and yet at the same time without reduction or abstraction, in all its concreteness…Such an awareness is impossible, however, if and so long as the other is the separated object of my contemplation or even observation…. [Such an awareness] is only possible when I step into an elemental relation with the other, that is, when he becomes present to me….An effort is being made today radically to destroy the mystery between man and man. The personal life, the ever near mystery, once the source of the stillest enthusiasm, is leveled down.’ (p. 80-81)

Buber distinguishes this interhuman communication between men from social communication within a group. Communication within groups does not necessarily involve existential relation between one man and another. Interhuman relations go well beyond casual encounters.

Buber writes that two things can prevent men from communicating on this level; ‘the invasion of seeming and the inadequacy of perception.’ (p.82) Genuine dialogue cannot be arranged beforehand; it cannot be achieved when thinking about the impression made on the other. Genuine dialogue is constituted by the authenticity of being. In the interhuman realm, men communicate with one another as they are, and accept one another as they are.

Not only ‘seeming’ and the ‘inadequacy of perception’ prevent genuine dialogue. It is also impeded by trying to impose opinions on another. This is the role of propaganda, but education seeks to affect another’s views and release potential through ‘existential communication between someone that is in actual being and someone that is in a process of becoming’. (p.82) Unlike the propagandist, the educator is interested in individuals. The educator doesn’t impose but unfolds. These two approaches to communication, that of the propagandist and that of the educator are present in all of us to a greater or lesser degree.

‘Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity. For the proper existence of the interhuman it is necessary …. that the semblance not intervene to spoil the relation of personal being to personal being. It is further necessary …. that each one means and makes present the other in his personal being. That neither should wish to impose himself on the other is the third basic presupposition of the interhuman. These presuppositions do not include the demand that one should influence the other in his unfolding; this is, however, an element that is suited to lead to a higher stage of the interhuman.’ (p.84)

I have included a number of long quotes from The Knowledge of Man in this post. Buber is a beautiful writer. His writing speaks for itself.

As I mentioned above, I was not able to attend the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s zoom meeting, but the session was introduced by Dr Sam Rocha, Associate Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, who posed the following ideas and questions for the group to think about.

A concern for the ideas at stake in the following questions indicate we can read Buber’s The Knowledge of Man as an explicit philosophy of education. In other words, insofar as (1) appearance, mind, and life, (2) knowledge, and (3) philosophical anthropology are at stake, we do not need to translate the text indirectly into philosophy of education so much as to understand it as directly as possible.

  1. What are the phenomenological, psychological (psychoanalysis included), and pastoral dimensions of this text?
  2. What kind of knowledge is Buber proposing and seeking?
  3. What kind of anthropology does Buber present, i.e., what does he mean by ‘man’ or what is his notion of the human person?

References

Martin Buber (1965) The Knowledge of Man. Selected Essays. Harper Torchbooks. Harper & Row.

Epistemic Injustice by Miranda Fricker (some brief comments)

This is an important idea, developed by author Miranda Fricker, Reader in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. It is something many of us will have experienced, i.e., we have been wronged specifically in our capacity as knower.

This happens all the time to my husband who has been a quadriplegic for 57 years and as such uses a wheelchair. Despite this, he had a successful academic career. However, this did not and does not prevent many people from assuming that being in a wheelchair equates to lack of intelligence, or the capacity to speak knowledgeably. For example, he often experiences people directing answers to his questions to me over the top of his head. According to Miranda Fricker, this is an example of ‘testimonial injustice’.

‘Testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word.’ (p.1).

 ‘Epistemic Injustice. Power and the Ethics of Knowing’, was the book discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network last month. The discussion was introduced by Dr Alison MacKenzie @QUBelfast. I have to admit that I didn’t read the book. Perhaps it was simply the wrong time for me to try. At the time I just didn’t have the energy or motivation to engage with the academic style of writing, but I did look for secondary sources (see list below) and found a couple of videos and a few articles which helped and meant that I did feel that I could still attend the reading network zoom call.

Much of the discussion in the online meeting focussed on testimonial injustice. Most people had examples from personal experience that they could recount. Less time was spent ‘hermeneutic injustice’ which is the second form of injustice that Fricker writes about.

‘Hermeneutic injustice occurs at a prior stage, when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.’ (p.1)

‘An example of the first [testimonial injustice] might be that the police do not believe you because you are black; an example of the second (hermeneutic injustice) might be that you suffer sexual harassment in a culture that still lacks that critical concept.‘ (p.1)

Despite not having read the book, I enjoyed the zoom call and left it rather wishing I had read the book. I think if I had persevered, I probably would have got a lot from it. Dr Alison MacKenzie raised these questions for us to discuss:

  1. What are the merits of Fricker’s work? And does it speak to your own experiences of either testimonial or hermeneutical injustice?
  2. What are we to make of Fricker’s claim that Joe (Enduring Love) merely experiences incidental hermeneutic injustice when the police fail to take his claims seriously that he’s being stalked (p.158)
  3. Relatedly, do you find anything problematic in the claim that a person who experiences a medical condition about which little is known merely experiences ‘circumstantial epistemic bad luck’? (152)
  4. Could Fricker be accused of structural gaslighting because of her failure to engage with the work of black feminist philosophers? (This is the argument of Nora Berenstain, 2020, Hypatia, 35/4)

As ever, the reading network group went its own way and didn’t directly address the speaker’s questions, but the questions are always useful for future reference.

And also, despite not having read the book, I wanted to mark here the idea of Epistemic Injustice, which once you know about it, you can see all round you, not least in yourself, or at least that is my experience.

Here is the list of secondary sources I accessed:

Philosophy Bites. Miranda Fricker on Epistemic Injustice (13 mins)

Miranda Fricker on testimony and the power of words (6 mins)

Huzeyfe Demirtas (July 2020) Epistemic Injustice

University of Bristol Epistemic injustice resource page

Epistemic Injustice Community Engagement Project

Miranda Fricker – Epistemic Equality? (41 mins)

The next meeting of the Philosophy of Education Reading Network will be on June 21st, when the group will discuss Martin Buber’s The Knowledge of Man. The book will be introduced by Prof Sam Rocha. This is already proving to be an even more challenging read, but since it consists of selected essays, I hope to have read at least some of them before the meeting.

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network is an open group which anyone can attend. Details of how to join the zoom call are usually posted on Twitter a few days ahead of the meeting. See @PhilofEd

‘Dancing in the Dark’ and dwelling in uncertainty

Dancing in the Dark – A Survivor’s Guide to the University is the next book to be discussed on April 19th by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network. This is a delightful, curious, and thought-provoking tiny book which defies attempts to pigeon-hole it into a category and particularly not into an academic category, despite reference to the University in the title.

There are many things to like about this book. It really is tiny, roughly 10 x 14.5 cm and about 50 pages in length, but there is no sense that this has been for cost-saving purposes, for example by cramming a lot into a limited number of pages. The font is a good size, there is plenty of white space and there are many pages of intriguing artwork by artist and dream whisperer Geoffrey Baines. In short it is a lovely object in it’s own right, which you can easily slip into a pocket or bag.

And before starting to discuss the content of the book, I should also mention that it is beautifully sold by Golden Hare Books. It came with a bookmark and a message on a postcard from the sales team. The personal touch made receiving the book such a pleasure.

So, what is this book about and who is it for? The authors, Anne Pirrie, Nini Fang and Elizabeth O’Brien say that it is for anyone working or studying in a university who feels they are fumbling around in the dark, but I think it doesn’t have to be confined to this sector. This book is for anyone who is uncomfortable with uncertainty, or not knowing; anyone who feels ‘locked down’ by their and others’ expectations, anyone who questions whether they are good enough for whatever it is they are doing; anyone who equates being ‘in the dark’ with failure.

The authors say that they ‘challenge the binary between shadows and light – and in respect of form – between lightweight and gravitas.’ ‘Our aim’, they say, ‘is to reinstate the shadows as a place of possibility and to reassure the reader that the entertainment of doubt is the heart of the educational project’. In other words, we can embrace being ‘in the dark’, embrace uncertainty and ambiguity, embrace not knowing; and more than this we can be open to doubt, be curious, and learn to ‘dance in the dark’.

What I particularly like about this book is that the authors have created a sense of ‘dancing in the dark’ in the way they have written and presented their ideas. Despite the fact that they reference philosophers, sociologists, psychoanalysts, poets, and artists, they do not present this as an academic text. True to their words, they have challenged the binary between lightweight and gravitas, they have explored the interplay between shadows and light and resisted being governed by ‘linear understanding of learning processes’. They share their ideas with us through conversation and narrative, drawing on their personal experience, and resisting closing circles of inquiry. They do not offer solutions or practical assistance but invite us to acknowledge the essential unknowability of the ‘Other’ and leave the circle incomplete.

Reference:

Pirrie, A., Fang, N. and O’Brien, E. (2021). Dancing in the Dark. A Survivor’s Guide to the University. Tilosophy Press.

See also Roy Williams’ wiki post – Dancing in the Dark/Seeing in the Shadows

Source of image 1: https://goldenharebooks.com/

Source of image 2: https://www.henrimatisse.org/the-dance.jsp

Footnote:

Elizabeth O’Brien, together with Victoria Jamieson, founded the Philosophy of Education Reading Network

What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari

What is Philosophy? is the question that Gilles Deleuze (French Philosopher, 1925-1995) and Felix Guattari (French psychoanalyst, 1930-1992) explored in the last book they collaborated on and published in 1991. Of their collaboration Deleuze wrote. “We do not work together, we work between the two…. We don’t work, we negotiate. We were never in the same rhythm, we were always out of step.” (I have selected this quote because it resonates with my experience of working collaboratively, so I just want to mark it here).

This is also the book that has been selected by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network for discussion online on March 15th

‘What is Philosophy?’ is an inquiry into the nature of philosophy itself, i.e., metaphilosophy. The question is a metaphysical question.

I am not completely unfamiliar with the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Between 2014 and 2016 I spent quite a bit of time exploring some of the ideas they discussed in A Thousand Plateaus – principally The Rhizome (see page on Rhizomatic Learning on this blog), but also Lines of Flight; Multiplicities, Wolves, Tribes and Pacts; Smooth and Striated Space; and Nomadism. However, there was a lot in A Thousand Plateaus that I never got to grips with. My experience of this book is similar.

Deleuze and Guattari’s language is abstract and difficult to understand. Yes, it is often imaginative and sometimes poetic, but that hasn’t made it any easier to read.

They start the book by writing:

“The question what is philosophy? can perhaps be posed only late in life, with the arrival of old age and the time for speaking concretely…….It is a question posed in a moment of quiet restlessness, at midnight, when there is no longer anything to ask.”(p.1).  It is also a question that is often posed as an icebreaker on the short adult education philosophy courses that I attend and, I realise now,  the answers provided by the participants (including myself) are exactly what Deleuze and Guattari say philosophy is not. Philosophy is not, argue Deleuze and Guattari, contemplation, reflection, or communication.

In this book Deleuze and Guattari are interested in how philosophy is distinct from other disciplines, in particular how it is distinct from the sciences and arts. What are the similarities and differences? A novelist generates stories, and a scientist generates empirical knowledge about the world, but a philosopher generates concepts. The philosopher is the friend or lover of wisdom, and the philosopher ‘is the concept’s friend; he is potentiality of the concept.’ (p.5). Philosophy is the creation of concepts.

Philosophers seek to define philosophy, but also to determine the boundaries without which there would be chaos. Deleuze and Guattari try to avoid chaos.

In what follows I am not going to discuss the whole book, but just the first two chapters, ‘The Introduction: The Question Then ….’ and Chapter 1, ‘What is a Concept’. I have found a very useful secondary source which has helped to explain these chapters (see Varsity Bookwork playlist on YouTube), which I am going to draw on heavily 🙂

Philosophy is not contemplation

In seeking to define what is philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari don’t just fill the space, but determine the boundaries (define it) by saying what philosophy is not.

‘It is not contemplation, for contemplations are things themselves as seen in the creation of their specific concepts.’ (p. 6)

Contemplation has always been considered important by philosophers, as far back as the Greek philosophers. Plato said that Ideas must be contemplated. For Deleuze and Guattari the question is, ‘how can you contemplate an Idea, if you don’t know what the Idea is?’ Asking what is the Idea is a conceptual and philosophical question, which has to be asked first before we can contemplate the Idea. So philosophy and concepts come before contemplation. We need concepts first before we can contemplate them. Contemplation considers the concepts that philosophy generates.

Philosophy is not reflection

Philosophy is not reflection, write Deleuze and Guattari (p.6),

‘… because no one needs philosophy to reflect on anything. It is thought that philosophy is being given a great deal by being turned into the art of reflection, but actually it loses everything. Mathematicians, as mathematicians, have never waited for philosophers before reflecting on mathematics, nor artists before reflecting on painting or music. So long as their reflection belongs to their respective creation, it is a bad joke to say that this makes them philosophers.’ (p.6).

On page 122 of his book, Negotiations (1997), Deleuze writes:

‘In barren times philosophy retreats to reflecting “on” things. If it’s not itself creating anything, what can it do but reflect on something? So it reflects on eternal or historical things, but can itself no longer make any move. Philosophers Aren’t Reflective, but Creative. What we should in fact do, is stop allowing philosophers to reflect “on” things. The philosopher creates, he doesn’t reflect.’

Neither reflection nor contemplation are creative activities, but reflection and contemplation are different, because contemplation contemplates concepts, but reflection does not involve thinking about concepts. Reflection is a mode of thinking distinct from contemplation. It doesn’t need concepts. Contemplation needs concepts.

Philosophy is not communication

Deleuze and Guattari also write that philosophy is not communication, because communication ‘only works under the sway of opinions in order to create “consensus” and not concepts. The idea of a Western democratic conversation between friends has never produced a single concept.’ (p.6).

Thus, the aims of philosophy and communication differ. Philosophy aims to create concepts; communication aims to generate consensus (agreement between people).

Deleuze and Guattari do not deny that communication plays an integral role in philosophy. It is part of philosophy but is not itself philosophy. No matter how many people share an opinion it doesn’t make it true. For Deleuze and Guattari, philosophy is about getting us to see where disagreements are; this is where creativity can thrive and a new concept can emerge.

In an interview with Deleuze conducted in 1990 (so before the publication of ‘What is Philosophy’), Deleuze said ‘We’ve got to hijack speech. Creating has always been something different from communicating.’

For Delueze and Guattari, philosophy is a necessarily disruptive act which challenges the status quo; creativity is synonymous with disruption, and philosophy is a creative act.

This is as far as I am going to go in this post. There is a lot more. I have barely scratched the surface. As it says on the back cover of my copy of the book:

‘The first part of the book [ as well as the concept, also] explores … the ‘plane of immanence’ in which [the concept] can be born and the ‘conceptual personae’ which activate it. It concludes with a brilliant account of philosophy’s relation to social and economic development, from ancient  Greece to the modern capitalist state. Part two considers other forms of thought: science, art, literature and music.’

However, just this short section has implications for educators. Deleuze and Guattari have argued that philosophy is distinct from the sciences and the arts, describing disciplines such as the human sciences and sociology, epistemology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, logical analysis, computer science, marketing, design and advertising as ‘increasingly insolent and calamitous rivals that Plato himself would never have imagined in his most comic moments’. (p.10).

Saying clearly what philosophy is not, helps to make the case for Philosophy as a unique discipline, a discipline much needed in education today.

Update 15-03-22

Dr Kay Sidebottom who will introduce the discussion about this book, has now posted three questions for us to consider:

Update 09-03-22

An individual extensive response to this book by Roy Williams, can be found here – http://resonancesofknowledge.pbworks.com/w/page/148119147/0%20-%20Knowledge%20Tools%20and%20Affordances

If you access the link you will see that this is a work in progress.

References

Deleuze, Gilles, Guattari, F. (1991). What is philosophy? Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, G. (1990). Negotiations. Columbia University Press.

Additions R, Ewald F, C. C. (1990). Control and Becoming, Gilles Deleuze in conversation with Antonio Negri.

Varsity Bookwork YouTube Playlist: What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari

The Purposes of Education. John Hattie and Steen Larsen

This book, published in 2020, will be discussed by the online Philosophy of Education Reading Network next week. The book records a series of conversations that took place between John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and Steen Nepper Larsen, an Educational Philosopher from the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University.

John Hattie is known for his evidence-based quantitative research on student achievement and his book Visible Learning, which has been described as the largest ever synthesis of meta-analyses of quantitative measures of the effect of different factors on educational outcomes.

In a review of The Purposes of Education Steve Turnbull writes:

Hattie needs little introduction. He’s the “meta-man”, or to be more accurate, the “meta-meta-man”. His magnum opus, Visible Learning, synthesised more than 800 meta-analyses and became a handbook for educators worldwide, drawn no doubt to its user-friendly ranking of teaching strategies by their impact on learning outcomes.

If you do happen to be new to Hattie’s work, then there are plenty of articles about his concept of visible learning on the web. In a nutshell Hattie’s Visible Learning research synthesises findings from 1,400 meta-analyses of 80,000 studies involving 300 million students, into what works best in education, and comes up with 250+ influences on student achievement. (Hattie’s work has been ongoing over many years so the figures relating to number of analyses etc. change according to the date of reporting).

Source of images: https://visible-learning.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/VLPLUS-252-Influences-Hattie-ranking-DEC-2017.pdf (Click on the images to enlarge).

See also Hattie’s Visible Learning Metax website, where he shares his methodology and data

The significance of this book, The Purposes of Education, is that Steen Larsen is (or at least has been) a fierce critic of John Hattie’s work.  In the final paragraph of his 2015 paper ‘Know thy Impact. Blind Spots in John Hattie’s Evidence Credo’, Larsen makes the stinging comment:

One does not have to run (through) the big data of 240 million students to proclaim that well-prepared teachers are a sine qua non for teaching and learning. But this simple fact does not make deep and critical questions to John Hattie’s axioms, ways of investigating learning processes, use of meta-studies, and recommendations to educational stakeholders, superfluous. The concluding remark must be that the advantage of John Hattie’s evidence credo is that it is so banal, mundane and trivial that even educational planners and economists can understand it.

Steen Larsen questions whether learning is a visible phenomenon. Who should it be visible for? For him blindness is an inevitable part of educational seeing. He mentions that Hattie’s work is focussed on developing visible learning strategies for the teacher and that Hattie never actually talks to the learners. He argues that students, teachers and researchers are blind to each other’s rationales. ‘The teacher and the learner do not see the world in the same perspective’. (p.6)  He further argues that ‘learning can never be an instant, simple and visible phenomenon—neither for the teacher nor for the ‘key figure’, i.e., the learning subject.’ (Larsen , 2019, p.3). The effects of learning are sometimes not realised for years to come. Instead of focussing on quantitative analysis and a statistical approach to student achievement, Larsen suggests that we consider the notion of the German concept of Bildung, the idea that education might lead to ‘the edification and the eloquent formation of the individual’s character, wisdom, judgment, and fertile curiosity (Larsen, 2017, p.175).

It says something for John Hattie that he was willing to meet with his fiercest critic and have these intense conversations, in which they tried to answer the following questions:

  • What are the purposes of education?
  • Does educational data speak for itself?
  • What is the role of the teacher?
  • Is learning a visible phenomenon?
  • Is it important to teach and learn specific subjects?
  • What is the role of neuroscience research?
  • What is the relationship between educational research and educational politics?
  • What is the role of the state in education?

In this short video below (14 mins) Hattie and Larsen talk about the writing of The Purposes of Education in a very good natured way, but it becomes clear that, whilst (as seen in the book) there are things they agree on, fundamentally they have completely different philosophies of education.

Hattie claims that his research has been misinterpreted, but whether or not this is the case, his statistical, quantitative approach to student achievement has been very influential on government departments and policy makers for education around the world. Students/learners are now observed and tested more than ever before. Surely as Larsen says, ‘The purpose of education is much more demanding and challenging than enhancing visible learning processes and results.’ (Larsen, 2019, p.10)

References

David-Lang, J. (2013). Summary of Visible Learning for Teachers by John Hattie. The Main Idea, 1.

Steen Nepper Larsen. (2015). Know Thy Impact: Blind Spots in John Hattie’s Evidence Credo. Journal of Academic Perspectives Know, 1(1), 1–13.

Larsen, S. N. (2017). What is education? – A critical essay. In A. B. Jørgensen, J. J. Justesen, N. Bech, N. Nykrog, & R. B. Clemmensen (Eds.), What is education? An anthology on education (pp. 157-185). Próblēma.

Larsen, S. N. (2019). Blindness in seeing: A philosophical critique of the visible learning paradigm in education. Education Sciences, 9(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci9010047

Carsten Henriksen (2020). A New Perspective on John Hattie

Carly Boreland. (2021). The North Wind : A Critical Perspective on the Purposes of Education. Journal of Professional Learning, 1–4.

Will Fastiggi Summary of John Hattie’s Research

Josef Pieper. Leisure the Basis of Culture (Notes)

(Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1670)

Josef Pieper’s book is the next one to be discussed by the Philosophy of Education online Reading Network on Tuesday 16th November. This is not a book I would have thought about reading if I had not been attending these reading group sessions, and to be honest, it is not a book that has captured my imagination as much as some of the other books have (see posts under the PhilofEd category). But clearly the group member who chose this book feels it is important enough to discuss, and I have heard it described by others as an important text for our times, particularly I would think, for workaholics. If you have ever considered the question of whether you should live to work, or work to live, then this book/essay might provide some answers.

My copy of the book includes two essays, which were originally written in the form of lectures, given in Bonn, Germany, in the summer of 1947. The first is Leisure. The Basis of Culture; the second is The Philosophical Act. In this post I am only going to briefly consider the first. I may come back to the second at another time.

Josef Pieper was writing in Germany after the end of World War II, a time when Germany needed to be rebuilt, a time when a lot of work needed to be done. He recognised that the issue of work is at the centre of the economy, but he disputed the meaning of work. Who is work for? His book is about the primacy of leisure. He believed, along with Aristotle, that the real purpose of work is leisure.

“We are unleisurely in order to have leisure” (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics), where unleisurely refers to everyday work. A search online shows this often quoted as: ‘We work to earn our leisure’.

Whilst Pieper’s writing seemed out of place when first published, it now seems increasingly relevant, given that we live in a ‘total work’ culture where we always need to be doing something. Even when we are supposedly resting, we are ‘doing’. The reality is that we can’t escape work. It is always with us. We might expect that this would lead to vibrancy, but instead it often leads to boredom. If we don’t have something to do we are at a loss.  Boredom results from a problem with a person’s grasp of reality. As G.K. Chesterton said, “There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”

In this very short essay (68 pages in my version of the text), Pieper discusses knowledge, leisure, and worship. The essay is concerned with sociological and cultural realities, but also with what it means to be human and to live an authentically human life.

Starting with a discussion of knowledge, Pieper points out the connection between knowledge and leisure.

‘… leisure in Greek is skole, and in Latin scola, the English ‘school.’ The word used to designate the place where we educate and teach is derived from a word which means ‘leisure’. ‘School’ does not properly speaking, mean school, but leisure.’ (p.21)

Pieper discusses how the concept of knowledge has changed in the modern world. Modern philosophy views knowledge as active and outward, but in ancient times it was receptive and open. For the Ancients and in Medieval times there were two different kinds of knowledge, ratio (discursive reasoning, examining, analyzing, picking apart) and intellectus (a receiving of what is true; knowledge as purely receptive, gazing on reality, contemplation of your own existence). The Ancients prized intellectus. In modern times the only kind of knowledge that is valued is ratio, which depends on our activity. Ratio favours the hard sciences over literature, philosophy and theology, science over wisdom, and what we can determine for ourselves over what we can receive.

This kind of knowledge (ratio) is associated with labour, effort, and suffering. ‘Hard work … is what is good’(p.31). ‘Man mistrusts everything that is effortless’ (p.34). Knowledge is valued only for its utility, how it serves the concrete, material or economic. It used to be that education and knowledge were sought for their own sake, free of utility. This is where we get the term liberal arts, which had a value in themselves, independent of utility. The goal of the liberal arts was to grasp reality itself. Today the liberal arts are not given as much weight as the STEM subjects. We learn how things work but we don’t ask why they exist in the first place. The liberal arts have now become utilitarian and knowledge has become exclusively active. Today we know by our own acting not by receiving; we value knowledge according to the effort put into achieving it, and to the extent that it is useful for the here and now, for society.

Pieper goes on to further discuss our mistaken understanding of the meaning of leisure. We think it’s about escaping from work, but this is not authentic leisure. Leisure is not a time to ‘veg out’, but rather to engage in active contemplation of reality. Leisure, Pieper writes, means a certain stillness, an inner absence of preoccupation, an ability to be calm, to let things go, to be quiet. This is the opposite of the modern demand for activity. True leisure has the capacity to receive, to be still and allow the mystery of life to reveal itself. It is found in simple things such as listening and being aware of nature. It is not about entertainment, which is often designed to keep reality from intruding.

Leisure requires a celebratory spirit or attitude, which comes when we affirm that the world is good and we appreciate its goodness. Leisure is only possible when we are in harmony with ourselves. Leisure is not there for the sake of work. It is useless. The power to be at leisure is the power to step beyond the working world. This takes some effort on our part to carve out those times and places where we are going to be at rest. We typically think that we rest in order to work, but that makes leisure dependent on work. It makes work the determining factor. Work is a good thing but can become a vice when it is removed from its proper place. Stillness, uselessness, and a celebratory spirit are characteristics of leisure.

Work should facilitate leisure. True leisure is a condition of the soul, not the absence of work. It’s not not doing something. It is doing something, but a specific type of activity, which allows things to happen and adopts an attitude of inward calm and silence. For Pieper the highest form of leisure is worship and the ultimate good in life is union with God.

Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10) could be rewritten by Pieper as ‘Be at rest, or be at leisure, and know that I am God.’ Pieper believed that we have to set aside time and space and be at rest, in order to realise who we are.

There are some key ideas in Pieper’s essay, such as Sloth (acedia) and the incapacity to leisure, Proletarianism, and Deproletarianization and the opening of the realm of leisure, which I have not covered here. I have just made notes on the ideas that stood out for me. I will be interested to hear what questions are raised by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network in relation to Pieper’s writing, and how they relate it to education.

References

Pieper, J. (1965). Leisure the Basis of Culture. Fontana Library

Sensus Fidelium. 2016. Leisure: The Basis of Culture – Rev Scalia

The Burrowshire Podcast. 2020. The Art of Leisure

Maria Popova. Leisure, the Basis of Culture: An Obscure German Philosopher’s Timely 1948 Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Human Dignity in a Culture of Workaholism.

Michael Naughton. 2010. Teaching Note on Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture. An Integration of the Contemplative and Active Life. https://www.stthomas.edu/media/catholicstudies/center/ryan/curriculumdevelopment/theologicalethics/NaughtonTeachingNote.pdf

Andrew (2021) Rethinking Leisure in the Age of Total Work

Source of image: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/93731235981297063/

John Dewey. Traditional and Progressive Education

The last Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s online discussion was on John Dewey’s book Experience and Education (see also a previous post on this blog). The invited speaker to introduce John Dewey was Professor Deren Boyles of Georgia State University, who not only came across as an expert, but also as a strong proponent of Deweyan education. His most recent book is about Dewey – John Dewey’s Imaginative Vision of Teaching: Combining Theory and Practice.

Dewey wrote his book in 1938 and even then was worried about the state of education. He believed that all worthwhile education is based in experience (not any experience, but quality experience).  Traditional education, that is, the type of education system that believes that children/students are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge emanating from the teacher or text books (what Paulo Freire later described as the banking system of education), clearly doesn’t fit with an educational philosophy based on experiential learning, which requires more freedom, student agency and autonomy. The following paragraph quoted from Dewey’s book explains his concerns.

‘Let me speak first of the advantages which reside in increase of outward freedom. In the first place, without its existence it is practically impossible for a teacher to gain knowledge of the individuals with whom he is concerned. Enforced quiet and acquiescence prevent pupils from disclosing their real natures. They enforce artificial uniformity. They put seeming before being. They place a premium upon preserving the outward appearance of attention, decorum, and obedience. And everyone who is acquainted with schools in which this system prevailed knows that thoughts, imaginations, desires and sly activities ran their own unchecked course behind this façade.’ (p.62)

It seems to me that in the past few years this kind of education, that places a premium upon preserving the outward appearance of attention, decorum and obedience, is becoming more prevalent in the UK, and presumably the same is happening in the US since Professor Boyles described US schools as full of unthinking students being taught by unthinking teachers. No doubt he was exaggerating to make a point, but this was, I think, Dewey’s concern.

Here in the UK, schools that expect strict observance of the rules by pupils are often lauded for the good exam results they achieve. For example, Michaela Community School has adopted a traditional approach to education with an emphasis on discipline. In this school,

“There is a “zero tolerance” policy regarding poor behaviour; a “boot camp” week at the start of the year teaches the children the rules and the consequences of breaking them. A strict uniform code and no group work; children sit in rows and learn by rote, and walk in single file between classrooms. Staff at the school tend to reject most of the accepted wisdoms of the 21st century”.

Similarly John Ferneley College requires pupils “to smile at all times, make continuous eye contact with staff, to not look out of windows, to never turn around (even after hearing a noise from behind), to always sit up straight, to walk in single file at all times, to not pick up stationery unless specifically directed to do so by staff, to learn and respond to a series of whistle commands from staff, to always respond to staff in a sufficiently upbeat manner and to be constantly grateful that they have the privilege to be at the school.”

This is clearly contrary to what Dewey was advocating. But Dewey published his book in 1938. Are his beliefs still worthy of consideration in a modern context? Professor Boyles seemed to think that they are, but I would need to know more about schools such as John Ferneley College and Michaela Community College to judge whether they turn out unthinking students in the mould of unthinking teachers, despite their good exam results.

Are good exam results the aim of education and do children learn better, such that they achieve these results, under a strict discipline regime? Michaela Community School and John Ferneley College appear to think they do, and Dewey certainly did not advocate an ‘anything goes’ approach. He warned against interpreting progressive education as unconstrained and uncritical freedom. His view was that both traditional education and progressive education can and do get it wrong, and that we should be trying to understand what is worthy of being called a good education.

The question of whether a traditional education system serves children better, was also raised in a Radio 4 programme Could Do Better I heard this week. This programme was first aired in 2018 and over the course of 5 short 14 minute episodes, it follows the progress of journalist Lucy Kellaway who changes career at the age of 58, when she starts her training as a maths teacher. She also encourages others to follow her example and change career to become teachers, by setting up Now Teach, a charity that focuses on training secondary school teachers.

Particularly interesting for me in the Radio 4 programme, having just read and discussed John Dewey’s book Experience & Education, is a conversation that Lucy has with another trainee teacher, Basil, presumably of a similar age, who ultimately throws in the towel and gives up on teacher training and the education system (Episode 4)

Here is a transcript of the conversation, starting at 8.55 minutes in the recording.

Lucy: The most difficult thing of all is that I feel pulled in two directions. On one hand I see the great advantages of such rigid discipline. It means that a teacher can start teaching the minute the lesson begins, but on the other I’m finding it really hard to toe the line. In this I’m not alone.

Basil: I do feel regret because the dream is still in me – there were too few bright spots.

[Basil, a former TV Producer, is one of the 46 other people that Lucy lured onto the Now Teach Scheme. He’s been training to be an English teacher at a different school nearby, but now he emails to say he’s dropping out. When Lucy sees him, he has become bruised by a system he doesn’t quite fit into.]

Basil: How in that format do you have the chance to make the children want to learn and understand maths because they relate to you, they’re inspired by your personality – because you see, I think you in the classroom, I would see you as an incredibly inspiring teacher. How much do your pupils know who you are and how much of your personality has been able to motivate and be the engine of your teaching?

Lucy: This is the absolutely central thing and I think it’s part of my egotism that I wanted it to be that way.

Basil: No, it’s not – it’s the reason you’re going into teaching.

Lucy: I thought it was, but you see I feel that actually in the way that it is taught I am less good because of my personality.

Basil: That’s because the system is wrong.

Lucy: It’s not that the system is wrong – it’s because that particular thing doesn’t use what I think I’m good at.

Basil: But it is wrong, because you are a teacher – you need that bit of you and everybody whoever inspired us – we all talked about teachers who inspired us – it was their personalities.

[Like everyone on the Now Teach programme, Basil has had a long and high powered career doing other things. All have been paid to have opinions and to be individualists and it’s that, not their age that seems to be the sticking point.]

Basil: You now go to schools where if every teacher hasn’t bought into the ethos down to the smallest degree you are regarded as undermining the system and fatally undermining your fellow teachers – and this means [undermining] the personalities that were part of the richness and diversity, the pluralism of what schools should be. It’s robot time. And you aren’t a robot.

Lucy: No and I’m very bad at being a robot.

Basil: And you shouldn’t be.

Lucy: That’s sweet and I think it’s partly true, but I think I went into it with what you’ve described as a sort of charisma view of teaching, really that you can just teach through charisma. I’m now much more dubious about that.

Basil: Well, I think you’ve been indoctrinated.

Lucy: Well maybe I’ve been indoctrinated, but equally it’s not about what I tell the class. It’s about how much of that they retain and understanding how that works.

Basil: Absolutely true and I completely agree with that. If you don’t find an outlet for you being recognisable Lucy Kellaway, your sense of humour and your warmth, being motivated, the engine to the maths, if you don’t find that, then it will be hopeless and you’ll cry yourself to sleep every night.

For me this discussion raises the dilemma that thinking teachers must face every day. Do they aim to educate children to fit into the system? Do they educate themselves to fit into the system? Or do they challenge the system and aim to educate children to so the same? Is it possible to do both?

And finally, I wonder if Lucy Kellaway’s teacher training programme, Now Teach, includes studying educational philosophers such as John Dewey.

Source of Image: Kansas Historical Society

Simone Weil – some brief notes

The most recent book to be discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network was Simone Weil: An Anthology compiled by Siân Miles. The session was introduced by Dr Susan Notess of Durham University, who introduced us to the life and work of Simone Weil, a French philosopher, mystic and political activist, in 15 short minutes.

As she said, Simone Weil was an ‘interesting’ character, who had a different way of approaching the world. Elsewhere I have seen Weil described as eccentric, which, from what I have read, is putting it mildly, although Albert Camus described her as ‘The only great spirit of our time’. From a very early age it was clear that Simone Weil was gifted, although she lived in the shadow of her gifted, older brother, André, who was considered a mathematical genius. Weil could speak several languages and was reading Plato in Ancient Greek at the age of 12. Later she also taught herself Sanskrit, so that she could read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. Her teacher, Émile Chartier, more commonly known as Alain, nicknamed her ‘The Martian’ to draw attention to her intellect and ‘very large brain’. Weil was an intellectual being, but also a woman struggling to compete in a man’s world. She managed this by adopting an asexual identity, wearing masculine-style clothes, and shunning intimate relationships and all forms of physical intimacy (although physical intimacy had appalled her from a very early age, and even as a child, she didn’t like to be touched or kissed for fear of germs). Another nickname for her was The Red Virgin, red referring to her left-wing political activism.

From a very young age, Weil empathised acutely with the suffering of others, to the detriment of her own health and well-being. At the age of six, she stopped eating sugar, because soldiers at the front in the first world war couldn’t have sugar. Later in life she tried to stay true to her belief in empathising with the suffering of others, and practise what she preached, by living very simply with minimum comforts and eating very little. She wanted to match the living conditions of people around her. She died young at the age of 34 in 1943 from tuberculosis, aggravated by malnutrition. Some believe that she may have been anorexic, but there is no evidence for this.

Weil came from an affluent non-practising Jewish family. Her father was a doctor, so she came from a privileged background and went to a fine school. She did brilliantly at University, being one of the first 5 women ever to attend the École Normale Supérieure, in Paris, outshining Simone de Beauvoir by finishing first in the exam for the certificate of ‘General Philosophy and Logic’. de Beauvoir finished second.

On leaving University Weil became a teacher of philosophy and political activist, and ultimately became influential in religious and spiritual matters, but given that this book was chosen for discussion by a philosophy of education reading network, it is on education that I would like to focus. This film (1 hour 24 mins) gives a more complete introduction to Simone Weil than I have done here.

I must admit to only having dipped into the anthology being discussed in this session. I found several introductions to Weil’s life and work online, which were interesting – she definitely is an interesting character, but her political and social activism, mysticism and leaning towards religious and spiritual matters did not draw me in. Perhaps it was, for me, the wrong time to be trying to read this book. I do find a book a month, by these difficult authors, quite a challenge, and I was still thinking about Nel Noddings (see previous posts) when I came to Weil’s book. Despite only having dipped into Weil’s work, I can see the connections between her and Noddings, and to some extent between her and Hannah Arendt. Iris Murdoch was also influenced by Weil.

From the little I know of Weil’s approach to education and pedagogy, she was unorthodox. She tried to teach people wherever she went, sharing her philosophical and political ideas with workers in factories and publishing in workers’ journals. But she soon realised that labouring workers (in the car factories that she herself worked in to try and align herself with workers’ suffering) were too oppressed by their impoverished lives to have the energy or will to discuss philosophy. As a teacher she wanted to humanise education. In teaching sixth form philosophy, she realised that her students had no knowledge of the connections between philosophy and science, so she created a special curriculum. In doing this, she didn’t follow the curriculum or the rules of the school in which she worked, to the extent that her students didn’t pass the exams, and ultimately, she lost her job as a teacher. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that the students benefited from her teaching, claiming that she gave them ‘something else’. It’s interesting to think about this in the relation to the purpose of education.

For Weil the central purpose of education is to cultivate and develop the capacity for attention. She doesn’t mean by this that we should furrow our brows and strain to attend. Attention does not depend on the will. She writes (1986, p.233) ‘Attention is bound up with desire. Not with will, but with desire – or more exactly, consent’. For Weil attention is being receptive, open, patient and selfless. ‘I’ has to disappear. ‘Attention alone – that attention, which is so full that the ‘I’ disappears – is required of me. I have to deprive all that I call ‘I’ of the light of my attention and turn it on to that which cannot be conceived.’ The mind is ‘detached, empty and ready’ to receive truth from the world (Weill, 2009, p.111).

She goes on to write (1986, p.234) ‘The authentic and pure values – truth, beauty and goodness – in the activity of a human being are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object. Teaching should have no aim but to prepare, by training the attention, for the possibility of such an act.’ This is where we see the influence of Weil on Noddings, who wrote about the need for the one-caring to be engrossed in and fully committed to the cared-for, in the act of caring for the other. For Weil and Noddings alike, teachers must be attentive to their students and students must be attentive to their studies.

But for Weil, the ultimate aim of education is the orientation of all attention to the love of God, although she acknowledges in her essay ‘Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God’ (Weil, 2009) that this is the highest form of attention, whereas schools only develop a lower form of attention. ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolute unmixed attention is prayer.’ (1986, p.232). She expands on this in her essay on the right use of school studies as follows:

Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer. When we set out to do a piece of work, it is necessary to wish to do it correctly, because such a wish is indispensable in any true effort. Underlying this immediate objective, however, our deep purpose should aim solely at increasing the power of attention with a view to prayer; as, when we write, we draw the shape of the letter on paper, not with a view to the shape, but with a view to the idea we want to express. To make this the sole and exclusive purpose of our studies is the first condition to be observed if we are to put them to the right use. (2009, p.108)

Weil stresses the importance of failure in learning (learning from failure) and humility, but also joy. ‘The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running’. (2009, p.110). Whilst Weil believed that cultivating attention would help students to reach God through prayer, she also thought that a capacity for attention would help students generally in their academic studies and particularly in their ability to attend to others.

A full discussion of Weil’s work, as it relates to education, is beyond the scope of this post. In addition, I think it is probably not possible to fully appreciate and understand Weil’s ideas on education, without having some knowledge and understanding of her wider work relating to politics, mysticism and religion. At this point, from my own limited reading and understanding of her work, I think her ideas are possibly too radical and too imbued with religious overtones, to be widely adopted in education. Having said that, most teachers would probably agree on the importance of cultivating attention, but they may have a different understanding of attention to Weil, i.e., thinking of attention as being muscle straining hard work, rather than the open receptivity advocated by Weil.

Finally, Susan Notess, who introduced this Philosophy of Education Reading Network session, posed some really thought-provoking questions for us to consider. I will finish this post by sharing them here. Three great questions to get you (and me) thinking.

Question 1:

What do you make of Weil’s zealous belief that ideology was not enough; that she had to live the experience of the causes she cared about? Does genuine activism require that we commit to abstract objectivity and remove, or to participation ‘in the trenches’, or both? Consider this: suppose you are a passionate proponent of revolution in some sphere, desiring to see an oppressed class revolt and find freedom, although you yourself tend towards pacifism and would prefer a nonviolent revolution. A genie who reads Simone Weil appears, and tells you they will ensure the revolution and its success, on the condition that you agree to participate and carry arms. How would you respond to the genie? Is it a mistake to think that our theoretical commitments require us to be committed to involvement also? Was Weil going too far by joining the Spanish Civil War, or was she setting a daunting precedent that we ought to follow?

Question 2:

To what extent can, or should, Weil’s notion of attention function to disrupt our philosophical praxis? In pedagogy broadly construed, what role can this ungrabbing, unboxed attention play? In philosophical pedagogy, how do we strike a balance between the need to equip students for technical knowledge/skill, and the need to teach people to find the open attunement of apophatic attention?

Question 3:

Take for granted Weil’s notion of roots and the human need for rootedness. How do the possibilities for rootedness change or modulate in the context of the following: immigration in a globalised age (uprooting and replanting); the internet, as a field in which communities of belonging can be established, an alternative or queered space of rootedness, a source of affordances for the displaced, the dispossessed, the divergent, and the estranged; cross-cultural living, and those who live with a dual identity, rooted in two places.

Evidently Simone Weil was ‘intensely displeased’ by the attention paid to her life rather than her works, so I expect she wouldn’t have liked this post very much!


References

Weil, S. Attention and Will in Simone Weil: An Anthology compiled by Siân Miles, 2005, Penguin Books. First published by Virago Press in 1986.  https://rohandrape.net/ut/rttcc-text/Weil1952d.pdf  

Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Simone Weil, Waiting for God, 2009, Harper Collins https://www.themathesontrust.org/papers/christianity/Weil-Reflections.pdf

Nel Noddings: A Feminine Approach to Moral Education (Notes)

The title of Nel Noddings’ book (published in 1984) is in fact: Caring. A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. The book has eight chapters. Broadly speaking chapters 1-3 and 7 focus on caring, chapters 4-6 focus on the ethics of caring and the ethical ideal, and chapter 8 focusses on moral education, although all the chapters make reference to all these topics.

This is the second time I have read Noddings’ book, and this time I made extensive notes, which I am sharing in two blog posts. In this post, I will share my notes on the final chapter on moral education. For my notes on chapters 1-7, see my previous post Nel Noddings: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Notes). If you are not familiar with Noddings’ work and ideas, it may be necessary to read the first post in order to fully understand this post – and, of course, reading notes is no substitute for reading the original text.

What is Moral Education?

Noddings tells us that moral education is an education which strives to meet all morally, and enhances the ethical ideal of those being educated. The ethical ideal is to be one-caring and to meet the other morally. She believes that the primary aim of every educational institution and of every educational effort must be the maintenance and enhancement of caring; parents, the police, social workers, teachers, preachers, neighbours, coaches and older siblings must all accept responsibility. To receive and to be received, to care and be cared-for are the basic realities of human being and its basic aims. When we behave ethically as one-caring, we are not obeying moral principles, although they may guide our thinking, but we are meeting the other in genuine encounters of caring and being cared for. Moral education does not dismiss thinking and reasoning. Training for intelligence and morality should not be separated, but moral education recognises the affective ‘I must’, and intellectual tasks and aesthetic appreciation should be deliberately set aside, temporarily, if their pursuit endangers the ethical ideal. The student is always more valuable, and infinitely more important, than the subject matter.

The One-Caring as Teacher

Noddings believes that teaching is not a role, but a specialised caring relation. ‘As teacher I am first one-caring’. The cared-for is encountered as ‘Thou’ rather than ‘It’ and the teacher seeks the involvement of the cared-for. Whilst the teacher considers the student as more important than the subject matter, the teacher is not necessarily permissive. First and foremost she must nurture the student’s ethical ideal. She leads and influences the student, but ultimately he learns what he pleases. As one-caring, the teacher meets the student directly, but not equally. The special gift of the teacher is to receive the student and to look at the subject matter with him. Her commitment is to him, the cared-for, and he is, through that commitment, set free to pursue his legitimate projects. She lives the one-caring ethic by establishing a relation with the student. Through dialogue, modelling, the provision of practise, and the attribution of best motive, the one-caring as teacher nurtures the ethical ideal. The teacher must be totally and non-selectively present to the student as he addresses her. The time interval may be brief, but the encounter is total.

The student’s contribution to caring is to reward his teacher with responsiveness, questions, effort, comment and cooperation. Whilst the cared-for (student) is free to accept or reject caring, the cared-for is essential to the relation. Responsiveness by the student completes the caring.

Nurturing the Ethical Ideal through dialogue, practise and confirmation

Noddings suggests that the three great means of nurturing the ethical ideal are dialogue, practise and confirmation.

For dialogue to occur, anything can be discussed, e.g. religion, values, beliefs, opinions and feelings. Talking, listening, sharing and responding are vital in every aspect of education. The purpose of dialogue is to come into contact with ideas and to understand, to meet the other and to care.

Students need practise in caring. They can do this through real voluntary work, such as in hospitals and gardens, or with the elderly or animals, not to learn skills as a vocational end, but to see how the skills developed contribute to competence in caring. This reminds me that when I was in the final years of my secondary schooling in the early 60s, it was a requirement to do this kind of voluntary work. Noddings believes that these tasks, in which students are involved in caring apprenticeships, should have equal status to other tasks in education. We should establish opportunities for students to care.

When we attribute the best possible motive consonant with reality to the cared-for, we confirm him, i.e. we reveal to him an attainable image of himself that is lovelier than that manifested in his present acts, but evaluation is difficult for teachers and students. Grading is an intrusion upon the relationship between the one-caring and the cared-for. In grading, teachers are asked to look at the student as object, a thing to which some measuring stick can be applied. Grading violates the relationship between student and teacher. To relieve this conflict, Noddings believes it is important to focus on what is to be attained/learned and not on when it is attained. Grading and evaluation, where teachers regard students as objects, should not be done by teachers. The caring teacher does evaluate, but does not need to sum it up for the world, or to inform others about the student’s progress. The caring teacher cannot confirm a child unless she talks with him and engages in cooperative practise with him. She must see and receive the student, see what he has actually done and receive the feelings with which it was done. The response of the student remains at the heart of the confirmation for the teacher.

Organising Schools for Caring

Noddings has some definite ideas for how schools should be organised, which she focusses on in the final pages of her book. She believes that schools can be designed to support caring, and that the traditional curriculum is masculine and needs to be feminine. These are some of the suggestions that she makes.

In order to nurture caring, schools should be smaller so that they can establish chains and circles of caring (see previous post for reference to chains and circles of caring). My own experience is that establishing a caring relation between teacher and student is easier in smaller schools.

To develop meaningful dialogue between teachers and students, there should be extended contact between them, which could be supported by students staying with the same teacher for a few years. Again, my experience is that this is often the case in smaller schools, with fewer teachers and classrooms.

Classrooms should be cooperative, and students should learn from each other. Noddings is wary of sharp age separations. Again, smaller schools will often have classrooms of mixed ages. Where I live (Cumbria, UK), there are still very small primary schools where all the children from age 4 to 11, or 4 to 7 and 7 to 11, may be taught in the same classroom.

Students should be continually involved in service activities.

The scope of subject matter should be broad. This does not mean that there should be a lot of subjects, but rather that subjects should be laid out along the entire range of human experience, and consider cultural, personal and psychological dimensions of the subject. We should dismantle structures that separate us into narrow specialisations.

Direct teaching for instruction in well-defined skills and the learning of such skills are only part of the process. They serve to set learners free to explore, such that they have opportunities to meet the subject without pre-stated objectives.

Teachers must be one-caring and knowledgeable in their subject if they are to practise inclusion. They must know their subject in depth if they are to follow students for three to four years. Apprentice teachers could work with master teachers, and parents and other adults should be frequent visitors to classrooms.

There should be no penalties for infraction of rules. Punitive moves work against subjective development, and obedience to law is simply not a reliable guide to moral behaviour. There should be invitation to dialogue.

There should be no hierarchy in schools. Instead there should be circles and chains of relations, with the opportunity to move from circles to chains. For example, career teachers could have a fourth year in a different role, enabling them to move from circles to chains, so giving them a break from the intensity and demands of the one-caring relation.

Most of these suggestions, of course, make for an expensive education system, which is perhaps why Noddings’ ideas have never been taken up successfully on a wide scale.

Noddings ends her book with these words.

‘One must meet the other in caring. From this requirement there is no escape for one who would be moral’.

Reference

Noddings, N. (1984) Caring. A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. University of California Press.