On Politics and Plagues. What can literature do for us?

Like many others during this time, I have turned to literature to try and gain deeper insights into the times we are living through and, in particular, the COVID-19 pandemic. I know I am not alone in reading Albert Camus’, The Plague. Early in the lockdown Stephen Downes linked to a post about it in his newsletter, OLDaily, which contained this video

The Plague was also the first fiction choice for the online platform Quillette’s Quarantine Book Club, where it generated a lot of interesting discussion.

Two other books that have informed my thinking at this time are Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (which I have slowly and carefully re-read, whilst making extensive notes), and William Ophuls’ Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail.

The question of what can literature (in the broader context of the humanities) do for us at times like this, was discussed by Professor Sarah Churchwell, Dr Kate Kirkpatrick and Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge in an excellent online conversation ‘On Politics and Plagues’ at the end of last month. This was organised by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, as a precursor to the Being Human Festival, due to take place on November 12-22nd November.

Lindsey Stonebridge is currently writing a book about the relevance of Hannah Arendt for today. Arendt is known for her book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil’. What did she mean by the banality of evil and how does it relate to the idea of infection? Lindsey Stonebridge told us that Arendt did not refer to the banality of evil as a plague, but as a fungus. By banality she did not mean ordinary. She talked of banality as meaning thoughtless (not thinking) and what happens when we are in a bureaucratic, over-socialised system which allows thoughtlessness to happen. The banality of evil is fearsome and thought-defying. In this sense, evil is not demonic, but banal. The problem of modern evil is that it’s not radical, not deep, not profound; it’s like fungus. Fungus is really contagious; it grows rampant all over a surface. In this sense thoughtless, policy-driven bureaucratic evil is like fungus. It is not a plague; it is a moral rot, which grows and rots at the same time, like a fungus.

Kate Kirkpatrick has recently published a well-received biography of Simone de Beauvoir, who was an associate of Camus. She suggested that Camus and Arendt thought in similar terms about moral contagion and the trivial wrongs that result in really morally significant actions. In Camus’ novel, the plague has agency and humans are passively reactive. Simone de Beauvoir thought that in Camus’ writing, the plague gave people an alibi for not being politically engaged and for not being morally responsible; it enabled evasion of individual accountability. de Beauvoir thought that although humans cannot make evil disappear, they can mitigate it. Arendt, in her reference to the banality of evil, wanted to cut it down to size (no matter what the scale, as in the holocaust), to make it recognisable.

Lynsey Stonebridge thought that Arendt and de Beauvoir would have agreed that there is no master plan. When you have a plague (e.g. political evil as a contagion and when politics is out of control) you feel helpless and people rush for the demonic (the big man), but to deal with the morality we need to analyse it. She believes that generally people are trying but failing to do this, because they are not thinking; we can’t think in the policy and administrative systems spaces we have set up, she says. Camus wrote that the plague never dies, you can’t defeat it. Kate Kirkpatrick thought that this might encourage apathy, or it might spur people to different political thought, but what do we do about the habits of thoughtlessness that have led to increased inequalities and oppression? A response to the banality of evil, according to Lynsey Stonebridge is thought, language and writing.

At this point the conversation moved on to a discussion about the relationship between fascism and patriarchy. Kate Kirkpatrick pointed out that this discussion depends on which fascism you are talking about, and that situations and freedoms are different and context dependent. For further information about this discussion see the video of the recording which I have linked to below.

Finally Sarah Churchwell (who hosted this conversation) asked Lindsey to discuss the political and moral question of the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to her recently published article in the New Stateman, What Hannah Arendt can teach us about Work in the Time of Covid-19. In this she argues that the metaphors we choose matter; they do political work. She writes:

The government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy, published on 11 May, states that people will be “eased back into work” as into a dentist chair: carefully, and with face masks.

The reason they need to be coaxed is, of course, the economy. At one point in the document, it reads as though it is the economy, not people, that has been sick: “The longer the virus affects the economy, the greater the risks of longterm scarring.” The economy needs ventilating, and people are its oxygen.

Lindsey Stonebridge’s argument is that the metaphors being used explicitly prevent us from being agents of the economy; we are not working for the economy, we are labouring for the economy, but according to Arendt action requires both labour and work, and it’s action that makes us human. Labouring is simply what we do to survive. Work, on the other hand, gives collective meaning to what we do. We labour by necessity; we work to create a human reality.

This is why debates and policies about how we get back to work matter so much: we are also talking about what kind of human society we are – or want to be.

If taking the human value of work more seriously is key to a better politics, we should also grasp this opportunity to think about what counts as valuable work.

This fascinating conversation ended by returning to the question, What can literature do for us?

As this conversation shows, it gives us ways to think about the world. It also gives us the opportunity to participate in human memory and consider what it means to be human, by listening to a plurality of voices, and aesthetically, it gives us pleasure.

For a recording of this event, where you can get the full details and not just the bits that interested me, here is the video.

Man’s Search for Meaning

At the end of this month I am supposed to be going on a four-day course on The Mystique of Existentialism. I say ‘supposed’, because given the current fears around COVID-19, either the course will be cancelled, or I will opt out.

The course outline says that the intention is to discuss the human condition that thinkers the likes of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre dwelt upon.

Suggested reading for the course is At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. I was pleased about this because I have already read and blogged about the book which I thoroughly enjoyed. See Human Existence is Difficult. Existentialism and Phenomenology.

Serendipitously I also recently came across an article about an interview between Nigel Warburton and  Sarah Bakewell, in which he asked her to recommend five books on existentialism.

Of the five books that she recommends, I have only previously read Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre, again for a course, about five years ago – an introduction to philosophical literature. Sarah Bakewell starts her discussion with David Cooper’s book, but I jumped straight to Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.  Frankl wrote the book in 1945 in nine successive days.  I am late in discovering this book, but it still seems very pertinent for our times.

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, was a Holocaust survivor. In the book he describes his experience of the concentration camps, and questions whether a life of suffering can also have meaning. At one point he writes about how the memory of his wife, and conjuring up her image, sustained him and kept him going. He came to understand that ‘The salvation of man is through love and in love’. He also quotes Nietzsche’s words ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.

One of the strongest messages to come out of the book is that man has a choice of action, a choice of how to respond to the circumstances he finds himself in.

‘…. everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’

‘…. Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself.’

As Sarah Bakewell says; ‘…we always have the freedom to make of it [a given situation] what we will, according to our own choices, to impose our own meaning on it.’

This seems like a strong message for our times.

Philosophical Musings on Time

This U3A (University of the Third Age) philosophy group meeting, which about 40 people attended, was presented by one of the members, Terry, who gave an interesting talk on the nature of time (as opposed to the measurement of time), in which he raised eight questions for us to discuss. On the table at which I was seated, we didn’t get very far with any of the questions and were all, I think it would be fair to say,  completely out of our depth when it came to knowledge of Stephen Hawking’s work and Einstein’s theory of relativity. We therefore tried to confine our discussion to those questions where we could draw on some personal experience to contribute to the discussion.

I share these questions and some of our discussion with the health warning that I cannot guarantee the accuracy of any of the facts, but hopefully the questions will stimulate further curiosity and thought, as they did for us.

Q1. To what extent does time rule our lives and were we happier before we had clocks?

This was discussed in terms of always having had clocks if we consider the sun to be a clock, day and night, the seasons and so on. The general opinion was that over time we have become more and more obsessed with time, such that we now seek antidotes to the pressure of time, such as mindfulness and meditation, and we have to ‘dare ourselves to be still’. It was suggested that small children are not aware of time (I’m not sure about that), and the relationship between time and longitude was briefly mentioned.

Q2. In your opinion – is time real?

Here reference was made to Kant’s questions about time and space, Julian Barbour’s controversial view that time is an illusion, and McTaggart’s work on the unreality of time. Some philosophers think that time is no more than change. Raymond Tallis discusses the relationship between Time and Change in Philosophy Now magazine. The group acknowledged that our limited lives make time seem real, and we think of it as a commodity which we save, spend, waste etc. On our table we got into deep water discussing what ‘real’ means and whether time exists independently of our perceptions of it. Needless to say, we didn’t come to any conclusions.

Q3. Have you experienced Time seeming to speed up or slow down? How do you account for this?

Given that the U3A is for people who have retired, most people shared the experience of time seeming to speed up with age. There is a psychological element. As Einstein said:

Time seems to move forward. Here reference was made to the physicist Arthur Eddington, with some pride, since he was born in Kendal, Cumbria, where our meeting was taking place. Eddington developed the concept of Time’s Arrow (The Arrow of Time) – the one-way direction of time, which gives us the impression of time passing. Stephen Hawking posited 3 arrows of time; psychological time (human perception of time, the past and the future); entropic time (the universe moves from a state of order to disorder but not the reverse); cosmological time (the arrow moves forward and backward when the universe is in an inflationary and deflationary state respectively). I have no idea what that means! These arrows prove (according to Hawking) the existence of a one-way flow of time in the universe.

 

There was also reference to Father Time and Shakespeare’s sonnets (see, for example, Sonnet 123 – No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change, and Sonnet 60), in which time is a major theme.

 

Q4. Do you think of time as linear or cyclical?

The cyclical nature of time is mentioned in Shakespeare’s work and the wheel of time is a concept found in some religions; Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism. Many patterns and rhythms in nature suggest that time is cyclical – the seasons, day and night, elliptical patterns.

But we tend to think of time as linear. Some philosophers believe that past and future don’t exist, only the present. Einstein believed that the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, and that the present is unique to the individual; it depends on the reference frame of the observer. Einstein worried that science can’t explain ‘the now’.

Q5. How much is memory and anticipation involved in the appreciation of music? Is there a way this is similar to our experience of Time?

It was suggested that Time must include a little memory. Think of this in terms of music. We hear a succession of sounds as a flowing melody, but to do this we must be hearing a little bit before and a little bit after the given sound/note. It was suggested that Time flows in a similar way. Edmund Husserl was mentioned in relation to how time can flow, but we didn’t discuss Husserl further. I have yet to find out what Husserl contributed to this topic. Newton also thought that time flows and wrote: “absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external” (see Absolute Time). Einstein turned the idea of Absolute Time on its head. Time, he said is relative and flexible (see Relativistic Time).

Q6. The Block Universe Theory sounds bizarre, and also rather undermines the idea of Free Will. What’s your opinion?

At this point everyone I was speaking to was beginning to get a bit lost, even those who had read Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’. Presentism, Eternalism and Block Theory of Time were all mentioned. Presentism is the view that neither the future nor the past exists, only the present exists, but Eternalists believe that past, present and future are all equally real. In this latter view, which is supported by relativity theory, there is no flow of time. According to Block Theory, the past and present exist, but the future does not. This undermines the theory of free will.

Q7. If Time travel was available to you where would you go and why?

We didn’t answer this question, discussing instead some of the implications of light speed for what we see and understand of the universe – time dilation and the idea that astronauts age more slowly than people on earth – and whether time travel will ever be a possibility. Stephen Hawking considered this .

Time travel used to be thought of as just science fiction, but Einstein’s general theory of relativity allows for the possibility that we could warp space-time so much that you could go off in a rocket and return before you set out. (Stephen Hawking)

If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future? (Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time)

Q8. How do you spend your leisure time?

This final question was raised because it was assumed that given that this discussion group consists of people who have retired, they have more leisure time. Evidently the Greeks craved leisure to live a life of the mind.

This U3A philosophy group consists of as many men as women, but this didn’t stop one woman quipping: ‘Leisure is a male concept’.

A comment of our time!

What is the point of it all?

I subscribe to Aeon digital magazine – an online magazine of ideas, philosophy and culture. A recent video bearing the title ‘An ageing philosopher returns to the essential question: ‘What is the point of it all?’ caught my attention. The ageing philosopher in question is Herbert Fingarette, who died at the end of last year, at the age of 97.

This is the link to the video: https://aeon.co/videos/an-ageing-philosopher-returns-to-the-essential-question-what-is-the-point-of-it-all  (18 mins)

In this film, recorded in the last months of his life, Herbert Fingarette reflects on his life and what it means to be 97, to outlive a deeply loved wife by seven years, to know that what you can now do (after a long and successful career as a professor of philosophy and author) is increasingly limited, and to accept that death is near.

For me this is a moving film, sad and concerning, but also uplifting.

It was sad to see how very much he still missed his wife, being moved to tears on listening to music that they had both enjoyed together. I was struck by his description of her as ‘absent present’. ‘Her absence has been a presence’.

It was also sad to hear him talk about being afraid of death. In 1999 he published a book, Death. Philosophical Soundings, in which he wrote that it is not rational to be afraid of death and that there is no good reason to fear death. But now he doesn’t believe this. He is now (at the time of filming) afraid of death and doesn’t know why.

For me it was concerning to see what I perceived to be the utilitarian nature of care in old age, and I realised that I hope that when my turn comes I will be cared for by someone who loves me, rather than by someone for whom care is a job, however good they are at that job.

But it was uplifting to see a 97 year old still interested in life, reading with the support of his computer, listening to music, drawing in pencil and pastels, and still moving about his house unaided and surrounded by his own possessions. And most importantly, still learning. All his life until now, at the age of 97, he has not appreciated the beauty of the trees in his back garden. Now he says, ‘Seeing the trees is a transcendent experience’. At the age of 97 this is a new experience, which connects him to life.

It’s not surprising that so near the end of his life he is still asking ‘What is the point of it all?’ This is the preoccupation of many philosophers. His conclusion was that there is no point. It’s a foolish question. But by his own acknowledgement he had a happy life and more importantly he had experienced what it means to love and be loved. Perhaps that is the point.

What did Socrates ever do for us?

‘What did the Greeks ever do for us?’ was the question discussed in a U3A philosophy group I joined last week, which turned out to be a very enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half – not really long enough to get to grips with the question, or even to get to the question at all, but certainly long enough to provoke some thinking, particularly about Socrates.

In preparation for this we were asked to read ‘Apology’ by Plato and translated by Benjamin Jowett . Apology is Plato’s account of Socrates’ self-defence against the charges of not recognizing the gods of the state and corrupting the youth of Athens. Plato of course was one of Socrates’ greatest admirers – a student of Socrates. And Aristotle was a ‘student’ of Plato. There was so much discussion around the Apology that there was little time to discuss Plato and Aristotle, apart from a brief discussion about Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, which can be seen in the Vatican museums. We were asked to consider what the fresco tells us about Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies.

There is so much information ‘out there’ about these three giants of philosophy, so many websites, so many articles, so many books, all of which are easy to find, that there is no need to repeat it all here and we only needed brief reference to it in our session.  Instead we focussed on these questions related to our reading of The Apology.

  1. What are the charges brought against Socrates?
  2. Why does Socrates think that the Athenians would be harming themselves rather than harming Socrates if they put him to death? What service has he provided the city of Athens by philosophizing there?
  3. Do you think Socrates is wise to disregard the possibility that he may die if he does not please the court?
  4. Why does Socrates think that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’?

For me the most interesting question was Q3, because when reading The Apology I found myself increasingly irritated by what I perceived to be Socrates’ arrogance. On the one hand he claims ‘the truth is that I have no knowledge’ and ‘I have no wisdom, small or great’, but that doesn’t stop him from claiming that the oracle at Delphi told him that there is no wiser man than he. Then he decided to test the oracle’s words by trying to find a man wiser than himself, but in discussion with various citizens considered to be the wisest in Athens, he decided they were not wiser than him and told them so, and then was surprised that they hated him. This he justified with the following words (according to Plato’s record):

Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.

In this vein Socrates went to politicians, poets and artisans and found himself to be superior to them all for the same reason. At this point I found myself questioning his wisdom. And at this point too I began to wonder at his complete lack of self-doubt and his unshakeable belief in his own virtue and worth. ‘I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times’. So convinced was he of his own worth that he told his accusers that if they killed him they would injure themselves more than they would injure him.

For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life.

Of course we have to remember that we only have Plato’s word that these statements actually came from Socrates. Socrates himself never wrote anything down. And we also have to try and think about the events in the context and culture of the time, for example the significance of the oracle’s statements.

Nevertheless, Socrates’ self-defence does raise the question of whether or not it is ‘wise’ to choose to die for your beliefs. For Socrates the difficulty was not in avoiding death but avoiding unrighteousness. He simply could not have lived with himself, had he not stuck to his principles. As such he could be said to have written his own death sentence.

Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you ashamed of this?

But maybe by signing his own death sentence Socrates scored the most important goal of his career and ensured that he would go down in history as the founder of moral philosophy, who established the method of trying to get at truth through persistent open questioning.

(With thanks to Lisa Lane for sending me this video, which made me laugh)

As Bryan Magee writes in his book (p.23): The Story of Philosophy. A Concise Introduction to the World’s Greatest Thinkers and Their Ideas,

It is doubtful whether any philosopher has had more influence than Socrates. He was the first to teach the priority of personal integrity in terms of a person’s duty to himself, and not to the gods, or the law, or any other authorities. This has had incalculable influence down the ages. Not only was he willing to die at the hands of the law rather than give up saying what he believed to be right, he actually chose to do so, when he could have escaped had he wished. It is a priority that has been reasserted by some of the greatest minds since – minds not necessarily under his influence. Jesus said: “What will a man gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of his true self?” And Shakespeare said: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

It’s interesting to consider whether Socrates needed to die to be remembered for his philosophy and method. The consensus at the U3A group seemed to be that he did.

Skills for ‘Being’ in a Digital Age

I have been puzzling over George Siemens’ idea that learners need to develop ‘being skills’ if they are to cope with what it means to be human in a digital age.

George discusses this with Neil Selwyn in an interview recorded for Monash University, Australia, Faculty of Education.

George does qualify, right at the beginning of the interview, that his question ‘What does it mean to be human in a Digital Age?’ is posed from a learning in knowledge development angle. During the interview he says that technology can ‘out know’ us, artificial intelligence is taking over human roles, and that in the future technology will become a co-agent rather than an enabler; you, me, colleagues, algorithms and robots will all work together in a techno-socio distributed learning model. George tells us that learners (humans) need to learn how to participate in this and that this will be through ‘Being skills’ which, as yet, machines can’t succeed at. He says we are necessarily entering a ‘being age’ because the technological systems around us are more intelligent than we are.

My immediate thought was that this is not so much a techno-sociological issue, or even an education issue, as a philosophical, ethical issue, which will involve deep inquiry into robot and machine ethics and the nature of ‘being’.

I have recently attended an ethics day course, in which in one session we discussed robot ethics in relation to whether we can teach robots ethics – see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-41504285  and https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b098ht04 . I have also attended introduction to contemporary philosophy and epistemology courses in which we were introduced to how some of the great philosophers in our history have thought about knowledge and being. So philosophy, epistemology and ethics have all been on my mind recently.

George said that he has only just started this work, and that his ideas are still emerging/forming, but  I wondered how philosophy and ethics will fit into his future work.

I then came across this article – ‘Our Technology Is Our Ideology’: George Siemens on the Future of Digital Learning‘ –  in which the author  Marguerite McNeal (Aug 11, 2016) writes of George

Throughout his various projects, of which there are too many to track, he focuses on education’s potential to develop the capabilities that make humans unique. Affect, self-awareness and networking abilities are all traits that separate mankind from machines and will be important for work and life in an increasingly automated world.

This reminded me of what Iain McGilchrist said about the difference between living organisms and machines, on a course I attended earlier this year (see posts on The Divided Brain):

According to McGilchrist there are eight things that differentiate living things from machines:

  • An organism cannot be switched off. There must be an uninterrupted flow from the origins of life.
  • A machine is at equilibrium. An organism is far from equilibrium. A cell carries out millions of complex reactions every second. Enzymes speed these up to a thousandth of a second.
  • The relationship between steps and an outcome are different in machines and living organisms. In an organism there are no steps – there is a flow of process.
  • In living things there is no one-way step. Interactions are complex and reciprocal.
  • The parts of a machine are static. The parts of an organism are not static, they are constantly changing.
  • An organism is aware of the whole and corrects for it in its parts (see the work of Barbara McClintock)
  • Organisms have no precise boundaries.
  • Machines don’t generate other machines from their own body parts.
  • Machines’ code is externally generated. Organisms manufacture their own instructions.

For McGilchrist, things come into ‘being’ without being forced (p. 230/231 The Master and His Emissary; see reference below)

“The feeling we have of experience happening – that even if we stop doing anything and just sit and stare, time is still passing, our bodies are changing, our senses are picking up sights and sounds, smells and tactile sensations, and so on – is an expression of the fact that life comes to us. Whatever it is out there that exists apart from us comes into contact with us as the water falls on a particular landscape. The water falls and the landscape resists. One can see a river as restlessly searching out its path across the landscape, but in fact no activity is taking place in the sense that there is no will involved. One can see the landscape as blocking the path of the water so that it has to turn another way, but again the water just falls in the way that water has to, and the landscape resists its path, in the way it has to. The result of the amorphous water and the form of the landscape is the river.

The river is not only passing across the landscape, but entering into it and changing it too, as the landscape has ‘changed’ and yet not changed the water. The landscape cannot make the river. It does not try to put a river together. It does not even say ‘yes’ to the river. It merely says ‘no’ to the water – or does not say ‘no’ to the water, wherever it is that it does so, it allows the river to come into being. The river does not exist before the encounter. Only water exists before the encounter, and the river actually comes into being in the process of encountering the landscape, with its power to say no’ or not say ‘no’. Similarly there is ‘whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves’, but ‘whatever it is that exists’ only comes to be what it is as it finds out in the encounter with ourselves what it is, and we only find out and make ourselves what we are in our encounter with ‘whatever it is that exists’.”

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

For McGilchrist the way forward is to recognise the nature of the problem, that we are living in an increasingly left hemisphere dominated world. He thinks we will have to cope with profound change and that will involve our individual practical selves and training ourselves out of habits of mind. We will have to question and invert things to see if we can find truth. We will have to change the way we spend our time, by first stopping a lot of what we do, switching things off, making space, and being quiet. For McGilchrist the answer is to create a different world and change our culture.

McGilchrist didn’t mention ’being skills’, but it seems to me that his concern is that we need to find a new way of ‘being’ in this technological left-brain dominated world. His work is steeped in philosophy, ethics and scientific research.

I wonder if George’s work on ‘being skills’ will cover any of this.

Harmony and hope as pedagogies for 2018

This week’s OLDaily, the online newsletter published by Stephen Downes, includes a discussion about ‘a pedagogy of harmony’. In his commentary on Matthias Melcher’s post, Stephen Downes writes:

Maybe nothing will come out of the idea of the ‘pedagogy of harmony’, or maybe I have at last found a worthy response to the idea of the pedagogy of the oppressed and even the pedagogy of hope. In any case, Matthias Melcher has teased out one fascinating strand, the idea that our expectations make the difference between whether we are in harmony with the world or whether things sound a note of dissonance. It comes from an example offered by Laura Ritchie. Here’s what she says:  “The relationships of the notes, the ratios and intervals found within the natural harmonic series have not changed over the years, but the capabilities of reproducing the notes on manmade instruments has… What has also changed is our tolerance for adding new ideas to the conception of harmony.” As we grow as individuals, as we grow as a society, we can become harmonious in new ways, by changing (and improving) our expectations.  (Stephen Downes, Dec 21, 2017)

 

Stephen Downes’ idea of the pedagogy of harmony, Laura Ritchie’s explanation of the relationship of musical notes, the ratio and intervals found within the natural harmonic series, and Matthias’s/Stephen’s response that our expectations make the difference between whether we are in harmony with the world or whether things sound a note of difference, have all caught my attention for different reasons.

I’m not sure whether I fully understand Stephen’s idea of a ‘pedagogy of harmony’. The idea stems from Stephen’s experience of Mastodon, a calmer, slower, quieter alternative to Twitter as a social media platform. There he has written: ‘What is a ‘pedagogy of harmony’? I’m not exactly sure, but it combines a feeling of well-being and comfort and inclusion’ , which is how he experiences Mastodon.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines harmony as:

  • The combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce a pleasing effect.
  • The quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole.
  • The state of being in agreement or concord.

But, if we agree with this definition, would we want this all the time? My immediate thought was, ‘Don’t we need dissonance to be able to recognise harmony?’ and in terms of pedagogy  ‘Don’t we need dissonance to maintain interest and attention?’

Kevin Hodgson in his response to Laura Ritchie’s post has created a video in which he has written:

Some of us revel in the juxtaposition of dissonances. We are disturbances on the surfaces of one another’s waters.

Perhaps it is more than ‘revel’, more a need for cognitive dissonance to enable learning.

Another question that occurred to me is ‘Can one person’s harmony be another person’s dissonance?’ This question is sparked off by my participation in Dr Matthew Nicholl’s Ancient Rome MOOC. In Week 3 of this course we are introduced to the music of Ancient Rome, in particular the music created by aulos players.

It is clear from the discussion forum posts that this music is not to everyone’s taste. For some it creates a sense of ‘well-being’, for others it does not. Laura’s comment that “What has also changed is our tolerance for adding new ideas to the conception of harmony” makes sense to me, but it must also mean that our understanding of harmony as an idea is a moving feast.

But I like this comment from Stephen: ‘As we grow as individuals, as we grow as a society, we can become harmonious in new ways, by changing (and improving) our expectations’, which was sparked by Matthias’ idea ‘that our expectations make the difference between whether we are in harmony with the world of whether things sound a note of dissonance.’ These ideas fit with those I have been learning about in a wonderfully enjoyable face-to-face course I have just completed – An Introduction to Philosophical Literature, run by Darren Harper. Over the past couple of months we have read and discussed:

  • Week 1: Introduction and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
  • Week 2: The Trial by Franz Kafka
  • Week 3: Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Week 4: The Outsider by Albert Camus
  • Week 5: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
  • Week 6: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

All these books are essentially about searching for meaning in life. Can we find meaning and if so what is the meaning of life, or is life essentially meaningless? This week, the last week of the course, when discussing Kundera’s wonderful book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we were asked:  if we knew that our life would repeat itself over and over again, without the possibility of correcting or changing anything, what would we do/change from this moment on to ensure that the repeated life would be bearable. This may not make sense to anyone else, but for me it speaks to both Stephen and Matthias’ ideas and suggests that I must revisit Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Hope, a pedagogy that believes in the possibility that things can change. Perhaps harmony alone is not enough as a pedagogy.

Both harmony and hope seem like fitting topics for reflection at the end of 2017.

Here’s wishing anyone who visits this post, Season’s Greeting and Best Wishes for 2018.

Developing a connectivist education philosophy

In response to a comment I made on his blog Suifaijohnmak asked me this question:

What do you see might be the philosophy (learning and educational) that could be learnt in networks (or connectivism)?

I’m copying my response here as I think this is a useful question and one worth holding in mind. I don’t have the answer to this question yet – but if for example the question was sprung on me in an interview (and I have in the past been asked to explain my educational philosophy in interviews), I would at the moment probably say something similar to the repsonse I have made to John – which is copied below.

Hi John – it would take me a while and a lot more understanding to formulate an educational philosophy that would be based on connectivism. My current thinking (but this is under continual review) is that it would be one that is based on the belief that

– learners can learn autonomously in the time and space of their choosing,
– they can negotiate their own curriculum and define their own learning paths
– they can find, select, analyse and synthesise the information they need from a variety of different sources,
– they have the skills to make meaning of this information, both working alone and with others, and thus extend their knowledge

I haven’t yet worked out where the teacher and assessment fit into this. I’m hoping that I will understand this better by the end of the course.

Thanks for asking this question John. It was useful.
Jenny