Sunday, June 26, 2011
More ruminations on 21st century learning and the concept of change
As usual in the distributed learning (DL) world, the month of June is absurdly hectic. Students who’ve enjoyed the right to create their own learning schedules realize, at the end, that no right exists without a corresponding responsibility. And now - as their asynchronous bliss meets the realities of graduation, post-secondary timetables and the rigours of employment - their panic must become my panic!
In any case, I am returning to my blog with a multitude of ideas for the summer. The one topic that continues to dominate my thoughts is “21st century learning”. In my last blog entry, I discussed the bait and switch nature of this latest educational bandwagon. The Minister of Education and his underlings are baiting us with golden visions of individualized learning, where students can follow their own pursuits and passions and be forever unshackled from the factory-like uniformity that supposedly characterizes (and impedes) our modern education system.
My response is one of deep suspicion. In my opinion, the vision they propose is extremely unrealistic. The amount of time and resources it would require is almost immeasurable, and will certainly not be available to a branch of government that the Minister has said will only receive “incremental funding” in the near future.1 Instead of personalized learning, I fear we will instead be switched to something less savoury: correspondence courses within brick and mortar institutions.
There are others (like here and here) who see an even more insidious game afoot. For them, this 21st century bait and switch is actually a Trojan Horse. Hidden inside the promises of “creativity and innovation”, “[t]ailored learning” and “[a]daptability” 2 are the banal realities of 19th century power politics: the breaking of unions; the end of work-hour, seniority and autonomy provisions; and the centralized control of professional development. Recent talks between BCPSEA and the ministry have focused upon the apparently inflexible nature of the current teachers’ contract, and how it’s an obstacle to 21st century learning. Indeed, in a recent government presentation to the BCTF, the rather cryptic nature of government objectives has led to a real fear by teachers that 21st century learning is simply code for breaking the BCTF and imposing a Wisconsin-style work environment. Nobody really knows what the government objectives mean in concrete, policy-manual terms, but here are a few objectives that can spark your imagination:
- We want the right teachers placed in the right positions. Qualified and suitable teachers – in best “fit” placements - lead to better learning
- We want to ensure that school districts are able to make human resource decisions that are effective and efficient
- We want to align professional development with teacher performance evaluations and school district policy requirements.
In the end, I am not entirely sure if the worst-case scenario is any different from the bargaining objectives of past Socred, NDP and Liberal governments. Perhaps the BCTF is ramping up the concern in anticipation of the upcoming strike vote. Nevertheless, I’ll follow the old adage and “hope for the best, prepare for the worst”. My apprehension about 21st century learning, not surprisingly, remains strong.
Another curious development related to the
21st century learning bandwagon is the colonization of the word
“change”. As a person trained in political philosophy and the politics
of language, I'm fascinated by the politicization of the word. Perhaps
"change" is destined to become politicized any time there are great
struggles between groups seeking to preserve and those seeking to change
the status quo, or between groups who have competing visions of the
future. In the context of BC’s education system, “change” has become weaponized.
In other words, it has become a unit of rhetorical armament that is
deployed at the first sign of dissent. What do you mean you oppose
these policies? Why are you scared of change? Clearly you are an
obstacle to 21st century realities! If you’re a skeptic like me,
you’ve doubtlessly encountered this
response many times. Those who ask tough questions about policy shifts
(such as the underlying assumptions, the actual costs, and the positive
policies that may be discarded) are often cast as “resistors” to change.
We are dinosaurs who care only for ourselves, and not “the kids”. [In
education, appealing to "the kids" is like both sides in the Crusades
appealing to God.]
Notice what’s going on. “Change” does not imply that the intended alterations are positive. Change is simply difference or an adjustment of position. It’s not a straight line of progress from the Dark Ages to the Age of Enlightenment. It could be meandering. It could ultimately bring us back to the starting point. It says nothing of the merit of that adjustment. In short, "change" means nothing.
Yet to the “change agents” who view dissenters as obstacles rather than valued interlocutors, their change is necessarily good. They've captured a neutral term and armed it with a more powerful meaning - goodness - that no one wants to oppose.
But this is nonsense. If I oppose your “change”, it’s because I believe your proposal is flawed. Just because you invoke “change” does not mean I concede its superiority. I believe my own position, which may or may not be the status quo, is better than yours. Amongst other things, I believe my position is better because it more accurately aligns itself with human nature, actual financing and/or the nature of institutions. And it offers less BS.
In the end, teachers ought to be very wary of “change”, whether it’s change for the sake of change, change that merely advances a person’s career, or – in the worst case situation – change that masks a partisan, non-consensual agenda. Above all else, don’t let others define their change as necessarily good change. If you do, and the BCTF is right about the government’s desire for less union protection, then those who demand honesty and clarity will be the first to go.
1. Abbott, George. “Opening Remarks”, Digital Learning Spring Conference: Personalized Learning for the 21st Century. April 18, 2011.
2. Premier’s Technology Council. A
Vision for 21st Century Education. (http://www.gov.bc.ca/premier/attachments/PTC_vision%20for_education.pdf)
Dec. 2010. Accessed 25 June 2011.
Monday, April 04, 2011
Sun Media Brings Fox News to Canada
This is almost hilarious. It must be the
most absurd media promo I've ever seen - as if it's a parody made by the
people at The Colbert Report or The Onion. Unfortunately, these yahoos
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Notes from Michael Oakeshott's "Political Education"
One of the most thoughtful and engaging conservative philosophers of the 20th century is Michael Oakeshott. I'm re-reading some of the essays from his famous work Rationalism in Politics. Here are my quote notes on the first essay I've read:
Oakeshott, Michael. “Political Education," Rationalism in Politics and other essays, Expanded Edition (Liberty Press, Indianapolis), 1991.
[C]onsider Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, read in America and in France in the eighteenth century as a statement of abstract principles to be put into practice, regarded there as a preface to political activity. But so far from being a preface, it has all the marks of a postscript. And its power to guide derived from its roots in actual political experience. (p. 53)
Freedom, like a recipe for game pie, is not a bright idea; it is not a ‘human right’ to be deduced from some speculative concept of human nature. The freedom which we enjoy is nothing more than arrangements, procedures of a certain kind: the freedom of an Englishman is not something exemplified in the procedure of habeas corpus, it is, at that point, the availability of that procedure. And the freedom which we wish to enjoy is not an ‘ideal’ which we premeditate independently of our political experience, it is what is already intimated in that experience. (p. 54)
[A]n ideology is an abbreviation of some manner of concrete activity. (p. 54)
On ideological politics: The complexities of the tradition which have been squeezed out in the process of abridgment are taken to be unimportant: the ‘rights of man’ are understood to exist insulated from a manner of attending to arrangements. And because, in practice, the abridgment is never by itself a sufficient guide, we are encouraged to fill it out, not with our suspect political experience, but with experience drawn from other (often irrelevant) concretely understood activities, such as war, the conduct of industry, or Trade Union negotiation. (p. 56)
The only cogent reason to be advanced for the technical ‘enfranchisement’ of women was that in all or most other important respects they had already been enfranchised. Arguments drawn from abstract natural right, from ‘justice,’ or from some general concept of feminine personality, must be regarded as either irrelevant, or as unfortunately disguised forms of the one valid argument; namely, that there was an incoherence in the arrangements of the society which pressed convincingly for remedy. (p 57)
[T]he abridgment itself never, in fact, provides the whole of the knowledge used in political activity. [p. 58]
Everything is temporary. Nevertheless, though a tradition of behaviour is flimsy and elusive, it is not without identity, and what makes it a possible object of knowledge is the fact that all its parts do not change at the same time and that the changes it undergoes are potential within it. Its principle is a principle of continuity: authority is diffused between past, present, and future; between the old, the new, and what is to come. It is steady because, though it moves, it is never wholly in motion; and though it is tranquil, it is never wholly at rest. (p. 61)
In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion. (p. 61)
Everything is temporary, but nothing is arbitrary. (p. 62)
Though the [political] knowledge we seek is municipal, not universal, there is no shortcut to it. Moreover, political education is not merely a matter of coming to understand a tradition, it is learning how to participate in a conversation: it is at once initiation into an inheritance in which we have a life interest, and the exploration of its intimations. (p. 62)
Political philosophy cannot be expected to increase our ability to be successful in political activity. It will not help us to distinguish between good and bad political projects; it has no power to guide or to direct us in the enterprise of pursuing the intimations of our tradition… we may hope only to be less often cheated by ambiguous statement and irrelevant argument…. The more thoroughly we understand our own political tradition, the more readily its whole resources are available to us, the less likely we shall be to embrace the illusions which wait for the ignorant and the unwary: the illusion that in politics we can get on without a tradition of behaviour, the illusion that the abridgment of a tradition is itself a sufficient guide, and the illusion that in politics there is anywhere a safe harbour, a destination to be reached or even a detectable strand of progress. (pp. 65-66)
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
A Choice of Words
Here's an interesting exercise. Replace one
word in the Vancouver
Sun headline below, and ask how the meaning of the headline has
changed. Let's replace "admits" with "argues". Such a change makes the
revealed "truth" more a matter of debate and interpretation. Yet I'd argue
that this is a reasonable change in wording, given that the article
itself never says "admit", and that Angela Merkel has made a fairly
dramatic, and probably strategic, change
in her own position on German "multiculturalism".
Monday, July 12, 2010
America's Housing Crisis - A Moral Dilemma?
The following video from 60 Minutes is a sobering look at America's continuing housing crisis.
It's also an interesting discussion of a central contradiction in capitalism. On one hand, business people and corporate entities often make bloody-minded decisions that leave individuals jobless and homeless. As "rational actors" pursuing "the bottom line", these capitalists are rarely condemned by our elites. Indeed, their "tough minded" decisions are often lauded as good business. On the other hand, the very same economic decisions by individual citizens and unions are almost always assessed (and condemned) in moral terms, terms which North Americans have historically internalized against their own interests.
Yet it now appears that this ideological
double-standard is being exposed by the mortgage problems faced by
millions of Americans. As a result, we can catch a glimpse of the
political underpinnings inherent in the supposedly amoral world of
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Comic Sans: The Write Type?
Apparently some people don't like the Comic Sans font:
"Comic Sans walks into a bar, and the bartender says, "We don't serve your type."
But seriously, here's a response in defense of our favourite faux handwriting font:
Here's another somewhat backhanded endorsement of Comic Sans. Honest.
Monday, May 24, 2010
Reading Wolin, Part 3: Not-So-Political Philosophy in the Age of Empire
Let us return to Sheldon Wolin. In this entry, I want to briefly discuss the third chapter of Wolin's Politics and Vision*. His key point is that political philosophy takes a sharp turn after the classic Greek city-states succumb to the Macedonian Empire. This philosophical shift continues and intensifies as the Roman Republic turns into the Roman Empire.
The nature of the change is directly related to the change of the dominant political unit. Gone is the time of a relatively compact and homogeneous polis; it is replaced by a sprawling, heterogeneous empire. Unlike the polis, an empire is marked by complexity, class and regional interests, and a massive enlargement of political space. Also unlike the polis, where citizens are engaged in direct and meaningful dialogue regarding the affairs of their city, in an empire the average citizen is subordinated to an autocratic ruler and his bureaucracy. In other words, where "loyalty had earlier come from a sense of common involvement, it [is] now to be centered in a common reverence for power personified" (p. 69).
This has two effects on the analysis of politics. First, political philosophy retreats from its political obligations, and ultimately becomes a form of "vapid moralism" (p. 85). Though some Greek thinkers of the Macedonian period, like Isocrates, are explicitly political (and urge a form of federalism to transcend Greek particularism), the philosophers after Plato and Aristotle are by and large those who reject an "intensive participation in a life of common concerns" (p. 69). This turn away from active citizenship is a natural effect of a distant, imperial hierarchy, and the Good is now defined - contrary to Pericles, Plato and Aristotle - as "political disengagement" (p. 71). Both the Cynics and the Epicureans are dominated by "strong elements of despair and withdrawal" that are "nourished by an anti-political impulse" (ibid) similar to modern libertarianism. The dominant philosophy of the Roman era, Stoicism, is well-known for its appeal to a universal rationality that binds nature and rational beings into a brotherhood of equality and freedom. So far, so good. But for Wolin, Stoicism shares the disillusionment of imperial politics with the Cynics and Epicureans: "its philosophic outlook [is] not derived from a positive view concerning the nature of a truly political order, but from a conclusion about its insufficiency" (p. 73). The Stoics are committed to moral development that lies outside politics since the "bureaucratized and highly impersonal public life of the Empire [has] only the slenderest ties with man's potentiality for moral development" (p. 75). Moreover, the naturalism of Stoicism displaces any notion of social conflict with a "quasi-religious" (p. 84) desire for harmony, and men are "exhorted to extend their allegiance to the cosmos as though it were a true society" (p. 74). The best that can be said for Stoicism is that it becomes, under the Roman Empire, a useful "code of conduct for public magistrates and administrators" (ibid).
The second major effect of Empire on political analysis is that it's soon dominated by historians and politicians (e.g. Polybius and Cicero). Their analyses are a study of technique, compromise and pragmatism. They also focus on the role of institutions, largely because institutions and their procedures help rulers wrestle with complexity. No longer do philosophers venerate a participatory politics that uplifts the soul; in the Roman era, students of politics seek - as we might say in Canada - peace, order and good governance. Interestingly, Wolin seems somewhat sympathetic to this trend. While Polybius and Cicero might be overly optimistic when they view politics as a balance of power, they are "basically correct in drawing attention to the fundamental importance of institutions in legitimizing conflict among diverse forces and interests" (p. 76).
Some interesting themes emerge from Wolin's analysis. His concern for the unsettled world of every-day politics persists. However, he is not content with the simple interest-based politics of Cicero. Wolin is fearful of those periods "when politics is reduced to nothing but the pursuits of interests, when no controlling standards of obligation are recognized" (p. 81). And indeed, in the Roman experience, mistrust of principle as merely the lexiconic mask of naked interest helps lead to the collapse of the Republic. From this Wolin concludes that society "cannot long endure uncontrolled political conflict, and the inevitable reaction is to demand peace at any price" (p. 82). Somewhere, amid the rancour of factional struggle, we must find values and principles that we can all agree to, and which we obey even when our "particular interests or ambitions are not always being served" (p. 80).
The struggle between unity and difference rears its head again.
* Wolin, Sheldon. Politics and Vision,
Expanded Edition (Princeton University Press, Princeton), 2004.
Saturday, May 15, 2010
One of the great Jon Stewart episodes
One of the benefits of a DVR is that I can watch Jon Stewart's Daily Show even though I'm too old to stay up that late. The following is one of the best episodes I've seen from one of the best reasons to watch TV:
[Update: Because the original episode has been removed, I have to offer this summary news item.]
Bumper sticker politics
And you thought I was above juvenile humour?
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Reading Wolin, Part 2: Plato and Politics
What is “politics”? According to Chp. 2 of Sheldon Wolin’s Politics and Vision*, it’s certainly not an intellectual conception he shares with Plato.
Plato’s vision of politics is of the Good: the right and just principles that are common to all rational beings, and that ought to govern their political community. It is a philosophical conception, in the sense that his vision is derived from reason, yet practical because it reflects a serious attempt to imagine a real and tangible Good Society. But Plato’s quest for a tabula rasa, on which society is to be reconstructed with the help of a philosopher king (as in The Republic) or a philosopher-legislator (as in The Laws), always points to the same conclusion: “absolute power yoked to absolute knowledge” (p. 45). To be sure, Plato does not aim for a totalitarian solution. Far from it. Plato is repeatedly concerned with the excesses of power. His solution is a search for the Forms, eternal verities which transcend time, place and historical convention. With knowledge of the Forms, and the leadership of Rational people suffused with a “deep longing of the purified soul” (p. 52), Plato argues that the corruption of power will be overcome. In Wolin's words, it is the assuring logic of all Rationalists: “when political power is joined to knowledge it loses its compulsive element” (ibid).
Wolin disputes this vision of politics. According to Wolin, politics is defined as the activity of citizens within a given geographical area who work (or struggle) to resolve common problems under the condition of scarcity (of resources, status and authority). It is fundamentally a vision of conflict (p. 11). From this perspective, there is no real sense of politics in Plato’s writings, precisely because Wolin's politics is a communal activity that does not aim at Truth. Plato contributes little to issues like political participation, because such concerns imply a need for consent and conventionality that have little time for the Universal Good. Against Plato, Wolin argues that any political “agreement that issues from participation is not intended as a symbol of truth but as a tangible expression of that sense of belonging which forms a vital dike against the forces of anomie” (p. 58). And beyond legitimization, politics “involves a judgment concerning claims, all of which possess a certain validity” (ibid). In other words, it is a balance of competing “opinions” that leads to “tentative stabilities within a situation of conflict” (p. 60).
Wolin rebukes others, like Leo Strauss, who laments that “agreement may produce peace but it cannot produce truth” (quoted in Wolin, p. 57). Plato, Strauss and others have refused to see politics for what it is: an activity that is necessary in and of itself, and which can’t be transcended. Arguing otherwise, says Wolin, is simply “fatuous” (ibid). As such, political philosophy cannot ignore judgments of conciliation and compromise. It must be about conciliation and compromise, and the communal nature that frames these “tentative stabilities”. A “political judgment, in other words, is ‘true’ when it is public, not public when it accords to some standard external to politics” (p. 58). Moreover, any idea of transcendence leads to a “hollowing out of political content”, and makes the issues of political obligation, political community and the existence of competing interests “dangerously irrelevant” (p. 48). Dissent and contrary political views, from Plato’s logic, can only be seen as untruth, and untruth is mere steps away from a totalitarian solution.
I find myself very sympathetic to Wolin’s critique of Plato. It certainly mirrors my own reading of Plato (particularly The Republic), and reflects the shock I had when I first read Plato’s prescriptions for a new and better world. Two concerns do surface, however. First, Wolin never satisfactorily explains the irreducibly pluralistic nature of politics. It’s posited with a few examples, but there is no systematic discussion to buttress his point of view. Perhaps we shall see more about this later. Similarly, I am somewhat disenchanted with Wolin’s conception of power. So far, it seems very simple and clear-cut; power is explicit decision making on behalf of particular interests over others. It seems much like the first level in Steven Lukes’ three levels of power. Maybe later we will see a greater concern with non-decision making and the covert shaping of desire… and discourses of truth.
* Wolin, Sheldon. Politics and Vision,
Expanded Edition (Princeton University Press, Princeton), 2004.