Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and the Wings of Technology

It's 110 years today since the birth of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer, aviator and author of “The Little Prince”. A few days ago I stumbled upon the following quote from his book about airplanes "Wind, Sand and Stars":
"The central struggle of men has ever been to understand one another, to join together for the common weal. And it is this very thing that the machine helps them to do! It begins by annihilating time and space."
This is a futurists vision which in many ways continues to prevail in a world where its actual realisation is reaping havoc with the environment. The problem is not so much our wish to be together but rather our more traditional technologies for achieving this and the attitudes we've developed as a consequence: our desire for the annihilation of space in particular (most often under the auspices of conserved time).

We've all noticed that the faster we travel, the more energy is expended but have we really noticed that the faster we travel the smaller the windows of the vehicle we're travelling in and the more reduced our connection and concern for the space we're passing through? Landscape is becoming something which we no longer wish to dwell in but which we wish to diminish or overcome.

Whatever happened to the idea of being in the moment, of enjoying the journey rather than the destination? Why the great rush and impatience?

A couple of months ago I was due to give a public talk about my art practice in a museum in northern Germany. Unfortunately I was unable to make the journey because of the volcanic ash cloud floating over northern Europe. The curator of the exhibition asked me if I would be able to catch a train instead, but the thought of a long train journey to London followed by an overnight stay and a trip across London to catch the plane followed by another train journey to the museum didn't exactly fill me with excitement. Instead I suggested presenting the talk via Skype and this is what eventually transpired. It wasn't perfect by any means but I'm in little doubt that in future we will see a lot more of this kind of thing because it simply makes sense. If it's really an annihilation of space that we desire then we should probably avoid those polluting little high velocity capsules we travel around in as much as possible.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Do we hate being taught?

Do we actually enjoy being taught things, or would it be more true to say that the enjoyment is in the learning as opposed to the being taught? Being taught something is often enjoyable but this enjoyment is most likely dependent upon at least two factors: our interest in the subject and the quality of the instruction in relation to our current abilities: an accommodation between the abilities and needs of the learner and the skills of the teacher.

Learning, on the other hand, is something we do all the time without even being aware of it. Learning comes naturally to us. This raises several questions: is it actually learning that we enjoy or instead the having learnt? If learning comes naturally and is often something that we don't even notice, might it be said that learning is something that we simply take for granted and what we actually enjoy is not the learning so much as the realisations and connections that come as a consequence of learning (and is that what learning actually is?), and the more profound these connections and realisations, the greater the pleasure gained and the sense of achievement? The enjoyment derives from the application of new knowledge and skill (or the future orientated projection of the possibilities which this new knowledge and understanding provides), not simply from its acquisition. It's a subtle distinction but an important one I think. It suggests that the value of learning is recognised exactly at the moment of acquisition as something which is future orientated.

We don't enjoy learning simply as a procedure but rather as the acquisition of competencies which promise to enable a richer and/or more fulfilling future. And this is why, when that future is unclear or somehow threatened, the potential pleasure of learning is diminished.

It's important to say here that I'm not discounting the value of the journey of learning. The processes and procedures of learning can be highly stimulating, but perhaps we need to distinguish between different kinds of stimulation in this instance. Learning is stimulating for the reasons I have already outlined but there are certainly other ways to stimulate people which are of lesser value in educational terms. Entertainment is a form of stimulation which may contain various quantities and qualities of educational substance depending on both the viewer and the material itself but it can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to unravel these.

Might all this have any practical implications for us teachers? I think so. It asks us to reconsider how we conceive of participatory learning. Certainly we have to attempt to encourage as much participation as possible but we also need to ensure that this stimulation is appropriately challenging rather than simply entertaining. Furthermore we need to, wherever and however possible, clarify the future that any learning might be projected towards, because ultimately this what drives and inspires learning and finally we need to focus our attention, and that of our students, upon things that we believe have a genuine potential to function in and contribute to that future.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Glacier Shadow

Glacier Shadow reflecting blueish inner light, La Jonction, Chamonix

Monday, 14 June 2010

Absence lacks Nothing

Shadows don't exist as things in themselves - each one is simply an absence of light. Shadows are nothings that we think of as things because light predominates in the visual realm with the consequence that shadows appear as distinct individual entities. As a shadow grows in scale (as light recedes) it’s character transforms from a thing to a phenomenon: it becomes an overall darkness; no longer a thing but an absence of a thing; of light, and we call this absence darkness. No longer is the shadow graspable by vision but instead it encompasses vision, starves it or overwhelms it. A shadow is no more a thing than a vacuum or nothingness.
"Death doesn't exist. It never did, it never will. But we've drawn so many pictures of it, so many years, trying to pin it down, comprehend it, we've got to thinking of it as an entity, strangely alive and greedy. All it is, however, is a stopped watch, a loss, an end, a darkness. Nothing."Ray Bradbury
And yet shadows are rarely empty
They’re filled with the soft ambience of reflected light
Both partial darkness and partial illumination combined
In which subtle modulations of light and half light
Merge and interweave
A penumbra
A semidarkness in which may be perceived
A boundless play of tonalities.

For Dr.art Aija Druvaskalne-Urdze 1963 – 2010.

Is Reflection a Class Issue?

I've recently been involved in an online discussion on James Atherton's “Recent Reflection” blog (all relevant links below). The exchange began as a response to a video of Sir Ken Robinson (talking rather hyperbolically about the need for a “revolution” in education) posted on TED.com. The responses very quickly polarised between two differing philosophical viewpoints which might be roughly characterised as a contrast between British pragmatic empiricism and the American Dream. As the debate drifted ever closer to the issue of class, I was reminded of the famous comedy sketch by the two Ronnies and John Cleese which plays upon representations of British class divisions. I looked the sketch up on YouTube and as I watched it I was struck by something said by the working class character, played by Ronnie Corbett: “… though I'm poor, I'm industrious honest and trustworthy. Had I the inclination, I could look down on them, but I don't.”

Since we can't really expect a comedy sketch to explain itself we need to look elsewhere to be able to tease out what's going on here. The remark demands a little, dare I say, reflection.

The first part of the statement is a clear case of what we could call a self-representation; a self-image which describes the qualities which this character values in himself and feels others might value in him also. Interestingly, as a description, it's in marked contrast to those given by the other two characters. He describes himself through qualities which anybody would be proud to say about themselves; he describes himself in ways which have very little to do with his social status as such and he describes himself in ways which actually say only two distinct things: he works hard and he's worthy of other peoples' trust. This begs a question about how he has arrived at these representations of himself? Is this self-image something which is self generated or is it something which has been adopted? Whilst the other two characters describe things about themselves which other people might find distasteful or problematic in some way (and are certainly social constructions too), this character only describes things about himself that the other two would wish to be the case. His self-image conforms exactly to what the other two would have him be. He's a mirror of their idea of the underclass and he is a mirror which shows not the slightest threat nor subversive inclination - even the inclination to look down on them ie: to adopt their repugnant supercilious attitude.

Class society in the UK has changed a great deal since 1966 when this comedy sketch was first broadcast. Thatcher's government presided over an unprecedented fragmentation of the working class, but despite claims of the demise of class society in the UK, the underclass is still a very tangible reality.

I'm currently reading (more like skimming through really) Pierre Bourdieu's book “Distinction” in which he uses the term “habitus” to describe how different social classes distinguish and express their values through their differing tastes. It occurs to me that the very act of critical reflection itself is often seen as being a bourgeois pretension; an elitist nonsense like so many other abstract intellectual pursuits - as Isaiah Berlin is reputed to have said: the British have never had an Intelligentsia.

We often think of critical reflection as freely available, unlimited, and unencumbered, since it can be carried out in the relative comfort one's own mind with no further requirements than a lack of physical discomfort or distraction. But, looked at from this new perspective, it becomes clear that critical reflection is something which is frequently avoided or devalued amongst the very people who, arguably, could benefit from it most. Anti intellectualism may not be exclusive to any particular social class but it undoubtedly benefits some social strata much more than others. It suits them very well because it disempowers the people who might rise against them in a legitimate struggle for emancipation.

As I said in my comments on the Recent Reflection blog discussion:
"People who have the privilege of better education, more money and more time are in the position of being able to “reflect” and make choices about their future. Reflection doesn't come for free - it has to be cultivated and given space to develop. Many people on the bottom rung of society often don't even have the time to be able to reflect and make clear choices about WHAT they'd like to do, let alone HOW, and they very often don't have the inclination to reflect because this has never been cultivated in them or valued by their social habitus."
I wrote the above as a response to the following statement:
"It is absolutely a societal responsibility to the extent possible to create genuine opportunities for everyone."
Opportunities are practically meaningless without the means to take advantage of them. A lottery ticket is an opportunity. We could argue over whether it's a "genuine" one or not, but the fact remains that providing access to opportunities is simply not enough. The "genuine" things that people really need are help, support and encouragement to participate in society at all levels, including the intellectual. If my speculations about reflection are in any way correct, then what we need far more than opportunities is a transformation in the way that people from all social strata view and apply critical, reflective and intellectual thought. Many would argue that this starts with education and yes, this is certainly a major contributor but it also starts much deeper than this, in the very attitudes that society fosters and perpetuates in all its citizens and this is a significantly bigger challenge.

Context of the original discussion here (beware, it's long!).
Video of Sir Ken Robinson on TED.com here
Habitus in Sociology here

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Marks and Angles

I'm no fan of grades and I begrudge having to apply them to the work of students because the attention they command is completely disproportionate to the detail (or rather the lack of it) that they provide. I wonder if anyone really believes that grades serve anything but the most rudimentary purpose. If, instead of viewing assessment and feedback as two distinct things, we thought of them both as part of a single continuum then I think we'd have a much clearer picture of how they function. If detailed feedback is the most fine-grained and valuable form of evaluation which we can offer a student then grades are probably one of the most impoverished ways of feeding back about their achievements. The only thing which provides less information than a grade is simply to attribute a pass or fail to submitted work. Indeed, we could create a bandwidth hierarchy which demonstrates this relationship:

Of course, most universities, and the courses which comprise them, almost always provide some form of feedback in addition to grades. However, at the pinnacle of every single student's achievement at university, the final point of recognition and the culmination of years of application, engagement and endeavour are summed up in a single grade with no further feedback whatsoever. What does this actually say about what universities really believe in or what they think their students should aspire towards? No wonder students seem overly fixated on grades.

How much better would it be if we radically changed our angle on assessment. Instead of spending days discussing, debating and occasionally arguing over the minutiae and comparative strengths and weaknesses of students' final submission portfolios/exhibitions in order to come up with such blunt instruments as grades, perhaps our time would be better spent in writing detailed analytical feedback which the students could take away with them and from which future employers could derive a far more detailed and useful picture of the students' applicability for employment (it might even save us writing so many references in future). I don't doubt that universities would see this as being an unacceptably “high risk” approach in that it would leave them accountable in a way that marks simply don't. But should we be denying students quality feedback simply because universities haven't got the bottle to really stand by their professed principles? What we really need in universities is a revolution in the understanding and application of assessment.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Overrated Consciousness

The following video is by a YouTube and BlipTV "broadcaster" I subscribe to who goes by the name of Conferencereport. It's a succinct, clear and beautifully argued meditation on the oft referred to idea of the universe becoming conscious of itself. I'm not convinced I'd subscribe to his concluding remarks (about preferring wings to consciousness) but the earlier analogy about monkeys is hilarious.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Sex with Someone You Love

Since writing the last post, it's been pointed out to me by a couple of people that I’ve neglected to mention that some members of society are unfortunate enough not to have a fair opportunity for the realisation of either rapacious or reciprocal desire. I'd originally intended to address this point but decided not to complicate the discussion any further than was already the case. However, it’s an important issue which needs to be addressed.

Michael Sandel's assertion, also quoted in the last post, pointed to the need to keep the discussion both ongoing as well as open for citizens to collectively debate and define the common good. I would certainly support this approach. However, the position I would put forward would emphasise that we need to be highly vigilant about how and why we might wish to cater to rapacious desire. This would need to underpin all of the principles and narratives which guide our understanding and management of rapacious desire. For example, the story of Little Red Riding Hood is a very familiar archetype of rapacious desire in common circulation but whilst such characterisations have the power to represent our urges in instructive form, I think it's also very important to emphasise that rapacious desire is a natural desire, just a desire that needs to be understood, managed and wherever possible, replaced by reciprocal desire. This isn't to say that rapacious desire deserves to be repressed. Repressing things only causes problems, but as a selfish urge, rapacious desire should be satisfied by means of the self alone: through masturbation and we need to be absolutely unabashed about this - as Woody Allen famously said: "don't knock masturbation - it's sex with someone I love."

But the fact remains that there are many people unable to satisfy either reciprocal or rapacious desire due to disability or awkwardness etc. Should these people be denied expression and access to such experiences? As I've already explained, I believe that the expression of rapacious desire should be carefully limited to avoid the objectification and therefore degradation of others. Nonetheless there are things that can be done to facilitate the fulfilment of this desire in the same way that we facilitate many other needs; through the use of technology for example. This should not be seen as disgusting but as a free expression of a perfectly natural impulse.

Finally and most importantly there’s the question of the “right” of everyone to reciprocal sexual experiences, or at least, the closest approximation of them possible for people in disadvantageous circumstances. Is this a right? Is love a right? I don't claim to have an easy answer to these questions but I would argue that in a society that has the imagination and vision to accommodate all of the aforementioned changes that it would certainly be far more probable and possible to achieve a solution to this difficulty than is currently the case.