Talking with fundamentalists

by CarlD

Part of the seminar today was a work-in-progress workshop, which was really interesting and productive. One of the participants has just barely begun an investigation of environmentalists. He’s interested in why people become environmentalists, and how it might be possible to make more environmentalists. It’s a great project but I’m not going to talk about it, or the seminar, because they’re not mine to talk about. Instead I’m going to talk about my own thoughts as prompted by the seminar.

My anecdatal observation of environmentalists is that like other movement folk they come in a whole range of types and commitments, but that the ones who identify as environmentalists sometimes remind me of a cult. That is, they are possessors of a special knowledge that creates a privileged bond among them. By virtue of this knowledge and its associated practices they occupy a moral high ground about which they may be righteous and around which they create and share qualifying narratives. They are missionary to the masses about their special important truth, but because the mission is in tension with the valorizing exclusivity of their revelation, they may erect purity barriers to membership that guarantee limited success.

None of this, by the way, is meant to pronounce on the truth value of the revelation independent of these group shenanigans. I personally think attention and care for the environment are, on balance and subject to a variety of other priorities, good things. I see environmental degradation or destruction as inconvenient to a number of things I value. But saying it this way, in which the environment is one among a number of contingent values with no essentially-privileged moral content, disqualifies me as an environmentalist properly speaking, as does my failure to become an activist of the cause. Because at the identification threshold environmentalism tends to be a kind of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalists are people who commit themselves to thinking about things only one way, the ‘right’ way. They treat as premises what otherwise might seem to be conclusions, and as ends what might otherwise look like means. They may or may not be able to speak coherently about their premises and ends, but what they cannot do is see their premises or ends as contingent and optional. Fundamentalists therefore have a tense relationship with education, which is about becoming able to think about things many ways. Strictly speaking, fundamentalists are not in favor of education; their native communicative mode is indoctrination. In terms of William Perry’s scheme of intellectual and ethical development, fundamentalists are firmly planted in A. 1., “Dualism/Received Knowledge,” characterized by belief that “there are right/wrong answers, engraved on Golden Tablets in the sky, known to Authorities.”

Becoming a member of a fundamentalist cult like environmentalism generally involves indoctrination from youth, a conversion experience from another fundamentalism, or rescue from a wandering anomic wilderness. Otherwise the environment or the teachings of Jesus or the Pittsburgh Steelers are just one among many things one might value, albeit possibly uniquely compelling ones from time to time. Such a view would be consistent with Perry’s C. 6., “Pre-Commitment,” in which the necessity of exiting pure relativism and taking a stand is recognized, and D., “Commitment/Constructed Knowledge,” in which responsible stands are taken and then dynamically weighed against other possible stands. Of course a quite different kind of environmentalism is possible on this basis (please note that I’ve said this); and fundamentalists can make great allies for all one’s projects, as long as they don’t notice you have more than one, or go all Spanish Inquisition and piss off everyone in sight.

It’s either very difficult or very easy to talk with fundamentalists. Accepting their premises and ends makes for smooth but stereotyped conversation. The hard part is if you want to have a conversation that puts pressure on what they take for granted. This is because like anyone else, they have no way to make sense of statements outside their cognitive horizons; but unlike non-fundamentalists they are committed to keeping those cognitive horizons right where they are, rather than expanding them to take in unfamiliar or inimical conceptions. (Many of my students are similar to fundamentalists in their inability to think ‘outside their box’, but most differ from fundamentalists in being open to considering other options.) Under pressure from cognitive ‘otherness’ therefore fundamentalists tend to close into a self-referential reassertive loop and to ascribe disagreement of substance or emphasis to the ignorance, malevolence or cognitive deficiency of their interlocutors. Like friendly tourists in foreign lands, they may slow down, make careful eye contact and speak more loudly, but it never occurs to them to question the universal applicability of their own language.

Now, Cardinal Biggles, the rack!

This post is not meant to be particularly compelling or persuasive in itself; a certain general plausibility of the framing I do here would be a good outcome. Right now I’m seeing this as groundwork, later to be hidden, for an account of what a liberal arts general education core might be good for. Like Certeau, who I’ve been reading alongside this other stuff I’ve mentioned lately, I think a lot of the qualifying narratives for traditional liberal arts education have degenerated into dogma, themselves a fundamentalism of increasingly obscure values. I’m toying with the idea that what the liberal arts are actually good for is fundamentalism interception. They (we) work by putting what we and our students take for granted under the pressure of otherness. The payoff is not in some nebulous sense ‘breadth’ or ‘culture’, but a strategic flexibility, resilience and resourcefulness that make us less brittle in a world that often doesn’t share our sense of what matters. For this purpose one of the chief advantages of liberal arts content for our students is that it’s not interesting (it is not in their interest), but disinteresting. I’m still thinking this through, including Bourdieu’s cautionary observation that academics are people who have an interest in disinterest; let me know what you think.


19 Comments to “Talking with fundamentalists”

  1. I think I get what you’re saying, but I’m seriously not seeing how your ‘fundamentalist’ isn’t just another name for 99.9% of human beings. And not because people are fundamentally wrong or messed up, but because: 1) people are boundedly rational & loaded to the gills with cognitive biases from childhood, and 2) for most people, being ‘fundamentalist’ is the best choice rationally, i.e. for most people the cost of changing a rigid belief based on open inquiry/challenge is way higher than any reasonably predictable benefit. I think the reason people get their beliefs challenged in that narrow collegiate window, if at all, is a side-effect of having a high concentration of academics of different persuasions all in the same place – it radically lowers the price of idea-challenging to where it makes sense to do it. College kids can roll out of bed hung over and have their belief systems challenged 10 minutes later, and since many or most of them are basically covered in advance for 2 or 4 years & can defer painful decisions about wage-earning, the cost to them is effectively zero. If they had to pay anything at all for the experience of being challenged, they’d just stick with their hide-bound, fundamentalist, black-and-white, unexamined beliefs, *especially* if they were being given a salary for remaining stuck in a rigid, fixed ideological framework.

    Just some thoughts.

  2. Hi Guest! Agreed on all points. Would you be willing though to distinguish programmatic fundamentalists willfully committed to righteousness from folks functionally limited to one way of thinking, seeing, being, judging? The latter may well be boundedly rational and biased, and where it’s available they may calculate the cost of changing rigid beliefs too high vs. perceived benefit. But that calculus is in principle open to change with changes in the perceived costs of rigidity in a rapidly changing world of inevitably multiple cultures.

    There are huge advantages in monocultural specialization where conditions reliably reward increasing effectiveness and efficiency to task, or at least impose no costs on stasis. But specialization also creates brittle vulnerability to changing conditions, in which flexibility and resilience are rewarded. I think a case can be made that the latter analysis is a better fit for college students faced with economic and cultural globalization.

    You’re right that college produces conditions perhaps uniquely conducive to idea-challenging. It’s an opportunity I think could be more mindfully exploited, although or especially because the evidence seems to suggest that even at very low cost students are resistant to cognitive challenging, probably for the reasons you suggest and others. It doesn’t help that some of the most rigidly specialized, least flexible people I know are academics in the liberal arts.

  3. Thinking about it and collating stuff, another distinction I think it’s important to make is between fundamentalism and what might be called passionate advocacy, although I’m not entirely comfortable with that term and I’m open to alternatives. An example would be my conversation with Duncan on the last post. Duncan is not at all a fundamentalist, but he can be pretty hard to talk with about politics because, if I understand correctly, he’s passionately committed to the value of popular democracy as an end in itself. In contrast I think of democracy as a contingent, optional means, a tool that’s good for some things but that’s often not the right one for the job at hand. And therefore I’m inclined to see political economy in a greyscale that just looks like fuzzy thinking from the standpoint of a more focused commitment.

    I am not at all reopening this question for litigation, but instead noting that in our conversation we reached an impasse, from my perspective, not because Duncan is fundamentally unwilling or unable to see my point, or I his, but because bridging what I think of as the ‘degrees of separation’ under pressure of moral indignation was to me cost-prohibitive for a blog conversation. Since this blog is itself optional, I want to be talking with people who get me; I talk with people who don’t for a living. And Duncan gets me on most other topics, so there was virtually nothing to be gained by fighting through to understanding on this one, and perhaps something to lose if we trampled on each other long enough. And this calculation on the cost-benefit of translation circles back to your point about the 99.9%, Guest, among whom I certainly am. So your comment points up how interesting and for some purposes important it is to think about the conditions under which functional adaptability comes to seem ‘worth it’, when it’s not excluded altogether by fundamentalism.

  4. Hi Carl, I’m sympathetic to some of what you’re offering (who would say they’re opposed to critical thinking?) but I’m not persuaded by the way you’re using “fundamentalist” here. It feels like the conventional via media construction of one’s enemies as symmetrically positioned advocates of unacceptable extremes. Needless to say, if you’re not already Anglican, you’re probably not buying it. My suspicion is that part of the problem is the way you’re defining “fundamentalism,” which I think is seriously reductive, as Guest has already pointed out. I think closer analysis would find all sorts of values espoused in various shifting and probably contradictory configurations, whether you’re a Shining Path fighter or a person who recycles on the weekends. And my understanding of Certeau is that he does not reserve a category like “consciousness” or “reflection” or “action” to literate elites, or some small critically thinking subset of those elites; that would be the leveling purpose of notions like “use.” Rather than redirect a term like “fundamentalist” at certain liberals or left-wing types for their supposed dogmatism, I’d rather retire the term altogether. In other contexts you seem to take up the realist position: why would you expect others to surrender their moral responses on certain topics before addressing you?

  5. Yes. See, this is why I throw this stuff out here, because inside my head it all seems so clear but it’s actually just a shortcut to nowhere. I’m running to class but these comments have been very helpful and I’ll see what I can do to take them and anything else you all think of into account as soon as I can.

  6. OK, so let’s say this fundamentalism construct isn’t very helpful, because it too easily dissipates in common processes of cognition and because it entrains current media tropes in counterproductive ways. (I’m not worried about it being simplistic or reductive per se, because this describes any model that seeks to pick out variables of interest from the manifold.) So I’m happy to abandon it. What was I trying to do with it that I want to keep getting at by other means?

    Dave’s crack about everyone being in favor of critical thinking is helpful. Insofar as it’s true I find that I’m still dissatisfied. I’m not impressed by a lot of what apparently counts as critical thinking, which amounts to procedures for formalizing prejudices. Needless to say I like my own prejudices best. Teaching other people how to formalize their prejudices with greater sophistication and legitimating referentiality is in some sense a democratic mission, but not one that appeals to me much. ‘Fundamentalists’ as I’ve caricatured them think just as critically as anyone else, by this standard.

    Here’s an example, from the Global Sociology blog. I’m a bit out of the loop on the specifics, but I gather that Glenn Beck has targeted revered liberal intellectual Frances Fox Piven for some of his trademark red-baiting. In the post her reply is excerpted, and then the blogger adds a frame:

    Note that in the paragraph that I bolded, at no point does she reiterate the often-repeated idiocy that these people have legitimate claims, because they don’t. The Tea Party and the Beck crowd are not revolutionary. Their movement fights for the maintenance of the status quo of American imperialism, white supremacy, religious fundamentalism, patriarchy, misogyny and homophobia. This is the definition of a reactionary movement.

    This is a nice piece of movement rhetoric, good to get the bobble-heads bobbling, but as critical thinking it’s a mess. We’ve got an unexamined assumption that only real revolutionaries have legitimate claims, another about what it means to be a real revolutionary. Reactionary movements are then characterized by a list of assertively stigmatized positions, which are then excluded by definition from legitimacy. The ‘critical’ content is, basically, “I don’t like reactionaries, as defined by me. Anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot.”

    Yay team. I don’t like reactionaries either, and I agree in substance with the judgments expressed. But I don’t think I’m thinking critically yet until I try to make sense of their perspective and figure out what resources of perception, judgment and analysis they may have to offer. When they say stuff I immediately disagree with or that I can’t immediately make sense of, I don’t assume that there’s something wrong with them, that they’re insane, naive, or ideological dupes; evil, malevolent, ignorant or stupid. I mean, actually I do do all those things! Because unlike them I’m a good person and I’ve got stuff figured out. But then I bracket those prejudices and start thinking critically.

    This blogger on ‘global sociology’ is clearly an accomplished liberal artist with all the duly accredited breadth, culture and ‘critical thinking’ skills. (And may obviously not be at her/his best in this particular post.) And if this is our goal, I’m embarrassed to be on our team. It’s in contrast to this that I proposed above that the payoff of a good liberal arts core “is not in some nebulous sense ‘breadth’ or ‘culture’, but a strategic flexibility, resilience and resourcefulness that make us less brittle in a world that often doesn’t share our sense of what matters.” Rather than just choose up sides and start flinging poo back at that idiot Glenn Beck and the millions of people to whom he apparently makes sense, I’d like to think about what they may be on to that warrants the appeal. It might even be possible, although there are many degrees of separation, to translate imperialism, misogyny and homophobia into values that make a lot of sense, that the left is actually weak on, and that could be accomplished by other, less destructive means. Or at least we could agree to disagree thoughtfully and politically, rather than ad hominem.

    Breaking here because the comment is getting long.

  7. Personally, I am not ready to retire “fundamentalist.” It has a perfectly straightforward meaning, derived from its original use to describe people who embraced the inerrancy of scripture, and applies as well to fanatical believers in Ayn Rand, Milton Freidman, or Mao Tse-tung or any other prophet whose words are taken as the Truth with a capital T. The fundamentalist is, to resurrect Eric Hoffer’s term, a True Believer, who has a text which is taken to be the authoritative Word of whatever God he believes in. The pragmatist and sometime political activist in me points out that the strategy to adopt in speaking to or about Fundamentalists/True Believers has nothing to do with the impossible mission of changing their minds. It has to do with some combination of rhetoric, ridicule, maybe even evidence and logic, that persuades enough other people that they are looney to win elections and retain control of the legitimate use of force when and if they can carried away and start hurting or killing people. In sum, arguing with fundamentalists is a waste of time unless you have an audience overhearing the debate that includes people who are open to persuasion and likely to be persuaded to your own point of view.

  8. OK, Carl, but I’m not seeing any allowances here for the social contexts of various types of discussion, which can be low-stakes or high-stakes, depending on one’s audience or investment in the process. If someone is addressing likeminded people, to what extent should they be “required” to explain the steps they went through to arrive at their views? Tacit understandings are what make “conversation” possible, and the demand to render assumptions explicit or provide evidence is a gesture that often comes across as hostile, even in academic settings, which this blog is not. Clearly this kind of demand can be used to shut down conversations, too, though I think a “reasonable” stance in discussion is to articulate background assumptions as far as possible. This breaks down all the time, but I think that this is a matter of having our self-image as “reasonable” people challenged by assumptions we’re not willing to assent to. And I think it’s really important to keep in mind the recursive aspect of this: students, those supposedly malleable people, don’t usually surrender or revise deeply held assumptions or values until they’ve gone through a fairly extensive process of reevaluation. That’s how they get to the last Perry phase.

    Critical thinking, in my mind, becomes increasingly less useful as a concept the further we take it from its specific settings of practice or application. I don’t think it’s necessarily disciplinary, but I do think that for example that it gets more urgent if we’re talking about the deliberations concerning the Deepwater Horizon, or our usual kinds of scholarly questions. There is a sense, however, in which voters who vote on the basis of nonexistent “death panels” lack critical thinking, but in those contexts you’re dealing with people who are being asked about questions that seem utterly abstract to them, leaving them open to plenty of manipulation. So attention and opportunity account for a lot of this variability.

    Once again, if you’re operating in this area without some kind of account for collective experiences and frames of understanding, which we might call “identity” or “ideology,” you are more likely I think to see these issues moralistically, as personal failures or refusals to learn. And the ubiquity of the problem suggests the need for a more general account, as Guest suggested in the first place.

  9. Dave, I think we may be talking past each other here. Of course there are differences of setting, investment, preparation and practice, which may call for or call forth fundamentaloid thinking. We’re all fundamentalists in the bathroom. What I’m trying to tease out is what a liberal arts core can offer students that they’re not likely to get elsewhere and that would make them more effective human beings. And I’m trying to start from scratch with that rather than sling the usual hash.

    So if we’re talking about moral commitment or ‘ethical reasoning’, most folks learn to make feral good/bad judgments by the age of two and to rationalize those judgments soon after. There are many contexts in which judgments taking this form are appropriate, and judgment can obviously be trained, but I don’t really think anyone needs to go to college for that. Similarly, instrumental reasoning and some sort of cultural sensibilities are normally developed by experience in the wild, and will be further honed in college by the major field. So if that’s the game we can just skip the liberal arts core.

    As I’ve said, generic ‘breadth’ and ‘culture’ won’t do it either. And I completely agree that generic ‘critical thinking’ is out, because it is much better developed in relation to the specific settings of practice and application that majors have to offer.

    And I completely agree that people come to/at us loaded with experiences, frames, identities, ideologies. That’s normal, as is their/our resistance to change. And again, if we want to leave people like that college is unnecessary, let alone a liberal arts core. The business school is appropriately self-contained at that point and it would be wise of them to cut loose from our expensive little waste of time.

    I am not suggesting that this decentered, disenchanted kind of thinking I’m talking about is the only club folks ought to have in their bag or that it’s right for every shot. That would be silly. I am proposing that it’s a game-changing club folks would be better off to have in their bag, and that there are ways a liberal arts core might be uniquely suited to put it there.

    Another option I have is to just go with the flow of the currently-proposed rubric for our gen ed core, ‘critical thinking, ethical reasoning and professionalism’.

  10. Carl, from my own experience, I don’t think any amount of liberal arts education serves as a magic bullet agsinst low-quality thinking: there are too many other variables involved. On the other hand, I don’t find this a reason to despair. There’s a great little essay by Sharon Bailin called “Problems in Conceptualizing Good Thinking,” (The American Behavioral Scientist (1986-1994); Sep/Oct 1993; 37) that lays out the best argument against the decontextualized teaching of “critical thinking.” In my view, the most distinctive aspect of the liberal arts curriculum is its promise to use historical materials as a vehicle for ethical and other kinds of recursive self-reflection. Great books get revisited over one’s lifetime, and their availability over even larger periods of time creates even larger, collective loops of self-reflection: Hazlitt and I get to reconsider Shakespeare, etc. etc. This is a kind of recursivity write large. But if I were to look for the distinctive aspect of liberal arts education, I would locate it in its use of historical and aesthetic (usually literary) material for these purposes. Does that make better sense?

  11. Guys, let me throw you a curve ball and see what you make of it. The proposition I offer for your consideration is the following: The best liberal education currently available in the United States of America is the one my daughter got as an English major at the United States Naval Academy. Why? First, she read Shakespeare and Dante (in translation) in a context where the moral dilemmas addressed in tragedy are real. In her particular case, this effect was strengthened because the year she read Shakespeare’s tragedies, Jeffrey Boorda, then the highly regarded Chief of Naval Operations, famed because he had started out as an enlisted man and worked his way up to Admiral, committed suicide, having been caught out wearing Vietnam War combat medals that he had not earned. Second, even though she was doing a liberal arts major, her degree was a B.S. (bachelor of science), not a B.A. (bachelor of arts). Her English major did not excuse her from a year each of chemistry, physics and electrical engineering, three semesters of calculus and a semester of probability and statistics. I will never forget the time I asked her what she would be taking the next semester, to which she replied, “Should be interesting, I’m doing ‘Satire in the Age of Reason’ and ‘Weapons II.” “Weapons II?” “Basically a physics course, how far things fly and how big a boom they make.” Third, only one thirty-day block of her summer, was free time. The other two months were military training blocks of a highly practical nature: Marine Corps infantry training at Quantico and navigating a training vessel up and down the U.S. East Cost. Then came the month with the Mediterranean fleet in which she got to coordinate signals with Nato allies participating in a major exercise and play the role of a U.S. Ambassador being extracted by the Marines from a U.S. embassy in the Balkans, and the month on a LST (Landing Ship Tank) on the West Coast, where she learned to operate a heavy crane. There was the month spent on orientations to the various Navy “communities” (Surface, Submarine, Aviation), in which she got to drive a submarine and take the controls of an aircraft, followed by the month at the Pentagon, attached to the Far East section of the Department of Defense, when she got to organize a Chinese admiral’s visit to the States. Finally, and to me, the most impressive aspect of her education: As soon as she became a youngster (sophomore), she was made responsible for midshipmen younger than herself. It was her job to track their academic performance and make sure that they got any extra tutoring required, to call them on the carpet if they seemed to be drinking too much or otherwise making fools of themselves, and, if necessary, to report any Honor offenses—and, this blew me away, a part of her own grade point average and, thus, rank in class, was dependent on how well the people she was responsible for did. Me? I got through college and graduate school without even once having anyone suggest that I was responsible for anyone but myself. For me, critical thinking was a head trip; it had no serious consequences as long as I kept the grade point up. For her critical thinking was, and remains, a part of who she is because in her world, stupid means people get hurt or killed, and she’d be responsible for that.

    Please note: I do not believe that a military academy is the best possible education for everyone. But I do believe that there are lessons to be learned from this kind of experience. I look forward to hearing what you guys in the trenches have to say.

  12. I wonder how my students would respond if the syllabus indicated that 10-20% of their grade depended on the average final exam score of the entire class. Interesting…

  13. That would, indeed, be an interesting experiment.

  14. I’m teaching a critical thinking course at the moment. The critical thinking component is enmeshed with a discussion of the programming and computer circuit design, as well as a segment on ‘computers and society’ (suggested readings for my student welcome on that topic).

    Much of the example arguments given in critical thinking textbooks (i.e. logic books) are too artificial to be of any real use. Real world arguments are often much more complex, and structurally more opaque. This artificiality makes it the most awkward part of the course. The application of formal methods to reasoning in programming and in computer design is very straightforward, however.

  15. Hey guys, this is a really interesting discussion that I’d like to contribute to properly – but unfortunately I’ve only had intermittent net access, not the best circumstance for sustained conversation: forgive me if I just clarify my stance on the democracy thing, without wanting to start the debate on that again. I don’t take myself to be advocating democracy as an end in itself – like Carl, I think that democracy is largely a pragmatic means to other social and political ends. Most especially, I think that in a society with functioning democratic institutions it is much more difficult for the rulers of that society to perpetrate some large-scale and extreme forms of oppression against the society’s inhabitants. I take this to be a relatively weak and probabilistic claim – but consider the probabilistic outcome important enough that it justifies a very very strong valuation of democracy. I take the disagreement between Carl and myself therefore to lie not so much in whether we see democracy as an end or a pragmatic means (we both agree it is the latter), but rather in a) what we regard as the likely outcomes of democratic and non-democratic institutions in a number of contexts; b) how we assess the differential value of those outcomes; and c) how easy or difficult we regard the establishment of functioning democratic institutions to be in a number of scenarios. End of parenthetical section: as you were.

  16. I have friends who have taught in the military academies, and their reaction is generally pretty positive about the quality of students and curriculum. Our own ROTC program has pioneered inquiry-style learning because of the need for higher-level understanding among officers. And the presence of a definite sequence provides collective benefits to students, because they can struggle and succeed together, rather than wander around by themselves in ill-considered electives. Finally, most forms of group work enforce some degree of individual and collective responsibility for others’ learning, but the trick is keeping individuals accountable for their contributions to and sustenance of the group. Collaboration and cooperative behavior, though, clearly need to be at the forefront in a chaotic and unpredictable environment.

  17. Curse you, Duncan, for escaping my little rhetorical pigeonhole so gracefully! I must become more cunning. As to the substance, yes.

    I’m delighted with all of this. I should have another minute to join in later this afternoon, if some new fire doesn’t demand stomping.

  18. Coincidentally this morning my bathroom Newsweek ponied up this call to national service by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal has some intriguingly positive things to say about agricultural communism in Afghanistan. (See here for a libertarian reply interesting for its conviction that any form of (en)forced collective labor is slavery.) And then he cites this American example:

    A veteran of AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps described his experience working and living for a year as part of a 10-person team doing projects:

    “My teammates were conservative and liberal, black, white, Asian, Jewish, Christian, atheist … We had to get along or be miserable.”

    Today, 10 years after completing the experience, he finds that his former teammates remain in touch and believes the experience was absolutely instrumental in helping them determine their career trajectories. They feel it helped them develop teamwork skills, confidence, problem-solving abilities, community building, leadership, and communication skills. His favorite response, from a liberal New England–born Jewish woman about a construction project in rural South Carolina: “If I can learn to use eight different types of saws and work with 10 reverends to build a house, what can’t I do?”

    This is awesome. I think this should be happening. And I think we’ve got consensus that decontextualized ‘critical thinking’ is just, to paraphrase John and Jacob, an artificial head trip. But I don’t think exactly this is likely to happen in most liberal arts education, nor should it; we’re not the right milieu for this kind of practical immediacy. What we have to offer is in fact the step back from immediacy, the moment of (temporarily) disinterested reflection. But not as the application of dead discipline; rather, as a collaborative research process in which the ‘problem’ is understanding, not (immediately) action, where the tools are concepts, not saws. Something like this, although Certeau would probably disagree with how I’ve framed it:

    Along these lines, teaching would have as its principle less a common content than a style. It would not be incompatible with the heterogeneity of knowledges and the experiments among students (as among students and teachers) since it would be defined in each instance by an operation in which the professor would be the adviser-engineer….

  19. What we have to offer is in fact the step back from immediacy, the moment of (temporarily) disinterested reflection. But not as the application of dead discipline; rather, as a collaborative research process in which the ‘problem’ is understanding, not (immediately) action, where the tools are concepts, not saws.

    Nice. And very much to the point when it comes to what we might call, borrowing a term from S.J. Tambiah’s analysis of ritual, the “inner frame” of liberal education. But the more I think about the daughter’s experience at Annapolis, the most important lessons concern the “outer frame,” the context in which she pursued her B.S. in English.

    The science and math requirements meant there was no consumer-choice option to skip the hard stuff and retreat into a humanist corner protected by prejudices that have never seen a lab at work. The compulsory athletics (something I personally hated in the much weaker version I endured in high school) and the military stuff provided the kind of experience the AmeriCorps veteran talks about. The summer training blocks and responsibility for younger midshipmen meant that graduation wasn’t the start of practical work experience. That context meant that the stepping back to reflect had more to work with than words or images alone.

    Jacob has speculated about how his students would respond if 10-20% of their final grade depended on the average class score. I wonder, just brainstorming, how it would work if the interim grades were public and 10-20% of everybody’s final grade depended on the difference between the mean and the lowest scores, creating an incentive to seek out and nag or help those letting the side down.

    Or, heavyweight policy proposal for states drowning in red ink that are cutting back on public education: Offer a serious discount to students who volunteer for three-month blocks of public work/community service: could be summer vacation or semesters on leave from studies. Students win with lower student loan debt on graduation and work experience on their resumes. The state gets cheap labor for otherwise undoable public projects.

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