Monday, February 18, 2013

Rational History? Part One

Part One

Looking up 'thinking historically' there seems to generally be a semantic argument of terms and sequence of the inquiry into history. The usual suspects of deterministic importance between individuals regarding the nature of history is evident, whether 5 C's ( (1) Change over time, (2) Context, (3) Causality, (4) Contingency, and (5) Complexity.) Or 1. Chronological, 2. Comprehension, 3. Interpretation, 4. Research, 5 Complexity. It seems to be an argument of themes, as you see generally five, with purpose of each and order. I have not read enough of this argument, but I have a feeling it will just make me further upset! A strict rationalist, determinist, approach is heavily woven throughout and, to me, is the greatest impediment to the teaching and learning of history. This may also be true of many of the other mandatory subjects a student must learn.

History is not meaningful in a rational sense; that is, names, dates, places. I am passionate about history, and I find it is far from rational. In fact, my own study of history is far from deterministic! I pick those parts of history that I am emotionally bound to and get excited about in that moment; for some reason I need to know it, and tomorrow it may be the subsequent bit of history, or it may be an entirely different part separated by hundreds of years. History is made by emotional people in emotional situations, there is nothing rational about it, it is subjective from beginning to end. So, why should history be dissected in a rational way? No one learns history chronologically; pieces, chunks are chosen that are of interest as one moves along in their day to day life. These pieces are often disjointed ideas and times, or places, or people, that for some reason generate a need for inquiry. A book is fetched, or one goes online or ask someone who may know the circumstances that has piqued this interest. Over time, after many such investigations, a person may be able to reconstruct a timeline with gaps all over in terms of chronology of events, subjects, individuals, dates and places. And linkages are made between these bits of what each individual feels is of personal interest, importance and relevance.

That is what makes learned history stick. As my daily mantra before every class goes, "Relevance, relevance, relevance." If it is not relevant to the student it is meaningless, easily forgotten with no real need to be retained simply because it is meaningless. I mean, you don't really accurately remember and recite meaningless stuff, do you? And so I try every class to make it relevant to each student knowing full well that each student will have a different angle of relevance. In much the same way that if I say the word 'dog' to a class, instantly a picture is conjured up in the mind of each student. But what is conjured up is based on individual experience and no two are the same. Some may see a ferocious set of teeth and be frightened, another sees a Chihuahua, another a cuddly puppy, a Lab, a Great Dane and on and on. The point is, while each student 'sees' in response to 'dog', each context of what they 'see' will be different in their individual definitional experience. How that becomes applied to any word or concept within the classroom, too, is as individual as each student. This is true for everything we say and do in class. How then to make a point similar, if not identical, to each individual student so that their collective understanding is the same. Not an easy task necessary for authority to maintain and ensure perpetuation of their society. And is crucially important to the class average on standardized tests. And the core of a propagandists hard work.

The easiest way to standardize these contextual inferences made by individual students is to objectify the subject first, then rationalize its context and reduce it to its essential components; in other words, make a textbook. A standardized, vetted by some authority, interpretation by someone else, volume of information, that is facts and examples, to be put in the hands of every student. This, to make the nuances of individual difference between students disappear in favour of a universal impersonal uninvested fact is to rationalize, if not negate, unique individual experience. This is standardized, over generalized, mind numbing, meaningless mass industrial education of a bygone age. And why, today, most young people as they get older, more able to more greatly conceptualize things about them in their middle to late teens, eventually begin to dislike school as uninteresting, irrelevant, banal and look for other things that are immediate to their needs.

The notion of instant gratification is a symptom of the student's plight. Delayed gratification has become too unreliable to satisfy their needs for success. They intuitively know, because the material taught is dull and boring, that memorization of his dry meaningless stuff is their only way to retain in the short term what they are required to know and laying all their cards on the table at the end during a high stakes examination is far too big a gamble. So, emphasizing the immediate, the quiz or homework or special project, capitalizes on a student's effort and hedges their accumulated grades against the final summative examination. Some are very good at it, while others not so good and still others fed up with the whole thing, either because they are too smart or have failed miserably time and again, leave school altogether. Whatever the outcome, the unfortunate thing is that for the majority of students what they have learned is a rationalized history; an unreal, largely irrelevant view of how the world works, which they intuitively know at worst is wrong or at best is only a part of the real story of history.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Things to Fear

Two things to fear above all; complacency and smugness.

Complacency - when it appears that everything is just fine, nothing is broken thats needs fixing and until something is very broken and can be shown to be broken, we should just continue on the same path. This complacent mode is normally espoused by lazy people who don't want to look for possible issues before they become one, cannot see any reason to doubt their own skills, methods and knowledge and have worked hard enough to get where they are now and see no point in working harder. The complacent generally are not affected by what is perceived to be broken by others and steadfastly denies the reality of what others recognize, or accept the issue as part of the cost of the system as it is. Adaptability, change nor thinking about change, even to improve things for others, are not a part of the complacent. When confronted with the notion of change the complacent react with knee jerk defensiveness of their own domain followed by an aggressive attack on the possibility of change and its rational, rather than reflection on their own, as well as personal attacks on those who do see a need for change. Now you know why we have a 20-25% drop out rate from our schools.

Smugness - when someone feels that what they are doing is above and beyond reproach, criticism or evaluation. Too much success can be a bad thing when combined with a sense of certainty that what one does is the best of a long list of alternatives and hard fought sets of knowledge, skills and attitudes. The smug see nothing of use in what others say in critique of what they do, quickly pull up straw-men as a defence and generally deride any suggestion that a better alternative is out there. Their beliefs and experiences and their claims to particular knowledge supercedes anyone else's.

Other things to fear:

The notion that the scientific method actually is something that is done and that it works is something to fear. No greater myth exists in western culture. Whenever someone tries to think outside the empirical, rationalist dogma that is the foundation of our society since the 15th century immediately the notion of the evidence, massaged data averaged with outliers eliminated, provided by the scientific method, is proudly trotted out as a defence. Too bad the 'method' is retrospectively relied upon after a discovery has been made in order for the scientist to explain what he did, not what s/he had initially set out to do. Logical procedural thinking plus a great deal of serendipity and just plain old luck is how science is really done and is judiciously left on the cutting room floor. Knowledge making, epistemology, is all it is, and is founded on curiousity not procedual methodology. Little kids do it all the time without any method at all and so to do their mothers and fathers in the lab or out in the field, they play and discover.

And yet another thing to fear is the notion of a liberal education when the curriculum outcomes are tightly engineered and validated and scrutinized by high stakes testing. A liberal education ceases to exist when it appears that all aspects of an issue are explored, when numerous examples are put before a student and a defined mental rigour is inculcated, a model of inquiry for example, towards finding an acceptable (to the curriculum) end solution. This is directed inquiry, a highly formalised and not at all naturally occurring form of thought for most people. It comes from the notion in rationalism that intuitive leaps of thinking are not to be entertained, only a 'scientific methodology', a rational logic, is acceptable. The aquisition of knowledge and its use in applied skill, epistomology and technology, is all that matters. Practical wisdom and intuition are discarded as serendipitous, unquantifiable, and therefore an unknowable personal 'point of view' that cannot be averaged and generalised. What happens to people who can't think like this in this form of liberal education? They fail, of course. Many truly bright divergent thinkers end up in the dustbins of society for just that. This is far from what the intent of a liberal education was to be. Liberal education was not intended to create a vast caste of like minded people! It was meant to liberate in every way the travels of a student through their own learning, not some idealistically prescribed curriculum for the masses with the intent of creating a complacent (see my above description), docile, accepting, quasi-democratic, capitalistic, individual with very little moral training and practically no ethical notions other than to not drink and drive, carry guns and stay out of trouble with the police. Perhaps it could be argued that many topics are quite 'liberal' in the scope, that may be true, but they are very illiberally dealt with in most classrooms.