Thursday, November 01, 2007

truth slips from view in the sea of post modern knowledge

Where have all the intellectuals gone? by Frank Furedi

We have a "knowledge society" in which any piece of knowledge is regarded with skepticism and can be contested indefinitely. The world is so complex that anyone who claims to know the way forward is regarded with suspicion. We value knowledge but are drowning in the sea of knowledge.

Furedi outlines a number of trends that are working in synergy against public intellectuals:

Instrumentalism: Knowledge is for practical purposes only

Disenchantment with the Enlightenment legacy: The previous century is perceived as one where big ideas such as communism were tried out and failed. People came to see rationality as destructive. Rationality is now marginalised by the sacred and spiritual, eg. nature worship

Relativist approach to knowledge and other cultures: Our western culture has no special merit. Other cultures have a spiritual dimension that we lack.

Knowledge domains are evaluated externally to themselves: Rather than respecting the internal dynamics of knowledge development it is evaluated by criteria such as economic advance, personal identity, providing therapy or social engineering

High standards are attacked from both the Left and the Right: The Left from the point of view of "inclusion", the Right from the point of view of "back to basics". The cultural "Left" (what I call the pseudo left) is more dominant, they promote a politics of inclusion, participation and flattery. It sounds progressive to include people. But it's not a response to a demand from below, it's imposed from above by cultural commissars who are looking around for some way to "engage" the "disengaged masses"

Post-modernism denies the whole concept of Truth: All truth is regarded as relative, it depends on your local conditions and point of view. The universal values from the Enlightenment have to be replaced by the "progressiveness" of particularity and situatedness

Public intellectuals, who wage battle for public hearts and minds and who influence overall social development have been replaced by the professional expert of a particular but limited knowledge domain. These experts use hard to understand technical specialist language. Many of them are academic careerists

We don't hear people speak passionately about the truth like Rosa Luxemburg anymore:
"But this much I know, that it is our duty, if we desire to teach truth, to teach it wholly or not at all, to teach it clearly and bluntly, unenigmatically, unreservedly, inspired with full confidence in its powers"
This book is not without fault but it ought to be read and discussed

Prompted by artichoke's The truthiness of Te Kotahitanga and "Haven't got a clue syndrome" in Art Galleries


Bill Kerr said...

Tony raises some critical points in a comment at arti's blog about both arti's interpretation of the Te Kotahitanga project and my conflation of arti's analysis with Furedi's

I admit I don't know much detail about the Te Kotahitanga project so will leave that to arti and / or others to respond to, for now and see what develops.

Tony raises a series of great discussion points, some of them more general, about cultural relativism and instructionism which I hope to be able to blog about soon.

Bill Kerr said...

mark mille started a discussion on the squeakland list, Can the American Mind be Opened?. Many of the points made resonate with Furedi's analysis:

* predominance of narcissism in today's universities
* those who are trying to bring back a liberal education in the classics have to tread cautiously and disguise what they are doing
* students flabberghasted by the notion that professors ought to be telling them what to study

Anonymous said...

Here's a version of a response I sent to Bill based on a post he wrote in the aforementioned Squeakland discussion. I thought what I wrote in response was related, but too off topic for that forum.

"Disenchantment with the Enlightenment legacy: The previous century is perceived as one where big ideas such as communism were tried out and failed. People came to see rationality as destructive. Rationality is now marginalised by the sacred and spiritual, eg. nature worship."

Maybe this is a POV in Australia. The U.S. is a product of the Enlightenment as well, and is still around, though within the corridors of academia you'll find some who loathe it. Then again, quite a few academics identified with the Soviet Union and still admire countries like Cuba and Venezuela.

people came to see rationality as destructive

I've been around some folks enough that I can understand this perspective. I think it comes from a worldview as defined by these people's personal experiences. There's a radio talk show host in Los Angeles, CA. named Tammy Bruce who has written a few books, and has looked into the subject of narcissists and the effect they have on public life. My own read on it is that in an extreme response to this life experience they reject intellectualism and believe they can just feel their way through life. Further, they act in a fascistic manner to quash dissent. I suspect there are some non-narcissistic people who feel the same way towards intellectualism as well, though they're not as aggressive. My own sense is that there are narcissists in universities who have found research subjects which provide the evidence they feel they need to back up this view, such as Robert Openheimer, one of the co-inventors of the atom bomb. They point to a man like him and say, "See? This is what rationalism gets you. Someone who creates technology capable of killing millions of people."

Further, and this is purely observational/speculative on my part, their success in gaining positions in universities and holding on to them bolster their view that emotional arguments and political machinations are keys to accomplishment and power, not intellectual merit. When they are rewarded with tenure it confirms their notion that they should continue to define everything in terms of their "puny selves", as Heather MacDonald put it (refer to my post that started the discussion), and that intellectualism isn't all it's cracked up to be.

In her first book, "The New Thought Police", Bruce said that the institutions that get taken over by these people, just generally, become institutions for thought and behavior control, and they're distracted from their intended missions such as social justice, equality, education, etc.

I don't think this is true across all of the disciplines. If you look at most science and engineering schools they're not as affected by this as the arts and humanities, though I have seen anecdotes about it creeping in here and there.

"High standards are attacked from both the Left and the Right: The Left from the point of view of 'inclusion', the Right from the point of view of 'back to basics'. The cultural 'Left' (what I call the pseudo left) is more dominant, they promote a politics of inclusion, participation and flattery. It sounds progressive to include people. But it's not a response to a demand from below, it's imposed from above by cultural commissars who are looking around for some way to 'engage' the 'disengaged masses'"

Along with post-modernism, this lies at the root of my concern about this issue: the attack on meritocracy. I don't see the "back to basics" movement as an attack on this so much, because it has the meritocracy in mind, but it is perhaps misguided. What I see is "back to basics" is a reaction to the "inclusion" agenda, trying to act as a bullwark. They aren't coming up with any new ideas though. The main worry I have about the Right is the ID movement, which I also see as well-intentioned, but I suspect has an anti-intellectual basis.

The U.S. has always at its heart promoted a meritocracy, where "the cream rises to the top". This is how we get quality leadership in our civilization, institutionally and economically. There are exceptions to the rule. Some rotten folks "rise to the top" of some things despite this, but in general I think it's held true. It's just a question of when they get thrown out of leadership, if ever.

The difference between the Left and the Right is the Left has actually managed to rise to leadership positions in public educational institutions, while the Right's influence has been blunted by the fact that they have to try to come at it from the outside. This is from what I've seen. If they can organize public opinion, then maybe they'll get what they want, but otherwise they're pretty much at the mercy of what the Left dishes at them, unless they have the money to go to private schools, or home school, or have access to charter schools that support their priorities.

It appears the extremists in the U.S. (perhaps in Europe as well) have gotten more strident due to events here and abroad.

As I was writing a response to David Corking on the Squeakland list I came upon an article called "Reforming Education: Why Bad Things Happen to Good Ideas", by Chester E. Finn, Jr. that dovetails a bit with what you're talking about. I don't entirely agree with its characterization of things, but there's a section at the end called "What's Going on Here, Anyway?" that I think explains well why education reform efforts in the U.S. have kept getting perverted. I've read another account of this phenomenon as well. The other one concluded that the reason past reforms had failed was they were all instituted from the top down under the assumption that because new rules were put in place schools would be forced to comply and fall in line. This hasn't worked because of the fundamental principle here that school districts are locally controlled. Schools comply to the extent that school districts are required to, but they put their own spin on the spirit of the new regime. I suspect that the phenomenon Alan Kay has talked about also applies: that if people don't understand the basis for a new idea, they'll misinterpret it and mess it up.

The latest school reform effort here, national standardized testing, is a blunt instrument that's primarily used to try to get around the teachers unions, to expose what's going on in badly performing schools. It doesn't give a totally accurate picture, because there have been cases of teachers literally helping students cheat on these tests, or holding certain students back so they won't be tested. Apparently they are only tested at certain grade levels. It's run into severe resistance, with charges that it forces teachers to "teach to the test". I used to think, "Well good. If the most you can aspire to is to teach to the test, then that must mean you weren't at the level of the test before." I assumed that good schools would have no problem with it, because they're teaching a "superset" of knowledge over what the test covers. Well that's not entirely true. I saw a documentary a few months back which revealed that the standardized tests can even penalize good schools, because the test assumes a baseline level of knowledge that doesn't necessarily comport with the leading edge. An example that was given was a science teacher (I'm not sure if this was in elementary or middle school) who taught her students about the underwater vents on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and the chemosynthesis that was occurring around them. The standardized test assumes that the base of the food chain in the oceans is algea, with photosynthesis. She said giving this other knowledge about the vents to her students would confuse them in relation to the test, because it causes one to question the basis of the oceanic food chain. As a result she felt pressured not to teach about the underwater vents, which effectively forced her to withhold knowledge so her students would do well on the test--basically teaching to the test. I understand this isn't an ideal situation to be in. It's messy, but IMO it's better than what was going on before in the school systems, when looked at as a whole.

I think Alan Kay, in response to this topic, mentioned something about being interested in finding a way to test deep knowledge, as opposed to having students spit out answers on result-oriented tests. I agree with the sentiment. I wish there was a way to do that, but I suspect such an approach would take a learned tester, who is him/herself a deep thinker. Such a test, as of right now, would be subjective. Because of this, any dunderhead could administer the test and deem students who hadn't mastered the content as acceptable. So we get as close to objectivity as possible, which is the fill-in-the-bubble test.

There is a great deal of hiding going on with respect to the immigration issue in the U.S. Bill and I have both seen (probably) the same documentary on the U.S.'s No Child Left Behind program. I've seen it a couple times, and though no one said this directly, I detected that one of the main reasons for the sadness I saw from the teachers in it was that they would get a significant number of Central or South American immigrant students (legal or illegal), who spoke no English. Let me explain. In the last several years the rate of illegal immigration from Central/South America has gone up dramatically. Sometimes the new students are immigrants from overseas, but they're primarily from the south of us. Under the rules, they're supposed to put these children on the same standardized testing schedule as the English-speaking students. One teacher complained that they received a new non-English speaking student the day before the test, and they had to give the student the test the next day, which is only in English. Of course the student failed it. The problem is this failure counted as a mark against the school in its scoring, through no fault of its own. If the school had enough marks against it, the school was forced to face sanctions or firing of some staff. It seemed to me this was happening in the good schools, because of the amount of non-English speaking students they were getting. Good people were being fired because of this, not because they weren't supposed to admit them (the law requires that they do). It's because the rules in this instance are out of touch with reality.

I can understand the frustration with this particular aspect of NCLB. It's dumb. Of course you can't expect a new non-English speaking student to do well on the standardized test. My guess is it was an oversight in the formation of the law. There's been plenty of time to fix it, but I suspect the Bush Admin. has been reluctant to re-open the issue for fear that it would give the teachers union the opportunity to neuter the whole program, especially now that the Democrats are in control of congress. The teachers union is one of their major constituencies.