On Bias: III. Fun with Dialectics

Click here to read On Bias: II. Wrong Bias?

On Bias: III. Fun with Dialectics

Above-below, up-down, in-out… let’s understand these as some basic opposite pairings in English vocabulary.

Some pairings seem as rooted in tradition as opposition – love-hate, war-peace, success-failure – while some pairings automatically imply something else – just as ‘landlord’ pays its dues to ‘tenant’, so ‘parent’ only makes sense alongside ‘child’. Along the same line, as surely as ‘zenith’ is joined to ‘nadir’, something ‘ahead’ is followed by something ‘behind’. Conversely, it goes literally without saying that a ‘turn’ to face Thing 2 is the same pivot away from facing Thing 1. Being a duality, two moves at once, maybe this is why one good turn deserves another – after that, on we go.

Looking up the Odessa Steps… not the Eisenstein montage today
Looking down the Odessa Steps… only the landings are visible

Photo Credits by Oleksandr Malyon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94182671 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94182670

But our vocabulary is not always so obvious or easily taken for granted… something ‘ancient’ by contrast might only suggest something… well, less ancient: ‘modern’, ‘current’, ‘contemporary’, how about ‘fashionable’ – now we’re talking connotation as much as denotation. And with plenty of other word-pairings – ground-air, hard-soft, strong-weak, first-last – if any of these are less automatic than good-evil, to-from, wet-dry… well, they still seem just as opposite. Funny, though, a word like ‘moon’ implies ‘planet’, yet no planet requires a moon.

Actually, this post isn’t some attempt at anything formal although, if you’re up for it, knock yourself out.

Theory-practice, reflection-action, curriculum-pedagogy, classroom-real life, content-skill, teacher-student… education is all about such pairings. For the sake here, let’s consider these as ‘dialectical pairings’, where each concept is not merely reciprocal to the other but inextricably indispensible, such that the two concepts together comprise not a united opposition but a concerted reciprocity. And from the two arises something further, something more.

Matter tells space-and-time to curve; space-and-time tells matter to move: their fearful passage is the two-way traffic of our stage.

Maybe that’s a bit much. Let’s just stick with ‘dialectical pairings’, in a loosely Hegelian way that says, “You complete me.”

Here’s one we all know from education… ‘fairness’ balanced in concert with ‘unfairness’… in accordance to circumstance, fairness being the treatment of people without discrimination, marked by impartially, as conversely distinct from unfairness, discrimination marked by partiality. But without circumstances specified, this distinction remains ambiguous, such that one could argue fairness – treating every person impartially – as being equality, treating everyone the same, rendering unfairness as inequality. More recently, I’ve also noted a distinction between (in)equality and (un)fairness such that the resultant outcome of specific treatment is considered (un)equal while the ongoing act of treating is described as a measure of (in)equity, the specific measure evidently being human rights.

Anyway, let’s consider fairness-unfairness as having arisen from something else we’ll call ‘bias’ although that may actually be more of a Hegelian reversal, if you see what I did there. OK, so we consider this, but on what basis? What I’m suggesting is twofold…(i) bias is an always-thing, and utterly inescapable, and (ii) no matter how exactly we do something, bias instils every decision with unintended consequences where, as a result of everybody’s overlapping biases, that system of forces, made real by everybody’s ongoing decisions, somebody somewhere along the way incurs some cost in payment of an outcome.

Sidebar #1: we’ve been facing a lot of absolutes, thus far… inextricable, indispensible, utterly inescapable – let’s consider these inexorable. As for absolutes, let’s consider them unlimited by anything besides themselves.

Somebody pays a cost… I call it a cost, and depending on the circumstances, maybe we call it fallout, or unintended consequences, or collateral damage. Depending on the circumstances, maybe we call it a trade-off. But what it’s called doesn’t negate the truism that there is a cost to everything, which is sometimes described in education as the hidden curriculum.

Sidebar #2: Ivan Illich is often credited with coining the term, hidden curriculum, and his meaning actually took to far wider critique than just education. Illich argued for the disestablishment of schools, comparable to the separation of church and state, on the basis that our most insidiously aberrant institution is compulsory schooling, which proliferates “the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught” (p. 34). Illich critiqued compulsory schooling’s duplicity, in which learning is ritualised myth-making, “something for which you need a process within which you acquire it” (p. 67), a problem defined by a self-justifyingly selfless solution:

“… other people told me [schooling] was… the most practical arrangement for imparting education, or for creating equality, [yet] I saw that most people were stupefied by this procedure, were actually told that they couldn’t learn on their own and became disabled and crippled… a new kind of self-inflicted injustice… a liturgy [for generating] the belief that this is a social enterprise that has some kind of autonomy from the law.… If the rain dance doesn’t work, you can blame yourself for having danced it wrongly.” (p. 66)

For Illich, words like ‘planning’ and ‘development’, ‘class and ‘equality’, ‘system’ and ‘assessment’, all central to North American schooling, are anathema to knowledge as an intrinsic good and coming to know things as inalienable living – those absolutes again.

And what it’s called doesn’t negate the responsibility to consider more than one perspective, on behalf of others, while weighing or enacting our decisions. If anything, bias demands responsibility unless, of course, your concerns lie elsewhere than somebody somewhere paying some cost. This, if you ask me, definitely falls to a matter of character, as does a sense of whether this post seems to have abandoned the whole ‘dialectical pairing’ thing.

Click here to read On Bias: IV. Right Bias?

Author: Scott Robertson

Scott is a Canadian school teacher, a doctoral candidate in Education, an avid gardener, and a football (soccer) coach. He is also a Dad. Scott worked in high school classrooms for 17 years, teaching mostly Secondary English. He describes learning as a continual renovation: intentional self-reflection aimed at personal growth, alongside people who share similar aims. At the core of his lessons is personal responsibility, an approach to living with integrity by adopting the habit of thinking. It's a blend of philosophy, literature, grammar, history, and science, all tied in a bundle by classical rhetoric. His students often described his approach to be unlike others they knew—mostly in a good way—which prepared them for post-secondary school and adulthood, citizenship, and whatever else. Outside the classroom, Scott has been coaching football (soccer) since 1990 and still enjoys playing, too, except when he’s too injured—then he tries to play golf instead.

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