On Free Speech: II. The Speech of Free Speakers – “A Delusion of Certitude”?

Featured Image by Lynn Melchiori from Pixabay

Click here to read Pt I. The Free Speakers of Speech – “Strands in the Web of Freedom”

II. The Speech of Free Speakers

“A Delusion of Certitude”?

“I think what we’re learning is that, particularly when they get a choice, a lot of people decide to believe what’s more comfortable for them, even if it’s not the truth.”

– Ellis Cose

Is any look at speech, free or otherwise, fairly completed before considering the listening and the thinking that the speech provokes?

From the context of his interview, Ellis Cose’s statement above seems less about how freely people do or don’t speak than about how the rest listen, and cope, and think. It’s about how readily people arrive at some assurance and, from that position, rest in acceptance of only certain other perspectives. As I mentioned in Part I, his statement (for me) is about bias, as in what was learned from the speaker’s education that now prompts the message they speak aloud. And hey, from any given perspective, as we can never be two places at once, so we can only utter (or write) one thing at a time. “Perspective” has to mean something. So maybe what Cose calls “more comfortable” we might term less generously as “lazy” or “narrow-minded,” as in Hey, if you plan to see from any other perspective, you need to get up and move.

And I can imagine the anti-them us-approving fist-pumps spurred by the previous sentence. Is it some “immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings and distorts the judgment”? Rather than wholeheartedly agreeing, from your current perspective, that the prescription to get up and move is antidote for others, consider how well it applies to any perspective at all. Consider that it may well be directed at you as directed by you… which is not to challenge anyone’s morality so much as note that morality can be challenged. Surely, though, getting up and moving yourself is more humble and accommodating than expecting or demanding it of others – isn’t it? It’s the difference between being humble and being humbled, and I think we’d all prefer the former, if that choice were all we had.

I suppose what I’m advocating is a thorough investigation of alternatives, even ones we might have thought objectionable, before we opt for anything more drastic. And look, nobody needs to invite their opponents over for nachos and board games just yet. Even so, ask yourself, “What small space can I clear for people that, up til now, I just haven’t allowed?” Is such space even conceivable, at all?

On the other hand, if we’re flat-out convinced, and some other perspective feels equally immovably justified, and there’s no recourse but to fight it out, well… it has been known to happen.

Judgment [of free speech] is… solicited on a conflict of interests of the utmost concern to the wellbeing of the country. This conflict of interests cannot be resolved by a dogmatic preference for one or the other, nor by a sonorous formula which is, in fact, only a euphemistic disguise for an unresolved conflict. If adjudication is to be a rational process, we cannot escape a candid examination of the conflicting claims with full recognition that both are supported by weighty title-deeds.… Full responsibility for the choice [belongs] not to the courts [but] to Congress.

Dennis vs United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951)

For me, though, what Cose elucidates above all else is nuance. Its laced throughout his interview. He himself has an informed take on the history and the context of an issue that, on its face, we call “free speech.” It bears mentioning that “free” is not meant in the sense of getting a free burger at McDonald’s but, rather, getting a public opportunity to say or write what you believe, unhindered by government on the basis of content. What is prohibited is the act of government censorship, with some qualification reserved for government to negotiate with the speaker (via judicial systems) on such bases as common obscenity, so-called “fighting words” of hatred, malicious defamation of public officials, and more generally the balance in likelihood between the “gravity of the ‘evil’” and whatever “invasion of free speech” might be deemed necessary, say if someone were inciting others toward government overthrow.

Of course, neither government nor citizen has full and unbridled ability to act. The balance is contextual, and it’s usually lawyers who argue before judges and juries who decide. Here is a good discussion on that note.

And of course, in the Cose interview anyway, the entire topic is steeped in the conflated history of America’s socio-economic politics, including other Constitutional concerns such as citizenship, due process, and equal protection under the law, which fall under the Fourteenth Amendment. As Cose explains, “free speech” today and historic First Amendment protected speech aren’t necessarily the same thing.

As for me, I’m no expert lawyer, I just watch them on television. So I fear my attempted definition here is hardly precise enough. But how else can we discuss such topics unless we try to be more than just forthcoming? We must also try to be more thorough. In fact, that’s one reason, maybe the main reason, why I started this blog. But my mono-blog is only one voice in our dialogue, so please offer to this discussion whatever informed-slash-substantive insight you have.

As every one has a right to be heard, let us hear from every one, that we might hear from everyone.

Click here to read Pt. III Craft Displacement

On Free Speech: I. The Free Speakers of Speech – “Strands in the Web of Freedom”

About the Featured Image: At 19’5” tall and 15,000 lbs, the bronze statue named Freedom, set atop the Capitol Dome in Washington DC, was created by architect Thomas Walter, sculptor Thomas Crawford, sculptor Clark Mills, and master craftsman Philip Reid, four men who well represent both a complex history and complicated symbolism.

I. The Free Speakers of Speech

“Strands in the Web of Freedom”

“I think what we’re learning is that, particularly when they get a choice, a lot of people decide to believe what’s more comfortable for them, even if it’s not the truth.”

– Ellis Cose

Before anyone starts rating Ellis Cose’s statement, “whereby phrases are made to do service for critical analysis by being turned into dogma” wielded against whomever they oppose… just stop and consider instead, against “the impregnating atmosphere of the times,” how neutrally this statement applies to anyone at all who might hold any position. Consider how anyone we oppose may wield this statement against us just as righteously as we may characterise it by using them.

There’s wisdom in this statement by journalist Ellis Cose, and an informed perspective that directs my attention toward a truer opponent facing all of us, which is to say all of us. It’s not so much a person, this opponent, but a tendency – a rather drastic tendency we have to skew our perspectives toward one outlook, one interpretation, one ‘side’ of… well, whatever we face.

[NB: what I call a ‘side’ can be populous or solitary. I’ve presented ‘side’ in single quotes because I know it’s a word loaded with partisan and polar connotations, none of which I want to suggest – not overtly, at least – besides which, I haven’t been able to decide on a more suitable word.]

This tendency is common of us. I’ve often maintained that we all land somewhere, starting with birth. As such, bias is inescapable and, as such, not pejorative but only descriptive. So, what to do about bias… ? Rather, what to do with bias. And how to do it.

The remark above Cose offers during an interview with Bill Moyers, in the context of considering free speech – specifically, its demise. In his recent book, Cose points out an overarching presumption about free speech – from a Supreme Court Judge, no less, Justice Louis Brandeis – that, ever since, has evidently grown roots:

“As Brandeis saw it, free speech was virtually a sacred right and an awesomely powerful force that would expose ‘falsehood and fallacies’ and ‘avert… evil by the processes of education.’ Hence, the remedy to bad speech was ‘more speech, not enforced silence.’

“That piece of writing has been deemed one of the most important commentaries ever crafted on the First Amendment. But Brandeis assumed something that has not been borne out by facts, which is that the better argument would generally win. He also assumed that relevant people on all sides of a question were equally capable of being heard and that skeptics were interested in listening.

“That fallacy continues to inform the thinking of those who see speech as inherently self-correcting.”

Featured Image by Lynn Melchiori from Pixabay

In this quotation, Cose gives me pause to stop and consider that the First Amendment – really any part of the U.S. Constitution – may have been written with a presumption that “people are basically rational and skilled in recognizing the better argument when they hear it,” or a presumption that “dialogue is dominated by real people with an interest in ideas, not by corporations and wealthy individuals hiding behind PACs and other creations, using trickery, appeals to base prejudice, and outright lies to gather gullible people to their side in the interest of commerce.” With such words, Cose gives me pause to wonder about some taken-for-granted assurance that tells itself, Well, of course anyone who reads this will understand what I mean because anyone who reads this will be just like me… We’re not just ready-made logical creatures. We’re susceptible to emotion and passion, and blind spots and presumption, which must be recognised before reasoned.

As I stop and consider all that… I consider myself. When I write posts for this blog and exercise my free speech with the ease of a mouse click, what is my thinking? I take such pains to write clearly, go such lengths to research thoroughly, in consideration of an audience that I’m largely unable to predict: a published blog post is a public blog post, and a reputation is as clean and thin and delicate as tissue paper. Yet I know I’ve been guilty of presuming a reasonable audience – you’re welcome? or my bad? The one question that can sum all my anxiety might simply be this: whose voice am I leaving out? It’s a version of a question I often asked my students, albeit in different context: whose voice is missing?

Maybe all this seems tangential to my initial idea: being prompted by Ellis Cose to write about free speech. Still, I can’t help but think, and feel, all this belongs.

I agree with Cose, once more from his book, that “… the society [Brandeis] envisioned has never existed.” With hindsight to his vision, I see in Justice Brandeis’s statement something he likely didn’t mean: his vision of society, for me, is a bit like the statues and sculptures that adorn and accompany buildings all over Washington, DC… we recognise their symbolism, we (allegedly) aspire to what they represent, and by their very placement (and I don’t mean to invoke idolatry), we sort of revere them. They represent not a world we believe is possible but a way we can imagine it – a world we would prefer to see, at the risk of misapplying Northrop Frye. For a given statue or sculpture, such reverence implicates what any one person values, which of course has become the subject of recent concern, weighing historical brutality against present-day redress. Moreover, if we aspire to the symbolic idea, somehow knowing it is unattainable, that becomes something very different than aspiring to it because we actually think it’s within our power to create. My broader point here is simply to note the analogy, a presumption imagined like an audience taken for granted, presuming ideas about people, as Justice Brandeis apparently did, or presuming an outlook held by an audience that, of course, is just like me.

The statue called Authority of Law, adorning the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC: LEX translates from Latin to “the law.”

Coming back to relate all this to free speech… when someone declares “[whatever]” in their exercise of free speech, they conceivably make no direct presumption about you or me or anybody, perhaps beyond their own self-centredness: “You have to listen to me because I have my right to free speech.” Conversely, that speaker may presume or flat-out know something about their audience, by which they’re able to push buttons, raise hackles, inspire applause, or generally incite some calculated reaction. Elementary though it sounds, what a speaker presumes when exercising free speech is simply and plainly that they have an audience – indeed, what need otherwise to qualify “free” speech? Ultimately, it’s this connection to audience that I will try to consider about free speech.

First, though, I should clarify – however broadly – that the corollary to a speaker is a listener, i.e. if you’re not speaking, then consider yourself part of the audience. Naturally, we have to be exposed somehow to the speaker, in person or by way of some recording or text. Maybe these are punctilious distinctions, but they seem necessary for what comes next.

What I tend to notice when I hear people invoking “free speech” may also seem elementary: it’s only invoked when an audience doesn’t want to hear it. This is so obvious yet so crucial to appreciate because within lies a difference as to what free speech even means: to the speaker, as I’ve described, it amounts to listen to me, but to the audience, it refers more to the anticipated outcomes or effects of speech yet-to-come. This is not to say a speaker has no aims, but rather to say a speaker has a more immediate concern, i.e. being heard, i.e. being allowed to speak, as in “free” to speak. Meanwhile, the audience also has an aim although I can’t decide which side of the coin: to not hear, i.e. to not listen, or to not hear, i.e. to silence the speaker – hence, as I say above, the need to qualify free speech from any other kind.

What I’ve come to notice of an audience in disagreement seems more the option for silencing, maybe because outcomes can’t happen when speech is pre-empted. I get that, an ounce of prevention, maybe well justified in some cases – yet there now, I’ve just done it too, approving (if not opting) to silence. In addressing free speech, is the audience obliged to consider a message in some way apart from the speaker? “Apart” from the speaker seems problematic since no speech can occur without one.

As speech is the catalyst or cause of certain outcomes, if and when it’s spoken, so speech itself is a consequence of something learned – a reflection of the speaker – which seems to return this to an issue of bias; I might alternatively call this “education” or “belief” but, in any case, something more individual or personal. Again, in the ways we might consider the cause or catalyst of speech, these remain inherent to the speaker. Okay, what of the speaker? Well, there does exist today an overriding value for the individual, for the discounting of convention, and for more than just being but also for embracing “yourself.” And there does exist today a self-orientation that values personalised education, and critical thinking, and questioning and problematizing how and why the way things are. These are briefly some general details that bear at least some influence upon speakers today.

Okay, what of these details? For one thing, such a self-orientation only goes so far: take the school principal, boasting and flaunting empowered students and their critical thinking, that is until the students think something critical about how and why the way things are at school. “After all,” the students say, “you teach us to be critical thinkers.” Eventually things may come round, though doubtfully without a struggle, and maybe some parental involvement.

To be fair, some initial resistance to questioning is hardly surprising, from any perspective. But in a culture that venerates the individual, even we are wise to remember Socrates for his being unique: where he seemed to land was “no place in particular” beyond perhaps “here, for long enough to ask some questions.” His no-place was his place, an ironic kind of certainty, which is a bit of clever word-play. Yet it was this freedom, taken to questioning things, that eventually helped to estrange the community from Socrates – which is also a bit of clever word-play – finally at the cost of his life. For our own tendency to grow rooted in one-place for longer stretches of time, maybe the rest of us should be thankful for slightly less orthodox individuality: for bias. Talk about integrity. Alternatively, imagine that world ruled by Socratic ignorance – free speech everywhere and many an ear to listen, just none finally willing to believe – how much worse, in that world, if might made right.

Individual rights, by definition, only make sense within a community, which was my cause to raise bias, which I likened to education though maybe I’d better call it “learning” – a post for another day. But more than this, more nuanced, is that individual rights only make sense as a community. If they cannot be shared, and respected, mutually, and tolerated, they can only come to a head. As to free speech… per se it remains only a concept because it is people who enact it, as speech – people make the concept felt. People ultimately make “free speech” something manifestly real; sometimes, especially lately, I feel like we don’t seem to get this, as if we view ourselves actually having the same idealistic glow as our ideologies. That would be fine if we all shared the same ideology.

Sometimes I feel like we view ourselves actually having the same idealistic glow as our ideologies. That would be fine if we all shared the same ideology.

A final word on bias-slash-education-slash-learning, paraphrasing my previous blog post… are lessons designed for a teacher to teach, or for a learner to learn? Or is it some mixture of both? If we’ve all been to school, even so, numerous learners still comprise an education system, just not all at once – this we end up calling “culture.” So how can education ever be singular, as in “personalised,” as in an education for you while another, separately, for me? How, that is, unless you want all sorts of cultures all walking around bumping into each other at every turn, and I don’t mean a “diversity-as-strength” kind of way because that still implies some rule of law. I mean anarchy.

We all learn, yes, but being educated is a collective trait, found somewhere at once in between all learners and their teachers and anyone else involved. So, as to free speech… once somebody communicates via real speech, another listens and reflects, maybe responds, and somehow, somewhere in between them, occurs an understanding. If that understanding is “I don’t understand you,” well, at least your work is cut out for you.

If the catalysts and causes of someone’s speech are an issue of bias, then outcomes and effects seem an issue of endurance or, as the case may be, a lack of it – as Cose puts it, what’s “comfortable.” Unlike the so-called individualism of education and the extent one decides for oneself, so-called rights, I would argue that endurance is borne more widely – if not entirely – of culture and conscience, the degree we each conform irrespective of ourselves – are these responsibilities or infringements? How would any died-in-the-wool individualist answer that? I think I know (… see what I did there?). From having considered in some way the free speaker, I’ve ventured into the audience, whose ears may or may not be so permissive. Yes, it’s people who speak – it’s also people who listen, and both of these always from some position of bias: if we hope to address any concern arising over free speech, start with bias or, as I referred to it above, education. Yes, education has its own raft of issues, but it’s still probably better to address causes over outcomes, if the aim is to restore our health.

Click here to read Pt. II The Speech of Free Speakers – “A Delusion of Certitude”?

I’m Right, You’re Wrong

“Tyssedal, Norwegen – Norwegian frigate HNoMS Helge Ingstad F313 in Sørfjord (June 2018). This ship sunk 5 months later after a collision with an oil tanker. Parts of a mining company on the left side and at the bottom of the photo. A symbol of military power and its transience.” – Mark König

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Mark König on Unsplash

I. Divisions

I used to help students prepare for written exams by unpacking the rubric. These were 6-point or 9-point scales with written criteria to describe each level. Understanding how the rubric was designed, I figured, would help them more ably respond to it, so I offered students three ways to consider how the rubric seemed to be designed:

  1. From the top down, where everyone is 100% perfect unless or until they make an error
  2. From the bottom up, where everyone is a zero unless or until they earn their way up
  3. From the middle out, where everyone is given some credit for capability to start with, i.e. no one is either perfect or a zero

Eventually, the students decided that the rubrics we used were designed middle-out, which as it happens was correct. As the top-down perspective is charitable and the bottom-up withholding, the middle-out can accommodate a little of both these attitudes. However, from the middle-out, you still need to decide from which way – up or down – your judgments will proceed.

That might seem an unnecessary nuance, but then, what is nuance if not seemingly unnecessary?

If you begin from the middle-out with a charitable attitude, yet you still reserve some scepticism, then we could argue that you’re more pessimistic – otherwise, why not simply trust people from the top-down? You’re no drill sergeant, not like the bottom-up who sees every initiate as unqualified. From that pessimistic middle-out, what your scepticism suggests is prudence, a “fool-me-twice” kind of insight that others might call cynicism. And fair enough if, while scoring an essay, it’s contrived, not really you – just remember, for the student receiving the grade, it’s plenty real when you hand back their papers. Conversely, if you begin from the middle-out with a hardened attitude yet you still grant some belief, then by the same token we could argue that you’re more optimistic. You’re no Pollyanna, yet what your belief seems to suggest is confidence, a “been-there, done-that” kind of faith that, yes, people can learn.

I bring all this up to make an analogy, which struck me while reading Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of Indignation. In Chapter 6, Freire writes:

“… education… is political in nature, though not necessarily partisan.… I could never think of the educational practice… as untouched by issues of values, and thus of ethics, of dreams and of utopia – in other words, untouched by the question of political options, of knowledge and of beautifulness, that is, of gnosis and of aesthetics. Education is always a certain theory of knowledge put into practice; it is naturally political…” (pp. 70–71)

For there even to be “politics” at all, I’m assuming there’s more than one party seeking power and, further, that these parties contest that power. And I acknowledge the teacher’s dilemma, as Freire poses it from the same discussion:

“If I must not, no matter what project I am working on, even suggest to my learners that my party possesses the saving truth, I must not, on the other hand, be silent before fatalist discourses according to which the pain and suffering of the poor are great, but nothing can be done because reality is what it is.” (pp. 70–71)

Freire alludes here to some very specific context, as does the rest of his book, as does his body of work, and his legacy.

Points for you…
Photo Credit: Brett Jordan on Unsplash

But, in general, if anything can divide us with passion, it is disagreement over the well-being of our children… to say nothing of the long-term consequences we desire for the society they will propagate… all of which is at stake in an education system. For all this, we might understand the ready acceptance of Freire’s wisdom more broadly across education, and I agree particularly that education is inescabably political. But I hesitate to accept that it is not necessarily partisan. As with so much else in education, I will say, “It depends” – in this case, it depends on how we define the parties comprising the partisanship.

II. Motives

Partisanship suggests one-sided passion, up to the exclusion of reasoning or even listening to alternatives. To borrow Freire’s phrasing… politics is partisan in nature, and partisanship impends, without necessarily guaranteeing, dogmatism. Politics of any kind is partisan if we understand the parties broadly as those with power to control the contested system and those without power to control it. Here then is the general essence of politics: on the one hand, those without control vie to control the contested system, thereby shaping potential consequences; on the other hand, those with control maintain control of the contested system while fending off, as the need arises, those without control. Indeed, those with the power to control seem to enjoy the privilege of saying, “I’m right, and you’re wrong” while those without control seem left to respond, “You’re wrong, and I’m right.” This reversal of claims is no arbitrary gainsaying or petty playfulness. Elsewhere, I’ve contemplated how we might warrant such judgments.

Those with the power to control enjoy the privilege of saying, “I’m right, and you’re wrong” while those without control are left to respond, “You’re wrong, and I’m right.” This reversal of claims is no arbitrary gainsaying or petty playfulness.

Politically, those without control can promote their own righteousness all they want, but by circumstance, they’re also compelled to point out the power broker’s control… probably as flawed, and thereby as justification for change. However, unlike the power broker, they’re unable to refer only to themselves. They refer to themselves always in terms relative to the opposition, even without direct reference since, well, everybody knows who’s in control. Arguably, compounding their repression, they occupy a weaker political position though this is also dependent upon (i) their audience’s own position as well as (ii) their audience’s potential to leverage their position. [In this case, that ‘audience’ is most likely the electorate, at least those of voting age who are paying attention.] Meanwhile, having control, the power broker is politically wise to promote their own approach above all else. Indeed, they may feel no need to even acknowledge, much less reason, with opposition of any kind – that kind of arrogance is well-known, as is its maintenance.

Altogether, this struggle is what we call politics: by whatever means, between whichever parties, a fight for the power to control. Means and control… these are contextual, but presumably, something about having control is desirable, or else why bother? Quite apart from being necessary, partisanship in politics is inherent. That partisanship might be extreme is neither here nor there to its inherence but, rather, speaks to the character of the contestants. That partisanship might be polarised is down to two parties, or three, or a dozen – and I grant “polarised” is binary versus more diffused rhetorical battles between parties three or more – but it’s still not down to the nature of what it means to struggle. As I’ve said, all this is to describe politics broadly and generally.

Amoral or a moral struggle?
La morte di Cesare” (1793–1806) by Vincenzo Camuccini
Museo di Capodimonte, Napoli

III. Positions

To educational politics, then… an education system exists institutionally as part of a larger culture, and any specific control, e.g. financial, industrial, curricular, is more diffused than centralised, conceivably right down to the classroom, as Freire enjoins the teacher’s dilemma… perhaps this is a reason why Freire dissociates partisanship. In any case, for me, the power to control requires brokerage, somebody exercising some control, which by my reasoning above makes educational politics no less partisan than all the rest: those with control and those without control. Pedagogy, just to finish the point, I take to be an educational mode of politics – all the more reason to respect the teacher’s dilemma, i.e. respect the learner’s autonomy, which is how I take Freire’s point, in the end.

Yet if learners are but pawns to some more powerful broker, how is it justified to make them also pawns of a contesting party? Perhaps this is a reason why Freire dissociates partisanship. As for adult learners, where they might have at least some account for themselves, surely the teacher’s dilemma is little more than a token when the learners are children. What Freire seems to mean by politics in education is not a struggle for power between relative equals but a struggle for survival by the relatively powerless. So he justifies the motive for struggle morally. Indeed, I think this is a more compelling reason for dissociating partisanship.

In any case, as those will know who advocate for children… what passions are stirred by morality as compared to any lesser motive! It should be noted that when the powerful, like the powerless, have children of their own, they can wield passion and morality, too: there are times with no recourse but to fight it out.

On behalf of learners, Freire fights from a place of belief, a place we might consider the optimistic middle-out, hardened but hopeful. Even so, on behalf of the powerless, he fights from the moral top-down, not with scepticism for their future but with hope, and justification. It is from the bottom-up that we find his scepticism and his criticism of the powerful. And it is from all these multiple perspectives at once that Freire fights, altogether, because educational politics are inescapably partisan, by which I mean politics is the struggle for the power to control, as well as to shape potential consequences. In this respect, Freire says as much, himself…

“The necessary insistence with which I have been speaking about [my understanding of education having a political nature] has led certain critics from the right to say of me that I am not an educator or a thinker of education, but rather a political activist. It is important to state that those who deny me my pedagogicalness, drowned and nullified, according to them, in the political, are just as political as I am. Except that, obviously, they take a different position from mine.” (p. 71)

Partisanship described, if not defined. Talk of taking different positions, talk of activism and denial, most certainly talk of the political right, as elsewhere he mentions “the social classes, the right and the left, the dominant and the dominated” (p. 25)… all this talk absolutely stands for partisanship in the struggle for power. Beyond this, though, what else is all this talk, if not partisanship in a more colloquial sense, of simply taking sides?

I gather what Freire means by “politics” is a struggle to overcome the power brokers who (to use his most oft-quoted word) oppress those with little or no power. He positions himself. More than simply taking a side with children, with rural workers, with learners, with democracy, he takes a position against pragmatism, against “technical-scientific training” (p. 19), against “the control and the dictums of globalizing power” (p. 25). He takes a position that not only bares his motives but provokes defaming criticism, criticism that he acknowledges. For Freire, education is political by nature and morally necessary to help the powerless. As an educator, one takes sides as an advocate.

Education empowers the oppressed toward transforming themselves, such that they might next transform the systems and structures that dominate into systems and structures that accommodate. For all this, Freire clearly illustrates partisanship. So is “partisanship” pejorative? Is this why he deems it “not necessarily” part of politics? Defending Freire, one might label only his critics as partisan, yet still… there it is.

IV. Spaces

I was prompted to all this for having spotted in Freire’s discussion about educational politics a simple analogy to my lesson on rubrics. Analogies being instructive yet never perfect, I’ve since been provoked to further thoughts on power and control. For my students, the power to control was a clearer understanding of how to write an essay – theirs to control as far as it was a measure provided from beyond their control. In light of constructivism, today’s prevailing theory of learning, educators have been brought to reconsider education as something no longer provided to learners from beyond, like a rubric; I gather this will remain so as long as constructivism prevails.

The malpractice of education as revelation delivered by teachers we now more empathetically understand on the part of the learner as realisations collaboratively composed. Even so, as no one lives in a vacuum, and everyone has arrived belatedly to a history, what do we learn that has not in some way already been provided? Will an education help us to think mere original thoughts, or unprecedented ones? Is an education some kind of addition or renovation, or some kind of transformation – each of these seeming more radical, as we go – or is an education even something else again? Whatever it is, who gets to say what education is, and what it is for, which really is to ask who it is for?

Are lessons designed for a teacher to teach, or for a learner to learn, or is it some mixture of both?

I claim a say by taking the initiative to write this blog post; will anyone reading it claim the initiative by responding with a comment – preferably something more substantive than a tweet? The ball in your court doesn’t just materialise; somebody else must serve it. By the same token, I never claimed to be some Federer or Sampras – you pose the risk I take, and I pray you’re no McEnroe. Then again, I am apparently an educated, accountable adult now, not some powerless child too small to wield a racquet. To use the rubric analogy… is education for the learner-out, or for the teacher-in? Is it for the self, or from the other? I’m saying it’s dynamic, but is it one-way traffic? Are lessons designed for a teacher to teach, or for a learner to learn? Or maybe…

Maybe is it some mixture of both? Since numerous learners comprise an education system, at once and across time, can education even be singular, i.e. “personalised” to each learner, i.e. an education for you while another, separately, for me? Or is education something that occurs collectively, somewhere at once in between all the learners, and teachers, and whomever else we decide to include? One expresses, another perceives and, somehow, somewhere in between them occurs an understanding (even if it’s “I don’t understand you”), which connotes something further again. And on and on it rolls… except, if that’s where it ends, that’s a decision, too: to shut something down. We might be here and now, you and me, face to face; or we might be across space, me way over here and you way over there; or we might be across time, from either direction the one before and the other after. However we interact, though, we are indeed caught in Dr King’s “inescapable network of mutuality,” which transcends: we do all live together, but just not all at once.

For each of us at once, by both of us in turn, something comes simultaneously to light for one as well as for both. The pattern continues as we might describe the renovation of a building or the refitting of a ship: upon a pre-existing frame, something else, something newer. Engineers demolish, and shipwreckers scrap, but teachers and learners are neither of these. Yes, the more people involved, the more connotations, and the more potentially complex any understanding may be. And yes, there’s a certain finality to life, but can anyone accurately say, “I am educated,” when really we ought to say, “I’m clearing some space for you”? (… at least I’m merely asking.) The former is present, yet the latter progressive – grammatically progressive, that is, and what’s more, politically imperfect.

Ain’t life grand!
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As context is everything, so politics the process is not a result until we decide it one. It’s all a process: for educators, a familiar refrain… Little wonder, then, if everything “depends”? If everything’s political? I rest assured of one thing: we are definitely educating each other, no matter whom we take to be right or wrong.

V. Decisions

I often wonder about one last thing… what might be the legacy of any educational transformation?

In some new system – let’s have it arise, say, as the transformation of the older one – in that new system, what exactly becomes of those now who were formerly with power? Surely the new system will have its own politics, yet what will become of the partisanship so endemic to the previous politics of that system now faded away? Is it also transformed? Is it eradicated? Is it hard to say, without an example? Would roles simply reverse, i.e. those formerly oppressed now oppress their former oppressors? We’re all human, after all… are we so different, and some of us just better at leading, or teaching, or learning than some others of us? Is there some conceivable system “strong enough in its fusing power to touch those who think they lose, as well as those who think they gain”? … by which I mean a system without need of rhetorical promotion, as I gather Addams meant, too. Whose vision, so unifying? … or maybe just forget I mentioned.

Well anyway, may we reach some shared understanding… or else, in different spirit, shall all our misunderstandings come to bicker endlessly over fake news and alternative facts, and whatever lies beyond. Yet as our motive to take up learning at all might compete with our aversion to risk it all… could there be, for us, some spirit of conjectural adventure, some curiosity attributable to our existence? Or have we been destined from birth to live with a dialectical pairing of drive and brakes? As certainly as education can deliver us from division, its absence will spell our end. If there be in us some will to power or desire for control, might a spirit for mutual understanding imply something more on-goingly patient, some will to live and let live – I call it a “will” to suggest vitality… a will, a motive? a desire? some reason-for-being? … whatever.

And I don’t mean some platitude, “live and let live,” like a bumper sticker. I mean literally goodwill, a mutually respectful sharing of existence that’s humble in expression and appreciates community, including all whom we accept as well as tolerate, like as well as dislike, by which all our interaction and negotiating sets to thriving. As goodwill, its thriving welcomes more than any one’s selection of some but is inclusive of all – the preferred, the desirable, the undesirable, the unfamiliar, and all the rest as well. And no, not everybody’s so willing to be generous – therein to find at least one educational objective, if we’re humble enough.

It’s the fair mediator who’s able to broker that negotiation – “broker,” here, I use advisedly. Or does a rising tide speak for itself by floating all boats… and this is what I wonder: are we really so similar? Or must some boats be torpedoed and sunk, their crews maybe rescued or maybe just left to drown? If you are reading this, just now, and casting its partisan roles, how conceivably might the scene be played in political reverse? How humble are you, as compared to certain, about what you believe is right, and wrong? How anchored are you to the evidence you’ve chosen, by which to sink or swim?

Imagine former oppressors, swimfin now on the other foot, at last coming to see the error of their ways, now educated right from wrong, and joining the new system with gladder hearts… World Peace.

Now imagine education unequivocally, inescapably political.

Yeah, me too.

Life’s a beach
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