That’s Your Opinion In My Opinion…

Playing soccer recently, my team grew more and more frustrated by what we felt was poor refereeing, as in calls that favoured the other team or else faulted us incorrectly, which amounted to the same thing. Granted, we’re none of us professional, so the only thing at stake was the satisfaction of winning. But, as the saying goes, that’s why we play the gamenobody plays to lose. So, on that basis, our team was frustrated, and it mattered.

Players on both teams knew each other fairly well, so there was plenty of on-field bickering and sharing of opinions. Finally, someone from their team – let’s call him Michel – said, “Instead of complaining about it, why not just try your best to help the team?” It’s a pretty common attitude, on account of being positive and constructive. How many coaches have encouraged their teams to take up the responsibility of controlling what’s in their control? I know I have – more on that below.

As soon as Michel said this, one of our more heated players – let’s call him Roy – aimed an outstretched finger towards the referee and shouted back, “What’s the point!” What he meant, of course, was that when the rules aren’t being enforced, striving to help the team is futile since any gains are ultimately clawed back or nullified. “It’s easy,” Roy added, “to say ‘Don’t complain’ when you have the advantage!” Michel said nothing, and this actually became the end of all the back-and-forth. As it happened, the game ended shortly after that, with one team – ours – and one referee each leaving the field feeling hard done by.

vs Wesburn at Pt Grey Secondary (11-0 W) - 17

People often say that sport teaches great lessons about life, and again, as a coach, I know I’ve said this to teams that I’ve coached. Yet we say such things under the assumption that the referee’s interpretation of players’ actions, when held up against the Laws of the Game, will match our own interpretation and, indeed, will match everybody else’s interpretations as well. The further we depart from this assumption, the heavier Roy’s outburst weighs upon us because, sure enough, the more futile it becomes trying to play a game by what amounts to a fluctuating set of rules.

As I say, I coached my teams to take up responsibility for what’s under their control, but I was always careful to elaborate my reason why: be responsible to control what you can control because the rest is out of your control. The other team, the field conditions, the ball, the weather, the referee – because any of these variables could work against us, we need to focus on playing well, score a lot, and put the game out of reach. That means beat the opponent, beat the field conditions, beat the equipment, beat the sideline supporters, beat the weather, and beat the referee.

How all that translates to ‘real life’ lessons could be construed as anarchy, beating everything under the sun, at any cost, which is not where I’m going with this. So I’ll reiterate: the way to beat all these things is to play well according to the rules as we understand them and put the game out of reach on the basis of our skill and teamwork. That goes for the ref, too: put criticism to rest by beating all questions of integrity with skill and teamwork. (For often having referees working alone, it’s a wonder that youth & amateur sport have any refs at all.)

And, I realise, this does assume that everyone else involved, besides us, shares – to some degree – our understanding of the rules. And I think it’s probably reasonable to assume that we all generally know the rules, even if we don’t precisely share their exact meaning. For that reason, I think it’s fair to assume that usually players will see the same things when they apply the rules to game play. There’s even one further consideration here, put so well by Spokesman-Review columnist, Norman Chad: “If you’re watching the games for the officiating, you’re not watching the games anymore.” There are always debates and such, but we don’t usually get a referee as poor as my team (thought we) did this last time. And on those rare days when all seems to work out, we’re as like to say, “Geez, I hardly even noticed the referee today.” Win or lose, that’s nearly always a good day.

But that’s sport, and sport is a self-contained world of rules, bounded by a playing field – in that respect, all is stable and predictable. Leaving aside physical fitness and training, the constraints posed in sport are rule-based, i.e. arbitrary, and out of fairness, we agree as players to abide by them – otherwise, we’d not be players but cheaters. To be clear, none of us in this recent game felt our opponents were cheating; this was strictly a case of feeling the referee was misinterpreting game play.

Matchday #2: INTER (5) vs New Westminster (0) (Warren Pitch, UBC)
“One more eye and he’d be a cyclops…”

For all this, how can sport possibly teach us about life? Maybe we can infer the law of the land as the Laws of the Game, but in life, who’s the referee, by analogy?

At soccer practice, you might argue that the referee is the coach although I can say, for me, when I’m coaching I prefer to be coaching. That leaves the players to collectively referee themselves, which boils down past 1v1 to each sole player bearing their share of the burden. Especially during some small-sided training game with modified rules, the players must each become a partial referee or else the arguments begin. This becomes a responsibility to the team by the players for the Game, which rings something akin to that statement about government “of the people by the people for the people.” Curious that we live for the Game in the one instance and the people in the other – makes you wonder about analogies as much as analogies make you wonder.

So how about in day-to-day living? Is the government our referee? Are the police a referee? In certain aspects of life, we’ve built a playing field with specified boundaries – out in traffic, for instance, are red and green lights, and “Stop” and “Yield” signs. Are these referees, of a sort? For me, they’re actually not. In these instances, while driving a car, we might feel the need to stay safe and not injure ourselves or anyone else. Or maybe we just want to keep our insurance rates as low as possible. But where the lights and signs are mere reminders of the law, we might say the referee is you, the driver, making decisions that have your vehicle propelling and halting down every street.

But traffic is hardly the only example, and those kinds of boundaries are more pragmatic, anyway, for safety. Other aspects of life and living are more, well, open to debate. How about your boss, your teacher, or your parents? How about a total stranger? There are lots of examples, but I’m reminded of that adult on the playground who takes it upon themselves to be parent, guardian, and disciplinarian to every child in sight. For some kids, somebody they’ve never met can still be a very effective referee. For some adults, too. So just who is in charge of enforcing as compared to laying down the law?

One might argue that the best candidate for referee as you make your way through life is you. Hmm… right, well, if the referee in life is our own self-conscience, then just how free do we feel to make our own decisions? Some would say we remain entirely free, which I think explains Michel’s esteem for striving to help the team against the odds: work hard and live up to your responsibility to others, as well as to yourself. Make society a better place. But not everyone is either so bold or else so enabled.

Buried in there, though, is one more subtle layer beneath this so-called esteem, and it’s this subtlety that I would characterise as the referee, this weight of social expectation to live up to your responsibilities – and here comes the unspoken part – just like everyone else. There’s a collective demand upon us, one we all feel but that is neither felt nor heeded equally by all. It’s the concept captured by the word conscience, a sense not simply of what you or I believe is correct and right but of what others believe is correct and right. It’s peer pressure and the source of contention in Roy’s retort to Michel: it’s a lot easier to say ‘Do what I do’ when you have an advantage of some kind. That said, you don’t always find someone like Roy on the other end of things, so maybe not everyone is as prone as their neighbour to the pressure of peer referees. If everyone else jumped off a bridge, Roy would simply be a little more lonely.

For different people under similar circumstances, rules might be interpreted differently or applied unevenly. Unlike sport, though, where the referee is a third party who might still get things right or wrong, the various arbiters we encounter in day-to-day living – just as prone to error – might not be parties of the third order but the first order, i.e. our own self. That might at least be reconcilable. But when they’re a party of the second order, i.e. someone else, perhaps face-to-face, we might more likely face dispute, especially if there’s advantage to be gained, one party over the other, which is why sport needs referees in the first place. In life, if we’re all soccer players, we all share the burden to be the referee. But surely some bear more of that share than others.

Well done to those people. Without the referee, there’s no game for players to play.

Goal!

True North Strong… but Free?

True North Strong… but Free?

The Dog's Bollocks.jpg

post-modern

post-national

non-patriotic

These are all descriptors I’ve encountered for Canada, from one source or another. I can make of each one something contextual. Yet as each suggests a departure or break from something previous, that’s really just a subtle way of saying, “Here’s what we aren’t.”

Yet describing something with negative terminology is ultimately meaningless because it can end up becoming silly; for instance, “I am not a giant Godzilla-like dragon that breaths fire and enjoys sipping my iced coffee on Tuesdays.” We could literally imagine anything that isn’t the case and say as much, and we’re no further ahead knowing what actually is the case.

So when I see descriptors like these – for Canada but really for anything – I’m unclear and confused about what to think. It’s a concern for me, the citizen, because who I am and what I value have direct effect on you and everyone else, and me in return all over again.

In the vaunted year 2015, according to Canada’s newly elected PM, Justin Trudeau, “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.”

Ottawa-Toronto 2015 (Day 1) - 028
Canada’s Parliament Building

Ignoring the post-modern fallacy, i.e. nothing is true other than the statement that confirms nothing is true, this description of Canadian identity also falls in line with the negative terminology and serves as the on-ramp to the freeway of silliness upon which no Godzillas sip their Tuesday coffee.

And where the link above was an American take on our Prime Minister’s interpretation of whom he leads, others have taken noted concern of his statement, too, among them some Canadians whom he leads…

On the other hand, and perhaps in response (?), the Government of Canada is now apparently reversing course, telling Canadians and would-be Canadians something awfully more specific about Canadian identity:

I admit, once more, to losing track as a “Canadian,” although at least this time the terminology is positive: “We are indeed ‘this’ and ‘that.’”

Some pretty specific stuff in this Global Affairs guide. For example…

“When lining up in a public place, the bank for instance, Canadians require at least 14 inches of space…”

Right down to the inch? Granted, I’m not the most social-media savvy citizen you could find, but I think a colloquial Canadian response to this – at least on-line – might be “WTF!!!”

Ottawa-Toronto 2015 (Day 7) - 02
… anybody here still know that guy, Al Waxman?

Still, please don’t let me speak on your behalf. That said, the guide seems to have been compiled by one person in an interview format with a second person because it’s written with a first-person perspective: it’s uniquely Canadian, you might say.

Now, if your rejoinder is to excuse this guide as merely a helpful list of suggestions for what is “Canadian,” then I counter with the challenge to separate, in these suggestions, what are quintessential as compared to what are stereotypical descriptions. After all, what Canadian does NOT love beer and hockey and The Hip, just as they detest the gesturing of hands and public displays of affection?

Bowen Island Day Trip (Greycaps Pre-Season 2015-16) - 44
Beautiful British Columbia

We’re approaching another freeway on-ramp, this one a sloped and slippery freeway that circles and loops and arrives at no particular destination because at its terminus interminably works a construction crew, who build it out just a little further than before, apparently with no idea who they are, or what they do, or – perhaps worst of all – why they might want to reflect, with no small concern, upon the work they consider to be of national significance.

Seriously, am I the only one who’s concerned by this?

 

 

“… Whose the Forest of Them All?” See What I Did There?

Imagine somebody offers you a friendly smile, but you snarl back. What might be their next reaction? Would they be amused and take it as a friendly jibe, just typical “you”? I suppose that would depend on how well they knew you. Would they be bemused because they don’t know you so well? Really, snarling at a friendly smile…? We’re perfect strangers, for goodness’ sake! Would they be confused because they’re not from around here and just can’t reckon the response in any way? A person’s reaction to your snarl might conceivably be anything—it depends on so many factors, and even in these three suggestions, one can find how-many-more details, nuances, and possibilities that take things further. Any “next reaction,” you might finally conclude, just depends on the person.

That response, “it depends,” is often criticised as merely wishy-washy yet, apparently, there’s an ironic ring of absoluteness to it, like the postmodern clarion call that nothing is true except for this statement. The reason I pose the scenario at all is to consider who really provides us with our sense of self. Supposing this person smiled at me, I might snarl in the first way, as a jibe, because I’m sure they’ll get the joke. But what if they don’t get it? What if this person even knows me pretty well, and they just don’t get it, not this time? Or what if they feel this just wasn’t the time for joking around? Their next reaction will depend on these and / or plenty of other factors. But again, I raise the scenario to consider how we gather—or, no no, to consider who really provides us—with our sense of self.

And there you have it, the issue: do we each gather our own sense of self, internally, or do others provide us with our sense of self, externally?

I don’t want to revert simply to the nature-nurture argument or chicken-and-the-egg. We seem inescapably bound to considering these by degree—hence, the absolutism that it depends. So, then, to consider by degree… the metaphor I have in mind is that of a mirror. Something someone does induces a response from me, and subsequently, what I provoke in that other person can tell me something more about myself, so long as I’m willing (and able?) to discern my self—myself?—from what they reflect. Whatever next reaction of theirs follows my snarl, this other person’s reaction serves as a mirrored reflection of me, at least insofar as this other person is concerned. If they laugh at my snarl, then hey, I guess they affirm me as a friend with an appropriate sense of humour; the jibe is appreciated, and maybe we’re even a little closer friends than before. Their positive reaction is my feedback, like looking at myself in a mirror, and my sense of self is in some way provoked on account of them by what they reflect.

I suppose there’s room to discuss a lack of empathy, here, even sociopathic behaviour—these seem also to be part of that endless list of details, nuances, and possibilities. But in acknowledging them, let’s leave them for another day.

If my snarl induces a frown from the other person, or some kind of puzzlement or disapproval, then what they affirm for me is less friendly or wonderful, yet may be just as clear—maybe they snarl back, even more fiercely, or maybe they stomp away with clenched fists. Maybe now I feel worried, in which case my sense of self could suffer from insecurity or dismay—oh dear, they didn’t get the joke! Or maybe they are saddened, and I feel smug—take that, you deserve it—or hostile—get lost, I never liked you anyway—which reinforces my sense of superiority, some kind of self-importance. The list of possibilities goes on—it depends—but, in any case, I’m able to find myself reaffirmed by that other person’s reaction. “Able to” because my snarl clearly exposes my stake in how this other person influences the way I consider my sense of self: why would I even take notice of them in the first place, much less snarl, much less take concern of their next reaction, if they meant nothing to me?

The point is that the other person’s reaction provides me a measure, a reason, a reflection by which to gauge my self as myself. Basically, thank you, because I couldn’t do it without you and everybody else, and you’re welcome because neither could you without me, or everybody else.

Now, pretend there are no other people—you, alone, exist as the sole human being. You happen to be walking through a grove of, say, birch trees, obviously getting no reactions as we’ve just considered about smiles and snarls. But as the wind whishes by, fluttering leaves and swaying branches, you take in the world around you with a relative means of judgment that wades through various combinations of reactors provoking reactions from reactees: Are the trees reacting to me? Is the wind reacting to me, or the trees to the wind? and so forth. You can see all sorts of things happening, but how can you be sure what provokes or reflects what else? Some songbirds are flitting about, high up in the branches: Are they chirping at me? You might not even call them “song” birds (that is, if you even had language—what need for language, really, as one sole person?) For all we know, the birds would actually scare you, and you might rightly call them “scarebirds” or something—in this pretend scenario, with you the sole human being, we’re also pretending that you know nothing in the way of biology or flora or fauna. These are ways of understanding the world developed in the real life community of human beings, not in some pretend scenario of solo existence.

In that land of pretend, after weeks of sunshine, what might be your sense of self on the day it rained, or on the day the leaves yellowed and fell to the ground in heavier, colder winds? Would you even be considering your “self” apart from the entirety of what surrounds you? Here we are, again, at nature-nurture, only this time you might conceivably consider the two in synthesis: not as separately discrete influences—there is nature, and there is nurture—but as one-and-the-same, naturenurture, thereby placing you into the world of existence as part-of-a-greater-whole. Your sense of self could conceivably be more cosmic, in that literal sense of orderliness, and more holistic, in that sense of connectedness. To mix metaphors, you might feel a mere cog in the wheel, a mere wheel of the gears, yet entirely necessary, just the same. Or how about this: I wonder how imperative my right hand feels, as compared to my left, when I write with a pen, but they’re both pretty important when I play golf.

We can conceivably warrant our selves to ourselves, but—as we step back into the land of real life and other people—we cannot live in total oblivion of the people around us. I grant the possibility of living within ourselves as our selves, rendering the responses and reactions of any one, and those alongside, as nothing other than colliding self-interests, but still… That other people can authorize our sense of self—your sense, my sense—seems as inescapable, as definite, as did nature-nurture or chicken-and-the-egg.

In this little thought experiment, I’ve been wondering whether we each sense our self as reflective of the reactions we induce, e.g. the feedback we get after snarling at a friendly smile, seeing that other person as though staring at ourselves in a mirror. And, if so, whether that means we’re each of us necessarily, essentially, and thereby compellingly part of a greater whole, like trees of a forest, or cogs in a wheel, or limbs to a body. And, for all this, maybe it’s only an issue because we’re able to raise the question, to begin with.

The Conceit of A. I.


 

From a technological perspective, I can offer a lay opinion of A.I. But check out some more technical opinions than mine, too:

MIT: The Seven Deadly Sins

Edge: The Myth of AI

The Guardian: The Discourse is Unhinged

NYT: John Markoff

Futurism: You Have No Idea…

IEET: Is AI a Myth?

Open Mind: Provably Beneficial Artificial Intelligence

Medium: A Critical Reading List

AdWeek: Burger King

 


The Conceit of A.I.

Time and energy… the one infinite, the other hardly so. The one an abstraction, the other all too real. But while time ticks ceaselessly onward, energy forever needs replenishing. We assign arbitrary limits to time, by calendar, by clock, and as the saying goes, there’s only so much time in a day. Energy, too, we can measure, yet often we equate both time and energy monetarily, if not by actual dollars and cents: we can pay attention, spend a day at the beach, save energy – the less you burn, the more you earn! And certainly, as with money, most people would agree that we just never seem to have enough time or energy.

Another way to frame time and energy is as an investment. We might invest our time and energy learning to be literate, or proficient with various tools, or with some device that requires skilful application. Everything, from a keyboard or a forklift or a tennis racquet to a paring knife or an elevator or a golf club to a cell phone or a self-serve kiosk or the new TV remote, everything takes some knowledge and practice. By that measure, there are all kinds of literacies – we might even say, one of every kind. But no matter what it is, or how long it takes to master, or why we’d even bother, we shall reap what we sow, which is an investment analogy I bet nobody expected.

Technology returns efficiency. In fact, like nothing else, it excels at creating surplus time and energy, enabling us to devote ourselves to other things and improve whichever so-called literacies we choose. The corollary, of course, is that some literacies fade as technology advances. Does this matter, with so many diverse interests and only so much time and energy to invest? How many of us even try everything we encounter, much less master it? Besides, for every technological advancement we face, a whole new batch of things must now be learned. So, for all that technological advancement aids our learning and creates surplus time and energy, we as learners remain the central determinant as to how to use our time and energy.

Enter the classroom what’s lately been called Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). Of course, A.I. has received plenty of enthusiastic attention, concern, and critique as a developing technological tool, for learning as well as plenty other endeavours and industries. A lengthy consideration from The New York Times offers a useful, broad overview of A.I.: a kind of sophisticated computer programming that collates, provides, and predicts information in real time. Silicon Valley designers aim to have A.I. work at least somewhat independently of its users, so they have stepped away from older, familiar input-output modes, what’s called symbolic A.I., a “top down” approach that demands tediously lengthy entry of preparatory rules and data. Instead, they are engineering “from the ground up,” building inside the computer a neural network that mimics a brain – albeit, a very small one, rivalling a mouse – that can teach itself via trial-and-error to detect and assess patterns found in the data that its computer receives. At these highest echelons, the advancement of A.I. is awe-inspiring.

Now for the polemic.

In the field of education, where I’m trained and most familiar, nothing about A.I. is nearly so clear. Typically, I’ve found classroom A.I. described cursorily, by function or task:

  • A.I. facilitates individualized learning
  • A.I. furnishes helpful feedback
  • A.I. monitors student progress
  • A.I. highlights possible areas of concern
  • A.I. lightens the marking load

On it goes… A.I., the panacea. Okay, then, so in a classroom, how should we picture what is meant by “A.I.”?

Mr. Dukane
“Anybody remember Mr. Dukane?”

Specific examples of classroom A.I. are hard to come by, beyond top ten lists and other generalized descriptions. I remember those library film-strip projectors we used in Grade 1, with the tape decks attached. Pressing “Play,” “Stop,” and “Eject” was easy enough for my six year-old fingers, thanks to engineers who designed the machines and producers who made the film strips, even if the odd time the librarian had to load them for us. (At home, in a similar vein, how many parents ruefully if necessarily consider the T.V. a “babysitter” although, granted, these days it’s probably an iPad. But personification does not make for intelligence… does it? Didn’t we all understand that Max Headroom was just a cartoon?) There’s a trivia game app with the hand-held clickers, and there’s an on-line plagiarism detector – both, apparently, are A.I. For years, I had a Smart Board although I think that kind of branding is just so much capitalism and harshly cynical. Next to the Smart Board was a whiteboard, and I used to wonder if, someday, they’d develop some windshield wiper thing to clean it. I even wondered if someday I wouldn’t use it anymore. For the record, I like whiteboards. I use them, happily, all the time.

Look, I can appreciate this “ground-up” concept as it applies to e-machines. (I taught English for sixteen years, so metaphor’s my thing.) But intelligence? Anyway, there seems no clear definition of classroom A.I., and far from seeming intelligent to me, none of what’s out there even seems particularly dim-witted so much as pre-programmed. As far as I can tell, so-called classroom A.I. is stuff that’s been with us all along, no different these days than any tool we already know and use. So how is “classroom A.I.” A. I. of any kind, symbolic or otherwise?

"... so whose the Sub?"
“Hey, so who’s the Sub today?”

Symbolic A.I., at least the basis of it, seems not too dissimilar to what I remember about computers and even some video arcade favourites from back in the day. Granted, integrated circuits and micro-processers are a tad smaller and faster these days compared to, say, 1982 (… technology benefitting from its own surplus?). Perhaps more germane to this issue is the learning curve, the literacy, demanded of something “intelligent.” Apparently, a robot vacuum learns the room that it cleans, which as I gather is the “ground-up” kind of Symbolic A.I. Now, for all the respect and awe I can muster for a vacuum cleaner—and setting all “ground-up” puns aside—I still expect slightly less from this robot than passing the written analysis section of the final exam. (I taught English for sixteen years, so written analysis is my thing.) It seems to me that a given tool can be no more effective than its engineering and usage, and for that, isn’t A.I.’s “intelligence” more indicative of its creator’s ingenuity or its user’s aptitude than of itself or its pre-programmed attributes?

Press Any Key to Begin

By the same token, could proponents of classroom A.I. maybe just ease off a bit from their retcon appropriation of language? I appreciate getting caught up in the excitement, the hype—I mean, it’s 21st century mania out there, candy floss and roller coasters—but that doesn’t mean you can just go about proclaiming things as “A.I.” or, worse, proclaiming A.I. to be some burgeoning technological wonder of classrooms nationwide when… it’s really not. Current classroom A.I. is simply every device that has always already existed in classrooms for decades—that could include living breathing teachers, if the list of functions above is any guide. Okay then, hey! just for fun: if classroom tools can include teachers who live and breathe, by the same turn let’s be more inclusive and call A.I. a “substitute teacher.”

Another similarly common tendency I’ve noted in descriptions of classroom A.I. is to use words like “data,” “algorithm,” and “training” as anthropomorphic proxy for experience, decision-making, and judgment, i.e. for learning. Such connotations are applied as simply as we might borrow a shirt from our sibling’s closet, as liberally as we might shake salt on fries, and they appeal to the like-minded, who share the same excitement. To my mind, judicious intelligence is never so cavalier, and it doesn’t take much horse-sense to know that too much salt is bad for you, or that your sibling might be pissed off after they find their shirt missing. As for actually manufacturing some kind of machine-based intelligence, well… it sure is easy to name something “Artificial Intelligence,” much less bestow “intelligence” by simply declaring it! The kind of help I had back in the day, as I see it, was something I just now decided to call “S.I.”: sentient intelligence.

Facetiousness aside, I grant probably every teacher has spent some time flying on auto-pilot, and I’ve definitely had days that left me feeling like an android. And fair enough: something new shakes things up and may require some basic literacy. There’s no proper use of any tool, device, or interface without some learned practical foundation: pencil and paper, protractor, chalk slates, the abacus. How about books, or by ultimate extension, written language, itself? These are all teaching tools, and each has a learning curve. So is A.I. a tool, a device, an interface? All of the above? I draw the line where it comes to classroom tools that don’t coach the basketball team or have kids of their own to pick up by 5pm: the moniker, “A.I.,” seems more than a bit generous. And hey, one more thing, on that note: wouldn’t a truer account of A.I., the tool, honour its overt yet seemingly ignored tag, “artificial”? R2D2 and C-3PO may be the droids we’re looking for, but they’re still just science fiction.

Fantastic tales aside, technological advancements in what is called the field of A.I. have and will continue to yield useful, efficient innovation. And now I mean real Silicon Valley A.I., not retcon classroom A.I. But even so, to what ends? What specifically is this-or-that A.I. for? In a word: why? We’re headed down an ontological road, and even though people can’t agree on whether we can truly consider our self, we’re proceeding with A.I. in the eventual belief that it can. “It will,” some say. Not likely, I suspect. Not ever. But even if I’m wrong, why would anyone hope that A.I. could think for itself?

Artificial Intelligence
10. Be “A.I.”    20. Go to 10     Run

Hasn’t Heidegger presented us with enough of a challenge, as it is? Speaking of time and energy, let’s talk opportunity costs. Far greater minds than mine have lamented our ominous embrace with technology. Isn’t the time and energy spent on A.I.—every second, every joule of it—a slap-in-the-face of our young people and the investment that could have been made in them? It’s ironic that we teach them to develop the very technology that will eventually wash them away.

Except that it won’t. I may be out on a limb to say so, but I suspect we will sooner fall prey to the Twitterverse and screen-worship than A.I. will fulfil some sentient Rise of the Machines. The Borg make good villains, and even as I watch a lobby full of Senior Band students in Italy, staring at their iPhones, and fear assimilation and, yes, worry for humanity… I reconsider because the Borg are still just a metaphor (… sixteen years, remember?). Anyway, as a teacher I am more driven to reach my students with my own message than I am to snatch that blasted iPhone from their hands, much as I might like to. On the other hand, faced with a dystopian onslaught of Replicants, Westworld Gunslingers, and Decepticons, would we not find ourselves merely quivering under the bed, frantically reading up on Isaac Asimov while awaiting the arrival of Iron Man? Even Luke Skywalker proved susceptible to the Dark Side’s tempting allure of Mechanized Humanity; what possible response could we expect from a mere IB cohort of inquiry-based Grade 12 critical thinkers and problem-solvers?

The Borg
“Resistance is futile.”

At the very least, any interruption of learners by teachers with some classroom tool ought to be (i) preceded by a primer on its literacy, i.e. explaining how to use that particular tool in (ii) a meaningful context or future setting, i.e. explaining why to use that particular tool, before anybody (iii) begins rehearsing and/or mastering that particular tool, i.e. successfully executing whatever it does. If technology helps create surplus time and energy, then how and why and what had better be considered because we only have so much time and energy at our disposal. The what, the how, and the why are hardly new concepts, but they aren’t always fully considered or appreciated either. They are, however, a means of helpful focusing that few lessons should be without.

As a teacher, sure, I tend to think about the future. But that means spending time and paying attention to what we’re up to, here and now, in the present. To that end, I have an interest in protecting words like “learning” and “intelligence” from ambiguity and overuse. For all the 21st century hearts thumping over the Cinderella-transformation of ENIAC programmable computation to A.I., and the I.o.T., and whatever lies beyond, our meagre acknowledgement of the ugly step-sister, artificiality, is foreboding. Mimicry is inauthentic, but neither is it without consequence. Let’s take care that the tools we create as means don’t replace the ends we originally had in mind because if any one human trait can match the trumpeting of technology’s sky-high potential—for me at least, not sure for you—I’d say its hubris.

Another fantastic tale comes to mind: Frankenstein’s monster. Technological advancement can be as wonderful as horrifying, probably usually somewhere in between. However it’s characterised or defined, though, by those who create it, it will be realised in the end by those who use it, if not those who face it. For most people, the concept of cell phones in 1982 was hardly imagined. Four decades later, faces down and thumbs rapid-fire, the ubiquity of cell phones is hardly noticed.

I May Be Wrong About This, But…

Before introducing the moral pairing of right and wrong to my students, I actually began with selfish and selfless because I believe morality has a subjective element, even in the context of religion where we tend to decide for ourselves whether or not we believe or ascribe to a faith.

As I propose them, selfish and selfless are literal, more tangible, even quantifiable: there’s me, and there’s not me. For this reason, I conversely used right and wrong to discuss thinking and bias. For instance, we often discussed Hamlet’s invocation of thinking: “… there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (II, ii, 249-250). Good and bad, good and evil, right and wrong… while not exactly synonymous, these different pairings do play in the same ballpark. Still, as I often said to my students about synonyms, “If they meant the same thing, we’d use the same word.” So leaving good and bad to the pet dog, and good and evil to fairy tales, I presently consider the pairing of right and wrong, by which I mean morality, as a means to reconcile Hamlet’s declaration about thinking as some kind of moral authority.

My own thinking is that we have an innate sense of right and wrong, deriving in part from empathy, our capacity to stand in someone else’s shoes and identify with that perspective – look no further than storytelling itself. Being intrinsic and relative to others, empathy suggests an emotional response and opens the door to compassion, what we sometimes call the Golden Rule. Compassion, for Martha Nussbaum, is that means of “[hooking] our imaginations to the good of others… an invaluable way of extending our ethical awareness” (pp. 13-14). Of course, the better the storytelling, the sharper the hook, and the more we can relate; with more to go on, our capacity for empathy, i.e. our compassion, rises. Does that mean we actually will care more? Who knows! But I think the more we care about others, the more we tend to agree with them about life and living. If all this is so, broadly speaking, if our measure for right derives from empathy, then perhaps one measure for what is right is compassion.

And if we don’t care, or care less? After all, empathy’s no guarantee. We might just as reasonably expect to face from other people continued self-interest, deriving from “the more intense and ambivalent emotions of… personal life” (p. 14). Emotions have “history,” Nussbaum decides (p. 175), which we remember in our day-to-day encounters. They are, in general, multifaceted, neither a “special saintly distillation” of positive nor some “dark and selfish” litany of negative, to use the words of Robert Solomon (p. 4). In fact, Solomon claims that we’re not naturally selfish to begin with, and although I disagree with that, on its face, I might accept it with qualification: our relationships can supersede our selfishness when we decide to prioritise them. So if we accept that right and wrong are sensed not just individually but collectively, we might even anticipate where one could compel another to agree. Alongside compassion, then, to help measure right, perhaps coercion can help us to measure wrong: yes, we may care about other people, but if we care for some reason, maybe that’s why we agree with them, or assist them, or whatever. Yet maybe we’re just out to gain for ourselves. Whatever our motive, we treat other people accordingly, and it all gets variously deemed “right” or “wrong.”

I’m not suggesting morality is limited solely to the workings of compassion and coercion, but since I limited this discussion to right and wrong, I hope it’s helping illuminate why I had students begin first with what is selfish and selfless. That matters get “variously deemed,” as I’ve just put it, suggests that people seldom see any-and-all things so morally black and white as to conclude, “That is definitely wrong, and this is obviously right.” Sometimes, of course, but not all people always for all things. Everybody having an opinion – mine being mine, yours being yours, as the case may be – that’s still neither here nor there to the fact that every body has an opinion, mine being mine and yours being yours. On some things, we’ll agree while, on some things, we won’t.

At issue is the degree that I’m (un)able to make personal decisions about right and wrong, the degree that I might feel conspicuous, perhaps uneasy, even cornered or fearful – and wrong – as compared to feeling assured, supported, or proud, even sanctimonious – and right. Standing alone from the crowd can be, well… lonely. What’s more, having some innate sense of right and wrong doesn’t necessarily help me act, not if I feel alone, particularly not if I feel exposed. At that point, whether from peer pressure or social custom peering over my shoulder, the moral question about right and wrong can lapse into an ethical dilemma, the moral spectacle of my right confronted by some other right: would I steal a loaf of bread to feed my starving family? For me, morality is mediated (although not necessarily defined, as Hamlet suggests) by where one stands at that moment, by perspective, in which I include experience, education, relationships, and whatever values and beliefs one brings to the decisive moment. I’m implying what amounts to conscience as a personal measure for morality, but there’s that one more consideration that keeps intervening: community. Other people. Besides selfish me, everybody else. Selfless not me.

Since we stand so often as members of communities, we inevitably derive some values and beliefs from those pre-eminent opinions and long-standing traditions that comprise them. Yet I hardly mean to suggest that a shared culture of community is uniform – again, few matters are so black or white. Despite all that might be commonly held, individual beliefs comprising shared culture, if anything, are likely heterogeneous: it’s the proverbial family dinner table on election night. Even “shared” doesn’t rule out some differentiation. Conceivably, there could be as many opinions as people possessing them. What we understand as conscience, then, isn’t limited to what “I believe” because it still may not be so easy to disregard how-many-other opinions and traditions. Hence the need for discussion – to listen, and think – for mutual understanding, in order to determine right from wrong. Morality, in that sense, is concerted self-awareness plus empathy, the realised outcome of combined inner and outer influences, as we actively and intuitively adopt measures that compare how much we care about the things we face everyday.

Say we encounter someone enduring loss or pain. We still might conceivably halt our sympathies before falling too deeply into them: Don’t get too involved, you might tell yourself, you’ve got plenty of your own to deal with. Maybe cold reason deserves a reputation for callusing our decision-making, but evidently, empathy does not preclude our capacity to reason with self. On the other hand, as inconsistent as it might seem, one could not function or decide much of anything, individually, without empathy because, without it, we would have no measure. As we seem able to reason past our own feelings, we also wrestle echoing pangs of conscience that tug from the other side, which sometimes we call compassion or, other times, a guilt trip. Whatever to call it, clearly we hardly live like hermits, devoid of human contact and its resultant emotions. Right and wrong, in that respect, are socially individually determined.

One more example… there’s this argument that we’re desensitized by movies, video games, the TV news cycle, and so forth. For how-many-people, news coverage of a war-torn city warrants hardly more than the glance at the weather report that follows. In fact, for how-many-people, the weather matters more. Does this detachment arise from watching things once-removed, two-dimensionally, on a viewscreen? Surely, attitudes would be different if, instead of rain, it were shells and bombs falling on our heads from above. Is it no surprise, then, as easily as we’re shocked or distressed by the immediacy of witnessing a car accident on the way to our favourite restaurant, that fifteen minutes later we might conceivably feel more annoyed that there’s no parking? Or that, fifteen minutes later again, engrossed by a menu of appetizers and entrees and desserts, we’re exasperated because they’re out of fresh calamari. Are right and wrong more individually than socially determined? Have we just become adept at prioritising them, even diverting them, by whatever is immediately critical to individual well-being? That victim of the car accident isn’t nearly as worried about missing their dinner reservation.

Somewhat aside from all this, but not really… I partially accept the idea that we can’t control what happens, we can only control our response. By “partially” I mean that, given time, yes, we learn to reflect, plan, act, and keep calm carrying on like the greatest of t-shirts. After a while, we grow more accustomed to challenges and learn to cope. But sometimes what we encounter is so sudden, or unexpected, or shocking that we can’t contain a visceral response, no matter how accustomed or disciplined we may be. However, there is a way to take Hamlet’s remark about “thinking” that upends this entire meditation, as if to say our reaction was predisposed, even premeditated, like having a crystal ball that foresees the upcoming shock. Then we could prepare ourselves, rationalise, and control not what happens but our response to it while simply awaiting the playing-out of events.

Is Solomon wise to claim that we aren’t essentially or naturally selfish? Maybe he just travelled in kinder, gentler circles – certainly, he was greatly admired. Alas, though, poor Hamlet… troubled by jealousy, troubled by conscience, troubled by ignorance or by knowledge, troubled by anger and death. Troubled by love and honesty, troubled by trust. Troubled by religion, philosophy, troubled by existence itself. Is there a more selfish character in literature? He’s definitely more selfish than me! Or maybe… maybe Hamlet’s right, after all, and it really is all just how you look at things: good or bad, it’s really just a state of mind. For my part, I just can’t shake the sense that Solomon’s wrong about our innate selfishness, and for that, I guess I’m my own best example. So, for being unable to accept his claim, well, I guess that one’s on me.

A Kind of Certainty: V. Fleeting Uncertainty

Click here to read Pt IV. A Kind of Faith

 


A Kind of Certainty

5. Fleeting Uncertainty

Like a vast sea of experience is all that we know and learn and encounter every single day. We are but tiny ships bobbing and rolling upon its waves, its currents steering us here and there. How on earth do we discern and decide what we value, what we believe, in order to collaborate with others in meaningful curricular relationships? (I almost wish I could just be waylaid by pirates, or something.) For me, one way to decide is to consider our shared motives, and find incentives to collaborate from there. Notwithstanding the degree to which people are educated, or by whom, everybody has motives.

But we do not all necessarily have a particular destination or a future port-of-call. So the aim for curriculum appears to be that of shaping motives to coincide with the current state of affairs such that, in a broad sense, people can (a) function – a measure of the self-ful[1] – and then (b) contribute – a measure of the selfless. Upon this vast sea, we are not so much bound for any one destination as we are bound to assist each other, each underway to wherever best suits our particular circumstances at that time – yours for you, and mine for me – and let the tangents direct us as they will.

Education, I have come to learn, is learning to have more than a destination or purpose of my own. It is to convoy with others and have faith that they do the same for others and for me, and putting in to decidedly worthwhile ports-of-call on the way. On the way, we chart our courses, but as similar as the ocean might look any given moment, wave after rolling wave, no two moments are ever exactly alike. To that degree, everyone must chart on their own. How intentionally we aid each other, how much or how little we trust, how sincerely we navigate, it is our shared curricula that will determine how effectively we undertake any particular decision we are ever likely to face, alongside whomever we find ourselves. The more we convoy in earnest, the safer we will be. With that kind of support, what is it that would sink us?

One final cautionary note: if and when some finally do make landfall somewhere, with certainty to their decision, we must acknowledge that their perspective will shift dramatically from those others who remain, however more or less certain to remain, at sea. Not everyone wants to remain at sea, and such variances our curricula are obliged to accommodate, if not fully comprehend or appreciate. There on that solid shore might be a tighter homogeneous culture that yields a more one-sided – or dogmatic? prejudiced? – communal certainty all its own. On that shore we might find a trade-off that sets the communal trustworthiness of the bobbing convoy against the stable individual footing of landfall. Yet somehow we all must sustain what we share, no matter the differences that may arise between sailor and landlubber – and why?

Because what remains the same amongst us – indeed, that which makes us who and what we are – is what we have in common. Common to all of us is being alive, being a person, being a human being, someone deserving of a basic respect for human dignity. Each of us, all of us, every one of us. We are all people. In this regard, really all that differs between us is where we are, and when. For people to think in any way differently than this about other people is narrow, delusional, perhaps cruel, and flat-out wrong. That may hardly feel a satisfactory closing, maybe even anti-climactic, but who ever said learning was meant to be entertainment?[2] Learning’s the thing wherein we catch the conscience of each other.

 

Click here for the Bibliography

Click here to read Pt I. An Uncertain Faith

 


Endnotes

[1] Forgive the invention, “self-ful.” I hesitated to use “selfish,” which tends to connote self-seeking and self-aggrandizing behaviour (in that colloquial sense of “No, you can’t have any of my ice cream”), and taking inspiration from the Bard, I just made up a word of my own. Likewise, I do not use “selfless” in some altruistic way so much as simply to counter “self-ful”; as a pair, I intend them to signify simply the notion of there being, for each of us, an intrinsic “me” and plenty of extrinsic “not me’s.” Further, with my students, I would liken self-fulness to each one’s academic efforts and scholarship, and selflessness to voluntary service and community stewardship of whatever kind. The longer-term idea was teaching students to balance these as required by kairos, by circumstance – an appropriate time for each, and the wisdom to know the difference.

[2] Or maybe, just maybe, there’s a curricular role for those gnarly amphibious surfers, after all.

Hawai'i Summer 2008
Teacher at work: catch a wave to catch the conscience?

A Kind of Certainty: III. A Scripture of Truth

Click here to read Pt II. Curriculum, or What You Will

 


A Kind of Certainty

3. A Scripture of Truth

Motive is the key, I would suggest to students: to know motive is to know the truth. And I offered this suggestion knowing full-well the timeworn joke about the actor who asks, “What’s my motivation?” Whats the Motivation Just as we can never cover it all and must go with whatever we decide to include, we also cannot (nor should not) try to present it all, ask it all, or attempt it all in one go. Yes, the odd non sequitur can break the monotony – everyone needs a laugh, now and then. But as with all clever comedy, timing is everything, and curriculum is about more than good humour and bad logic. In that regard, given what has already been said about spotting pertinence, curriculum is about motives: to include, or not to include.

And we must try to comprehend this decision from more than one perspective; each in their own way, both teacher and student ponder what to include and what to disregard during any given lesson: “Teachers are problem-posing, not just in the obvious sense that they require students to doubt whether they know something… [but] implicitly [asking] them to question their understanding of what counts as knowledge” (Beckett, 2013, p. 54-55). People generally will not doubt themselves without good reason, or else with a lot of faith in whoever is asking. Challenged to reconstruct or reorganise an experience (Dewey, 1916), more than likely we will want to know why. Curriculum addresses ‘why’.

Why! take Hamlet, for instance… deigning to know a little something about role-playing, he offers some curricular particulars while lecturing the Players ahead of the Mousetrap performance, although really this is to say Shakespeare offered them. Writers famously cringe as rehearsing actors and directors dismember their carefully worked dialogue – or is that another hackneyed joke? In any case, Shakespeare opens Act 3 with some forty lines of advice from Hamlet to the Players, whose replies are little beyond short and polite (although ‘why’ has evidently been left for you and your theatre company to ascertain). These follow some forty lines in Act 2 during an exchange between Hamlet and Rosencrantz about theatre companies, all of which could simply be played as a dose of comic relief amidst the far “weightier matters” of the play (Guyton, 2013). Tried another way, Hamlet’s lines about acting embody the very perplexity of his prolonged tumult: he takes for granted that his listener will attempt to reconcile what he says with whatever uncertainty they might have. What better job description, a “teacher”? Otherwise, why even bother to open his mouth?

What need to teach when we trust that we are all alike, that all around is 100% certain? As it pertains to telling the Players about acting, Hamlet wants no assurance that his audience must bridge some gap of certainty over his trustworthiness, not so far as he is concerned.[1] Indeed, common to live productions that I have watched, he is as relaxed and certain in offering his advice as the Players are in hearing it, like preaching to the choir.[2] Their relationship, apparently going back some time, suggests mutual respect and a shared faith not merely to listen but to understand in listening. It suggests a kind of shared attunement, something mutual, like a kind of curriculum founded upon trust. For all we might want to trust those around us, for all we might want some certainty that we are respected by others – or, perhaps more so, that we are believed – what a torment life would be if our every utterance were considered a lie. Then the only certainty would be the assurance that no one ever believed you, and if that still counts for something, it is dreadfully cold comfort.[3]

We citizens of 21st century post-modernist [your label here] North America may not have descended nearly so low although Klein (2014) does presciently discuss politics, the national discourse, and an observed decline in public intellectualism (Byers, 2014; Coates, 2014; Herman, 2017; Mishra & Gregory, 2015). Where Klein encompasses individuals and the processes, systems, and institutions that they innervate while going about their daily lives, he describes Dewey’s “conjoint communicated experience” (Dewey, 1916, p. 101) and implicates “an extraordinarily complicated conversation” (Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery & Taubman, 2006, p. 848), one that occurs everyday and includes everybody. But since we are forbidden to compel but only persuade the beliefs of free thinkers, we realise that all our perceived uncertainty can only be bridged by a kind of faith: we depend either upon others to see things as we do, or else we depend upon our rhetorical skill to persuade them toward our way. Or we live tense lives full of disagreement and antipathy. ’Swounds, but life would be a lot more stable and certain if we all just believed the same things!

Hamlet craves certainty, to the point where the dilemma of his doubt halts him so dead in his tracks that he is prompted to question existence itself. Where it comes to enacting vengeance – but, really, where it comes to everything we witness in the play – Hamlet – and, really, every character[4] – craves certainty and assurance while suffering from uncertainty and reluctance, which means, of course, that he craves and suffers from both ends. Indeed, a piece of him is certain. But comprising “one part wisdom and ever three parts coward” (4.4.42-43), he wages an unequal battle against himself. He wanders from room to room searching to free himself from his purgatorial tesseract, challenged not simply by one retrograde faith but by several, the consequence of conveying curriculum from Wittenberg back to Elsinore where, previously, he had received, to say the least, an impressionable upbringing. The upshot, given the conflicting decisions he faces, is that Hamlet would rather renounce any mutual faith of any sort and rely upon a certainty all his own: himself.

Yet he even doubts his ability to self-persuade, just as he holds no faith in anyone whose judgment he fears. As a result, he is rightly miserable and lives an exaggerated moment-to-moment existence, “…enraptured with, submerged in, the present, no longer a moment in but a suspension of time, absorbed by – fused with – the images in front of [his] face, oblivious to what might be beyond [him]” (Pinar, 2017, p. 12). Pinar describes a kairos moment of chronos time, as if Cecelia, while watching The Purple Rose of Cairo (Greenhut & Allen, 1985), could press “Pause.” He may not have been Woody Allen’s modernist contemporary, but Shakespeare still appeared to possess enough prescience to machinate a rather, shall we say, enlightened viewpoint; many consider The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark to be the Magnum Opus of English literature, not just Shakespeare. Evidently, he knew exactly how to craft such a rich and roundly individuated protagonist, one certain enough to persist for over 400 years. Certainty the Bard found within himself, and that he bestows (albeit perversely) upon Prince Hamlet, who “[knows] not seems” (1.2.76). Faith he found within himself, too, but that he saves for his audience, trusting them, freeing them, to spot it when the time is right, rendering what they will get unto those who will get it.

By the same token, may the rest get whatever they will get. As far as curriculum is concerned, one size has never fit all, nor should it ever be so.

 

Click here for the Bibliography

Click here to read Pt IV. A Kind of Faith

 


Endnotes

[1] I always suspected a handful of my students were just humoring me – have I mentioned they were brilliant?

[2] Sometimes, these lines have even been cut, to help shorten the play from its typical four-hour length.

[3] Elsinore seems just such a place. But they are wise who “… give it welcome” (1.5.165) since at least, then, you can get on with functioning, knowing where you stand relative to all the other prevaricating liars and weasels who inhabit the place alongside you.

[4] Every character, that is, with the possible exceptions of the Gravedigger, who apparently is most cheerful and self-assured, and Fortinbras, who suffers perhaps not pains of doubt so much as loss, and then always with something up his sleeve. I might also include Horatio in this reflection, but I fear, then, the need for an endnote to the endnotes, to do him any justice.