We Make Claims

“We make claims,” I used to tell students writing essays, “because somehow something prompts us.” In the spirit of the best constructivists, I encouraged my students to build and rebuild not just what they knew, but how and why they knew it.

A common pitfall in essay writing is that claims without evidence just mean you spin and spin. “So,” I suggested to students (… paraphrasing here), “cite the evidence that prompted the claim, then write an explanation. There’s your essay.”

Sample: “I think ‘X’, and it was ‘Y’ that made me think so. Explain, explain, explain.”

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Some years later, and my return to the land of academia… I’m facing the exact opposite prescription: all knowledge is provisional. Lay claim at your peril. Abandon all certainty, ye who enter here. Just deserts! my students might say… well, I have been feeling their pain, if not their well-wishes.

Generally, people won’t doubt themselves without good reason, or else they will as long as they have a lot of faith in the person asking. Yet if (… that’s “if”) we can only note what matters to us from a reference point, then we also bring to bear only what we decide is most relevant to the moment. And since (… that’s “since”) nothing occurs in a vacuum, any detail might be informative. So let’s not ask, “In what ways do I already know what I’m looking at?” That kind of certainty yields self-fulfilling prophecy. Academically, I get the admonishment of certainty.

By definition, “evidence” is only useful because it’s meaningful; something is chosen to be evidence for a reason: we’ll know it when we see it. In other words, we can make shit up. So, to be more responsible, let’s ask, “In what ways do I not know what I am looking at?” Asking this, I feel I’m more academically willing to abandon “certainty” because I can fill the vacuum with a different kind of certainty, what I’ve called a kind of faith.

I don’t define what I’m looking at, yet I also don’t abandon myself – it’s more like I study the overlap between the two. Where do I end, and this other thing begin? Somewhere in between is a claim waiting to be made.

If certainty makes evidence possible in support of a claim – which is induction – then faith makes claims possible that require supporting evidence – which is deduction. In either case, however, I suppose you can see what you wish to see.

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Where it comes to knowledge, we all land somewhere: we all believe something, no matter what the most die-hard postmodernist might *ahem* claim. In fact, our claims to know [something particular] are rampant. And I suppose that’s the problem (… if all this is a problem). It seems to me there’s no learning without prior certainty, some departure point, “Here’s what I know,” even if that simply means, “I’m certain I don’t know.” That said, it’s the rare Socrates in this day and age, even on campus – some might say especially on campus.

To start with certainty is induction, and starting this way is the pitfall of induction because, unless claims come first, i.e. deduction, any evidence might seem self-serving. To lay claims first instead, then support them with evidence, i.e. to deduce, is helpful if only because, then, we have a measure for where to go next. But, as I caution above, there is a chicken-egg conundrum to all this.

I’m pretty– well, er, certain that there’s no problematizing without prior learning, by which I mean certainty. We all land somewhere. (As I gather, problematizing is identifying and questioning these taken-for-granted landed assumptions, a step toward assessing whether we ought to renovate what we know, i.e. whether we ought to learn.) As I say, I think I get why the academic embrace of uncertainty is worthwhile. By all means, let the academy embrace uncertainty: societal dynamics are varied and vast, as complementary and collaborative as confrontational and competitive. In fact, if it weren’t for the intervention of others, we’d be forever fated to know just one sole perspective, and it’s the very, very few – not the many – whose lives are that alone. You can ask Alcibiades: Socrates was no strict loner.

Let me be as Hegelian as I can, and it isn’t much. I believe our world is holistic, by which I mean all the pushing and pulling from its cultural edges, all the polarisation and extremism… as I see it, what all this outer pressure does is help everyone to steer a steadier moderate middle course. To think we don’t need these outer fringes, to wish them begone, it may be more accurate to say we simply don’t want them: how many dwell in The Land of Should, where the way things are is certain in deed. How many, indeed, if not every single one of us?

For my part, I wonder, albeit somewhat perversely, whether we do need those outer pressures because they help to impel us someplace, by showing us where to avoid – that is, as long as they’re not popular so much as just noisy. One squeaky wheel, annoying yet tolerable; all four wheels is a call for repair. Luckily, a car only has four wheels although, not so luckily, two each are found on only one side. Luckily, there’s a steering column.

Of course, our world has more than two sides, and the more crowded it gets on the outer edges, well… at least may our course corrections steer us with most predictable stability rather than surprise. As such, again in the best spirit of Socratic humility, let the academy or anyone else ponder to their heart’s content, as uncertain as they want to be, just as more certain folks shall also cast due influence – it takes all kinds, as the saying goes, although even in those Student Driver cars, really only one person at a time can be the driver. So let’s beware any (… that’s “any”) dominance, if we claim to be making room for all, because something else available to all is hypocrisy. And yes, the whole car-thing has kind of broken down here, hasn’t it?

I’m unable to say just now who’s less likely to heed this post: those who are certain they know and will tell you why they’re right, or those who are certain they don’t know and will tell you why you’re wrong. And if that’s not perverse or hypocritical, let’s still say it’s ironic, and a little comical.

Just as likely, I’ll luck out as no one at all will care. Or it could be some will care just enough to send this viral: be it an essay, a blog post or, God help us, a Tweet, some claims we stake pay off beyond all expectation while some go unpardonably bust – and believe me, for all I’ve laboured to get this post written just-so, I’m still unsatisfied. So why even publish it? Why claim anything at all, including uncertainty?

For complementarity, for a certain worldview, for those loudest who know best… I wonder whether the one who makes the claim is nearly so key as the one for whom the claim is made – which leaves out to whom, but that’s fine. And I wonder how insidiously our ends and our means grow conflated and confused.

Featured Image in the public domain

The Bridge to Hell…

Peter Benson’s article, “Francis Fukuyama and the Perils of Identity,” in Philosophy Now (Issue 136), got me thinking again about multiculturalism. I’ve had plenty to say about multiculturalism – seldom positive – although none of it here on The Rhetorical WHY.

If you haven’t yet leaped to conclusions about me, I’ll point out that the full title of this post is “The Bridge to Hell is Paved with Problematic Intention.” It’s meant to be a little satirical, a little disparaging. It’s a wordy mash-up of axioms, cultural and academic. I’m okay with wordy this time.

I’m also conscious of the juxtaposition of my crude title and the wisdom of Dr. King. I’m less okay with this but felt the contrast worth any shock, ambiguity, or misapprehension.

Read on, and take issue as you must or as you will.


The Bridge to Hell is Paved with Problematic Intention

Has the trumpeting of multiculturalism taken itself so literally that even individualism (… multipersonism?) is insufficient?

Taking itself, as I say, more literally, multiculturalism sets one culture at equal stature with the rest – seems fair enough – apparently, a shift in meaning from diversity to inclusion, which implies that diversity wasn’t working on account of exclusion.

So, within Culture X or Culture Y, as we might imagine an individual being equal alongside other members, we can imagine across the two cultures potential impasse: “… unresolvable conflicts between mutually exclusive viewpoints [that] dominate the political landscape” (Benson, 2020). I still grant here individual differences, but I have in mind some divide between distinct communities of individuals, i.e. a divide between cultures.

In relation to Culture Y, for example, Culture X might deem its equality mere lip-service and feel de facto unequal: “How are we in Culture X obliged to consider those in Culture Y as ‘equal’ if our culture is not equal to theirs?

Image by MetsikGarden from Pixabay
Image by MetsikGarden from Pixabay

“How can we treat them as equals, much less be treated as equals, if our larger culture is not equal – that is, if Culture Y does not accept us on equal terms?” Culture Y might declare all individuals equal to begin with and counter that Culture X only perceives inequality. Yet this simply compounds the same injustice for Culture X, who will hardly waive their due consideration.

In any case, equality of cultures seems not the same thing and unable to play out to the same effect as equality of individuals – even more so since an individual who identifies with more than one culture might feel strewn across their own intersections. (Curiously, this assumes one’s identity to be chosen as much as bestowed, which echoes individualism as much as collectivism.) In fact, if equating cultures equates individuals, then equality rests further upon equity, a mantle of justice issuing from a superior authority.

Perhaps Culture Y lives by some unproblematic axiom, such as ‘might makes right’, ‘stay the course’, or even just ‘common sense’ while Culture X lives by ‘power to the people’, ‘diversity is strength’, or ‘revolution is no dinner party’. Can they bridge their divide? Is one culture responsible to reach across, as it were, halfway? We might define an obligation to come any distance according to power of authority. To be sure, imbalanced authority does seem a constant throughout history; for exactly this reason, though, would we expect the side with authority to yield?

I turn to Dr. King. In his time, a generation or two before mine, Dr. King sought and fought for equality and “the cause of peace and brotherhood,” there surely being little more equal than “a single garment of destiny” (King, 1963). As we are all, he claimed, paradoxically yet beautifully this makes us one. Standing upon the authority of centuries, of historical proclamation and practice, and there resting in long studied philosophy and lived experiences of spiritual belief, Dr. King challenged his brothers to bear witness upon themselves. Such authority remains as stable for those to come as for those preceding – that is, unless or until those to come decide to rest authority someplace else.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

In our time, justice supersedes civility, and restitution tinges redress. The zeitgeist these days is emotional, distinctly angry. Individuals possess rights, and cultures bear responsibilities. “The politics of identity,” Benson says, “multiply conflicts and divisions.” As we ostensibly advocate for the equality of all individuals, identity politics fights a culture war, a battle for equity across cultures-of-particular-individuals, which actually precludes a wider equity. Cultural equality has supplanted individual equality because, where there is axiomatic ‘strength in numbers’, multiculturalism can only ever be ‘us vs them’. If so, is it still defensible? Is multiculturalism a way to ensure that our outcomes match our aims? Or are the aims of those with authority forever destined to pre-empt the aims of those without it? Indeed, what is the way to ensure that no one of all will ever be marginalised?

For one final point I turn to Benson (2020), not in comparison to Dr. King but out of respect for all being one: “Only when we stop having identities in the group-defined sense can we return to being individuals” (original emphasis). We may discover too late the folly of burning a bridge-too-far while crossing it.

Washington, DC (March 2014) - Day 4 - 101

Assessment as Analogy

Photo by Dave Mullen on Unsplash
 

We teachers like to talk about teacher stuff, like assessment and curriculum. But shop talk can leave them yawning in the aisles, so sometimes I like to try using analogies. Analogies are great because, since they’re not exact, that can actually help shine more light on what your trying to understand.

Here’s an analogy: I walk into a theatre and sit down behind somebody. Seeing the back of his head, I now know what it looks like – his hairstyle, for instance, or the shape of his head. I have no idea what his face looks like since that I cannot see from behind. Something else I notice is his height – even sitting down, he’s obviously going to block my view of the screen and, since I’ve been waiting a long time to see this movie, I decide to change seats.

So I move ahead into his row. Now I sit almost beside this tall stranger, just a few seats away. Now, from the side, I can see the profile of his face – eyebrows, nose, chin. At one point, he turns to face me, looking out for his friend who went for popcorn, and I can fully take in his face. Now I know what he looks like from the front. Except it’s probably clearer to say, Now I’ve seen him from the front and remember what his face looks like – I make this distinction because it’s not like he turned to look for his friend, then stayed that way. He turned, briefly, then turned back toward the screen, facing forward again, and I’m left seeing his profile once more.

Sitting a few seats away, to say that I know what his profile looks like, side-on, or that I remember what his face looks like, just as I remember what the back of his head looks like – this is probably most accurate. In this theatre situation, nothing’s too hard to remember, anyway, since the whole experience only takes a minute or two and, besides, we’re sitting near enough to remind me of those other views, even though I can only see him from one of three perspectives at a time: either behind, or beside, or facing.

An analogy, remember? This one’s kind of dumb, I guess, but I think it gets the point across. The point I’m comparing is assessment, how we test for stuff we’ve learned.

As I understand the shift from traditional education (positivist knowledge-based curricula, teacher-led instruction, transactional testing) to what’s being called “the New Education” (constructivist student-centred curricula, self-directed students, transformational learning), I’d liken traditional testing to trying to remember what the back of his head looked like after I switched seats. As I say, I might get some clues from his profile while sitting beside him. But once I’m no longer actually sitting behind him, then all I can really do is remember. “What can you remember?” = assessment-of-learning (AoL)

In the New Education, I wouldn’t need to remember the back of his head because that’s probably not what I’d be asked. Where I sit, now, is beside him, so an assessment would account for where I now sit, beside him, not where I used to sit, behind. That makes the assessment task no longer about remembering but more in line with something immediate, something now as I sit beside him, seeing his profile, or during that moment when he turns and I fully see his face. A test might ask me to illustrate what I was thinking or how I was feeling right at that moment. “What are you thinking?” = assessment-for-learning (AfL)

There’s also assessment-as-learning (AaL), which could be me and my friend assessing each other’s reactions, say, as we both watch this tall stranger beside us. In the New Education, AaL is the most valued assessment of all because it places students into a pseudo-teaching role by getting them thinking about how and why assessment is helpful.

When proponents of the New Education talk about authentic learning and real-life problems, what I think they mean – by analogy – are those things staring us in the face. Making something meaningful of my current perspective doesn’t necessarily require me to remember something specific. I might well remember something, but that’s not the test. The New Education is all about now for the future.

In fact, both traditional education and the New Education favour a perspective that gives us some direction, heading into the future: traditional education is about the past perspective, what we remember from where we were then, while the New Education is about the present perspective, what we see now from where we are now. It’s a worthy side note that, traditional and contemporary alike, education is about perspective – where we are and where we focus.

By favouring the past, assessing what we remember, the result is that traditional education implies continuation of the past into the future. Sure, it might pay lip service to the future, but that’s not as potent as what comes about from stressing remembrance of the past. Meanwhile, lying in between, the present is little more than a vehicle or conveyance for getting from back then to later on. You’re only “in the moment,” as it were, as you work to reach that next place. But this is ironic because, as we perceive living and life chronologically, we’re always in the moment, looking back to the past and ahead to the future. So it must seem like the future never arrives – pretty frustrating.

The New Education looks to the future, too, asking us to speculate or imagine from someplace we might later be. But, by favouring the present, assessing what we think and feel, and what we imagine might be, the New Education trades away the frustration of awaiting the future for a more satisfying “living in the moment.” We seem to live in a cultural era right now that really values living in the moment, living for now – whether that’s cause or effect of the New Education, I don’t know. In any case, says the New Education, the future is where we’re headed, and the present is how we’re getting there, so sit back and let’s enjoy the ride.

As it regards the past, the New Education seems to pose at least two different attitudes. First, the New Education seems to embrace the past if that past meets the criterion that it was oppressive and is now in need of restoration. Maybe this is a coincidental occurrence of cultural change and curricular change that happen to suit each other. Or maybe this is what comes of living in the moment, focusing on the here-and-now: we’re able to take stock, assess for the future, and identify things, which have long been one way, that now we feel compelled to change. Second, the New Education seems dismissive of the past. Maybe this is also because of that past oppression, or maybe it’s leftover ill will for traditional education, which is kind of the same thing. What often swings a pendulum is vilification.

Whatever it is, we ought to remember that dismissing the past dismisses our plurality – we are all always only from the past, being ever-present as we are. We can’t time-travel. We are inescapably constrained by the past from the instant we’re born. What has happened is unalterable. The future arrives, and we take it each moment by moment. To dismiss the past is delusory because the past did happen – we exist as living proof.

For all its fondness and all its regret, the past is as undeniable as the future is unavoidable, for all its expectancy and all its anxiety. As we occupy the place we are, here, with the perspective it affords us, now, we need the courage to face the future along with the discipline to contextualise the past. As we live in the moment, we are bound and beholden to all three perspectives – past, present, future. Incidentally, that happens to be where my analogy broke down. In a theatre, we can only sit in one seat at a time. Let’s count our blessings that living and learning offer so much more.