Education as a sacrament [4/4] (preparatory notes for my talk at ResearchED Malmö)

Please note: these are just notes that I wrote for my own benefit for the talk. They are incomplete, poorly cited, and the grammar is slovenly, but I was asked to put them online and I’ve not had time to tidy them up. I’ve divided them into four parts, of which this is the last. The previous three sections can be reached via these links:

IV. The absolute and relative divide

i. How judgement clouds our perception

  1. According to the ‘common-sense’ picture of psychology described previously, the process goes from observing to acting like this:
    • I observe facts about the world
    • I consider and think about those facts (inner processes/mental realm)
    • I make a judgement about what I ought to do
    • I act based on that judgement
  2. I’d argue that this ‘common-sense’ picture is entirely back to front, if not just utterly mythical. It is our judgements which direct our perceptions. Firstly, we decide what we ought to be doing, and then we perceive what is relevant to achieve that function.
  3. As I’ve already mentioned, the meaning of an expression is its use. Equally, we can say the same thing of a painting – depending upon what function we seek from a painting, we will see different things… this is true of all perception.
  4. Thus, what we perceive to be the case, depends entirely upon what uses we place upon that which we’re perceiving. People always make a big hoo-haa about the experiment where the observers count the basketball passes and fail to notice the gorilla, but there is nothing in the least bit surprising about this. For the observers, the meaningfulness of the clip lay in basketball passes, and everything else was of no consequence and thus not perceived.
  5. Hume pointed out that it was often problematic to think that any particular observed fact entailed a moral obligation. I think that this was perhaps right (just because my desk is messy, it doesn’t necessarily mean I have an obligation to tidy my desk). However, there is, I would argue a logical relation here between facts and obligations. I do think that moral obligations entail particular facts. (If I have an obligation to tidy my desk, it must, in some sense, be messy!)
  6. What we do, what we perceive, is what we judge to be important. We miss facts precisely because we are too busy making judgements. These judgements act like a colour-filter which we place over the world. It inevitably simplifies everything, but also hides a lot too.

ii. Paying attention: perception without judgement

  1. To view the world objectively is to make no judgements, to stop trying to make the world make sense (i.e. be purposeful or useful) and recognise the contingency and chaotic nature of the world. We can equate this state of recognising the contingency of our experiences with Weil’s (1951, pp.111-2) notion of paying attention:

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object. It means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it.

  1. Weil describes school studies as a negative effort. In order to understand something, we must remove our desire to find something that fits a particular criteria, and just wait and notice things, rather than seek Consider the way little children unwrap presents, pull the present out of the box, put it to one side and immediately start playing with the box. They have, what G K Chesterton called ‘transcendent common sense’.
  2. There is a sense in which this state is similar to the state of bafflement and discomfort described above. However, when we are trying to pay attention, this discomfort is something to be celebrated, not avoided. It is for this reason that I describe this way of looking as educational fideism. There is a sense in which we simply need to have faith in education.

iii. Paying attention: a profound ethical transformation

  1. Paying attention requires that we recognise that nothing necessary can be said about the world. I don’t think this is too far removed from what, Tejedor (2011) argues that was Wittgenstein’s ethical aims of the Tejedor argues that this realisation that nothing necessary could be said, has, in and of itself, a fundamental ethical dimension for Wittgenstein:

… to recognise the essential contingency of reality and of ourselves as facts is to undergo a profound ethical transformation’ (p.102).

  1. When we view nature as acting in an orderly fashion, according to laws and principles, we then adopt an instrumental attitude towards reality:

‘it emerges when we come to regard facts as means to be used to achieve our particular ends’ (p.102).

  1. Or again, she writes:

… the idea that is possible to use facts as means to satisfy our ends involves the illusory belief that we can exert genuine control over reality. This instrumental attitude to reality results from a lack of clarity as to its essentially contingent status: it arises from the misguided sense that we can (necessarily) cause the world to be different. (p.103)

  1. What we are describing here is an attitude, a spirit towards reality. It is something that is shown in our actions and our words. This attitude isn’t something that we do; it is the manner in which we do it. It is adverbial.

V. Education as a sacrament, as sacred ritual

  1. To conclude… what does this mean for how we should view education? The most accurate and pleasant description I can think of for education is as a collection of rituals, a sacrament.
    • Augustine described a sacrament as, ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace’.
  2. This seems to nicely sum up what I have been saying.
  3. People might balk against my description of education as ritual, because rituals are seen as stifling. However, we can learn something from the Confucian conception or rituals here. The reality is that it is in our normal lives that we are stuck in ruts, in rituals like automatons – yet without realising it. As Wittgenstein pointed out, all of our words have their meaning as part of such language-games. We normally play our usual language-games without ever even considering what we are doing.
  4. The rituals of education are what allow us to step outside and play let’s pretend, and through this imaginary world we get to notice other possibilities. We can recognise that our ‘true self’ is merely a collection of patterned responses that we can change, by learning new ‘moves’.
  5. The rituals of education are stylised manoeuvres, much like a student of Karate might learn Kata, a series of specific positions that allow students to learn form and flow. Kata is manifestly nothing like a real fight, but to think that this makes Kata purposeless is to entirely miss the point. No blackbelt would go into a fight expecting to reproduce these moves.
  6. It is in the considered breaking of patterns and expectations that we can compare and notice the important differences. As we have seen, absolute judgments are always wrong, we can only make comparative judgements. These important differences are what allow us to notice ‘goodness’. Goodness, and knowledge, and understanding are expressed in language, not said. It is no good simply telling someone else ‘I am good’, we need to show it. Through subtly and constantly adjusting our rituals, we become acquainted with ‘goodness’. Try pulling different faces when you talk to people, say hello very loudly to your Boss, cough in an unusual way. We cannot say a priori that such and such behaviour is bad, we can only suck it and see. (As per Michael Puett’s description of the philosophy of Confucius.)
  7. One final point. There will probably be some people who will think that this description of education is too mystical, too unscientific, but is it really, is this not a description of good science?
  8. We need to create and change our rituals to see what difference it makes. We make tiny adjustments, change one variable at a time – whilst noting all the constants, and noticing how it changes things.
  9. This is what makes good teaching, just as it is what makes good science.

i. The warning of the myth of Sisyphus

  1. To return to the very beginning, I think that Albert Camus misinterpreted the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was, by all accounts, a pretty dreadful human being, lying, and killing his way to power. He spent his entire life imposing his judgement upon the world. The myth is not a tale about the absurdity of the human condition, but a warning not to make the human condition absurd.
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