20 March 2008

On process and fluidity

(The link relates to the programme of 20 March 08, on Kierkegaard; there may be ways of retrieving it after 27 March, but you may have to root around for them!)

"In our time" today was about my old mate, Kierkegaard. The gloomy Dane. Not a barrel of laughs, most of the time. But nevertheless capable of being witty and playful on occasion. I did not understand that when I first read him, on the cusp of my twenties; but then I was never good at "framing" what I was reading, at that age. I took it all terribly seriously. Jane Austen was great literature and therefore "profound" and certainly not funny; no wonder I didn't enjoy her. Then.

To the point(s);
  • I've read a large proportion of Kierkegaard. I have read and still possess Kaufmann's definitive two-volume critical biography. I took a course on him. I've used his work even in the unpromising context of a manual on professional supervision in group care (Atherton, 1986). I've relished getting the allusions and jokes in David Lodge's Therapy (1995)...

  • But I may have missed his point. The contributors this morning suggested that K. used so many pseudonyms in his published work because there was no definitive K-ian position. Like his hero, Socrates, his point was in the process rather than the product; in the debate rather than the conclusion.
(This is where we begin an asymptotic approach to relevance to learning and teaching...)
  • Did I miss the point as an undergraduate because I was simply not intellectually mature enough to engage with these shifting points of view? Quite possibly; certainly Perry would suggest as much. (I'm working on my own page on Perry.)

  • So, is it reasonable to expect undergraduates to exhibit this required sophistication? This is a big deal. It may lead us to decide that there are some ideas we can't teach (to standard, school-leaver) undergraduates. If we do, they'll get them wrong. It's not their fault or their lack of intellectual capacity, they are just not ready for them, yet. This is the same argument as Loukes and others engaged in about children's capacity for religious understanding in the '60s.

  • I suspect (nay, know) that we frequently get this wrong. In a well-meaning attempt to steady a moving target, we attempt to render "that which is to be learned" as something static. Just as mathematics was almost incapable of dealing with moving (and certainly accelerating/decelerating) objects without the tools of calculus, we can't conceptualise the learning (still less, the teaching) of something which is perpetually changing.

  • We try to freeze it, so we can teach it. Flexible skills are reduced to standardised techniques. We don't teach languages for fluency, we teach for "getting by in routine situations--always assuming the native speaker responds in a standard fashion". We don't teach cookery, we teach recipes and isolated skills... We don't teach appreciation of literature, we teach either the pre-existent opinions of earlier critics, or standard "methods" (a.k.a. recipes) of analysing/deconstructing the "text". But there are qualitative leaps (almost like Kierkegaard's leaps between his "spheres of existence") between these levels of understanding.
  • Regrettably all of this is made almost obligatory by the rhetoric of "achievement" instantiated (I wondered whether I would ever manage to use that word! Look it up.) in—of all things—the funding formulae of further and higher education. It comes back to the goal displacement I discussed earlier.
Moral? Gooood question! It relates to Bateson's levels of learning, certainly, but also to a number of other issues... I'll return to the theme.


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