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Archive for October, 2013

The first essay presented in IMPASSES “On Questions and Answers: Some Notes on How To Do Ideas” offers a compelling call to reject all ideologies and to engage in “continued experiments in ways-of-life.” (page 23).

“Ideology is theory that has escaped study” (page 18) is an excellent working definition of ideology.   It specifically captures the main issue with any and all ideologies – a truth reduction.   Ideologies are not representative of how anything completely works except in only the most trivial of cases.   Figuring out what is a trivial case is much harder than one might think.  Take an example from mathematics – is arithmetic consistent?  Meaning is the whole of arithmetic free of any internal contradictions.   It’s still unresolved.   Yes, there are a couple of proofs of the consistency of arithmetic but they are complicated and not 100% accepted as final proof.  If we can’t be 100% sure of something as “simple” as arithmetic what hope is there of assurance of truth about concepts as vague as God, country, knowledge, etc.

As beings with finite resources (lives and means) we must take shortcuts aka make assumptions and have representations.   We wouldn’t get through a day in our life if we tried to work out the complete truth of everything around us.   Truth reductions are useful to survival in that we have to behave with imperfect information.   But truth reductions can also be extremely dangerous, particularly around complicated issues involving how we relate to the planet and each other.   We must always question and re-question what we’ve decided advertently or inadvertently as an acceptable truth reduction.  Not doing so may make it such that we miss key information about the world around us and do things that increase suffering and/or reduce the possibility of survival.   Consider that for thousands of years slavery was mostly unquestioned and that it took a massive effort in 20th century to educate the population that inhaling tobacco was generally bad for your health.

Our methods of questioning must also be critically analyzed.  For a stale approach to questioning may be as misleading as truth reductions.  A biased approach to asking questions, such as at a biased university, whose primary objective is to keep operating as a university and needs to “[produce] results that maintain the university.” (page 19)   Confirmation biases seep into a huge chunk of scientific research and policy creation (great paper here.).   Even when our research is relatively free of flaws we certainly are all guilty of not knowing what we don’t know and are likely not even asking the best questions in which to go research.   It seems like a worthwhile approach to “increase our capacity for experimentation.” (page 24).

The essay itself poses a great critical question about methods of study but also confuses the matter with a muddled discussion about Politics and dualism.  While certainly useful topics to question and discuss the details covered add little to the main point of the essay other than to be examples of reductionist thinking in a pool of infinite examples.   It actually does something I believe the author specifically would like not to do – it politicized the essay a little into a bit of anti-government reduction.   There’s simply no need to single out politics as any more reductive and misleading than religion or a billion other ideology laced approaches to going through life.

Math and science as tools comes up a couple of times in the essay and with the questions at the end of the essays.  Math and science are also under constant review for their usefulness in not reducing truth.  There certainly have been many periods in history where math and science have gone through shocks calling into question their validity as truth seeking approaches.  Mathematics, in particular, was shaken very much when Godel unveiled his incompleteness theorems.   Far from destroying mathematics as a useful paradigm to form worthwhile questions and work towards useful and true solutions “incompleteness” actually enriched mathematical thinking’s capacity to ask important questions.

The questions at the end of the essay are worth a response. and offer an opportunity to “test out” the ideas of the essay and my own ideations.

1) If theory is merely a tool, how do we prevent it from becoming an apparatus (of control, of power, of ideology) like math and science?

This question seems to misunderstand the main points of the article.   The question is reducing the concept of theory established in the essay.  Labeling theory with a word phrase like “merely a tool” suggests that there’s something more useful than a tool or that a tool is mere.   Theories help us establish models and experiments in which we can go falsify or confirm and refine.   The prevention the question asker seems to seek is some prescription for not letting theories turn into ideologies (truth reductions).  And it seems the essays answers that quite clearly – always study, always question.  In other words there isn’t a single prescription.   The prevention of reduction is about re-questioning in every changing ways.

Secondly math and science CAN be apparatuses of control but that doesn’t mean they are a priori.   Math and science are various questioning and experimentation approaches also subject to refinement.

2) Academic study (and perhaps this could be said of study more generally) is oftentimes just a regurgitation of previously thought-up ideals.  Is novelty as a result of study necessary or is fluctuating between already-done ideas enough?

Again here the questioner assumes too much.   Where is the source of this novelty?   All thoughts and knowledge are the evolution of previous thoughts and/or responses to the environment.   The novelty suggested is emergent over time through the transmission and mutation of information.   It’s a non question when thought/ideas are viewed that way and it’s a confusing question period without a definition of thought and ideas.

3) Is study solitary or communal? What is the relation between “spreading anarchy” and others participating in critical studying?  Is there a set of values being set up around study whereby those who don’t participate in it (or participate in the “proper” ways) are seen as less credible, or is the questioning of this itself falling into the trap of movement-building?

This is a juicy set of questions.  Study is both a solitary and communal (and environmental activity).   We are all people within a world of other people.  I think it would be useless contradiction to define proper way of studying.   There are an infinite number of ways to explore this world.   The end goal being finding ever changing experiments on ways-to-live.   Particular methods of study might be viewed as inconsistent or improper within their method but it doesn’t invalidate them in the general idea of “studying”.   Fiction is a useful critical synthesis of the world.  So is non fiction and a painting or a music piece or a poem or science experiment.   The keys seem to be participation and being ever critical.  The more variation the more possible a real exploration of possibilities.

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Recently, the collective members of MonkeyWrench Books and Pallaksch Press in Austin, TX published a set of essays in book form called “Impasses.”  Here I intend to respond to the essays and the questions directly and indirectly posed.

There are a great deal of questions presented in the short volume so this will not be an easy nor quick effort.   The volume is an impassioned but far too brief exploration of several important threads.   I’m afraid my responses to the questions will end up with a bunch more questions due to the condensed source material.   Or rather, i have many questions for the authors so i can better understand the ideas and the backdrop for the essays.

Before I dive into the specific essays I have to start at the title of the book and the introduction.   I’m unclear about what is at an impasse and exactly what the functional definition of an impasse is.

In our studied patience we may be able to discuss what others pass over in silence: the generalized impasse which is our situation.  In a moment when the old ways of engaging seem not to be having the anticipated effects, we offer both some meditations on what it means to be where we are and a gesture toward new ways of understanding and resisting.  Each of the five conference pieces sets out from a stalemate where all options seem exhausted and all avenues explored.  For us, to confess to an impasse is not to admit defeat, but rather to acknowledge we have reached a critical point the continual process of thinking and refining our ideas.  If we are still discussing, still figuring out how to speak with and listen to each other, then the spark of resistance is not extinguished.

Here i’m unclear whether the impasses are such that the authors believe there is a real impasse or whether this is just a literary device to inspire discussion.  In one sense they are suggesting there is a general impasse for the overall situation in which they exist. Then later they suggest that instead they are still figuring things out, so not at an impasse.

The title and overall structure suggests that the authors believe there is an actual impasse and that they have a possible method, this book and its questions and the process that generated this book, to move past these impasses.

I’m digging into this because the clear statement of whether there is a real impasse has material impact to the the interpretation of the book.

I hope to engage the authors in a conversation to iron out this initial point.  From there i will proceed to answer, from my perspective, the questions posed at the end of each essay and then dig into the contents of each essay.   I will then make a general response to common themes and overall anarchist philosophy and tooling which is lightly touched on in the appendix and through out each essay.

I believe the spirit of the book and the collective, based on the authors’ website, is about engagement.  Nothing more and nothing less.   In that regard that spirit is alive and well with me.

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As learners, Skinner said, “we are automatically reinforced when we successfully control the physical world (ibid:75).” Teaching implies the identification of desired outcomes and precise planning of strategies for facilitating “the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement which expedite learning (Skinner,1959:15).” The educator prepares the students for situations not yet risen by bringing discriminant operants under the control of stimuli expected to occur in those situations. The child is forewarned and forearmed with powerful tools for controlling nature, the very exercise of which provides reinforcement. Because of this, the natural payoffs inherent in the subject matter are the teacher’s chief allies (Hutcheon,1996:413). Skinner maintained that educators who recommend external means of motivating learning have got it all wrong, noting that “the sheer control of nature itself is reinforcing (Skinner, 1959:102).” As he reminded us, “The motives in education are the motives of all human behavior … We appeal to that drive to control the environment that makes a baby continue to crumple a noisy paper and the scientist to continue to press forward with his predictive analysis of nature (Skinner, 1948:124).”

from a very nice paper on Piaget and Skinner.

All living things learn in response to their environments.   And living things are part of the environment.  All living things relate to their environments, even when in the same environments as other living things, uniquely.   All living things have enough genetic difference, even when in the same species and born in the same “family”, to have unique responses (developmental and learning) to the world around them.

This is a very simple set up and yet has enough power to cover the bulk of how we all learn.     When thinking about what approaches to educating children are more or less effective I evaluate how seriously an approach considers these basic principles.  Every environment is a learning environment – it’s a matter of figuring out, and this is complicated, what is learnable in that environment.   Each person, even a young child, is a complex mix of genetics, epigenetics and environmental history.   Some environments build on this concept and others resist it.

So what is an ideal environment?   What is the best “classroom” for a child to learn?

First, it’s important to figure out what it is we want a child to learn.   And, of course, this is no easy question.   Broadly the goal of any “education” (in the formal school sense) is to provide strategies for survival (and thriving).*   Effective strategies for survival is by no means a fixed target.   As long as the world changes so will the strategies that best ensure survival.  So in some sense what we want a child to learn isn’t one particular strategy but a way to derive strategies in response to a changing environment.   We could call that critical thinking, synthesis, and problem solving.   In short, we want children to learn how to learn – to be more aware of the world around them, to be able to process information efficiently and effectively and to manipulate the environment as needed.

Is anything else needed to be taught?   No, not strictly.  There’s no need to preach a particular curriculum as fundamental.  Yes for certain paths in life and in our culture knowing a particular skill or piece of information could be beneficial.   If mathematicians make more money than other professions and making more money provides better means for survival then it is likely a child taught mathematics should survive and thrive.   That is, as long as the child finds mathematics interesting and so forth enough to actually pursue it and develop enough skill.   Even in that example one can get to the point of survival without assuming a priori that there’s intrinsic, universal value to mathematics.   Everything worth knowing is in relation to the person knowing it and their relation to their changing environment.   The essential learning necessary for a person s being able to evaluate quickly enough to matter whether a strategy is effective or not.  The strategies themselves should be viewed as experiments – behavior-response experiences to see what is worth doing and knowing.

Based on this the ideal environment is not a singular environment.  it’s not a classroom, it’s not a gym, it’s not lecture hall, it’s not a playroom.   The ideal environmentare different for everyone.   Some children do very well in a traditional classroom, others do not.  Some prefer being alone, others in nature  and so on and on.   Just as discussed in the what is worth learning, environment staging should be viewed as an experiment – contexts to see what reinforces successful strategies for survival.

Combine strategy testing and environment building and exploration and you get the whole equation of education.   For certain children maintaining a steady environment that induces effective exploration of strategies might be best.   For other children varying environments may be the key to the building up of strategies.

The goal of education can be refined from above as: increase the repertoire of behavior** in order to identify and execute strategies to survive and thrive. 

This probably sounds horribly inefficient.  Is possible to educate a family, village, country, and world of children on a completely individual basis?   Yes!  That’s exactly what happens anyway.   It is LESS efficient to make the assumption that this isn’t what is actually happening and so to be unaware how everyone responds differently.   To use the same textbooks, same computer programs, same schedule for everyone makes an assumption that it’s “optimal enough” for any given child.   Who knows what potentially incredible strategies are going unexplored.

The world has now developed a sufficiently robust set of tools to uniquely educate, without compromise, every child.   Tablets and laptops can be obtained for less than $100, be connected to a free wifi at libraries and other community zones, and provided access to millions of free books, free websites, free Ivy League virtual classrooms.  Obviously, there is more to it than a computer and the Internet.   More and more networks of volunteer organizations, sports, after school programs, book clubs, excited artists, professional musicians are available for almost anyone (in the US) to join/connect with/create.   With the social network inter-connectivity of the world with more than a billion people connected, likely by less than 6 degrees of separation, identifying communities to join, people to talk to, and new environments to join has become much more possible.

I’m not suggesting that everything is perfect and that education has been solved!  Quite the contrary.  The space of possibilities is now MUCH greater than it ever has been.   It’s not even more vital to explore this space of educational possibilities in search of better and better strategies.   There’s no right or wrong way to go about this.   There’s more or less effective strategies for you and your children.  And there’s an infinite number of strategies possible and we all have finite energy/resources/means.

I suppose if I had to conclude or provide some closure on my point here it’s that the ideal education is really whatever works for you.  And what “works” is a complicated mix of means and goals and values.   There are so many options available and yet to be created and that seems to me to be a great thing. Ideal really.

*It’s relatively straight forward to assume that’s the goal of almost any education, formal or not.  Though would could say in certain situations we are trying to teach someone to suffer and die, such as in the case of prison

**repertoire of behavior doesn’t imply a broad set of behaviors, it could be the case that become a master in a particular skill set becomes a necessary strategy.  That is, experts often demonstrate a very wide and deep set of strategies/abilities within a given discipline.

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