Sunday, February 11, 2007

Love

What is the extent to which one should care and worry about the life of another?

When is it that someone is 'in control' or otherwise to be thought to be 'responsible enough' to make a decision that is down to their own free agency? We commonly deal with worrying by setting up these limits. In fact, people spend much of their lives contextualising and recontextualising these boundaries, whilst avoiding situations and people that offer them some risk of recalcitrance.

I am convinced that this system of 'coping' is nonsense. It certainly makes it easier not to worry about someone, but I'm afraid that it isn't much help when you don't think it has much to do with the truth (not that philosophy is required here - we feel it). What seems to enable the prevalent notion of coping is the deployment of a kind of dualistic 'ghost in the machine', where we superimpose on our thoughts of people the ability to make free choices that go against both character and circumstance (well, in short, against everything we know about human psychology).

Not only this, but we also have a disgusting way of valuing people through this idea: people seem to be worthy of our efforts only insofar as they do not break with notions of the 'reasonable'; our efforts must not exceed our present thinking. Adopting a profound empathy or a responsibility toward someone else seems to be predicated upon their not being so different to us that we do not understand their choices when we consider them 'rationally'. If I choose to jump off a bridge, this, considered as a 'rational' action by a 'reasonable' person, makes no real sense and doesn't merit any further thinking about.

Not only is this wrong, it is despicable. We cease to care about somebody by inflicting upon them a most cruel responsibility for themselves. I don't have to worry about you because you're free to suffer - in other words, fuck you.

We feel and know that this isn't right. A child falls in a lake, and we jump in. After a few minutes the child is still underwater and we cannot find her. What if the child dies? This is the state of worry and panic that grips us in human drama. If we form a connection with someone that takes a tragic turn we find ourselves in this lake, this and no other. We tread water, exasperated - nothing will be the same again. We do not think of home, we do not think of a warm bowl of soup, there is nothing that can pull us back to our former selves. Those who suggest to me that this is where we should hate the child suggest a baseness that it is beyond my ability to put into words.

Imagine that you have just dived in. You search for the child... there's no sign. The water makes your eyes see differently, the light is bent and shadows move without form. Do you complain or do you search? This doesn't enter your head: You search again... nothing. Time and again and your efforts are becoming futile, even though you don't yet know it; you are single-minded, frantic.

Don't you resist this futility even when the thought finally occurs? What about the passer-by who shouts that it is the child's fault for not knowing well enough how to swim? Upon hearing this do you stop and say 'yes, it is futile', or do you search? How the fuck is this pitiful comment meant to convince us to give up the search?

Ultimately it seems we ignore our premises. Those that we love, we forget why we love them. We step outside, by whatever means, of the habit that changes us. I say this is possible only with a moderate, casual love, the kind that is sought as standard, the kind that is worthless. I don't speak only of 'relationships' but of dying parents, dying pets, broken friendships and betrayed trusts. A disconnected reason can do nothing for us when the chips are truly down, when we are completely on the line. Reality every time peeks through the cracks of our broken sensibilities, putting the lie to what we thought we were and should be, what we were thinking and should have thought.

Assuming a deep responsibility toward someone without the ability to act is a floundering around in the depths, a radical disconnect that stabs into our hearts that reality speaks in a single voice. There is no theological subject and no dualism strong enough to force my hands away from my head as I sit and write this. While others cope, I am altered, moved, destroyed. God will not intervene. Agony will prolong and my love will prolong it; I will be changed forever.

15 Comments:

Blogger Ricercar said...

i really liked this post. i have often wondered about what the right answers to these questions are.

12:47 AM  
Blogger News is Good said...

Ricercar: I must ask when you've wondered about these questions, such as 'how much should we worry about and care about each other?', and 'when can we say people are responsible for what they've done?'. I'm glad you've asked these questions, as they are important, and it interests me where they've come up in peoples' lives.



Atum: You occasionally ask me to help you in expressing your meaning, so I thought I'd offer a few points at which the language tripped me. Do tell me if you don't want me to do it publicly, in these comments, or even at all!

Criticisms of the writing:
Recalcitrance seems to be the wrong word to express what I think you mean.
"It certainly makes it easier not to worry about someone, but I'm afraid that it isn't much help when you don't think it has much to do with the truth" contains too many itses to understand what you are referring to all through the passage.
The rest of it is remarkably clear, and thoroughly commendable.


This 'coping mechanism', which consists of only considering the reality of someone's motives-to-act when they cannot be easily blamed for what they've done, is popular. I believe it affects teaching terribly, and I see it around me in many forms all the time. aI am in an environment where the student is held, through a potent mix of folk-psychology and educational mysticism, as totally free-to-fail. Students must either learn how to deal with the course - and therefore do well! - or not learn, and therefore fail. And if they do not learn how to deal with the course it is entirely their responsibility.
The hippyish and progressive teaching ideas of the '60s are now New Labourishly fashionable, by which I mean accepted to be true in principle without anyone having to deal with the content. The core idea is that there is something wrong with how teachers treat students, that there is something wrong with how schools treat students, and there is something wrong with how education itself works. The most noteworthy of the approaches challenge our assumptions about education and a child's place in it. As with all fashions, the backlash is vituperative - see the INFET blog for an example of 'old common sense' coming to the fore and reasserting a simple system where students are disciplined to listen to the teacher. A system of respect. Some even argue in favour of bringing back physical punishment. (I had an argument on this blog, or somewhere it links to, regarding the possibility of a teacher being in the wrong - unjust, unfair, arbitrary - thereby causing bad feeling and misbehaviour. Their stated position was that we must assume the teacher to be right. My position was that we could ask no public figure to receive such an assumptive halo of infallibility, neither archbishops or politicians, binmen or taxi drivers. How can we assume that teachers are always right and disagreeable students always wrong? Are students are totally different species of sub-intelligent apes?)
The discipline-respect system will always entail that a student who is acting poorly is faulty, and is simply free-to-fail. No matter how many possible causes of this behaviour there might be, they will be disregarded - in the end, a teacher attempts control of the classroom, and cannot step outside these boundaries to alter a student's thoughts and feelings, or their social and family background. So it's not our fault, it's their fault - they are free-to-fail!
But what about an educational system that made attempts precisely to help with a student's wider situation, considering that is what is accepted to cause bad student's? The current system allows failure and misbehaviour to be the student's fault while acknowledging causes. Because these causes are, understandably, beyond the individual teacher to change, the student is held to be educationally broken. To me, though, fashionable in my hippy concern, a system of education must take such problems on its broad shoulders.

Thankfully, in my job I see little misbehaviour and my main concern is exam grades. We have one type of assessment, written timed unseen exams, set up to prepare students for, and the way we have to teach means that we prepare the class quite generically, and have little time left over to deal with individual problems. What does this mean? Students fail and, really, we fail. It is our job to make them pass but we have been given such large classes with such a range of problems we could not do it. We could not talk to each student and begin to inspire them with the possibility of success, of learning. We could not instil learning because, really, we are teaching the students how to pass an exam, not our subject. (I often observe that what I am teaching would be useless in degree level for the subject, in fact when I did my degree lecturers were convinced that students with the A-level were at a disadvantage). All I am preparing my students for is the exam, not life during or after college, not learning in or around the subject, not the studying for educational reasons and interest they will have to develop if they go to university.
All this means that we let ourselves say 'they were free-to-fail', when really we should be demanding that the students be treated better. We are more concerned with guarding ourselves from complaint by following rules rigidly than by campaigning to improve them.

Our approach to students should not be 'you must learn how to imbibe and recall this material, or you will fail', as this entails 'you did not imbibe, and you failed'. There are so many questions to ask of this process, such as for what reason must this material be imbibed?, can all students learn how to do this?, is the method of assessment fair? I can't imagine a university-educated person submitting themselves without complaint to such a process, learning packets of isolated knowledge for an exam and practising the exam over and over. Therefore we cannot ask it of students in the belief that it will prepare them for university. We must ask, 'are students really free-to-fail, or are we free-to-ignore the problems that are set for us, that we cannot resolve, that we pass on to them undigested?'

And that is what your argument made me think of.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Atum said...

I'll un-it the itting:
"Positing an arbitrary choice certainly makes it easier not to worry about someone, but I'm afraid that it isn't much help when you don't think it has much to do with the truth"

Recalcitrance: Is precisely the correct word (in its philosophical meaning - see Willard Quine).

1:10 PM  
Anonymous oldandrew said...

In response to "news is good":

Thanks for the link (although as far as I can tell nobody has followed it) and previous contributions to my blog.

You are reading ideology into what are really the more "pragmatic" aspects of my blog. Suggesting that teachers be allowed to teach and be treated with basic human decency isn't asking for a philosophical revolution it's asking for a return to an education system that's "fit for purpose".

I also doubt that anybody is suggesting that teachers are always right. However it is not for pupils to judge if teachers are right and wrong in their use of discipline any more than it is up to muggers to judge whether the police should arrest them or not.

11:01 PM  
Blogger News is Good said...

"However it is not for pupils to judge if teachers are right and wrong in their use of discipline any more than it is up to muggers to judge whether the police should arrest them or not."

I would never liken my students to muggers (unless they mugged me). Nor would I use the metaphor of cops vs. robbers to guide my educational theories!
This smacks of an assumption that students are to blame, because they commit some sort of crime, and is exactly the ideology I read into your writing. As a student might say, sarcastically, 'way to go!'

Of course it is for the pupils to judge whether your, or my, discipline is right or wrong! It is for pupils to agree with you, to disagree with you, to escape sanctions, to bargain and plead, to split into factions. It is for pupils to decide that education does not suit them, and to judge is entirely irrelevant. Would you deny the pupil's these choices? If you could press a button which triggered an electrode in their brains to be mindlessly compliant, would you press it?

In short, it is for the pupils to be humans, just as we are. You appear to reduce them to something else, something far more mercenary and distrustful, to make it easy to manage them. This is, as you say, 'pragmatic', and as a teacher too I can see how it would simplify our daily tasks. But it destroys the very possibility of education if we see them like this. To educate, pupils must be given a free access to self-determination - that is what learning is about. If we remove that in the cause of managing them more easily, we are treating the symptoms, not the cause. And we are turning the achievement of a student's own learning into the achievement of a teacher's piece of mind. This is not acceptable, just as the current state of affairs with violent and abusive students is not acceptable. I agree with you that there is a problem, but I do not accept your solution. It splits teachers and students apart, and doesn't regard their union of interests far enough.

The students are unwell, yes. And this causes problems, yes. But this are just proximate causes of classroom trouble. To deal with the ultimate cause, we must not changed how teachers manage students. We must change how both teachers and students work, we must change how schools work. It is not surprising that a few [ast leading minds in education advocated deschooling, but I'm not ready to give up yet.

6:03 PM  
Anonymous oldandrew said...

As ever you are determined to treat the simple position that "students are there to learn and teachers are there to teach, and any behaviour that stands in the way of that should not be tolerated" into some kind of deep philosophical statement about the worth of the pupils and the curriculum.

It is no such thing, it is a statement of what is necessary for learning to take place. It appears your ideology doesn't allow for that.

4:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"As ever you are determined to treat the simple position that "students are there to learn and teachers are there to teach, and any behaviour that stands in the way of that should not be tolerated" into some kind of deep philosophical statement about the worth of the pupils and the curriculum."

You have fallen back on glittering generalities that cannot be disputed in order to strengthen your case. Our argument is precisely that we think very differently on what 'learning' and 'teaching' entail, you holding that it will occur as soon as everybody shuts up. My position is that your approach to enforcing this silence will throw away the very possibility of learning or teaching, as it reduces the student to someone who listens-to-the-teacher rather than learns. If we do this, students will still fail, in overwhelming numbers, to learn, because we won't be requiring them to learn.

I totally agree with what you've said, but I believe that your behaviour is part of what is stopping teaching and learning from happening. Your statement is, therefore, wholly useless.

5:03 PM  
Blogger News is Good said...

"As ever you are determined to treat the simple position that "students are there to learn and teachers are there to teach, and any behaviour that stands in the way of that should not be tolerated" into some kind of deep philosophical statement about the worth of the pupils and the curriculum."

You have fallen back on glittering generalities that cannot be disputed in order to strengthen your case. Our argument is precisely that we think very differently on what 'learning' and 'teaching' entail, you holding that it will occur as soon as everybody shuts up. My position is that your approach to enforcing this silence will throw away the very possibility of learning or teaching, as it reduces the student to someone who listens-to-the-teacher rather than learns. If we do this, students will still fail, in overwhelming numbers, to learn, because we won't be requiring them to learn.

I totally agree with what you've said, but I believe that your behaviour is part of what is stopping teaching and learning from happening. Your statement is, therefore, wholly useless.

5:03 PM  
Anonymous oldandrew said...

"as it reduces the student to someone who listens-to-the-teacher rather than learns."

As opposed to all the learning they'd do by not listening to the teacher?

6:52 PM  
Blogger Atum said...

Oldandrew:

"As opposed to all the learning they'd do by not listening to the teacher?"

News isn't implying that dilemma. What he is saying is that positing 'listening to the teacher' as a primary function of a student in a classroom is a barrier to their actually learning.

Now, we can't agree with this taken as it is. Surely listening to the teacher is a requisite to having any kind of relationship to learning in a classroom?

Compare two attitudes to the activity of 'listening to the teacher':

1) Incidental. This is my position, and I think News might approximate somewhere towards it. Children just will listen. It doesn't take any measures or specific rules for this to happen. People tend to listen to each other when they are being talked to; people in a classroom feel a pedagogical relationship to the teacher; children respect adults naturally (until we destroy this, which we have); etc. The focus is not upon imposing a form (you sit there and listen to me) but upon supplying an edifying content (this is something that is interesting, and you will be interested as it is true that it is interesting).

2) Punitive. This appears to be your position. Children will not listen until you force them, and this requires all sorts of coersion in terms of rules and punishments. People only listen to each other when they feel it could be in their selfish interest to do so, and children are pathologically selfish; The world is made of law and the child should learn to understand law, as they are naturally mischievous and chaotic; they need to be made to respect adults and the world of adults that they will at some point be flung into; etc. The focus on form over content certainly 'initiates' a child in this fashion (they learn to do as they are told), but this rigidity only edifies when it is in line with what is interesting (in the sense mentioned in 1)).

I put it to you that what is interesting about the society we live in today is that things are bad and need sorting out. No matter how much we get children to comply with our formal structure, the way in which we explain this (other than threats) is to point to society, objectively, as their future.

But in this society they have no real future, and children, if they ever get to actually learn anything at all, learn this. Not in the way that we might, with philosophy and social science, with various studies and statistics: They will tend to learn this because of the lack of meaning they feel (however base and animalistic) when their thoughts and feelings stand outside of the process they are undergoing. To become educated they must learn to invest their thoughts and feelings precisely in the ideas raised in education.

"[theoretically] students are there to learn and teachers are there to teach, and any behaviour that stands in the way of that should not be tolerated"

Try instead:

"We need to encourage behaviour that allows us to observe that students are there to learn and teachers are there to teach."

7:43 PM  
Anonymous oldandrew said...

I think position 1) and 2) are both mistaken. It's doesn't come down to their natural inclinations to listen or not. It comes down to their expectations. At the moment we have a system where students can be in full time education and still be shocked when a teacher expects them to listen. Turning that around is not a philosophical question, it's about what, in practice, will change those expectations.

8:57 PM  
Blogger Atum said...

Inclinations vs Expectations:

The latter is a rather massive construction. The reason I talked about natural inclinations is to try to pull the conversation where it needs to go - away from the messiness of political micromanaging, which does not require us to be at all right about our actions, and towards actually considering what we want and why we want it. We are in the realm of philosophy, like it or not. The upshot of this is that if you don't engage with your presuppositions they will bury you, and your life as an educator will be miserable and worthless.

By 'a teacher expects them to listen' do you mean telling them to shut up and listen? Why do you want to train children to expect to be told to shut up and listen?

Pedagogues naturally demand attention, which those who accept them will give to them. I imagine students have always been and will always be told to shut up. What is it about the situation we're in that makes it so crucial to secure obedience above everything else?

9:28 PM  
Anonymous oldandrew said...

You might be in the world of philosophy, I'm in the world of teaching. What has gone wrong in teaching is firmly in the realm of "micro-managing" although those responsible for the weakness and incompetence will no doubt dress it up as philosophy. However the philosophy will just be the usual utopian nonsense: "there wouldn't be a problem with the children if we just let them do whatever they like".

4:32 PM  
Blogger News is Good said...

"However the philosophy will just be the usual utopian nonsense: "there wouldn't be a problem with the children if we just let them do whatever they like"."

You have made an attempt to diagnose our position, and it is wrong. This should be obvious if you had read what we said.

May I make an attempt to diagnose your position - "there shouldn't be a problem if we let teachers do what they like".
If I am mistaken, correcting me would seem to me to be worthwhile.

7:03 PM  
Blogger Atum said...

"You might be in the world of philosophy, I'm in the world of teaching."

Rhetorical nonsense.

"What has gone wrong in teaching is firmly in the realm of "micro-managing" although those responsible for the weakness and incompetence will no doubt dress it up as philosophy."

????

"However the philosophy will just be the usual utopian nonsense: "there wouldn't be a problem with the children if we just let them do whatever they like"."

You clearly haven't thought in any way about my position. I have not in any way presented you with this, and have in fact argued against precisely such a formulation.

Get a clue before posting again, I will not waste time with you.

3:32 PM  

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