Saturday, 22 April 2017

Porous Boundaries and the Constraints that separate the Education System and Society

I'm taking part in a conference on the "Porous University" early next month (https://www.uhi.ac.uk//en/learning-and-teaching-academy/events/the-porous-university---a-critical-exploration-of-openness-space-and-place-in-higher-education-may-2017.html), and all participants have to prepare a position statement about the conference theme. In my statement, I'm going to focus on the issue of the "boundary" and what the nature of "porosity" means in terms of a boundary between education and society.

We often think of formal education as a sieve: it filters out the wheat from the chaff in recognising the attainment and achievement of students. Sieves are porous boundaries - but they are the antithesis of the kind of porosity which is envisaged by the conference, which - to my understanding - is to make education more accessible, socially progressive, engaged in the community, focused on making practical interventions in the problems of daily life. The "education sieve" is a porous boundary which upholds and reinforces the boundary between education and society; many progressive thinkers in education want to dissolve those boundaries in some way - but how? More porosity in the sieve? Bigger holes? Is a sieve with enormous holes which lets anything through still a sieve? Is education still education without its boundary?

Part of the problem with these questions is that we focus on one boundary when there are many. The education system emerges through the interaction of multiple constraints within society - it's not just the need for disseminating knowledge and skill, but the need for keeping people off the streets (or the unemployment register, or out of their parents' houses!), or the need to maintain viable institutions of education and their local economies, or the need to be occupied in the early years of adult life, or the desire to pursue intellectual interests, or the need to gain status. These multiple constraints are constantly manipulated by government. The need to pay fees, the social exclusion which results from not having a degree (which is partly the consequence of everyone having them!), or the need for professionals like nurses to maintain accreditation are only recent examples of continual tweaking and political manipulation. Now we even have the prospect of official "chartered scientists" (http://sciencecouncil.org/scientists-science-technicians/which-professional-award-is-right-for-me/csci/)! Much of this is highly destructive.

Widening participation, outreach, open learning, open access resources are as much symptoms of the current pathology as they appear to be efforts to address it: it's something of an auto-immune response by a system in crisis. Widening participation? Find us more paying customers! Open Access Resources? Amplify our approved forms of communication so everyone can learn "how to fit the system" (whilst enabling academics to boost their citation statistics) - and then we can enrol them!

A deep problem lies within universities; a deeper problem lies within science. Universities are powerful and deeply confused institutions. They establish and maintain themselves on the reputations of scholars and scientists from the past - many of whom would no longer be employable in the modern institution (and many who had difficult careers in their own time!) - and make promises to students which, in many cases, they don't (and cannot possibly) keep. The University now sees itself as a business, run by business people, often behaving in irrational ways making decisions about future strategy on a whim, or behaving cruelly towards the people they employ. There is nobody who isn't confused by education. Yet the freedom one has to express this confusion disappears in the corridors of power.

Boundaries are made to maintain viability of an organism in its environment: the cell wall or the skin is created to maintain the cell or the animal. These boundaries can be seen as transducers: they convert one set of signals from one context into another for a different context. Education, like an organism, has to maintain its transducers.

Transduction can be seen as a process of attenuating and amplifying descriptions across a boundary. The environment presents many, many descriptions to us. Our skin only concerns itself with those descriptions are deemed to be of importance to our survival: these are presented as "information" to our biological systems. Equally a university department acquires its own building, a sign, courses (all transductions) when a particular kind of attenuation of signals from the environment can be distilled into a set of information which the department can deal with. Importantly, both the skin and the departmental identity is established from two sides: there is the distilling of information from the environment, and there are the sets of descriptions which arise from the boundary having been formed. The liver and kidneys require the skin as much as the skin attenuates the environment.

Pathology in organisations results where organisations reconfigure their transducers so that too much complexity is attenuated. Healthy organisations maintain a rich ecology of varied distinctions. Pathological organisations destroy this variety in the name of some simple metric (like money - this is what happens in financialisation). This is dangerous because if too much complexity is attenuated, the institution becomes too rigid to adapt to a changing environment: it loses overall complexity. Equally if no attenuation occurs, the institution loses the capability of making any distinctions - in biology, this is what happens in cancer.

If we want to address the pathology of the distinction between education and society, we must address the problem of boundaries in institutions and in society. Removing boundaries is not the answer. Becoming professionally and scientifically committed to monitoring the ecology of the educational and social system is the way forwards. Since this is a scientific job, Universities should lead the way.


Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Scarcity and Abundance on Social Media and Formal Education

Education declares knowledge to be scarce. That it shouldn't do this is the fundamental message in Illich's work on education. Illich attacked "regimes of scarcity" wherever he saw them: in health, energy, employment, religion and in the relations between the sexes.

Illich's recipe for avoiding scarcity in education is what he calls "institutional inversion", where he (apparently presciently) visualised "learning webs". When we got Social media and wikipedia, it seemed to fit Illich's description. But does it?

I wrote about the passage in Deschooling Society a few years ago where Illich speaks of his "education webs" (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/personalisation-and-illichs-learning.html) but then qualifies it with "which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring". Learning, sharing and caring. Is this Facebook?

Despite Illich's ambivalent attitude towards the church, he remained on the one hand deeply catholic and on the other communitarian. Like other Catholic thinkers (Jaques Ellul, Marshal McLuhan, Jean Vanier) there is a deep sense of what it means for people to be together. It's the togetherness of the Mass which influences these people: the experience of being and acting together, singing together, sharing communion, and so on. The ontology of community is not reducible to the exchange of messages. It is the ontology which interests Illich, not the mechanics.

So really we have to go further and explore the ontology. Illich's "institutional inversion" needs unpacking. "Institution" is a problematic concept. The sociological definition typically sees it as a complex of norms and practices. New Institutionalism sees it as focus of transactions which are conducted through it by its members. At some level, these descriptions are related. But Facebook and Twitter are institutions, and the principal existential mechanisms whereby social media has come into being is through facilitating transactions with customers. The trick for social media corporations is to drive their mechanisms of maintaining and increasing transactions with customers by harvesting the transactions that customers have already made.

In more traditional institutions, the work of attracting and maintaining transactions is separate from the transactions of customers. It is the marketing and manufacturing departments which create the opportunities for customer transactions. The marketing and manufacturing departments engage in their own kind of internal transaction, but this is separate from those produced by customers: one is a cost, the other is income.

The mechanism of driving up the number of transactions is a process of creating scarcity. Being on Twitter has to be seen to be better than not being on it; only by being on Facebook can one hope to remain "in the loop" (Dave Elder-Vass writes well about this in his recent book "Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy").  Formal education drives its customer transactions not only by declaring knowledge to be scarce, but by declaring status to be tied to certification from prestigious institutions. At the root of these mechanisms is the creation of the risk of not being on Twitter, not having a degree, and so. At the root of this risk is existential fear about the future. The other side of the risk equation is the supposed trust in institutional qualifications.

Illich didn't go this far. But we should now - partly because it's more obvious what is happening. The issue of scarcity is tied-up with risk and worries about a future which nobody can be sure about. That this has become a fundamental mechanism of capitalism is a pathology which should worry all of us.


Monday, 3 April 2017

Lakatos on History and the Reconstruction and Analysis of Accidents

"Fake news" and Brexit has inspired a reaction from Universities, anxious that their status is threatened, that they must be the bastions of facts, truth and trust. The consequences of this are likely to reinforce the already conservative agenda in education. Universities have been post-truth for many years - particularly as they chased markets, closed unpopular departments (like philosophy), replaced full-time faculty with adjuncts, became status-focused and chased league table ranking, appointed business people to run them, became property developers, and reinforced the idea that knowledge is scarce. On top of that, they protected celebrity academics - even in the face of blatant abuse of privilege and power by some. The allegations against John Searle are shocking but not surprising - the scale of the sexual harassment/abuse problem (historical and present) in universities is frightening - just as the compensation claims will be crippling. Current students and society will pay for it.

What is true news? I picked up an interesting book on Lakatos by John Kadvany at the weekend (it was in the bookshop that I learnt of the Searle problem). Latakos was interested in rationality in science, maths and history. Along with Popper, Feyerabend and Kuhn, he was part of a intellectual movement in the philosophy of science in the 1960s and 70s from which few sacred cows escaped unscathed.

Kadavny quotes Lakatos's joke that:
"the history of science is frequently a caricature of its rational reconstructions; that rational reconstructions are frequently caricatures of actual history; and that some histories of science are caricatures both of actual history and of its rational reconstructions" ("The History of Science and its rational reconstructions")
In practical life we meet this problem with history directly in the analysis of risk and accidents in institutions. In the flow of time in a hospital, for example, things happen, none of which - in the moment in which they happen - appear untoward. A serious accident emerges as a crisis whose shock catches everyone out - suddenly the patient is dying, suddenly the catastrophic error, blame, etc is revealed when in the flow of time at which it happened, nothing was noticed.

The reconstruction is reinforced with the investigation process. The narrative of causal events establishes its own reality, scapegoats, etc. Processes are 'tightened up', management strategies are reinforced, and.... nothing changes.

Lakatos's position was that historical reconstruction was "theory-laden": "History without some theoretical bias is impossible. [...] History of science is a history of events which are selected and interpreted in a normative way"

In this way, all histories are "philosophies fabricating examples... equally, all physics or any kind of empirical assertion (i.e. theory) is 'philosophy fabricating examples'"

Is it just philosophy? In organisational risk, for example, there is a philosophy of naive causal successionism, and obscure selection processes which weed-out descriptions which don't fit the narrative. But the purpose of all of this is to reinforce institutional structures who themselves exist around historical narratives.

Where does Lakatos go with this? He wants to be able to distinguish "progressive" and "degenerative" research programmes. A research programme is the sequence of theories which arise within a domain (like the successive theories of physics): changes in theoretical standpoint are what he calls "problem shifts". The difference between progressive and regressive research programmes rests on the generative power of a theory. Theories generate descriptions of observable phenomena. In order to be progressive, each problem shift needs to be theoretically progressive (it generates more descriptions) and occasionally empirically progressive. If these conditions are not met, the research programme is regressive.

I agree with this to a point. However, the structure of institutions is an important element in the generative power of the institution's ideas about itself. Lakatos is really talking about "recalibration" of theory and practice. But recalibration is a structural change in the way things are organised.

That there is rarely any fundamental recalibration in the organisation and management of health in the light of accidents is the principal reason why their investigations are ineffective.