[CPE] The Knowledge Gap

2 08 2013

Educators negotiate between two related but distinct demands: (1) the need to preserve knowledge and (2) the need to prepare students to apply knowledge. While complementary in education, the two are not necessarily closely linked. In the United States, they have become distant from each other at all levels of intellectual labor. I have been circling this issue, not quite making progress until I found myself talking about Thomas Kuhn over on the Archdruid Report. There is a way to frame the issue historically in reference to the Enlightenment that clarifies the basis for the present-day disjoint between these two demands. I want to talk through that in the hopes that better grasping that provides us with some insight into fixing the disjunction today.

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[CPE] Cosmos, Paradigm, Education

11 06 2013

I haven’t stopped chewing over the topic of my last post; it opens onto quite a few topics that I would like to write about here. Rather than try to cram all of those topics into a single post, though, I have decided to break them out into a loose series of posts that will all be identified with the [CPE] tag you see above. As you might guess, all of these posts will be united around issues of cosmos, paradigm, and education. Education may seem like the odd-man-out in this equation, but it occupies an essential place in the discussion. This series began in what I thought would be a single post on the failures of contemporary education, but in proceeding to trace that I found myself involved in a much larger series of topics.

The failures of contemporary education have deep roots that extend back into the roots of European modernity itself. It is surely easy to be cynical about the state of contemporary education (and I am sometimes), but I don’t want to get stuck in cynicism. Rather, I want to examine the failures of education by vieiwing them as a sort of higher order ‘interesting errors.’ Like interesting errors, they are worthy of study so that we can see more clearly the way in which those failures reveal useful truths as an ill-fitting pair of clothes reveals something of how we move. One of the more important failures is the failure to integrate cosmos and paradigm.

By cosmos I mean a totality organized according to unified principles and the sense of enclosure it gives to human society. The sense of a cosmos gives members of society a set of ideals through which they are able to regulate themselves and their society. A paradigm, by contrast, is partial. It refers to a specific set of phenomena and proceeds to provide an explanation of the phenomena’s behavior. On a purely conceptual level, these two patterns do not appear to be in conflict. In fact, there seems to be a complementarity to the way in which the phenomena described by a paradigm can be integrated into a bigger picture, cosmological model. However, in historical terms, these two modes of approaching the world are deeply at odds with each other and efforts to resolve those tensions are part of what structures the failure of education.

The subsequent [CPE] posts will all be centered at getting at this historical conundrum and thinking (i.e., speculating) about how we might get beyond it.





Syncretism, Eclecticism, and other definitions

13 02 2013

When folks talk about certain sorts of spiritual practices, ranging from those of the African Diaspora to contemporary (neo)paganism, a few words tend to enter into the discussion pretty quickly. The most common is ‘syncretism,’ followed distantly by ‘eclecticism.’ The two words are often used in ways that make them nearly synonymous with each other. I’m not a big fan of legislating language, but I’m going to suggest that this habit isn’t particularly helpful in talking about these practices. What’s more, I’m going to suggest that the term ‘syncretism’ is used too often without specification, making it a term that means too little and too much all at once. In this post, I want to draw a distinction between eclecticism and syncretism and then proceed to discuss in detail some specific sorts of syncretisms in the hopes that it might nourish a more meaningful conversation about the way these religious practices originate and develop.

In making these sorts of distinctions, I’m drawing on discussions in psychology and philosophy. The distinctions aren’t entirely my own andthe issues raised in the religious discussion have parallels in other (lively) disciplinary discussions. That said, the specific strategies I’m employing to specify forms of syncretism are my own (though clearly owing more than a little to the sort of philosophical distinction-making pioneered by Plato and Aristotle).

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Politics rather than ‘war’ as answer to drug problem

31 12 2012

I want to talk about the drug war, making clear what I take to be at stake in it and make a case for decriminalization, legalization, and regulation. It has been over-moralized and under-politicized, so I want to start by talking about politics in general and then talk about the political calculations regarding illegal drugs.

The regulation of human behavior is the core of politics. Any politics worthy of the name commits itself to creating an environment in which people can thrive. Politial debates and struggles revolve around how broadly politics reaches, who thrives and why. The question of reach is important because with regulation comes the possibility of violating that regulation and the need for authorities to deal with those violations. Especially where those violations are defined as a threat to the welfare of the people to whom the politics are committed, i.e., defined as a crime, they must be dealt with firmly. Because that demands resources, what a society chooses to criminalize needs to be carefully considered and its consequences weighed.

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The Future is Killing Us

24 12 2012

On a whim, I watched the first couple of episodes of the new (and final) season of Fringe. I didn’t stick with the show, but I keep thinking about the premise–the future is killing the present. It’s development in the show is simple and pulpy–scientists from the future invade to transform it into a toxic mess suitable to their needs!–but has this kernel of symbolic truth I can’t shake. While we don’t have evil future scientists invading, we are suffering from the future, being slowly suffocated by the future.

I don’t mean the actual future, but our fantasies of the future that drive us to overlook and ignore the costs of rapid technical progress. Fringe juxtaposes the clean and magical seeming technical facilities of the invaders with the crumbling urban landscape where most everyone else lives. Think about how far removed the factories that produce computers and kindles are from the wealthy U.S. that consumes so many of those products. The future promised by these devices looks so clean because the damage done producing them occurs out of sight and what Fringe has done is situate that conflict in the heart of our ‘clean’ world. Compare this to the world of forty-two years ago, when the writers of Dr. Who could easily imagine the dangerous factory on British soil in The Spearhead from Space.

It isn’t the fiction but the concept that sticks with me. We have spent so much effort rushing toward some idea of the future that is faster, closer, bigger, more, that we have let ourselves overlook how destructive that pursuit has become. It’s easy to think about the struggles we face now with climate change, but the process began some time ago. Here, too, Fringe is clever–the scientists from the future dress like men from the 1950s, which is when things started going wrong. Innocent efforts to bring poorer countries into the modern world, led to ‘modern’ agricultural projects throughout the Third World which, instead of bringing wealth, brought disastrous shortages and famines. It turns out the ‘future’ hadn’t quite realized that agriculture isn’t a one-size fits all affair and that the varieties of agricultural practice found throughout the Third World were often well-suited to local ecologies.

This is all well-trod ground, so I won’t dwell more on it.





Chains, Webs, and Soups

12 09 2012

A few weeks ago, a friend forwarded this article about a bacterial infection spreading through the water pipes of a hospital. It is eye-opening on a lot of levels, not the least of which includes the increasing danger hospitals may pose to health as more and more antibiotic resistant forms of bacteria develop. I’ll leave that particular issue for others, though, and focus on something else.

In response to the article, another friend grimly joked that this was just bacteria reminding us who was at the top of the food chain. The food chain bit was just a joke, but it made me realize how deeply embedded that concept of the food chain was and how poorly it captured what was going on. It’s a soup, I thought. It’s the bacteria reminding us that our food chain is in their soup.

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Marxism and Nature, Critique and Anthropology

29 08 2012

This post begins in two disparate observations, but comes together around a common issue. The first observation is that there is a common misreading of Marx that portrays him as believing that nature has no value in and of itself. The second observation is that efforts to justify anthropology’s distinctiveness as a discipline are terribly unpersuasive to me. These two observations bring me to discuss what constitutes an intellectual discipline. I’ll talk about the two observations first, which should make clear how they lead me to the issue of justifying a discipline.

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