30 November 2019

The Supremacy of Scripture and Francis Schaeffer’s Line.

The Christian church in the West has abandoned the supremacy, primacy and infallibility of Scripture. Notice what I did not say. I did not say that we have abandoned the doctrine of the supremacy, primacy and infallibility of Scripture (though some have). I said we have abandoned the supremacy, primacy and infallibility of Scripture. Let me explain how this has come about, and what difference it makes.

Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There is a favourite book of mine. In it he argues that Western man has, over a period of several centuries, become isolated from himself, from truth and from God because he has given up the search for coherence and unity in his view of his existence. Having done so, modern Western man has replaced the search for coherence with an acceptance of a dichotomy. The dichotomy is the dichotomy between the rational and the irrational, between the natural and the spiritual.

Schaeffer argues that this dichotomy can be understood to have produced a line between two separate and distinct realms of reality. Above the line there is religion, faith, spirit, and the unfalsifiable. Below the line there is man, matter, mathematics. Above the line is – in Schaeffer’s terms – the upper storey, below the line is the lower storey. But there is no real coherence between them, no verifiable contact, no true unity, no adhesions.

And so, modern man has no means for explaining – or even acknowledging – the supernatural that might form part of a coherent world, the world as it truly is. And this is problematic because this coherent world, this united reality of the natural and the supernatural is precisely the world as we all experience it. So, modern man, who thinks in terms of the line, kids himself either by declaring that there is nothing above the line, or more usually, that what is above the line is unknowable and grasped at only through the abandonment of reason; in which case, ‘each to their own’. Your guess is as good as mine. This is how we have come to the place where people will say 'I'm happy for you to have your religion, but keep it to yourself.' Modern man means to say 'your religion belongs in the upper story, don't try to bring it down here into the lower storey.'

In a culture built upon this line of thinking we would expect to see its fruition in a simultaneous rise of scientism and mysticism. This is precisely what we see in the West today. Scientism attempts to confine itself inside of pure rationality (the lower storey), while mysticism – with its face painted and shoes off – dances amongst the shadows of the irrational. But both acknowledge the line. Both rely upon a dichotomous view of reality in which there is no communication between the upper and lower storeys. There is a great gulf fixed.

The Bible proclaims no such dichotomy, but – in black and white – assumes and affirms the coherence between the natural and the supernatural, between the stuff and the spirit which animates the stuff. There are adhesions. There is no line. God is at work in the world.

Impact on the Church

So, with that groundwork laid, let us return to the first point, one that is most pressing for us Christians in our cultural moment. I say that the Christian church has abandoned the supremacy and infallibility of scripture while holding on to the doctrine. This is because the church has adopted the thought categories of modern man. It has accepted Schaeffer’s line. This is understandable – we swim in the same cultural waters – but it is not tolerable.

Western man insists that the things of religion – or what he calls religion – are all upper storey guesswork or mere acts of a will unfettered from reason, and this line of thinking has undoubtedly shaped Christian belief and practise in the early 21st century. The church has split in the same two directions as modern man, because the church is full of modern men and women. For many modern Christians rationality and reason have replaced the Scriptures as the ultimate guide to truth. And so, in practise, we have two kinds of modern Christians: upper storey Christians and lower storey Christians. Each of these groups has its own way of approaching the Bible but both are agreed the doctrine of the infallibility of the Scriptures now goes in the upper storey.

The upper storey Christians avoid being embarrassed about defending talking snakes and floating axe-heads – which are all a little too much for modern rational man – and tucks all this safely away up there above the line. They just go up there on a Sunday to play. It feels nice because up there in the upper storey the Scriptures are infallible. The upper storey Christian can continue to bellow ‘sola scriptura’ until hoarse, and feel ever so orthodox about it, because the rubber never needs to touch the tarmac. And so it doesn't really mean anything. These upper storey Christians have abandoned their felt pretence that their faith makes any rational sense down in the lower storey, because the Bible is not supreme in their epistemology. For them, reason is supreme. And so, if they want to hold onto the sense of the Bible's other-worldliness they feel they have no choice but to leave reason behind in their Christian practise and leap above the line, as Van Morrison once sang, into the mystic. I’m thinking of the kind of Christian who flicks through the pages, lets the book fall open, and takes a few verses as ‘God’s word to me today’. That is mysticism in Christian garb, and it won’t do. 

Christians can claim whatever they like about the stuff up in the upper storey, and the modern man will let us, so long as we don’t try to bring it down here, into the lower storey. He’s happy for you to have your ‘sky fairies’ and your ‘magic book’. And too many Christians have conceded the ground, because they don't want to have to squirm in the presence of the gods of rationality. (These be thy gods, O Israel!) Too many have sold the shop. And all because to the modern man reason is supreme over revelation. These things ought not so to be. 

What of lower storey Christians? Lower storey Christians have also accepted the line, but have had to find another way to hold on to their Christian claim beneath their epistemological prior commitment to the supremacy of reason. Reason dictates that axeheads do not float. Reason dictates that Red Seas do not part. Reason dictates that Virgins do not give birth, nor do dead men rise again. Thus, reason dictates that the stories of the Bible are mere fiction, cautionary tales, wise words handed down from the ancients; but they are certainly not to be believed at face value by any rational modern man. And so lower storey Christians can be heard speaking of the 'message' of the bible, or the 'teaching' of the bible, instead of the 'words' of the bible. Lower story Christians make excuses for miracles: they had all brought some bread along, the Red Sea was more of a Red Puddle, and so on. Lower storey Christians have opened themselves up to the ravages of the Higher Critics; soon they will have to join the upper storey Christians or risk having no bible at all. 

Unless there is a Bible that integrates the stories as it integrates the storeys...

Schaeffer's Three Bibles 

I believe Schaeffer's assessment of the situation is correct and so we might say that there are three Bibles. There is the upper storey bible all mystical and floaty; we go to it when we need a charm, or some kind of potion for our ailments, but let us not pretend it speaks of objective reality (like science might). Then there is the lower story bible all dead, old and dusty; it has some truths in there, but these are rational universal archetypes couched in peculiar stories, not specific revelation from beyond the reaches of our finite reason. Last, there is the real Bible; the one God wrote as he moved holy men by His Holy Spirit. This is the Bible - the inscripturated Word - that is an integration point for a Christian's whole life in God's true reality where there is no line.

I know your church statement of faith affirms the supremacy and infallibility of scripture, and so does your pastor’s Bible College. But if that statement only holds above the line, you're at risk of losing contact with reality as God has made it. But the proof of the pudding is in the daily reading of, meditating in and preaching of that Word, unabashed and unabated and unapologetic. The book itself is a most critical integration point for your experience of reality, the lens through which all of life - the rational and the supra-rational - should be viewed. Be not faithless, but believing. Take up, and read.

9 October 2019

Loving Authority

I am a big fan of the work and thought of Michael Polanyi. His realism is refreshing as it is brilliant. But in this post I want to pick up on one interesting feature of Polanyi's epistemology, and show how it might be helpful in the ongoing discussion around pedagogy.

Michael Polanyi asserts that coming to know is akin to an act of discovery. In learning, some new meaning is achieved through the integration of new and old knowing into a new, perhaps-only-half-anticipated coherence. Sometimes this feels like a 'eureka' moment, sometimes more mundane, but the process and the structure of the integration are the same.

Polanyi also suggested that once a coherence is discovered (not 'constructed'), you know you have done so because you have a sense of 'indeterminate future manifestations' of that new thing. It explodes with meanings and possibilities. You might find yourself saying 'oh, that suddenly makes sense', or 'I can't believe I didn't see that all along, it's so obvious', or 'wow, this changes everything!' Polanyi goes so far as to say that any coherence that is attended by such a sense of manifold prospective impacts, appearances and consequence is real.

Authoritative Guides

I said I wanted to pick up on one particularly interesting feature of Polanyi's epistemology. It is this: since there is objective reality, Polanyi insists that our integrations can be assisted by 'authoritative guides', whose prior experience of that reality can be trusted.

Indeed, authoritative guides can lead and point and coax us to make coherence out of the patchy knowing we already inhabit. We are guided to discover something more real from our existing disintegrated snippets of knowledge. These snippets might of themselves have no particular meaning for us, or we may only have a hunch or an inkling that they are significant in as-yet-unknown ways. But once integrated, they can be seen to be deeply consequential, and - to reiterate - real.

For example, a coach might spend a long time with young players teaching the correct foot and hand position for a sprint start. The kids may not appreciate the yet-to-be-realised impact of such detail, but the coach knows and so continues in her insistence that things are done right. The coach is right to be insistent. The coach is right to leverage her authority that her students might heed her words. The coach must act as an authoritative guide. To fail at this point is to fail the students' future selves.

This is the proper exercise of authority. It is the proper exercise of authority in a school, on the playing field, in a coaching session, in the church; in fact, in all of life. It is authority that is exercised to invite a learner into a fuller awareness of what is true and real and meaningful and purposeful. As such, it is a loving act on the part of the authoritative guide, because the 'guide' has already seen more, has felt more, has been further along this pathway, and knows how his life has been enriched by what he has learned.

The exercise of authority in this way is driven by the desire to see learners enjoy fruit for their labours. It is driven by the desire to guide students towards a coherence that bursts forth in 'indeterminate future manifestations' of a new reality. It is a reality already enjoyed by the guide, and too good not to share.

Authority vs Authoritarianism

Authority gets a bad rap in our day. We have fallen into the trap of collapsing all distinction between authority and authoritarianism. And so we have forgotten that authority is a prerequisite for knowing anything at all. Only as we submit to an authority can we be brought to know something new, something more deeply, or something more securely.

As a teacher I want my learners to come to know more deeply, more fully, more personally. If I want to guide them to discover and enjoy and find delight in the grand realities of my subject, I must exercise my authority to that end. But all must be done for their good, out of love. It must be done for the love of the student. It must be done for the love of the subject.

Loving authority. The title of this post can be read in two ways. How did you read it? Does the phrase begin with the present participle of the verb, or does it begin with an adjective? For your sake and for the sake of whomever you teach (since we are all teachers), I hope it begins with an adjective.

6 May 2018

I blame Foucault

Michel Foucault is the most cited scholar in the social sciences, and his book Discipline and Punish is one of the most cited works. Foucault's influence is hard to underestimate within academia. It is my contention however that his ideas have been a substantial force for ill. Allow me to explain.

Michel the Mystic

In my view, one of the central problems of postmodern-leftist academic thought is the obsession with unmasking what lurks beneath, to dig beneath what is self evident in pursuit of something substantial and profound below the surface. Reality doesn't simply present itself to us, and common sense is not so common, they say. It is almost mystical in its framing. Academics of this persuasion are like miners digging ever deeper, excavating through the layers, uncovering ever more imperceptible 'truths' (a word which must be deployed in ever-so-knowing scare quotes). Deeper, and deeper they go until the nugget is found; the thing itself, the source, the slime, or whatever.

So what do we find at the bottom of everything? This is what this post is about. In the Foucauldian analysis what we find when all the smoke clears and once all the illusions have been 'seen through', is Power [1].

Foucault's argument was that society is structured as a nexus of power relations (embedded in and sustained primarily through language or discourse), and that the struggle between and among groups and individuals is a struggle for the power to act within that nexus. It doesn't matter who you are, you are in a power-relation with those around you. As far as I can tell, given my rudimentary French, Foucault used the word pouvoir instead of puissance to convey the broad sense of capacity rather than the narrower sense of brute force. But nevertheless, it is important to recognise that Foucault consistently employed the term in a negative sense, connoting coercion and control. You are afforded more or less pouvoir by virtue of your upbringing, status, wealth and also, to a large extent, group identity. The whole of society therefore consists of overlaid and interwoven 'structures of domination'. Indeed, that is what society is.

Everything, the Foucauldian tells us, really is about pouvoir. When all the facades are stripped away there is only power. It is the bottom-most category. Your marriage is a power relation. The relationship between teachers and students is a power relation (and therefore the giving of detentions is an act of violence). The rich and the poor are in a lopsided power relationship, so too are men and women, whites and people of colour, the young and the old. There is a power gradient between any two groups you care to name, and power differentials between individuals within and among those groups. And so there is necessarily domination at every turn.

Of course, there is a grain of truth in all this. Power is a genuine category, and there are those who would utilise their pouvoir for malevolent, anti-social or self-serving ends.  We are well aware that power corrupts. (Or maybe power simply enables the already-corrupt). But, for me, Foucault and (especially) his followers go too far by insisting on the fundamental place of Power in the structure (and structuring) of social reality.

The Sorcerer's Apprentices

Why has Foucault become so ubiquitous? Honestly? My suspicion is that his ideas are everywhere because they require very little skill to apply. The precepts are pretty straightforward. Once you have been shown the 'truth' that power is the real currency that under-girds our society, that inaugurates and maintains 'structures of domination', then you start to see it everywhere. It becomes the lens through which everything must be viewed. And once you start, you just can't stop. Some might see this as evidence for the veracity of the analysis; I suggest it is evidence of a subtle perniciousness which is exacerbated by the lazy thinking of too many who have pitched their tent in Foucault's shadow.

Given how straightforward it is to apply Foucault, and how productive such an analysis can seem, it is unsurprising that there are swathes of social scientists labouring in Foucault's dreary universe. Take, as one example, this remarkable video in which an academic explains how she came to embrace the new field of 'feminist glaciology'.

She concludes (about 18 minutes in) with these remarks:
"What I am starting to suspect here is that this is not about me and this is not about glaciers...What's going on? It's about what this is really about. This is about power. It's about authorising specific knowledges and marginalising or excluding others. It pretends to be this single story about glaciers, or women, or me. But in reality this is about Power."
See? It is so broad a framework that, no matter which onion you peel (the onion of glaciology, in this case), as the layers come away you are always left with the same central concept: Power. This is the kind of thing you will find being done by Foucauldian scholars all across the social sciences and humanities. It has begun to creep into other domains. The academy is replete with such examples. A Foucauldian can conjure the very same rabbit out of a bewildering variety of hats.

Since Foucauldian academics have been initiated into the true order of things, like some occult rite of passage, it is henceforth the mission of said scholar to show how even the most innocuous and innocent of acts is in fact the insidious outworking of structures of domination hitherto unseen by the uncritical eye. 'Microaggression', anyone?

Enter the Intersectionalists

But this is a deeply damaging (perhaps pathological) way to perceive the world, and the ramifications are manifold. To reduce social relations between actors to the interplay of pouvoir rules out the possibility of free association between equals, denies the freedom and agency inherent in the interaction and reduces both individuals to less that what they each are. Both the powerful and the powerless are dehumanized in that relationship. Is it not blindingly evident that human beings and the relationships between them are multifaceted? Where do we place beauty, or skills, or ability, or intelligence, or chutzpah, among the 'structures of domination'? No, seriously.

On the surface of all of our lives there are evidences of these relational categories, and so the Foucauldian scheme must account for them. The Foucauldian simply folds these categories together, calls it power, and then pushes the locus of that power deeper within the individual, towards the unconscious and the pre-discursive. Yes, it may seem to you that you love your wife, but the 'deeper' reality is that you simply hanker after power and desire to wield it over another person. In Foucault's own words, 'the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, [is] the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us'.

To free oneself from this fascistic self-domination and self-exploitation requires the identification of the power-centres and their subsequent dismantling. Enter the intersectionalists, Foucault's offspring; they know where the power is. It is in whiteness, and maleness, and heterosexuality, and Christianity, etc.  These are simply the masks that power wears to structure the world for the powerless. Intersectionalists may well use the word privilege instead of power, but a rose by any other name...

And their stated aim? To deconstruct, de-centre, and decolonise. For them it is the lofty ideal of human liberty that fuels their efforts, that compels them to disrupt and resist.

If you happen to have the misfortune of holding all the power-full identities; white, able-bodied, so called 'cis'-male, Christian, heterosexual, married father (oh crumbs!), then your privilege is tantamount to fascism. And fascism must be denounced and renounced. You are unworthy of compassion, empathy, pity or respect, because you are (consciously and unconsciously) the privileged oppressor in every social field you inhabit. The power holder cannot be the object of compassion because it is undeserved [2], perhaps even taken by socio-historical force. What's more - since there is neither love nor forgiveness, only reparations in the economy of power - the response of the guilty woke-ling must be some (post-)modern iteration of asceticism, of self-flagellation and reflexive retribution. [3] You end up with people apologizing for things they didn't do, and for which they have no business apologizing.

The Greatest Danger

Pierre Bayle has this to say of philosophy and reason, which I think provides a pretty good description of how Foucauldian Postmodernism has proceeded in the West.
"...[P]hilosophy can be compared to some powders that are so corrosive that, after they have eaten away the infected flesh of a wound, they then devour the living flesh, rot the bones, and penetrate to the very marrow. Philosophy at first refutes errors. But if it is not stopped at this point, it goes on to attack truths. And when it is left on its own, it goes so far that it no longer knows where it is and can find no stopping place."
Thinking in Foucauldian terms (you haven't got to the bottom of something until you've uncovered the power structures) will eat away at all honesty, all good motives, all gratitude, and every display of genuine love. There is no love in the Foucauldian economy: power has eaten it up. It is an utterly impoverished and impoverishing worldview.

Take again the example of the feminist glaciologist. I will gladly acknowledge she makes some very valid points about the marginalisation of women within the field of glacier studies. But, by making her appeal to a Foucauldian power analysis, she goes too far. The best and most practicable solutions to this marginalisation become obscured by the overriding narrative of domination. It's not too many logical steps from here to 'burn it all down'. It's not so bad when we're talking about glaciers, but when the same analysis works its way from dusty university shelves and out into the real world, there's trouble a-brewing.

The real-world consequence of thinking in these categories is that abuse of power cannot be logically distinguished from unloving, or uncaring acts. (It is the good grace of God that keeps most postmodernists from living out 'their truth'). There is no internal logic (and no true morality) by which we might draw a line between the drawing of cartoons and the bombing of civilians. It cannot be said by Foucault's disciples that this thing is unloving, while that thing is evil. Because the only category is the category of power. This is how the clumsy and ridiculous bumbling of a fool in love, hitherto just fodder for TV sit-coms, can be recast as part of a deeply insidious 'rape culture'. This is degrading and dismissive of those who have suffered the grotesque physical and psychological trauma of actual rape. To the Foucauldian there is only a sliding scale, but no qualitative difference between these two 'deployments of power' in the analysis.

Since Power is a zero sum game to the Foucauldian, the only way to move toward social justice (that is, equity) is to wrest that power from the hitherto powerful and redistribute it. How? Well, get yourself a book on the history of the 20th century, and see how it turned out the last few times around.

[1] This kind of leftist conjuring is attended to brilliantly in Sir Roger Scruton's book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands (which I urge you to read).

[2] See Cassie Jaye's experience studying men's rights.

[3] Such as John Lasseter's (of Pixar fame) self-imposed sabbatical for hugging too much. (in The Guardian). Or Lorde's tweet (here). Or the So Sorry movement.

18 January 2018

Performance is not Progress

Q. I've got an observation coming up and I've been told I need to show that my students have made progress in my lesson. How do I do that?

A. Well that depends on what you mean by 'progress'.

Q. Go on.

A. Well, I think progress means that a student knows more about the subject than they did when we started. It's basically synonymous with learning.

Q. So, what's a good way of checking for progress?

A. If you want to know what someone knows, you ask them questions about it. If you want to see what someone can do, you ask them to do it. But progress is something different. Progress is change over time, not simply a snapshot. So if you want to see if someone has made progress you need a starting point and a destination. You can then compare knowledge at the start of a term, say, and again at the end. As long as your assessment methods are appropriate then you've got yourself evidence of progress.

Q. This all seems pretty straightforward. But I need to show progress in a lesson. So, if I teach them something new in the lesson and then do something like a quiz as a plenary, I'll be able to see if they've learned it?

A. The good old three-part lesson (starter, main and plenary) was always intended to allow the teacher and his students to make their learning 'visible', to evidence progress. You ascertain existing knowledge, you teach the next bit, then you review to see if the required new knowledge has been gained. But here's the rub. When you do this what you're seeing is performance, and performance is not evidence of learning, and so can't be evidence of progress.

At least it's not necessarily evidence of progress. It might be, it might not. But it is certainly, in the words of Soderstrom and Bjork (2015)[1], "an unreliable index of whether the relatively long-term changes that constitute learning have taken place." (p176)

Q. So why is performance not a good indicator of learning? 

A. Because of the way that forgetting works. Simply, long term retention is strongest where forgetting is regularly interrupted by retrieval.

Here's a simple explanation using basketball. Two groups have three 'lessons' in which they are required to learn the free throw, the lay up and how to dribble. (Let's assume the groups are similar with regard to other variables, shall we?) Compare these two possible approaches:

Group A: Three one-hour practices per week
  1. One hour of practice of the free-throw
  2. One hour of practice of the lay-up
  3. One hour of practice of dribbling
Group B: Three one-hour practices per week
  1. 20 minutes free-throw / 20 minutes lay-up / 20 minutes dribbling
  2. 20 minutes free-throw / 20 minutes lay-up / 20 minutes dribbling
  3. 20 minutes free-throw / 20 minutes lay-up / 20 minutes dribbling
So here's the thing, let's say someone came in at the end of each practice and asked the players to show their 'progress' in what they'd learned that day. Which group would perform best? Group A. Every day. But if you allowed a period of time to elapse after the third practice (let's say a week) and then tested the players on all three skills, which group would do best? Group B.

This is because despite being given the same learning time, they have the opportunity to practice retrieval of learning. They have the chance to interrupt their forgetting with retrieval. This is because "massed practice supported quicker acquisition..., but distributed practice led to better long-term retention" (p180). (Importantly, the evidence supports the value of distributed practice in both motor and verbal learning.)

If your plenaries only require students to perform things they have just experienced in that lesson, then any performance that is offered during a plenary is precisely that; performance. It tells you very little about learning.

Q. Okay, so maybe my plenaries aren't really evidence of progress, but they're not exactly a problem, are they? No harm done?

A. Counter-intuitively, short term performance improvements, like the ones the students show in the standard tell-me-what-you've-learned-today plenary may mask a lack of learning in the long term. A student can consistently give great plenary answers across a term and at the end of term have learned far less than their performance in lessons had led you to believe. And conversely, poor performance in plenary quizzes may mask the real learning that has taken place. This can be accounted for with a concept called 'latent learning'[1].

Q. So, back to my first question. I've been told I need to show that my students have made progress in my lesson. How do I do that?

A. You can't. Not with any degree of certainty. And what's worse, this requirement may ultimately be counterproductive for student learning because it will tempt you to plan in activities for your observation that evidence performance and can't reliably show progress at all!


[1] Soderstrom & Bjork (2015) Learning Versus Performance: An Integrative Review

30 September 2017

Integrate - Disintegrate - Reintegrate

There is always much talk of what great teaching should look like, and I have my own thoughts, of course. I've been struck recently by the work of Michael Polanyi, whose work on 'meaning' and 'knowing' has affected me profoundly. It can hardly be helped but to apply some of his ideas to see where they might assist me in my teaching practice.

Polanyi's most helpful concept is the idea that all knowing is, in his terms, 'subsidiary-focal integration'. I've written about this before in the context of sport. This idea is a remarkably simple one and yet its utility is vast and ranging. In this post I'd like to suggest that an awareness of subsidiary-focal integration (SFI), as the structure of all knowing, helps a great deal with lesson and scheme of work construction.

To do this, I will be applying SFI at the level of the individual lesson in order to highlight its applicability. By all means, extend the application of SFI across a series of lessons, or across the whole curriculum. I'll leave that work in your capable hands and for your individual subject and context.

What is SFI?

Polanyi argued that as we make meaning out of our experience we rely upon what we know. This seems a fairly indisputable starting point. He further argued that all of our knowing, whether it is knowledge of a physical skill, a great play, or the history of England, is structured in the same way. That is, there are focal elements and subsidiary elements to our knowing that we must integrate if we are to find the meaning of these things and then move on into further knowing.

The focal is that which we focus upon. It might be the specific wording of a single line of Shakespeare, the chemical composition of andesitic lava, or the finger roll in a basketball lay-up. The focal is what you're looking at when you 'zoom in'. All of these things need to be known in order to make meaning out of the whole; to understand and be moved by the plight of Hamlet, to be able to develop warning systems for local villages in the shadow of a volcano, or to score a basket in the dying seconds of a championship game. These focal elements are not entire in themselves but part of a larger knowing. 

The subsidiary is that which we rely upon in order to focus upon the focal. This refers to the broadness of all that we have previously experienced, that reside in our bodies and minds: our prior learning, our embodied memories, our feelings and emotions, our existing mental schema, even our ability to read and write. These things are not unconscious in a strict sense, since we are able to call them to mind, but they are not focussed upon. Instead they are relied upon subsidiarily in order to focus on the focal object; the thing to be learned or studied. 

In integrating the subsidiary (the already known, but tacitly held) with the focal (the object to be incorporated into knowledge, toward which the conscious mind is oriented) we move towards a deeper understanding. Through this integration we come to subsidiarity rely upon what once was focal. Learning is simply the lifelong process of drawing the focal into the subsidiary and then relying on it to focus on something new. (Remember when you had to learn what the pedals in a car were for?) This fuller understanding could be meaning, or purpose, or beauty. In an educational context this might look like a moving towards mastery.

Planning a lesson with SFI in mind

My lessons follow a relatively straightforward structure, which relies upon my understanding of SFI.

At the outset of an Anatomy and Physiology lesson, for example, we always begin with reference to the whole topic, locating the day's learning in the overall. For the most part I do this by reference to a knowledge organiser (you can take a look at these here). We identify where the lesson content fits as a part of the already-integrated whole domain.  It is a bit like taking a good look at a map before heading out on a hike. You wouldn't expect yourself to remember everything on the page, but it helps orient you for the journey.

In doing this, we rely upon those who have gone before us, whose expertise has constructed the already coherent canon. The trailblazers, the map makers. We stand humbly on those giants' shoulders to survey the domain from our vantage point. In the case of A&P the giants are Wilmore & Costill, the writers of the finest A&P textbook I've ever used, and - of course - the devisers of the BTEC Level 3 specification itself. Bless their souls.

Once we've identified where the lesson content fits in relation to our existing secure knowledge, as well as in relation to the yet-to-be-conquered knowledge we see ahead of us, we can 'zoom in' to the particulars. This is what I'm calling 'disintegration'. We're setting out on a jounrey, with a map in our heads. In doing things this way we have already provided a context and a meaning for the lesson itself. In our  A&P example this might be labelling and then self-testing the major bones of the skeletal system. Students would aim to learn at least 80% of the names (there are 16 in the spec) before the end of the lesson.

The beauty of this approach - and the whole point of this blog post - is that the particulars are never detached from their overarching purpose and meaning. We're never just doing this because 'this is just what we're doing today'. The 'big picture' (the domain) is held subsidiarily, or tacitly, by the student as he works through the tasks at hand. He is continually offering up these new focal particulars to his existing understanding, and trying to form a coherent whole. It's what we all do, all of the time. Our students, as sentient and skilled organisms (mostly) are always in the process of making meaning out of the particulars in front of them. That meaning will always be linked to previously constructed meanings. It will relate back to the map we looked at before we set out. If we can model this for them at the outset, contextualising our little journey, we have a better chance of motivating them towards the acquisition of new knowledge.

The new knowledge must not only be secured through appropriate questioning, testing and retrieval practice, but, if it is to be meaningful, must be clearly and explicitly re-integrated back up into the big picture with which we started. We cannot be satisfied with conveying the particulars; we have to 'zoom out' again.

But rather than leaving this work to the students, the teacher can provide explicit description of precisely how the newly learned is to be connected with the already learned. We can show which gaps in the students' existing knowledge it has filled. We can show what use this new knowledge is going to be in the future. Our students can use it to pose increasingly informed questions about the not-yet-known. In A&P my students (hopefully) will be able to provide an explanation of how to perform a lay-up, with reference to the muscular, skeletal and energy systems as well as the ways they interact. This despite the fact that all of the individual elements were initially learned as disintegrated particulars.

If new knowledge has been sufficiently well reintegrated, it nestles neatly and coherently within the domain. But the reintegrated whole is greater sum of the disintegrated parts. Now when we look again at the map it has a fuller meaning. The little symbols mean more. We can plan a better route, or a new route, or one that takes us via a particular landmark. We can think about what we might like to explore next.

19 August 2017

A teacher is an authoritative guide

I've done a spot of travelling in my time, but the most enjoyable trips I've made, the ones which have enriched me the most, have been those trips where I've had a knowledgeable guide. I've had a tour of the Vatican. I've been shown round Florence. I was even guided around Israel for a couple of weeks by a pastor and theologian from Nazareth. What a lot I learned!

He took us to the crusader Church of Saint Anne at Bethesda where we sang a hymn, because, he told us, the acoustics are superb. (They are. We drew a decent crowd. Of nuns.) We learnt the comic-tragic tale of the Immovable Ladder. We heard the account of the siege at Masada and saw the astonishing earthen ramp built by the Roman army there. We walked the Via Dolorosa, gazed up at Golgotha, visited the garden tomb, drank Arabic coffee by the roadside in Nazareth, ate fish at the Sea of Galilee, peered over the Mount Precipice.

Yep, still there.
As we went I had questions. A lot of questions. (I'm that sort.) He suffered them all - with good grace - until I could think of nothing more to ask. I had questions about theology, geography, climate, conflict. And his answers were meaningful and joined up, they were authoritative. He knew what he was talking about.

Who better to be led by than a native, or someone with extensive grasp of the culture and mores of that particular locale? His authoritative knowledge and my trust in that authoritative knowledge, came together and consequently I learned a great deal.

If you're a teacher, you are an authoritative guide.

Do you see? The subject you teach is a kingdom, a wide country full of wonder. And you are a native of that land, one who has trodden those paths, who knows the beauty of those shores, whose love for the place is irrepressible and deeply ingrained: it is part of who you are. You are one who has been lost and confused many times during your own wanderings in that landscape, but you have found your way again, always emerging with new insights. You know where the potholes, the pitfalls and the dead-ends are. You know where to linger for the best views. You may not have exhausted the richness of this kingdom, but your vast knowledge means you are equipped to be an authoritative guide.

You have the knowledge to lead scores of newcomers - your students, of course - through the highways and byways of each little settlement, pointing out how to move from one place to another, where these roads lead, and what are the landmarks along the way. 'Notice this thing here; look how those things relate.' You might stop a while at this place, or that, but always with purpose and always knowing how far and how long until the next stop. And your charges might ask you 'where does that path lead?', or 'who first found this place?', or 'what mean these stones?', but you will have an answer that is true and trustworthy.

But you can only do this if you know the lay of the land, if you're intimately familiar with that kingdom, with that domain.

I will teach Anatomy and Physiology this year, and I intend to lead the students first of all into the valley of bones that is the Skeletal System. Then we'll march around the mighty monuments of the Muscular System, putting flesh onto the bones of our understanding. We will travel along the arterial routes of the Cardiovascular System to the Respiratory System where we'll study some inspirational architecture. Finally, fatigued, we'll climb to survey the whole integrated scene from the breathtaking heights of Energy Systems hill. I expect from prior experience we'll have to tarry here a while.

If you're a teacher, you are an authoritative guide.

Subject knowledge is not just important, it is crucial. You cannot teach effectively without it. But you also need to know how the domain looks (and feels) as a whole if you're going to map a way through it for your students. Trying to do otherwise is simply the blind leading the blind. And you know what happens to them.

10 January 2017

Michael Polanyi and the best ever goal.

"There is no real substitute for a ball struck squarely and firmly". So says Billy Bragg in the song A Lover Sings, and anyone who has played football (soccer, if you must) knows what he means. You know what it's like to make the perfect connection with the ball. You just know. But what is it that enables us to 'just know'? That's what this blog post is about.

Think about the last time you hit the perfect strike and sent the ball screaming into the back of the net. (Okay, point taken. Just imagine it.) What did it look like? How did it feel? Did it sound like a thud, or was it some other kind of sound? Were you aware of your surroundings? The opposition? Teammates?

It's kind of hard to say, isn't it? We need some way of thinking this through, so let's start with an example, to which we can refer. Here is a short video clip of the best goal ever. (You heard me.)

More than we can tell

I wonder what the goalscorer Zinedine Zidane would say about this moment. I wonder if he could outline the bio-mechanics of the coordinated movements of each muscle which enabled him to strike the ball with such precision. I wonder if he could explain, with the meagre tools of language, the sensations of which he was aware as he contorted his body. The sound, the smell, the sight, the proprioceptive feedback from his limbs. Could he explain what the ball would feel like on his laces, or how the turf beneath his right boot might respond to a twisting motion. Could he explain how he calculated the trajectory and flight of both the incoming pass and his subsequent shot - one already extant and the other about to be created ex nihilo. It's unlikely. Yet he was able to send a thunderous volley past the flailing goalkeeper because, in some way, he knew all of these things.

He knew, even before the ball was struck, what it would be like to score this goal. Just as you or I know, if we have any experience of the game, something of how it might feel. Without this knowing, he could not have created this new thing.

In that moment, Zidane knew more than he could ever tell. All of us know more than we can tell. All of the time. We live moment by moment in the midst of that knowledge, and it ebbs and flows around us. The study of knowing (not just what we know but how we know) is called epistemology. It is to a particular epistemology we now turn in order to make sense of the knowing which enabled the greatest ever goal.

Subsidiary-Focal Integration

Michael Polanyi
Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), a brilliant Hungarian-British scientist and philosopher, was a remarkable individual whose work I have recently begun considering. One of his most salient contributions was in the field of epistemology and it is to him we owe the phrase 'we know more than we can tell'.

Polanyi argued that our longstanding assumptions about human knowing, which underpin scientific research and lately have given rise to scientism, are predicated upon fundamental epistemological flaws. Scientism is the belief (a word I use deliberately) that, given time, science would be able to tell us everything about every myriad detail of the universe that could be known. And not only this, but also that there is nothing that is more than the sum of its parts.

Michael Polanyi suggested that knowledge incorporates what he called a tacit dimension. That is, there is a dimension within all knowledge, that part constitutes that knowledge, which is neither explicable nor easily identifiable, yet entirely necessary. It is tacit and remains so. Let me try to explain using a Polanyian example, from his book The Tacit Dimension. [1]

When you look at a flower, what do you see? You see a flower, of course. But you also see petals. And you see stalk and sepal, stamen and anther. And if you move closer you might see the striated cellular structure of the petals, but then suddenly you're aware that you're no longer looking at a flower. The flower has gone, and has been replaced by the particulars of a flower. The flower exists at another level of knowing than do its particulars. You could argue that the particulars serve as 'clues' to this other (higher?) level of knowing. You might even be persuaded that this other level of knowing is the realm of 'meaning'. Through integrating the subsidiaries, you approach a discovery: the meaning of the flower.

Here is another example, this time one of my own. The other day, I tried to teach my wife how to run. She can run already but she has been complaining about pain in her hips, so - being a Sport lecturer - I showed her how to correct her running technique. We corrected her foot strike, her eye-line, her stride length. She practised relaxing her shoulders, and she tried again. Whatever it was that we'd created, it wasn't any kind of running! (Genuinely hilarious though.)

The thing itself, whether a flower or a running technique, is lost as we focus intently on the particulars.

We all know this feeling, when you overthink something and forget how to do it. Like pronouncing a particular word over and over again until it loses its meaning. Or a physiotherapist focusing so intently on the particulars (skeleton, muscles, etc.) of the lower back that the human body, and the person himself, is emptied of meaning. This is the essence of Polanyi's gripe with science. Science, in focusing on particulars, is in the business not of creating but of destroying meaning. Provocative.

But - don't misunderstand me - the particulars are still important. Polanyi says that in order to focally attend to the flower as a 'comprehensive entity' you must attend from a whole set of particulars which make up subsidiary knowledge, which must remain subsidiary or tacit. The subsidiary and the focal must be integrated, hence his term subsidiary-focal integration. Polanyi writes: "To go back to the antecedents of our tacit inference has not deepened our grasp of its result, but rather has made us lose sight of it" [2]

Upon integration (or re-integration) of the subsidiary and the focal, a new entity emerges, which is more than the sum of its parts. It might be the meaning of the thing. Or its beauty, for example. Or the majesty of the best ever goal.

Relax and hit it

Put yourself in Zidane's boots. You're ambling into the final third of the pitch, Roberto Carlos is cantering down the left wing after a lofted pass. You can tell he's likely to swing the ball across, so you pause your run at the edge of the penalty box and wait to see what comes next. You don't really have time to think about what you're going to do as the ball loops towards you. You don't have the capacity to consciously process every detail in all of its detail. But, partly thanks to years of training and partly thanks to your embodied senses in the moment, you have access to a host of movement experiences (i.e. subsidiary particulars), which on integration can produce something new, something creative. So, you relax, and hit it.

When I say 'relax and hit it', I mean it in the same way a sports coach might suggest to a struggling striker, or batter, or kicker. I mean 'don't over-complicate things, don't worry about the minutiae, and trust what you've learned in training'. In Polanyian terms I mean 'rely on your capacity for (re)integration of the subsidiaries: attend from that subsidiary awareness, and attend to the focal object, the comprehensive entity, the whole integrated movement'.

That is how you know how to strike a ball squarely and firmly. That is how you know how to score the greatest ever goal. A goal that is greater than the sum of its parts.


[1] Polanyi, M. (1966) The Tacit Dimension

[2] Polanyi, M. (1968) The Body-Mind Relation

12 October 2016

Ten Years Since I Quit Teaching

The Road Not Taken?

It dawned on me this week that I am approaching the ten year anniversary of quitting teaching after the first half-term of my NQT year. This post is a reflection on what went wrong then, why I'm still in teaching, and, perhaps most importantly, what I've learned from a decade of QTS.

Before September 2006

My PGCE year went well. Perhaps too well. I had the opportunity to work with some genuinely talented trainees and learn from top quality lecturers at Leicester Uni. (Secondary Geography, since you asked). We embroiled ourselves in the pedagogical topics du jour. I remember, in one seminar, making a speech about the moral dangers of the 'fake it till you make it' approach to teaching, and getting a resounding round of applause from my peers. What a schmuck.

But I had a pretty successful first placement at a school in the town where I was living. I put the hours in, that's for sure. And it seemed to be paying off, my learning curve was giddying. I subsequently found out that - on the strength of placement one - I'd been handpicked to go to one of the toughest schools in the area for my second placement. Cheers. I hadn't even got through my NQT year before Uni staff were telling me I needed to become an ET as soon as possible. I got the first job I applied for.

To paraphrase De La Soul, stakes was high.

September to October 2006

But the cost was beginning to be felt. I became overtaken by the need to reinvent the wheel for every single lesson. It had to be new, fresh, exciting. I went from teaching a handful of lessons per week on my PGCE to a 90% timetable, and in that context my lesson planning obsession was unsustainable.

I don't have a lucid or clear memory of those days. I can't say if the SLT were helpful; I don't remember. I'm not sure how much of my workload was picked up by other staff, though I'm sure it must have been. (If that was you, you know who you are: thank you!). There were lessons where the kids would crawl on the floor under the desks. They would mock my attempts at discipline. They weren't all bad; some of them still come to mind with fondness, but I really did have some difficult students to deal with. I had no concept even of how to begin to teach them! Bottom set year 8 is burned into my subconscious. I forgot I was on lunch duty pretty much every time. I would sometimes wake in the morning with strained vocal chords from shouting at the kids in my sleep.

At the end of each day I would gather up the carnage, realign the desks, put on my iPod on and fly out of there as fast as my no-longer-shiny shoes would carry me. I would not look back. But very soon I'd reached my limit, and then I broke.

Half Term, October 2006

The week before half term - barely 7 weeks into my illustrious career - I handed in my notice, in tears in the head's office. All aspiration had drained away. Later that week I overhead a conversation between a couple of middle managers about who had the better rate of employing staff who made it through. One of them had backed me, the other had not. Cheers.

Turns out that the only other NQT at the school had also handed in her notice; we both left at Christmas. That last departure, strutting like a punk out of the gates for the final time, remains one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. I scored four goals that Saturday. Just sayin'.

January 2007 to June 2009

I got out, and tried to stay out. I had pretty low overheads at the time and so my teacher wages lasted me another four months. But the bills needed paying, and despite sending out stacks of applications, no one would have me. A school down the road was looking for a cover supervisor. I applied and got called to interview. I went along totally lacking in confidence, and unsurprisingly got turned down. Then a week later I had a call from the school to say that the vacancy had come up again. (I later learned that a good friend of mine had been offered the job initially, but found something better inside a week!)

I learned the stuff that I really wished I'd been taught as a trainee: how to conjure a lesson out of thin air, how to manage behaviour, how to rely on my subject knowledge, how to give verbal explanations of concepts without props. Contingency plans.

It was another tough school. A shoddy 'Grade 3' at the time. A year into the job and the History teacher went off on maternity. The maternity cover teacher lasted a couple of days, before thinking better of it. The next replacement lasted about 5 weeks. Then they asked me. Fourth choice. Cheers.

I turned it down and decided to do something else. I worked with a mate who sells (a lot of) books on the internet. I catalogued all the pre-ISBN books, and created listings for each one. Then I got married and moved to the West Midlands, with the intention of working with a friend in his landscaping business. I figured I'd watch and learn and set up my own business in due time. Us Brummie lads love a spot of grafting, after all.

December 2009

The credit crunch. Remember that? No one needs their garden landscaping when they've got no money. People's optimism waned and the recession grew deeper. And it was winter. I got laid off. We found out that my wife was pregnant with our first child, and we had no income, and we're living in Dudley. It's like a Springsteen song, but without the murderous undertones.

I started looking for jobs and the first thing that jumped out was the local FE college and a vacancy to teach BTEC Level 2 Travel and Tourism. Now it so happens that during my very first placement on my Geography PGCE I was asked to teach this to a handful of kids, so I applied. The interview didn't go great, if I'm honest, but the people seemed nice, and so I was hopeful.

I didn't get the job. I had a call on the Thursday to tell me I'd been unsuccessful. Then, the following Thursday, I got another call offering me the job that they'd just turned me down for. Their first choice had found something better! That's now happened to me twice.

January 2010 to October 2016

The morning I was due to begin at the college it was bitterly cold. I woke early, showered and overdressed. (Turns out the dress code at an FE college is, let's just say, 'loose' by comparison to that at a school). Just before leaving to do the thing I never wanted to do again, I hugged my wife and my eyes welled with tears. The vortex that is teaching had sucked me back in. Given all my previous experiences I was sure that it was just a matter of time before it would swallow me whole.

I struggled through the first term. I fought with a whole host of demons. But I made it. And then something happened. There was an internal vacancy in the Sport department, and they knew that I had a joint honours degree in Sport Science. I applied, and I got the job.

Since that day I've taught at Levels 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. I've taught BTECs, A Levels, NVQs and Foundation Degrees. I've gained my NCFE Level 2 in Fitness Instructing, and started a Masters as well as my TAQA. I'm a 'champion' for English & Maths in our department and for TEL on my campus.

It's been 10 years since I quit teaching. And 6 since I returned. I've come a long way and I've learned a lot. I'm glad to be in the classroom and no longer feeling like I'm about to lose my mind. So, given all that experience, here are just three things that have emerged over the years as central themes for me in my teaching. I could say much more but I've droned on long enough. Maybe one of these will resonate.

Three Lessons Learned

1. Behaviour is the bottom line. I've been in some challenging schools and seen 'behaviour management' done well and seen it go horrendously wrong. You have to figure out a way of inculcating an atmosphere in which learning is the preeminent thing, and where everyone knows that they have a role to play to that end. I use humour and openness wherever possible, but gone are the days when I'd shy away from invoking the disciplinary procedure. Do what you have to, but don't scrimp on behaviour.

2. Be real. This probably merges with the one above, but, put simply, humans relate to humans. So be human. If you find something funny then laugh. Apologise when you're wrong and back down if you have to. If you don't know the answer, say so. The kids, the sentient ones at least, can spot a fake at 100 paces. This relational element of teaching, of course, is the great obstacle faced by the devotees of online learning.

3. Know what you're talking about. Or perhaps more accurately, have a coherent knowledge of the domain and how it interacts as a body of knowledge. This means that you can anticipate left-field questions, or identify gaps in student understanding and the likely knock-on effects of those gaps further along in the learning. You can then move away from barrelling your way through the Spec and start to make explicit linkages across the domain that will assist the students in terms of their own schema building. Plus, it's fun to know stuff!

October 2016 onwards

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Thanks for reading!

17 September 2016

Still in favour of Grammars

It's been all over the news. The Tories want to lift the ban on Grammar Schools. There is near unanimity amongst teachers and education types that this is a backward step by a deluded and out-of-touch political class hankering for the glory days of imagined British greatness. And although I may agree on this assessment of the Tory party, I've yet to be convinced that grammars are a bad idea.

I've heard scarcely a voice in the wilderness of the public sphere in favour of the status quo. Except, that is, for two well-known conservative figures, who have both written in support of Grammars. Their names would give the game away, of course. (But what the heck: see here and here)

In this post I want to confront two arguments in favour of retaining the ban on new grammar schools that are the most repeated.

Argument 1. Grammar schools don't work.

Well I'm pretty sure they do. Grammar schools consistently out-perform comprehensive schools in terms of academic results; it's not hard to find the data. But I'm leading you on, because I know what is meant by the 'Grammar schools don't work' trope. What people mean when they say this is that grammar schools don't make poor, working class kids financially better off.

My response to this is, so what? That's not an argument against grammar schools for anyone but the staunchest of utilitarians and the money-obsessed.

And besides, grammar school does make poor kids richer. It enriches their minds through exposure to the great works of art and literature, and to an abundant cultural heritage of which they might have otherwise had little experience. Grammar schools typically provide an enormous amount of extra-curricular activity, especially in drama and sport. Do we judge the quality of a person's education by the paycheck it ultimately produces? Or do we judge it by the beauty and wisdom and knowledge deposited in the minds of the kids?

What confuses me about this most is that those people who I have heard vehemently decrying the idea that the central purpose of schools is to create economically prosperous citizens will happily use (or re-tweet!) the argument when it comes to assessing the worth of grammar schools.

Grammar schools do work. Just not in the excruciatingly narrow sense that seems to have been carelessly adopted as the primary criterion.

Argument 2. Everyone is entitled to the very best education

Perhaps it's the not the schools themselves but the structure of the whole system with which you find fault. It's not that some reach their academic potential, but that others fail to.

After all, there's nothing much to disagree with when it comes to the statement 'everyone is entitled to the very best education'. Except that it's an essentially meaningless platitude. The first question to ask is not whether or not grammar schools are the way to provide the best education for everyone, but whether you think all schools can provide the very best education. It would be great if we could make that the case, but I'm sceptical. And so I'll stick my neck out and say no, they can't all be that good. Under any system.

The very best education in my view is found in a school espousing traditional pedagogy with a culture of high expectations for behaviour, a focus on imparting the collective wisdom of the ancients, a fast pace of teaching and great depth of content, as well as a strong moral dimension. You know, like a grammar school. You might get the odd Comprehensive meeting these criteria, like the much-vaunted Michaela for example, but what can't be done is to have this grammar-style education for all children in all schools.

It can't be done because too many teachers think it's a flawed or old-fashioned way to run a school. It can't be done because there isn't the collective will to make it happen. It can't be done because people aren't as interested in applying the latest educational research findings as we might like to think. It cant be done because there can never be enough teachers of a good enough standard to carry the necessary burden. It can't be done because there is seldom the 'critical mass' of academically driven kids required in a given comprehensive cohort to make it work. It can't be done because kids are not bottomless receptacles of knowledge waiting to be filled up. Some of them are more or less capable of - as well as more or less inclined to - learning than others. Everyone knows this.

The Trade-off

I'm in favour of grammars because the real-life alternative is worse (especially for those white, working class kids whose levels of attainment the educational establishment bemoans). As a conservative (that's a small 'c', I must insist you realise), I'm put off by Utopian visions which always fail to materialise.  The same is true here. The grammar school / comprehensive system is manifestly imperfect, but, imperfection is something we're going to have to learn to live with. In the words of the ever-quotable Thomas Sowell, 'there are no solutions, only trade-offs'.

Grammar schools are a perfectly reasonable trade off between the Utopian vision of the admirably-optimistic left-leaners and the dog-eat-capitalist-dog world of Independent schools and selection by parental income. Mrs May's government should lift the ban.

16 August 2016

100% Prole

Von Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo Quarto Stato

Some radical leftist theorists have suggested that to fully understand the plight of the proletariat (if we grant that there is such a thing, but this is the first sentence: let's not get too tangled just yet!) it is necessary to be among their number. Some have plainly stated that it is impossible for any other person (i.e. the bourgeoisie) to attain true knowledge of the state of proletarians.

Here are two examples of such an assertion; one in the realm of grand theory, the other applied to the sport of boxing. The first is from Georg Lukács and the second is more recently from sports sociologists Ingham & Hardy.
"The knowledge yielded by the standpoint of the proletariat stands on a higher plane objectively: it does after all apply a method that makes possible the solution of problems which the greatest thinkers of the bourgeois era have vainly struggled to find and, in its substance, it provides the adequate historical analysis of capitalism, which must remain beyond the grasp of bourgeois thinkers." (Lukács 1979, italics mine) 
"In boxing too, gambling and brute force retained links to traditional forms of male status that the bourgeois critics could never understand" (Ingham & Hardy 1993, italics mine)
It was in fact this second quote, which I read a few months back that first jumped out at me. How strangely it is worded. There is nothing concealed or nuanced in the sentence: if you're a part of the bourgeoisie you are incapable, no matter your efforts, of ever understanding the status of the proletarian. I stored it away and moved on, until I encountered the first quote from Lukács in a recent book by English philosopher Sir Roger Scruton.

A Bourgeois Blindness?

What strikes me as being rather peculiar is that such arguments have been built on the philosophies of men such as those following.

In selecting these individuals I run a historical line from German rational philosophy through the advent of Marxism up to the writers of the highly influential Frankfurt School. I do so without suggesting that they were all in agreement on all matters, but rather that there is a clear lineage.

I'm bringing Feuerbach.
Ludwig Feuerbach, writer of The Essence of Christianity, high priest (so to speak) of materialism, and major influence on Marx and Engels, was the son of a distinguished jurist (who was knighted for his part in modernising the Bavarian penal code). His brother was a classical archaeologist and his nephew a neo-classical painter [1]. Ludwig Feuerbach matriculated from the University of Heidelberg in 1823.

Karl Marx, was born into a middle-class Jewish family. His father was a lawyer, and both sides of the family had rabbinical ancestry. The family owned several vineyards. Marx married into the Prussian ruling class when he married baroness Jenny von Westphalen in 1843. The Westphalens helped bankroll Marx's early career, while Friedrich Engels picked up the tab later on.

Friedrich Engels was the firstborn son of a successful Protestant textile manufacturer. Engels worked, at various periods through his life for the family firm eventually becoming partner. He sold up in 1869, with enough to retire comfortably (as well as fund Marx's work). [2]

The Frankfurt School, or officially the Institute for Social Research, was founded in 1923 (unsurprisingly in Frankfurt, Germany) with the aid of money from Felix Weil's wealthy father, who had made his fortune through exporting grain from Argentina to Europe [3] Several key leftist theorists of the 20th century have been a part of - or at least closely linked with - the Institute.

Lukacs: the other Red Baron?
Max Horkheimer was the Director of the Frankfurt School from 1930. He was the son of a millionaire father who owned several textile factories and a 'traditional bourgeois housewife' mother from a 'very well-to-do' family. He attended dance classes as a teenager; a key part of his socialisation into a rigid German social structure, and would write plays and novellas in his spare time. (see Abromeit 2011).

Baron (yep, Baron) Georg Lukács was a Hungarian philosopher from the Frankfurt School who produced the foundations for 'Western Marxism'. He was the son of an investment banker, who wrote theatre reviews for the local press as a high school student. [4]

Theodor Adorno, who, in 1955, succeeded Horkheimer as Director of the Institute, was a classically trained pianist and son of 'relatively affluent' parents: his mother was a singer and his father, a successful wine-exporter. [5]

What, then?

Where does this veritable pantheon of decidedly bourgeois individuals leave us? We mustn't forget that, in Lukács' own words...
"the adequate historical analysis of capitalism...must remain beyond the grasp of bourgeois thinkers."


Lukács, G. (1979 [1923]) History and Class Consciousness. 

Abromeit, J. (2011) Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge

Ingham, A. G. & Hardy, S. (1993) Introduction: Sports Studies Through the Lens of Raymond Williams. In Ingham & Loy (eds) Sport in Social Development. Human Kinetics, Champaign.

25 July 2016

An anecdote in praise of grammar schools

This is an anecdote.

I was born in 1982 and raised in a housing association house on the east of Birmingham. My mum worked as a teaching assistant in my primary school, and my dad on the shop floor of a vehicle parts factory. He biked it to work because we didn't have a car. My mum's parents weren't called grandparents. They were Nan and Granddad, and they too lived in council housing. My Nan used to bath all three of us kids at the same time, and wash our faces with our own underpants. True story. We were working class.

Birmingham has always had a strong grammar school presence, and I was one of the select few to whom those schools afforded an opportunity that I had no right to claim. No one coached me for the 11-plus entry exam, I just turned up and did it. They offered me a place.

That was a critical moment.  I loved the environment at my school, and felt immediately at home. It was an environment in which I was able to indulge my love of learning and my teachers pushed me, tested me and challenged me. I never excelled in any one particular area, but was a kind of jack of all trades.

Original file:
The education I received was first rate. Not perfect, but first rate. The seven mile bus ride to school was absolutely worth it. I spoke Latin with a Brummie accent. I went to 'Greek Club' during my lunchtimes, although the club didn't last very long. We sat in rows in nearly every lesson. I played Rugby, Cricket, and Hockey. We wore blazers right up to and including sixth form, and still had to ask permission to remove them. We stood whenever teachers entered the room. Behaviour problems were close to nonexistent. Expectations were high. Very high.

I got some good A Level results and went off to Loughborough University for the sport scene. More than ten kids in my year - none of whom had ever paid a penny for their education - headed off to Oxbridge.

But not everyone thinks grammar schools are a good idea and I get that. (I was taught in one, but I've never taught in one. My school teaching experience has been in state comprehensives.) The debate has been raging for a very long time and there are some compelling arguments on both sides. I'm not getting in to that now; this is simply an anecdote.

Would I have got the A level results that I did, or would I have got to my University of choice had I been to a regular state comp? Would I have cultivated my love of reading, writing and ruminating to the same extent had I not bothered with (or flunked) the 11-plus exam? Honestly, I don't know for sure. What I do know is that plenty of people have done exceedingly well having never set foot inside a grammar school.

But I do suspect, given my background, my personality and my personal set of circumstances, that had I not been to grammar school I would never have gone as far as I have. My grammar school education placed me on a different trajectory, and for that I'm grateful.

Plus, my kids call my mum 'Grandma' and I wash their faces with a flannel.

This has been an anecdote.

18 July 2016

Religion: The Dependent Variable

I was reading an article recently by Philip Mellor and Chris Shilling entitled 'Body pedagogics and the religious habitus' in which the following statement is made:

"The global resurgence of religion in the contemporary era, however, has presented a challenge to what can be seen as the methodological ‘default’ position of many sociologists, namely, that religion is always the ‘dependent variable’, relative to secular phenomena deemed to be more important." (p. 27)

I want to assist with this challenge.

It seems to me that every social scientist must stand downstream from Marx for some period of time, if not to take the plunge then at least to test the water. Why is this? It is plain that the great majority of renowned sociological thinkers draw from that stream. When Mellor and Shilling speak of the 'methodological default', it seems to me what underlies this is a prior commitment of those 'many sociologists' to a leftist theoretical perspective.

A key principle of this school of thought is that material (a classical Marxist would say economic) factors are perceived to be the driving force behind the structuring of modern society. Much needed nuance to this view was first brought to the left by Gramsci in particular (more on him another time), while the right has tended to see the whole school of thought as unjustifiably lighting upon one factor amongst many.

This commitment to the ideological precedence of the material, allied to Marx's personal disdain for religion, which he famously described as the opiate of the masses, was shared by many of his contemporaries. He said that 'man makes religion, religion does not make man'. Given this foundation, it is unsurprising therefore that many of those drawn to the social sciences are either disinclined to conceptualise religion as a key structuring force for similar reasons, or simply socialised into a sociology that does so. (This is not a criticism per se, rather an observation.)

What this has meant, it appears, is that religion itself has been relegated down a category in the conceptual hierarchy of leftist thought. Marx might have said it was not part of the base but of the superstructure of society. Whether we use these Marxian terms or not, religion is, in the words of Mellor and Shilling, treated by many in the social sciences as the 'dependent variable'. My contention (and that of Mellor and Shilling) is that this is a conceptual misstep.

My reason for thinking this is that for those who adhere to any religion with a central moral code, these factors often constrain and supplant other interests and motivating factors. Indeed in many instances religion is expressly concerned with overcoming the material forces of life, and in providing a rational-theological basis for doing so. For example, the Christian scriptures make the following (selected) statements about money and wealth.
  • For the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10)
  • Ye cannot serve God and mammon (Matthew 6:24)
  • Labour not to be rich (Proverbs 23:4)
Christians then strive to bring their lives (attitudes, behaviours and emotions) into line with these biblical commands, which consequently functions to, at least in part, structure their own social world(s).

The extent to which an individual is successful in this venture is of course very much entwined with the complexities of identity and the agency they may either enjoy or lack. We make (admittedly constrained) choices about who we spend our time with, what ideas we will countenance or discuss, the places we will go and the institutions we support.

Practices and habits of individuals (indeed every scale of society) are frequently influenced by religion. It seems that to ignore the religious dimension in our explanations of the structuring forces of society is to miss a critical element.