Bauman, Ballistics and the Purpose of Education

This week I have begun my autumn studies again, taking an intensive “summer school” course run by the University of Helsinki. Already my cynical and contrary nature has got me into trouble with the lead instructor of the course, but that was sort of to be expected. Also as expected I have met some fascinating individuals and thinkers from a number of different countries, and I have been challenged to expand my frame of reference accordingly.

The essence of the course curriculum thus far has been to reinforce that cynical adage, “Remember, you are entirely unique, just like everyone else.” More specifically, the idea has been to de-essentialize the concept of culture –– to make “culture” something of a dirty word –– to imply that within each given “culture” there is too much variety for the word to have a proper meaning. The focus of the ideological agenda underlying this denial is to completely subjugate acquired statuses to achieved statuses. According to the ideology in question, one’s ethnic heritage, sex, land of birth and genetically determined physical attributes should be considered entirely irrelevant; and one should be assigned status based strictly on ones chosen identity constructs and one’s accomplishments within one’s chosen field: Native born, taller, lighter skinned or more masculine individuals should never automatically have a higher status than immigrants, short people, dark skinned or feminine/effeminate folk; but academics should always have a higher status than manual laborers and “scientific” thinkers should always have a higher status than “less scientific” thinkers. Stereotypes must also be limited to areas of achieved status: the instructor is perfectly comfortable saying that wives who have converted to their husbands’ religion of Islam are all a certain way, but God forbid if anyone say that Finns in general are prone to display particular cultural characteristics.

Those of you who are familiar with my style of thought and interaction might understand then how my responses to such premises might get me into trouble. I’m all for as much equal opportunity and acceptance of idiosyncratic identities as we can possibly socially engineer, but I also believe in accepting human variety and the rich quilts of identity factors that make each of us who we are for what they are. I find denial of the existence of ascribed status factors on ideological grounds to be naively counterproductive at least; a mark of deep social-psychological maladjustment at worst. Anyway…

Donskis in HelsinkiProbably the most valuable academic input I have received from this course thus far has been a reminder of the value of the works of Zygmunt Bauman, and encouragement to read some of his works of the past decade. My last consideration of Bauman was actually back in the 90’s, by way of a philosopher of my own generation (actually 2 weeks younger than me) named Leonidas Donskis. Donskis visited in Helsinki briefly as he was finalizing his doctorate here, and through mutual acquaintances I became his unofficial tour guide for part of that time. Among other things he told me that Bauman would have been his official opponent in his defense of his PhD dissertation, were it not for the fact that Helsinki refused to make an exception to the rules to allow the distinguished professor to smoke within the university’s auditoriums: The chain-smoking Bauman refused to put himself in a position of having to philosophize for over two hours without his pipe!

bauman w pipeI remember enjoying immensely my chats with Donskis about Bauman and other intellectual matters, but since then I hadn’t read any of Bauman’s subsequent works… until this week. After the first day’s summer school lectures I went and raided the B shelf of the sociology section of the university library, to my own deep satisfaction. I have found Bauman’s works thoroughly inspiring again, providing a fresh yet familiar and suitably authoritative perspective on many of the issues which occupy my mind these days. In particular, in the interview-based book On Education, “co-written” by Riccardo Mazzeo last year (2012), he has provided a beautifully elegant explanation for the varying purposes of education, which contains the best argument I have yet to come across as to why philosophy needs to be part of compulsory schooling, especially in “Western” countries in our current era.

Bauman tosses out the analogy of ballistic missiles as a starting point here. The earliest forms for these were cannonballs and artillery shells, where if you knew the weight and aerodynamic properties of the projectile, the positioning of the barrel out of which it was fired, and the explosive force of the gun powder propelling it, you could calculate with little or no error where that sucker was going to land and what sort of damage it would do once it got there. By adjusting the charge, the barrel position and perhaps the flight properties of the projectile, within certain technical limits you could pretty much choose where you wanted it to go and how much damage you wanted it to do… as long as you were shooting at a fixed target. If you wanted to take out a fortified wall, with enough power and persistence you could do it. If you wanted to take out a bunch of soldiers dug into their trenches, the right sort of rocket would do the job. But if you’re shooting at a fast moving rider, or tank, or fighter jet, which can see your missile coming and change course to get out of the missile’s path, the missile’s usefulness becomes much more limited.

ArtilleryEnter “smart bombs”. These weapons are equipped with electronic sensors which either pick up on the heat signature or the magnetic properties of what they are designed to destroy, and to continuously change course while in flight until they make contact with their desired target. They are designed to “think for themselves” somewhat about how to achieve their pre-determined goals. They can still be fooled by some rather basic strategic expedients, but their advance over basic pre-aimed rockets, bullets and artillery shells is obvious.

This sort of military technology could be taken significantly further though: A further robotized missile could, conceivably, be fired into an enemy encampment with programming that would allow it to “choose” the most valuable target that it would be capable of destroying once it got there. So if the missile in question were able to sense and identify a strategic bunker which it would not be able to penetrate, a fighter/bomber jet idle on the runway and a mess tent with two soldiers in it having coffee, its programming could enable it to automatically target the jet rather than the less strategically valuable individual soldiers and the less plausibly destroyable bunker.

These levels of sophistication in military technology correspond, albeit imperfectly, in Bauman’s analysis, with three levels of educational sophistication identified over 50 years ago by Gregory Bateson. At the most basic level you have what has elsewhere been called “mug and jug” education: where the teacher pours information from her ample reserves of such (the “jug”) into the passively receptive student’s intellectual receptacle (the “mug”), with hopes that this information to be uncritically accepted and reliably remembered. This strategy was effective and perfectly workable when the student was expected to follow a preset pattern of performing simple repetitive tasks with relatively few variables involved, yielding reliable results. If the student was to be a factory worker, a farm hand, a plumber or a vending machine maintenance man, having a basic knowledge of mathematics, language, physics and biology which enabled him to perform these routine tasks was really all that was necessary. By analogy it was a simple matter of treating the student like a basic ballistic projectile to be fired at given “fixed targets” of working life.

Education in "the good old days"

Education in “the good old days”

As these targets have become less fixed, however, it has become more necessary to “program” students to track on moving targets, leading to what Bauman describes as Bateson’s “deutero-learning” formulation –– aimed at developing a “cognitive framework” by means of which to absorb and process information, thus allowing for continuous “course corrections” throughout working life. The current vogue for “life-long learning” is based on this sort of premise.

The third level is where the military analogy begins to break down in terms of capturing Bateson’s original formula. It involves the deconstruction of the cognitive frameworks used in the second level of education, thus enabling the learner to critically analyze, reject and/or maybe rebuild the cognitive structures in question. In other words the student can question the prescribed targets of her/his education and choose for herself/himself what is worth “shooting at”. Bateson (according to Bauman) speaks of this as a “counter-educational” phenomenon to be avoided. Bateson saw it as pathological; Bauman sees it as inevitable.

From Bauman’s perspective, given the unpredictability of the future for which we are educating young people, we cannot reliably tell them what challenges they will be facing once they arrive at their “target”. Thus, rather than giving them solid instructions as to “the only right way of doing things” or “the goals of professional life” they should set out to attain, we should be equipping them to “choose their own targets” based on criteria we can help them develop. We need to enable young people to decide for themselves what sorts of goals are worth pursuing once they see what the as yet unknown future looks like. This entails the risk that they will choose entirely different sorts of goals than their parents or teachers had in mind, but it puts them in the position of being equipped to make responsible decisions based on better information than what we can offer them, given the distance at which we stand from their ultimate objectives.

I really couldn’t agree more with the implications of Bauman’s ideas here. Given the uncertainty of the world in which we live, the most important thing we can educate our young people to do is to think for themselves about what is ultimately important to them and how they can best realize the broader goals they set for themselves. This makes some form of education in philosophy absolutely essential at the primary and secondary levels of education –– “Philosophy” being the best name currently available for instruction in the collective skill set needed to evaluate the reliability of information we are basing our decisions on, contemplate the significant variables which lie beyond the scope of currently available information, and consider alternative means of determining the best course of action. School systems ignore and belittle these skills to their own peril. We can do far better in these regards, so let’s get moving on the revolution which enables us to do so!

But meanwhile I must get back to the tasks at hand: hopelessly trying to show some resemblance of sincere respect for the powers that be in the academic contexts in which I find myself. Wish me luck…



Filed under Change, Education, Individualism, Philosophy, Purpose, Social identity

4 responses to “Bauman, Ballistics and the Purpose of Education

  1. Sarah

    We certainly would enrich the experience of our students by enabling them in Philosophy – the discipline and its history – and the argument for doing so is well made here. I think we also need to introduce a level of fixity into the rhetoric we use to discuss education – young people need and value stability – our reflection on the world, the life we are helping them prepare for would benefit in my opinion from a language which is rooted in the paradox of fixed change.

    • Thanks for your feedback, Sarah. I think finding the optimum balance between “stability” and flexible creativity in our education systems will be a perpetual challenge for all of us in the field. We need to recognize that, while children do need a sense of security in some things always remaining more or less the same (2+2 will always equal 4) they also need to be made aware of the seismic shifts occurring in our “rock solid” frames of reference. I also think that many in our profession tend to get lazy about adjusting the way they teach so as to account for the complications of variability and uncertainty that creep into our various subject areas. Thus if the current balance needs to be tweaked in most cases it would be in the direction of making things more flexible rather than more “stable”. But of course there are a near infinite number of local variations on these questions. Embracing paradox will take us a long way in any case. 🙂

  2. We believe that philosophy should be a part of every child’s education, and not only for the skills they will need in the future as described here, but also because it develop understanding of the concepts that underpin all other subjects. Philosophy Now did a radio show earlier this year about philosophy in education that gives many arguments for why philosophy should be in schools, you can find it here if you are interested.
    Thank you for the introduction to Bauman!

    • We are preaching very much the same message, and I believe that you are getting it out to more people who really need to hear it than I am. The risk I have found with the “underpinning all subjects” argument is that many educators wanting to avoid structural change say in response, “OK, we’ll just teach everything a bit more ‘philosophically’.” That’s sort of like removing music from the curriculum and saying, “we’ll just include a bit of music in everything we teach.” Having philosophy as its own subject area is one of the things that we in Finland, and the Brazilian education system, and the New York City school attached to Columbia University are doing right.

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