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April 05, 2011

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rabbit

Such blatherings add support to the idea that shutting down vast expanses of the humanities within our academies of higher learning would not only do little damage to society, but would be positively invigorating.

AC1

I think cutting out all the extortion element of education would be morally, economically and socially beneficial.

Rafi

David,

A funny and disturbing article.

superior knowledge ceases to be a necessary qualification of the teacher, just as the process of explanation… ceases to be an integral part of teaching.

If teachers don't need to know much or explain anything surely we can cut their pay? Starting with Nina Power's. This 'shared ignorance' business could save us a fortune…

David

Rafi,

“If teachers don’t need to know much or explain anything surely we can cut their pay?”

Dr Power’s views on teaching and intelligence do seem to jar with her indignation at cuts in humanities funding. When leftwing philosophers tell us that they and their peers no longer need to be knowledgeable or competent in any conventional sense, this isn’t a great incentive to publicly fund more leftwing philosophers.

rjmadden

I thought (British) philosophy was supposed to involve asking questions about reality and knowledge. It looks like Nina Power's doing the opposite of that. If we have to presuppose 'everyone is equally intelligent' and 'everyone can understand anything' we have to ignore reality and knowledge. That's wishful thinking not philosophy.

melk

So does this mean that President Obama is no more intelligent or brilliant than anyone else? That any redneck Republican is just as smart as he is? I'm so confused.

David

“That’s wishful thinking not philosophy.”

Yes, as Peter Risdon noted, there’s a remarkable reliance on asserting, assuming and presupposing. But bizarre as it may be, this attitude isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The former Labour Party schools minister Andrew Adonis made very similar noises:

“There is no genetic or moral reason why the whole of society should not succeed to the degree that the children of the professional classes do today, virtually all getting five or more good GCSEs and staying on in education beyond 16.”

This is a stunning feat of supposition. Has Andrew Adonis actually met a selection of children from across the entire ability range? Has he met them gathered in one room? I suspect not. And if he were to, would he close one eye and pretend that the child at one end of that spectrum (who may not be able to read GCSE questions let alone comprehend them or answer them correctly) is inherently as capable as the child at the other extreme? Or would be if not for the evils of capitalism and “social privilege”?

It’s perhaps worth noting that when Mr Adonis airs this conceit, which is much like that of Dr Power and her peers, it doesn’t sound terribly sophisticated or daring; it just sounds dogmatic, reactionary and foolish. And again, if he were addressing some attribute other than intelligence – say, musicality or perfect pitch - his claims would gain much less traction, even among disreputable leftwing academics.

rabbit

I am lucky to live in a jurisdiction that supports choice in schooling. Not only are there separate public and Catholic school systems, but anyone can start up an independent school so long as it meets basic educational requirements. And all of these receive funding from government on a per-student basis.

Such choice frees us from the tyranny of bizarre educational theories academics hoist on our children. Stupid ideas don't have much chance in such a competitive marketplace.

The result is a school system which is ranked one of the best in the world.

rabbit

rjmaddem:

Wishful thinking indeed. But that's always been at the heart of postmodernism. A belief in "positioned truth" -- that truth varies with who you are -- rips the heart out of meaningful concept of reality. Not having to answer to evidence is wonderfully liberating, but ultimately suicidal.

Karen M

Dr Power rails against… what she regards as the “ideological devastation of the education system.”

People like Nina Power have been trashing the education system for years (and getting paid for it).

WTP

When will you people understand? They teach this crap in schools, you must not have been paying attention…

All ideas are equally valid. It is an invalid idea to think otherwise.
Perception is reality. That’s the truth, not a perception.
Everyone is equally intelligent. To think otherwise shows what an idiot you, and by extension all of us, are.

If you were taking your Prozac, you’d just accept these facts. Perhaps y’all need to see psychiatrists.

Oh, yeah, and war is peace, freedom is slavery, some animals are more equal than others, etc. etc. etc.

David

What’s interesting is that at no point is Dr Power’s basic claim justified with evidence; it’s simply asserted – presupposed – on grounds of political preference. It’s apparently deemed desirable that everyone is – and ought to be - equally clever or equally stupid. The disregard for evidence is even given an air of virtue, of intellectual sophistication. (Naturally, she quotes Rancière who based a career on doing much the same.) The nearest we come to any kind of actual argument, as opposed to bald assertion, is this:

“The reason why we can relatively quickly understand complex arguments and formulae that have taken very clever people a long time to work out lends credence to Rancière’s insight that, at base, nothing is in principle impossible to understand and that everyone has the potential to understand anything.”

And here of course Dr Power is either credulous or bullshitting. As Peter Risdon pointed out,

“No, it doesn’t. It demonstrates that it’s much harder to have an original insight than to communicate it. This is the difference between exploring uncharted territory and travelling with a map. In fact, there’s almost complete general ignorance about ‘complex arguments and formulae that have taken very clever people a long time to work out.’ Rigorous study of ‘crunchy’ subjects is the province of a vanishingly small minority.”

You’d think a senior lecturer in philosophy might consider such details. Maybe she was too busy describing student riots as “uplifting” and grumbling about “white males discussing formal logic.”

Mondaybooks.wordpress.com

"Has Andrew Adonis actually met a selection of children from across the entire ability range? Has he met them gathered in one room? I suspect not. And if he were to, would he close one eye and pretend that the child at one end of that spectrum (who may not be able to read GCSE questions let alone comprehend them or answer them correctly) is inherently as capable as the child at the other extreme?"

I hate to defend Andrew Adonis, David, but the inability to read and comprehend GCSE questions is not necessarily related to inherent capability.
The reason I hate to defend Adonis, of course, is because he is one in a long succession of British Secretaries of State for Education, of both governing parties, who have allowed the conditions to develop where children who are inherently capable of reading are comprehending are in fact unable to do so. (I know you know this, I'm just being a smart alec!)

MondayBooks

Oops. I'm actually not that smart an alec:

'have allowed the conditions to develop where children who are inherently capable of reading and comprehending are in fact unable to do so.'

Horace Dunn

40 years ago...

From Soren Hansen and Jesper Jensen, The Little Red School-book (1969, UK edition 1971):

“Teachers and dogs on leads too

“There shouldn’t really be any conflict between teachers and pupils. There shouldn’t be any distinction between the teachers and the taught. Instead, people should learn from each other, as equals.”

Kevin B

Do any of these people believe this nonsense? I suppose that some must, but are the Powers and Rancières just showing off to their peers - "Look at the garbage I can get away with! Beat that!" - or are they just having a laugh.

Rob

melk - I don't think you are being sufficiently nuanced in your logic

It is tempting to view this article as just more casual bollocks tossed off by unemployable fanatics, except the last century and this one displayed an alarming tendency for ludicrous left-wing bollocks to become Establishment dogma within a generation.

David

It’s interesting to note the similarities between Power’s egalitarian voodoo and social construct theory, which is also used to ignore innate differences and abilities. To the extent that some devotees believe that gender differences in, say, upper body strength are socially constructed and have nothing to do with physiology and genetics. Advocates of such things generally ignore the somewhat sinister implications of their beliefs. But if a person’s tastes, talents and disposition are primarily socially constructed, that person can also, presumably, be remade to suit society and its representatives. The idea that people can be fixed and made more similar with social reconstruction – by Someone Enlightened And In Charge - is not an unambiguously pleasing one.

Fabian Tassano notes another unremarked consequence of such thinking:

“The existence of innate ability is a potential threat to mediocracy, as it implies that there could be a mismatch between elite positions and those who have the ability to fill them. The assumption of uniformity means that society cannot be said to have got it wrong. A philosopher simply is someone appointed to that position, the concept can have no other meaning.”

Which is handy if, like Dr Power, your philosophy is in fact just irrational and pretentious wishful thinking.

lovegoats

People are of equal intelligence in the same way they are of equal height. It's just a case of standing up a little straighter.

Anna

and grumbling about “white males discussing formal logic.”

But David, logic is so old fashioned. Philosophy's moved on. ;D

rabbit

David:

Much like a chihuahua would make a fine sled dog if it were only raised properly.

David

“But David, logic is so old fashioned. Philosophy’s moved on. ;D”

Having read some of Dr Power’s material, I’m not even sure that what she does is philosophy. At least, it doesn’t seem to be restrained by logic or respect for evidence. It’s more like a vehicle for displaying the approved political views.

There’s a generic book on feminism and the evils of capitalism, with the inevitable self-flattering claims of false consciousness; some question-begging rambling for the god-awful Mute magazine; and the, um, classic essay Towards a Cybernetic Communism: The Technology of the Anti-Family. I also endured a New Statesman debate on student fees, where Dr Power reveals her gift for telepathy and casually assigns dastardly motives to her political opponents. They are “ideological” and therefore wicked, unlike our radical leftist philosopher - an enthusiast of Marx and writer for the Socialist Worker - who is of course entirely dispassionate and impartial. (On the subject of holidays, the non-ideological Dr Power tells us, “I usually try to read some left-wing… account of whichever place it is I’m visiting.”)

It’s quite funny to compare her with Stephen Hicks, whose politics are very different. Insight and rigour aside, the most striking difference is that Hicks doesn’t feel a need to continually shoehorn his own politics into every available crevice and regardless of its relevance. Power, however, rarely misses an opportunity to display her leftwing credentials and to rearrange reality – or simply disregard it – in order to match her political preferences.

Jonathan

Dr Nina Power, what a great name for a comic book character!- By day a (not so) humble Philosopher but at night she becomes: Socialist Comic Book Hero!

Kazowie!! Patriarchal Capitalism destroyed with a single blow, Blammo! Millions of childrens futures ruined!!!

sg

"the process of explanation… ceases to be an integral part of teaching."

Yikes! I teach in a college, and while a lot of students tend to be lazy, copiers of wikipedia, uninterested in many things beyond the trilogy of games, music and facebook, they almost all require one thing: they want explanations. It might be an explanation what they are meant to be doing, it might be an explanation of what certain words mean, it might even be an explanation of how things work in the greater world. But they are explanations, and they thrive on them. To think otherwise is silly.

Andrew Zalotocky

Dr Power has a very appropriate name, because these left-wing educational theories are ultimately about the exercise of arbitrary power. If logic is just a tool of patriarchal oppression you can't use logic to argue against anything your teachers tell you. Attempting to do so automatically makes you both wrong and evil. If reality is just a social construct you can't appeal to evidence because the evidence doesn't really exist. Anything that could be used to question their assertions is ruled to be illegitimate.

It is a Soviet approach to education. Keep the young ignorant of everything except the official ideology. Punish any sign of independent thought. Wrap everything up in jargon to make it intimidating and incomprehensible, then belittle anyone who doesn't understand it. It's all about conditioning people to accept arbitrary authority by creating an environment in which they can never be in the right and can only minimise the risk of punishment by unquestioning obedience.

David

Andrew,

“Keep the young ignorant of everything except the official ideology.”

Well, there is a pointed tendency to assign unproven and dastardly motives. One of Dr Power’s many conceits is her belief that the role played by female anti-cuts protestors is particularly alarming to stuffy, buttoned-down “Middle England,” whose favoured policies are “brutal and brutalising” and whose members are apparently keen to subjugate women. Once again she deploys her telepathic skills and tells us how these “Middle Englanders” feel: “What shall we do when young women are academically successful, economically independent, socially confident and not afraid to enjoy themselves? Could there be anything more terrifying?

Clearly, independence and confidence couldn’t possibly apply to women who leave the socialist plantation.

Unlike Dr Power, I can’t speak for every single reader of, say, the Daily Mail, but I wonder if there are other, more obvious areas of concern. Say, assumptions of entitlement to “occupy” and destroy other people’s property until they give you what you want; or a smug disregard for an academic bubble and basic economics; or the prevalence of dogmatism and question-begging among supposedly “critical” leftwing academics - and what that implies about standards. And given Dr Power’s heavy reliance on political assertion, one might also wonder how students will fare in her classes if they don’t share the expected political beliefs.

Like quite a few of her peers, Dr Power seems to think of herself first and foremost as an activist rather than, say, a competent educator. Which may explain why she says things like this: “How can we even talk of education without first changing the very society it forms a central part of?” Power is enthused by Rancière’s “simple but radical idea that ‘there is only one intelligence at work in all intellectual training’.” Apparently this idea “destroys the fantasy that there are those who possess knowledge and those who do not; it undermines the relation of dominance and subordination that is the very structure of schooling and of society in general.” Dr Power seems to like the idea that an assumed “equality of intelligence” can “overturn existing hierarchies.”

Setting aside the quaint Marxist framing, there’s an obvious objection. Surely a mastery of facts and a gift for explanation are tools to reduce “inequality” and “subordination” by imparting what one knows to others? It seems to me that students are more likely to be freed from the supposed “dominance” of well-informed people by encountering competent and encouraging educators who help them become well-informed too - rather than ideologues who disdain expertise and peddle quasi-Marxist claptrap.

At times – quite often in fact – Dr Power gets a little carried away with her own suppositions. She says, “If everyone is simultaneously student and teacher (I teach you how to make bread, you tell me what Deleuze means by societies of control), then everyone is simultaneously ignorant and knowledgeable, and there would be no good reason to listen to anyone more than anyone else. Unless of course you want to!” Well. I’m more inclined to listen to people who make sound and insightful arguments that refer to reality. I’m less inclined to listen to people who churn out reams of baseless supposition encrusted with leftist dogma. But maybe that’s just me.

WTP

So much of the logic, for lack of a better term, of these people reminds me of the sort of discussions I used to have with my wife back when her, ummm, cousin Flo would visit. Is it me or does there seems to be a preponderance of women spouting these rants? Do they not understand that an appeal to what they think of as reason as a tool to dismiss logical thinking is a self-defeating argument?

Do these people ever speak to an audience or do they just sit behind a keyboard popping this stuff off with no real-time feedback to their literal nonsense? And if the former, who pays to hear it? They might as well be trying to catch flies.

Andrew Zalotocky

I used the word "Soviet" because I see this kind of leftist thinking as a product of the Cold War. The Soviet Union spent decades trying to control the international left, to turn every leftist organisation in the world into an instrument of Soviet foreign policy. It did not completely succeed, but it did have a huge impact on the thinking of Western leftists. It's not unreasonable to talk of a Soviet occupation of the Western left. Sometimes it was a literal occupation, when pro-Soviet factions took over left-wing organisations and made them slavish followers of the Moscow line. Mostly it was a psychological occupation, as the limits of acceptable leftist opinion were defined by people who were pro-Soviet or who had internalised the Soviet worldview.

But the Soviet Union needed its useful idiots to think in a very particular way. They had to be the kind of revolutionaries who would fight to overthrow their own governments and then meekly accept the yoke of Soviet domination. They had to be trained to utterly reject one form of authority while offering unquestioning obedience to another.

That's precisely the attitude we see in so many of the academics and journalists who get mocked on this blog. They reject anything that's seen as conventional while uncritically embracing anything that's seen as "transgressive". They mock Christianity while idealising non-Western belief systems, and reject any art produced by "dead white males" in favour of absolutely anything that isn't. Western authorities are automatically rejected and non-Western authorities are automatically accepted.

I doubt that many of them understand why they are doing it. Socialism is itself a product of Western intellectual traditions. Marx was very keen on logical argument and evidence, and would have treated the likes of Dr Power with utter contempt. When the occupied left rejected everything Western they rejected any possibility of understanding the origins of their own political beliefs and rejected the basic tools of intellectual enquiry. That didn't matter as long as the Soviet Union was there to tell them what to think. Once it collapsed they were like robots from a science fiction story, mindlessly following their original programming long after their creators had disappeared.

So now we have academics who were taught by academics who were taught by the Sovietised academics of the Cold War. The attitudes that were once promoted in order to further the interests of the Soviet Union have rusted into a meaningless lump of dogma, and we have left-wing academics who are incapable of any serious work.

David

Andrew,

Those “soft student brains,” as KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov once put it.

dcardno

Dr Power seems to think of herself first and foremost as an activist rather than, say, a competent educator.

It is difficult to conceive of how Dr Power could think of herself as a competent educator, David - much easier to declaim that such a thing cannot exist than to strive to become one.

Andrew Zalotocky

I must admit that I sometimes feel sorry for these people. They're not just wasting their lives on puerile pointless rubbish that no one else will ever care about. They are also zombie Stalin's sock puppets, acting out the propaganda of a dead empire for an audience that no longer exists. It's evil and trivial at the same time, like selling your soul to the Devil for a seat on the parish council.

David

Andrew,

“It’s evil and trivial at the same time.”

Well, like most hackneyed pseudo-radicalism, it’s contemptible and a bit sad.

The thing is, it’s easy to get away with this kind of posturing in abstracted, untested terms. Dr Power works in a field that’s fairly insular and degraded, and where flummery can be applauded and rewarded with a salary, provided it’s flummery of a certain political stripe. But if Dr Power were involved in a serious traffic accident, I’m guessing she’d want paramedics and surgeons who possessed “hierarchical” expertise. I doubt she’d be happy to go under a knife wielded by someone who’d been taught in the haphazard manner she advocates for others.

Bob-B

It would seem to follow from Dr Power's argument that in politics someone who has read the totality of Marx's work is no more to be listened to than somebody who is only familiar with the Marx brothers. I wonder if she would agree with this proposition.

Rafi

Dr Power seems to like the idea that an assumed “equality of intelligence” can “overturn existing hierarchies.”

When communists talk about 'overturning hierarchies' what they mean is they want to be at the top of new one.

David

“When communists talk about ‘overturning hierarchies’ what they mean is they want to be at the top of [the] new one.”

Indeed. Though such people tend to be quite coy about that happy coincidence. But in order to fix us, someone has to be in charge - quite firmly, given the inevitable opposition, and on an indefinite basis. It’s worth remembering that Arthur Scargill was very fond of the words “overturn,” “overthrow” and “irreversible,” as when he envisioned a totally state-controlled media – controlled by a leftist nomenklatura - and an “irreversible shift towards a socialist system.” As Claire Berlinski noted, “irreversible” is often a far left euphemism for “no more elections.”

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