Monday, 19 January 2015

Is meta-theory a theory of education? Some thoughts on a journey from 'information' to the ontological theatre of the classroom

Today scientists tend to operate within what we call 'discourses'. In real-terms, that means journals, conferences, email lists, departments, and so forth. Discourses are peculiar things: they become little micro-worlds like different planets, whilst their presence becomes closely tied to the institutional fabric which sustains them. Participating in discourse is to validate one's position in the university - and that's as much about paying the mortgage as it is about contributing to knowledge. What if we were to try to understand the whole show - the knowledge, the mortgage, the egos, etc? That's the show where people think of new theories, talk about them and teach them to students whilst they live their lives in the world, buy cars, eat pizza and ferry the kids around. How could different theories be situated against a meta-theory - a theory of theories? Can I answer my question without recourse to a discourse? Probably not. But if there is a discourse which might help, it is that which concerns the stuff which is between all of us - which we conventionally call 'information'. So I want to start by talking about information theory - particularly about the relationship between redundancy and information - and work towards an argument for taking education seriously because it is, it seems to me, the place where all aspects of the world come together.

Redundancy is a confusing word. In information theory, it's associated with repeating things. There is a relationship between repeating things, and the expectations of future events. The question is, If things are repeated, do we become more or less certain about what is going to happen next? We might say 'more' because we might expect the next thing to happen to be a repetition of what's just happened. We might say 'less' because by virtue of something being repeated, we might expect something different to happen. Then there is the relationship between redundancy, information and entropy. Entropy, first defined in Boltzmann's physics, is basically (as Paul Davies elegantly argues) a measure of 'ignorance': "if we know all the molecules in a box are in one corner, then it has low entropy"; we are relatively certain about the location of the molecules. Conversely, if the molecules are evenly dispersed in the box, then we really haven't a clue (we are ignorant of) where any of them are exactly - that's high entropy. Information is the opposite of entropy just as it is the opposite of ignorance.

Ulanowicz has pointed out recently that when Shannon borrowed Boltzmann's equations, he took things the other way round (see www.mdpi.com/2078-2489/2/4/624/pdf). Ulanowicz blames Von Neumann for Shannon's mistake - he was known to joke around and unfortunately Shannon took his joke about entropy (there can't be many of those!) seriously. Thus entropy became a measure of the average "surprise" value in a communication. Considering each part of the message in the communication, if the probability of message part was close to 1, the calculated entropy (log (p)) was very small (so no surprise!); If the probability of the message part was very small, the calculated entropy was big (so big surprise!). Reflecting back on education for a minute, my experience is that we tend to remember 'big surprises'; small surprises cause us to have to 'work hard' usually repeating things over and over again (redundancy!). Interestingly though, we seem to take the small surprises more seriously...

Boltzmann's entropy measure is of ignorance, or absence; Shannon appears to regard ignorance as a prelude to possible surprise. He might say his measure, H, is the "average presence of surprises". The problem is that there's so much tied up in the idea of 'surprise': it entails much more than a measure of certainty about molecules in space. Emphasising this, Ulanowicz cites Ernst von Weizs├Ącker in remarking that the confirmation of a message is entirely different from it being a surprise, concluding with regard to Shannon's H measure that “meaningful information … does not lend itself as being quantified by one single mathematical expression” says Weizs├Ącker (quoted by Ulanowicz). Ulanowicz then suggests that Shannon's measure of average "surprise" might be broken down and studied for the component which addresses 'surprise' itself, and the component which addresses 'confirmation'. This latter component, Ulanowicz gives the name 'flexibility'. This "flexibility" appears as a kind of reborn idea of redundancy.

Shannon's mistake is not just due to Von Neumann. It is probably also due to a kind of anthropomorphising of 'information'. One of the great difficulties in thinking about information is that theories of all kinds struggle to avoid becoming theories of agency: we try to work out the stuff between us and the world and end up inadvertantly describing a model of ourselves. I don't know of a theory of information which doesn't do this: from Maturana to Floridi, through Deacon and Maynard-Smith, the ghost of Kantian idealism is impossible to shake off. Most theories of learning also suffer the same fate (indeed, they come from the same cybernetic/Kantian stable) Does Ulanowicz get away with it?

The issue at stake is not that we have no coherent theory of information (although, as Deacon says, we don't), we do not need new theories of information. I doubt any of them can escape the idealist trap. What we need is a new philosophy of science which situates the synthetic/empirical (this is Shannon's domain) with the analyical/logical. This means a theory about theory: we need better meta-theory.

I find this realisation helpful because at a purely practical level, for all its shortcomings, Shannon's theory appears to be practically useful. From encryption to compression, the statistical measurement of "average surprise" has been powerful. Advanced techniques in analysing text like Topic Modelling produce spooky "deus ex-machina" results that suggest that our 'meaning' might be objectively encoded in our words. Google translate continues to amaze in its ability to pattern match linguistic expressions across languages (only this week, they demonstrated this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-30824033). Then there's the remarkable ability to 'fingerprint' complex data streams - whether they are genomes, videos, music, or cortical activity. Pattern-based video description is practically with us; the next 10 years will probably see devices that can make a stab at reading your mind. Spooky. But there's a serious scientific problem here - problems which could not have been apparent to Hume when he thought about what it was scientists were doing, and in doing so kick-started Kant.

When the data analysts play around with Shannon's equations, buoyed on by their successes, they believe they are doing science. However, a quick return to Hume would lead us to ask the question "Where are the regularities?" Here we return to the fundamental problem in Shannon's work: surprise and confirmation are not the same. And just as the algorithms for Topic Modelling (or whatever it might be) appear to identify the topics of a document corpus, we are ourselves caught in Shannon-like situation of having the topics 'confirm' what we think the documents are about (if it did not confirm it, we would probably discount the results!), whilst saving our "surprisal" in wandering at the magic of the algorithm in being able to confirm something we already knew! Where are the regularities? They are in the coincidence of surprise and confirmation. They are in the heads of the observers as they gaze into a world which they themselves have created. It is worth remarking that Voodoo exhibits this kind of regularity in a similar way. It is not difficult to see where the problems are. The emergent social impacts of automatic topic identification would result in new orderings of society, as those with the capacity to execute the algorithms on a large scale (Google, Apple, etc) would jockey for increased social power, usurping democratic structures. People would find ways around the algorithms. Everyday language might evolve: maybe we end up speaking a kind of Cockney Rhyming-slang to put the machines off the scent.

Hume's theory is a theory of expectation. Events create expectations because they lead us to rationalise about the way things work and what they are likely to do next. Hume believed that the nature of the world itself - whether constant conjunctions of events were natural or not - was undecidable: it might all be chaos upon which order was created by human thought. In other words, it was not God who imposed order on the void, but man. Reproducible experiment was the activity whereby the order-creating intellect could be brought to bear upon the world. But when we say 'world' we must be careful what we mean. The world of Shannon and the miraculous machines that owe him so much is a small one - a subset: one where humans look for regularities in their own creation. That it bears some kind of correspondence to the rest of the world is no more surprising than the needle in the voodoo doll coinciding with a pain in the stomach.

What doesn't happen with the voodoo doll, and what isn't happening with our current 'information' obsession is the kind of knocking-up against realities which would cause us to inspect our reasoning. It has become too easy for us to create universes where what we believe can be shown to hold, and for evolutionary arguments to be used to defend its explanatory deficiencies everywhere else with scientists saying "it's early days - we will get there!" Paul Davies suggests what might be necessary to counter this: "experimental ontology". I think I agree - it's very similar to Andrew Pickering's idea of 'ontological theatre', which I quite like.

So why does understanding education really matter? Because it is the best ontological theatre in town. It is the place where ideas, objects, matter and mattering collide. Most importantly, it's where ideas are formed.

The meta-theory is an educational theory.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Dissipative Social Systems and Managerialism

In Ulanowicz's early book "Growth and Development", he discusses the application of his statistical ecology to economics. Possibly the most important element in this analysis is his use of the word 'dissipation', which in biology is used to refer to respiration as that energy which is lost to the environment in a form which can't be recaptured, and which in economics he identifies in 'consumer demand'. He's not sure though, he says "a strict analogy with dissipation is not implied by this notational convenience [ground symbols]. Because the data are so condensed, the matrix of exchanges is highly connected." (p33)

Is consumer demand like respiration? The question revolves around what the source for flexibility and growth might be: dissipations appear to be the driving force behind systemic growth and adaptation. In some ways it might be right to consider consumer demand as dissipative: if I am a business which produces products for which there is a healthy consumer demand, then it is likely that I will seek to expand, branch out into new markets, and so on. In such a situation, resources will be made available for R&D (which is probably more dissipation). We never see the company which produces enough goods to satisfy the market which remains in a stable state (maybe communism attempted this - but it didn't work!). Interestingly, to ask what 'consumer demand' might be beyond the spending of money on goods and services, the possibility that it is fundamentally an existential property - maybe even the symptom of a crisis - appears attractive. This will become useful when looking at the University and its dissipative systems.

There is a question about efficiency and its relation to dissipation. An efficient situation would demand no dissipation, but tightly coordinated information flows. A business without consumer demand? Tightly-knitted bureaucracies may be worth studying for this feature: the dynamics that drive their processes are dominated by the information needs of one part of the organisation on the other, often without any external concrete demand. Such tight and apparently 'efficient' organisation is hardly stable: it has no capacity for adaptation to any external shocks. Curiously, if any of the components is damaged in any way, then what happens is a kind of oscillation that ripples through the rest of the system. Suddenly, when everything was so tightly knitted together and there was no dissipation, there are huge amounts of dissipated energy - not through 'consumer demand', but through the existential needs of the individual workers as everyone wonders what on earth is going on!

Universities are interesting in this regard. They behave as a kind of inefficient bureaucracy. On the one hand, they operate with interconnected processes for finance, resources, assessment, management, etc, and these units are meant to be wired together in an efficient way (although it rarely is), whilst on the other hand there is the existential situation in the classroom, the concerns of students (not so much consumer demand as existential crisis) and staff caught between their own existential concerns and the need to keep feeding the bureaucratic machine. I wonder if most dissipation in the University is of an existential nature on the part of staff and students...

The managerialist trend has been to attempt to wire up the bureaucratic part of the university machine ever more tightly, and to bureaucratise those aspects of its activities which were not before bureaucratic - particularly with regard to teaching and learning. Learning outcomes, course validations, quality regimes, register systems and workload analysis are all instruments for the creation of a self-contained efficient bureaucracy. The problem is that it doesn't work. Indeed, its not-workingness feeds the instability of the system by increasing the 'existential' dissipations - particularly among staff. However, in natural circumstances, dissipation is a prelude to growth (it is essential for it): dissipations reach out into new territory, new opportunities are explored. Under managerialism most of this growth in response to the dissipation is precluded. Prevented from growing, the dissipative energy eats away the staff. This process may (tragically) even be welcomed by management, who see opportunities to take control of the institution, replace inefficient staff, etc. So we might then ask about the dissipation of energy at senior level.

In objectifying the ecology of the institution and distancing themselves from it, Vice Chancellors will see their job as to ensure 'the survival of management in an unfavourable or threatened institutional context'. It is a huge existential problem. Unlike staff, who are prohibited from growth, Vice Chancellors are not, and will look outside for all kinds of 'growth opportunities', which are frequently pursuits of 'fetish objects': rich businessmen and women bearing cheques (and wanting favours); sexy cars; prestige and honour. However, because they objectified the rest of the institution, denied opportunities for growth among the rest of the staff (which consequently results in a dying institution), their 'outreach' spells even worse trouble for everyone else. The very coherence which they seek to establish to increase efficiency is threatened  by an anarchy of oscillation, dissipation of energy, depression and anger.

Managerialism doesn't work because it conflates efficiency with effectiveness, it assumes human agents to be rational 'information processing machines', and fundamentally it is blind to the deep needs of human beings - particularly in a university - for meaning, justice, love and togetherness. It fails to understand the nature of intellectual growth, and the role of existential needs in feeding that growth, and fails to see the disastrous consequences of preventing growth by over-burdening people with activities which merely feed the bureaucratic machine. These are of course not just problems for teachers, but for students too. I think managerialism's weaknesses can be exposed: but to do this, we need:

  • a better way of understanding our institutions as ecologies;
  • a focus on the dynamics of dissipation and growth

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Ecology of Higher Learning

Introduction

Education declares different orders of scarcity and abundance of knowledge at its different stages (family, nursery, school, university). Fundamentally, the balance between granting flexibility to teachers and learners to explore things freely, and the coercion forcing them to perform simple skilled performances in examinations and assignments varies at each stage. In school, a functionalist orientation dominates – it is this which demands that children be treated like Von Foerster’s “trivial machines” (a machine where inputs are tightly coupled to outputs producing predictable behaviour). With Higher Learning, there is typically a broader range of paradigms of thought which interact with one another, each with their own ‘take’ on knowledge and skills: individuals can become less predictable, more akin to Von Foerster’s “non-trivial machines” (a machine where outputs feed back to inputs producing unpredictable emergent behaviour). This ought to mean that different orientations towards truth and facts are supported and the relationships between them explored. However, if the curriculum and the management of institutions of higher learning become increasingly functionalist (as appears to be occurring in the University sector today) with the intention of declaring knowledge to be scarce with the ultimate aim of ‘selling’ university education, then the conditions for disputation and reflection within the university will be compromised. It too will start to resemble schooling, increasingly demanding the skilled performances of the ‘trivial machine’.

There are many conflicting views both of what a university is, and what it might aspire to be. Here I want to focus on two views which are defensible in the context of the present system, which contradict each other, and which are nevertheless co-dependent. View 1 represents the critique of organised education presented by Ivan Illich in ‘Deschooling Society’. It characterises school and university as upholding a regime of scarcity of knowledge. Here, I state View 1 of the University as:

  • Universities declare scarcity of knowledge by distinguishing their organisation from the rest of society. 'Scarce' knowledge and its certification becomes both a consumer object and a token to assist with access to employment.
View 2, on the other hand, whilst rejecting the idea that knowledge is scarce (knowledge is abundant in the world), maintains that the pursuit of truth requires some kind of organisational context, and it is the purpose of the University to provide this. Whilst such an organisational context is distinguished from the rest of society, its activities are oriented towards the service to the society that maintains it. View 2 can be stated:

  •  Universities provide a context for reflection, action and critical challenge. Whilst not declaring these to be scarce, they do declare that the conditions under which they might be most fully developed must be guarded carefully for the good of society as a whole.
View 1 appears to be consistent with the contemporary marketised view of education as a commodity. View 2 articulates the view of the University as a “holy place”, not unlike Newman’s vision of the University, whose purpose is to provide the resources and context within which the bridge between itself and society is nourished to the benefit of each.  The views are mutually inter-dependent, and in making statements about the university, they also make statements about the nature of truth. View 1 declares truth to be scarce – much in the same way that school also characterises truth. View 2 speaks of the University as creating the conditions for finding truth. The problem is that if view 2 is upheld (and in many prestigious institutions, it has been upheld), then view 1 will also apply. The champions of view 2 will find their cause easier (not least because it will become easier to find money to support themselves) because view 1 applies. Furthermore, view 1 cannot be upheld unless view 2 is upheld: the declaration of scarcity only holds true if scholarship really pursues truth in a context free from interference within an institution.


My purpose here is to think through the tensions between these positions. To do this, my focus is on the University as an ecology, and to see Higher Learning as an ecologically healthy state of affairs between the diverse components that constitute an institution. The University, like a school, is a place of bodies, buildings, books, power, technologies, ideas and argument. Each aspect of the environment, whether material or human, relates with each other: each contains a hinterland of agency which declares, or has declared scarcity in one form or another; each human actor will react differently according to their own dispositions (which have been established in their own background) towards these declarations. Conventionally, we tend to think of communication within education involving the mental processes within the people, and some kind of ‘stuff’ (information) in between. The ecological situation is much richer than this to the point where a simplistic model of communication becomes difficult to defend. To put it most basically, communication situations implicate a balance between those forces which declare scarcity and those which create abundance. Every element plays a role in the situation which steers a path between uncoordinated anarchy, and rigid trivialisation. Lectures, academic papers, blogs or tweets, cups of coffee, going for walks, listening to music, encountering one another’s habits constitutes different balances between flexibility and rigidity. Facts and concepts act to coordination and solidify, whilst time ‘wasted’ in idle thoughts and daydreams provides flexibility and opportunities for adaptation. Yet through flexibility, imaginative glimpses are provided of the inner worlds of others which is fundamental to intellectual growth. Scholarship entails glimpsing the inner worlds of worlds gone before and scholars who are dead. We cannot not communicate. However communications can take on forms which become pathological. Societies, institutions and families can communicate in ways can lead them to self-destruction through increasing rigidity and loss of flexibility. The fidelity to truth which is the fundamental concern of Higher learning is about avoiding this by maintaining society's flexibility.

Truth and Higher Learning

The “Higher Learning” which Universities concern themselves with is contested. Indeed, the word “learning” has changed its meaning: today we view it as an active process inspired by psychological descriptions – we might call this ‘processual learning’. On the other hand, the more old-fashioned terminology refers to the ontological (so 'ontological learning') description of a quality, disposition or virtue of an individual. Processual learning means that whilst Universities continue to engage in the subjects whose mastery would always have engendered the attribution of ‘learning’ in the latter sense - we still have philosophy, philology, mathematics, etc – Universities now promise 'higher learning' opportunities to actively engage in learning to be hairdressers, caterers, software engineers: the historical growth of knowledge from the medieval quadrivium to the specialised courses in natural sciences, computer science, media studies, cybernetics, we now have courses aimed at creating 'employment opportunities' in diverse subjects like Sports car engineering, Games programming, Special effects or Nursing. In what sense does the nature of ‘higher learning’ relate each of these? Opinions differ: Whitehead argued that Higher Learning is simply a matter of “investing facts with imagination”: perhaps the course in electronic engineering is very much ‘higher learning’ and can be invested with imagination - although it is not clear what Whitehead means by imagination, and certainly, it would depend on how it’s taught. Ron Barnett argues that
“A genuine higher learning is subversive in the sense of subverting the student’s taken-for-granted world, including the world of endeavour, scholarship, calculation or creativity, into which he or she has been initiated. A genuine higher education is unsettling; it is not meant to be a cosy experience.” 
Does Barnett think that education has become a ‘cosy experience’? What does it mean to unsettle students?

"Unsettling" is not unique to ‘higher’ learning. Universities are not the only places where people are challenged to wake up and change their views about the world. There are moments where an assumed picture of the world can no longer be sustained - important moments in most people’s lives however they are educated: the moment of realisation, awakening - a ‘moment of truth’ is the point at which individuals release fear and anxiety and are able to give voice (for the first time) to a new orientation to the world. In Heideggarian terms, the moment of truth comes as the world is revealed as it is, unconcealed from the obscurities produced by routine and habit. Expectations are transformed. 


Given the non-exclusivity of 'disruption', how does the “higher learning” of Universities contrast with schooling? Is the behaviour of primary school teachers and University lecturers that different? It is hard to know if the educational experiences in school are any less or more unsettling than in University. Cosiness is threatened at moments when a situation any individual finds themselves in challenges expectations. University students might experience this as they encounter new knowledge - but what about their teachers? Who unsettles them? University teaching may aspire to unsettle students with 'powerful knowledge' or claim that it provides 'epistemic access': "ways of shaping and guiding inquiry so that it discovers truth" (Morrow), but in upholding a position that demands challenge of students, it upholds a position of considerable cosiness for academics who (perhaps understandably) defend this as "higher learning". By contrast, schooling is much harder work for teachers, who will rarely find their task 'cosy': good school teachers have to be open to their own unsettling with skills is to listen to this - could this be higher learning too?

Educational processes and events are mediated through objects: not just books, computers and pencils, but bodies, hands, eyes, and so on. The skilled performances of hands in manipulating tools, or instruments is essential to the kind of practical mastery upon which deeper intellectual insight depends. Body movements and behaviours become objectified within educational schemas along with the tools with which bodies have to perform. Unexpected body movements, uncontrolled gestures can have real impacts which in turn can be upsetting (sometimes dangerous). At any level of education, unfamiliar situations for retraining bodies can be anything but cosy. In such a situation, there are networks of expectations, rights, responsibilities shared by both teachers and learners: the 'right' way to use such-and-such a tool, dangerous practices, safe environments and so on. Lack of predictability in the behaviour of objects, and the behaviour of bodies causes particular kinds of objects to be handled in particular kinds of ways. On considering this the practices of schooling, where bodies might be less predictable, and the practices of University - where they might be expected to be more predictable - can be contrasted. Accompanying the predictability of the behaviour of bodies are the changes to patterns of expectation with regard to different kinds of object in the environment. How do schools and Universtities compare?

a. The objects of School
The objects of the schoolroom are standardised for everyone: the chairs, tables, blackboard, pens, exercise books, readers and increasingly iPads, computers and so on. Like the objects of the hospital, school objects are surrounded with standardised protocols and procedures, rights and responsibilities which carry meaning for the various stakeholders who work with them. Around each object there are rules which apply to each child: each rule is generally intended to limit the unpredictability of the child’s responses to the different artefacts. The school situation is characterised by greater potential diversity in the learner’s response to diverse objects. Reproduction of objects and their rules helps in reinforcing norms of behaviour amongst a large number of  children (whose sheer number and diversity would otherwise produce management problems): until this point in the childrens' lives, predictable standards of behaviour with objects may yet to have established themselves.

The objects of the classroom encode not only the rights and obligations of stakeholders, but to some extent the legitimate activities that may be performed there. The rights and obligations of teachers in relation to these objects in reflected in professional performance indicators which measure the extent to which they handle classroom resources, curriculum delivery, the lesson plan, etc. This is not to say that innovative pedagogies and some technologies might not find ways of subverting the object-hegemony of the classroom, but that normative understanding of objects means that many barriers have to be overcome for subversion to take place.

The most subversive pedagogical technique is to turn objects into discourse. Sitting behind the radical pedagogies of Freire, Boal or Shor, this process of taking material reality as a question about freedom and coercion and stimulating learners early on to make their own declarations about the constitution of the world, and to challenge those ideas which are imposed upon them. This can stimulate a different kind of learning - although one which then becomes difficult to fit into the moulded expectations of government education ministries. An alternative focus for turning objects into discourse is to focus on the articulation of experiences, emotions, and the greater encouragement of play and exploration. Again, whilst this can be empowering, it can be difficult to integrate with the broader aims of the education system as it is more conventionally constituted.

b. The objects of the University

The University more readily converts objects into discourse. Its objects are much more diverse: by the stage of University, the bodily responses of learners are considered to be more reliable and compliant, and where physical unpredictability might once have dominated the mode of being in school, diversity and unpredictability becomes transferred to discourse. Cosiness is broken through intervention in discourse rather than physical or bodily intervention. Here the university has an advantage over the school because the University can claim to be the custodian of academics who are the ‘kings or queens of a discourse’. Academics can coordinate the discursive development of their students. The scene in the University is one of the transference and articulation of expectations regarding material objects and the skills of their transformation as discursive utterances, which inevitably are assessed in one way or another. In more practical subjects, mastery over the transformation of objects itself becomes an objective within the domain of education, which in turn demands control of physical disposition and logical awareness of the nature of material (particularly material which is deeply logically connected), and the extent to which discursive articulation is seen as an afterthought in this delivery of ‘skill’ has meant that much university education has concentrated on the delivery of skills of manipulation of objects. Universities have always wrestled with this problem – that the acquisition of skill, whilst seen to be useful, is nevertheless not necessarily fundamental to the concepts of Higher Learning.  

The diversity of objects in the University invites students to encounter and challenge their expectations of the world in various ways. Whether those objects are sophisticated mathematical modelling tools, electron microscopes, medieval manuscripts, cadavers, musical instruments or library catalogues, in each case opportunities for 'unsettling' and the transformation of expectations present themselves. Newman talks about the power of the intellect in rendering objects 'meaningful'; being changed by the objects and people in the university is precisely a process of finding meaning in things. Yet the process of being changed by something is a process of finding something to say about what it is that has changed. Language plays the lead role in creating the means to make new declarations about objects and ideas. Even when some transformations result in new kinds of object: e.g. pictures, sculptures, performances, pieces of software, videos, being able to say something about it, to make a new declaration about something lies at the heart of those things which are most meaningful. 

Status and Scarcity

If there is a differentiating factor in the ways that statements as declarations of status – either of things which are made, or ideas which are expressed – are received in different contexts, it is perhaps the curse of modern institutions as analysed by Ivan Illich which is most pernicious: what he calls the ‘regime of scarcity’. Educational institutions, in Illich’s view, are instruments for the declaration of scarcity of knowledge. Where everyday life is replete with opportunities for disrupting cosiness and providing the condition for the acquisition of skill and knowledge, the institution of education denies ‘vernacular’ knowledge, instead insisting that knowledge is specialised, scarce, only existing within its walls. In declaring knowledge to be scarce, institutions declare themselves to be the only route by which it might be gained. The route becomes lined with qualifications, examinations and ‘professional accreditation’ whereby the institution of education makes its declaration of scarcity of knowledge official, sanctioned by governments and society in general. As a consequence of this declaration of scarcity, it is then hardly surprising acquiring knowledge carries with it economic and social benefit: the knowledgeable are seen to be the inheritors of a rare commodity – having what Veblen cheekily refers to as ‘intimacy with occult forces’.

Illich’s idea of institutions upholding regimes of scarcity has an important relation to Searle’s more recent idea of “status functions”. The weakness with Searle’s argument is its dependence on language as the positive force motivating the existence of social entities like institutions, examinations, degrees, etc. As with any positive approach, the risk lies in its own declaration of scarcity: that the means for establishing reality lie only within the confines of this one theorised activity (language). Such a declaration can seem attractive – we can see the status functions in project bids, government policies, tax returns, and so on – yet to turn language into the sole factor to which everything else reduces is to turn real people into ‘language machines’, thus once again ushering in the spectre of the Kantian transcendental subject. Whilst Searle’s later theoretical position of social ontology acknowledges and embraces some aspects of social reality which his earlier theory overlooked, his new position tends to retreat to the line of reasoning of his earlier work. However, what if Searle’s status functions sat not in a determinative relation to social reality, but in a negative or contextual relation to reality? What if a status function is read as a declaration of what doesn’t count as something? A negativising of Searle’s position is not determinative of reality but nevertheless illuminating on the real effects of institutional structures of the social world on real people: that it is not the substance of social structures (determined in whatever way one might wish, including speech acts) which constitutes social reality, but rather it is the constraints that social structures exercise on the individual and collective will.

Illich’s work on “regimes of scarcity”, which he identified not only in education, but technology, healthcare, energy, welfare, the professions, employment and gender is fundamentally oriented to the problem of artificial social constraint. The effects of such constraints are to obliterate a convivial world of difference, identity and togetherness and replace it with a genderless, uniform world of idealised functional units. For this reason, Illich was particularly sensitive to the pathologies of the cybernetic Kantian idealism – these were the very pathologies of ‘deep functionalism’ which flatten society. Technologies, in Illich’s view, begin as small interventions whereby humans organise themselves convivially (many people each need a shovel to work together to dig a big hole), but gradually increase in power obliterating conviviality as a single technology (a JCB) can do the work of a thousand labourers. With Searle’s insight into status functions, emerging technologies carry implicate the increasingly powerful actors whose deontic powers for making new status declarations about new technologies becomes increasingly difficult to challenge. Here, in the light of Illich’s insights into the pathology of technology, we might ask, What are these status declarations declarations about? For Searle, they are positive declarations about the function and status of the technologies and artefacts themselves. For Illich, in a similar way to that articulated by Ulrich Beck’s ‘risk society’, these are negative declarations concerning new scarcities (or new risks): the JCB, like many labour-saving technologies, declares the scarcity of labour; the motor car declares the scarcity of geography, and so on. As scarcities are declared and accepted, so the power of the agencies behind those declarations becomes enhanced. Capitalism depends of scarcity, where the negotiation of one scarce resource for another ultimately is subsumed into an economic system of financial transactions.

Given this economic connection, the institutional declaration of scarcity, the recent development to marketization in education is hardly surprising. Textbooks declare a scarcity of knowledge about their subject matter; academic journals declare scarcity in intellectual quality; the curriculum declares a scarcity of organising knowledge; the timetable declares a scarcity of time for learning; the classroom declares a scarcity of space for learning. By making each scarce, each carries its price to be fought over by the aspiring generations in a make-believe game whose purpose ultimately is to serve the economic machine which keeps the institutions running.

Declarations of scarcity dominate not only institutional structures, but the technologies which emerge from those institutions. Whilst many believed that Illichian conviviality might arise from the development of new ‘personal’ technologies for healthcare or learning – and that technologically-empowered self-management was a way of countering the institutional pathology of scarcity, the reality has demonstrated a different and more depressing story. Where the health system declares the scarcity of health – mostly through the systematic diagnosis of pathology (one might only be healthy if one abides by the rigour of the health system), new personal health devices for self-monitoring do not liberate the individual from the health system, but rather subjects the individual to even more intense and technologized declarations of scarcity. Health technologies which are successful (such as the recent rage for smart-watches) are lusted over by the population precisely because they uphold and even enhance the declaration of scarcity of health that was once purely the domain of the health service. The various forms of educational technology are also striking in the ways that they uphold the institution’s declaration of scarcity of knowledge. Where there is much that is available online for free, institutional systems like Course Management Systems  highlight the scarcity of ‘approved’ resources (even when those resources are culled from the freely available web) – particularly those which are targeted at the fulfilment of assessment and institutional certificates. Whilst in its early form, the internet appeared to be able to challenge the institutional declaration of scarcity, over the years since its invention, institutions, publishers and global corporations have managed to find new ways to assert the scarcity of resources and gradually encroach on the sea of freely available knowledge. The forms of these new declarations of scarcity have been various, with new agencies other than traditional institutions becoming dominant.

Most important are the publishers, who have supplanted the institution as the gatekeeper to knowledge, whilst also becoming the gatekeeper to academic status. The status declarations by the publishers and their journals make a simultaneous declaration about the scarcity of knowledge and the status of individuals and institutions. Feeding on this are those organisations which declare the scarcity of quality of learning and opportunity by producing rankings of institutions worldwide. Then the internet corporations use their vast statistical resources to make declarations about the scarcity of influence through web statistics. Governments, faced with the overwhelming challenge of upholding an institutional fabric at increasing cost, reinforce the scarcity of intellectual quality within institutions by rationing funding. Increasingly, those technologies originally intended for personal control (smartphones, apps, and so on) become themselves the means by which global internet corporations declare (and enforce) the scarcity of freely accessible resources.

Scarcity and Abundance of Love: From Early Childhood to the University

Using a negativised version of Searle’s status functions, it is possible to explore some of the pathologies of View 1 of the education system: that it declares scarcity of knowledge. The implication here is that scarcity is a declaration by an individual (with a powerful technology) or an institution. Yet, scarcity declarations fill us with fear to the point that we might ask whether scarcity is primeval force, whether scarcity is a necessary property of being human. If this were the case, then arguments about the marketisation of education would be right in suggesting that the current phase of marketisation is inevitable. There is evidence to suggest that scarcity may indeed by primeval: many animals appear to “declare the scarcity” of their own territory and guard it fiercely. So we ask, Does scarcity have a foundation beyond declarations of status functions? To answer this, it is instructive to examine the beginning of a human life and the relationship the mother and child between whom attachments do appear to present a regime of scarcity. This exploration reveals deep mechanisms that connect scarcity with abundance in an ecological framework which will eventually help us to paint a richer picture of the ecological dynamics of Higher Learning.

The bonding between mother and father and a baby has been a central point of study in psychology since Bowlby’s penetrating analysis of ‘attachment’ which he developed from the theory of Imprinting of Konrad Lorenz. At the heart of Bowlby’s thinking was the systemic inter-dependency between the baby and the mother (sometimes the father). The question is whether systemic inter-dependency is the same as scarcity. If the bonds of attachment are broken, then serious consequences arise in the psychological constitution of the child as they grow into an adult. By analysing psycho-pathology in this way, Bowlby was able to able to re-examine Freudian ideas which largely concerned repressed sexual impulses and reframe them as systemic responses of the bio-psychosocial individual inculcated in the events that pass in early childhood. Bowlby’s theory is explicitly cybernetic. It characterises individuals as inter-dependent control systems much like the inter-dependent units of Ashby’s homeostat: the removal or malfunction of one unit would cause systemic pathology in the other. As with other cybernetic theories, the risk to Bowlby’s interpretation is that it idealises the individual (baby or care-giver) as a component in a machine. Having said this, the evidence from Bowlby’s practice and from Lorenz’s imprinting experiments on geese are striking.

It would appear from Bowlby’s analysis of the consequences of withdrawal of the caregiver that the relationship between the caregiver to the baby is one of a scarcity. However, the fact of scarcity is only made explicit on the withdrawal of the caregiver – a desperate state of affairs which fortunately doesn’t afflict all babies. Furthermore, the caregiver and the baby are in a symbiotic relationship. In Bowlby’s view, the caregiver is not a resource (as Freud believed when he examined the relationship between mother and child – for example, the source of milk). In the symbiotic attachment relation between mother and child, by absolute contrast to scarcity, the dominant mode of being is one of abundance: there is an abundance of love and care. However, love and care are administered through a range of objects: the breast or the bottle, the baby’s dummy or a favourite toy. Yet here too, it is important to make a distinction about what might appear to be a regime of scarcity in the cradle.

The world of object relations to the child is different from those of the parents. Baby buggies, feeding bottles, sterilisers, nappies and so on are clearly status functions which declare scarcity: the mothering industry sees to it that every parent believes there is a right way to bring up their child with the right stuff. Consequently, every manoeuvre with a small child is a negotiation around material needs. Every negotiation must be coordinated against social expectations and the affordances of the world which does not revolve around the early development of children. This is a process which continues as children grow older. Objects become important as a strategy for parents to occupy the developing minds of small children: toys and games, and now particularly TV, computer games and other electronic devices. Objects as tools of experimentation and exploration are tools for revealing new truths. Stages of development are crossed with objects, but more importantly, stages of development are crossed with objects in the company of other people. The objects that teach to read and write, the tools of inculcation into a society become particularly important. Object fetishes for a ‘good’ education are then reproduced and passed down the generations.

What happens as children and their parents become accustomed to the paraphernalia of objects around them? They become accustomed to a world view, a world coordinated around objects which declare scarcity: the scarcity of entertainment, the scarcity of knowledge, the scarcity of friendship, the scarcity of time, of space and so on. Each object which declares scarcity opens doors onto new things which can be seen to be scarce. Fads are established around objects – whether skateboards, favourite music, football stickers, loom-bands and so on, each making a claim to scarcity. What emerges in the negotiation of objects is that one object passes onto the next; exploitation of an object’s scarcity reveals that the declaration of scarcity wasn’t in fact true, that the object doesn’t deliver. that declare scarcity can be the growing recognition that It is continually growing, Inquiry leads to the discovery of new objects, new things, new ideas. And these too become important for stability. 

Language gives people the power to declare their own objects. It gives them the ability to explore ways in which new social coordinations might uphold older coordinations. The discarded objects haven’t disappeared. They are still there. Yet the pain of loss of an attachment figure can be the source of damage which only plays out in later life. Slowly we move into discourse and languages. Bodies and hearts formed by early childhood find new discursive expression. Early behaviour and object attachments can translate into political beliefs, social groupings, and other practices. The world of value emerges from earliest childhood. Since we all have very different experiences of being very small, our values would similarly seem to be very different: particularly within a free society. So does this mean that all truth is relative? What is the difference between statements of opinion, statements of warranted justified belief, statements of referential detachment and other forms of expression of truth? Is there such a thing as objective truth? In what way does higher learning orient itself towards the discovery of truth? The identification of the common ‘lack’ is at the heart of the psychotherapist’s trade.

There is a gradual process of early childhood object relations towards later adult discourse relations. The formation of expectations, and the mastery of skill are fundamental to these processes. The role of childhood experiences was highlighted as a process of ritualised behaviour leading to particular socialised behaviour at higher levels, and then the differences which emerge between social communities and individual being which causes conflict and then requires different strategies to address. The issue of truth is related to the issue of value in the sense that true and justified belief which is associated with knowledge is situated against the values that an individual might profess. However, this is not to say that truth is relative. The reality of gravity and the nature of matter is not simply something that is agreed. It is a real thing.

Textbooks, five-pound notes, desks and blackboards are all objects whose meaning is tied up with social processes around them. Of the theoretical views on objects, I drew attention to Searle’s speech act oriented account of objects as status declarations. The blackboard, the 5 pound note, the textbook and the desk are all objects about which status declarations are made by institutions or those with the deontic power to make declarations: “sit at your desk”, “look at the board”, “where’s my money” and “turn to page 64”. Behind these speech acts lie many others which determine the social role and uphold the deontic power of the teacher. Of course, objects like textbooks have causal powers, they are entwined in social processes, and indeed, they might not even be there. But the point is that we believe that they are there. The objects matter.


Facts, Truth and Deontic Power of Scarcity Declarations

Of the objects of schooling, perhaps the most important is the exam – that declaration of the scarcity of success. Exams are negotiated through the skilled performance of regurgitating facts. It is not the exclusive domain of the school (there is still much of this in the University), but it is probably fair to say that the school examination system demands far more in terms of this kind of performance than the university: the very success of schooling is measured (through the exam system) by the acquisition and regurgitation of factual knowledge and the application of skills such as writing and mathematics. Examination systems like all forms of scarcity treat human beings as what Heinz von Foerster calls ‘trivial machines’: a machine whose output becomes reliable upon the triggering of a particular input. Von Foerster considers that human beings are non-trivial machines: every output is shaped by previous inputs; there is no predictability in the results from a non-trivial machine. Using this analogy, Von Foerster satirises the school system as intent on turning non-trivial machines into a trivial machines. The reasons why it would do this have to do with the organisational needs of the education system at large. Nobody, for example, would argue that the world of work actually requires trivial machines; indeed, the opposite seems to be true. However, the extent to which technology seems to be put to the purpose of turning non-trivial work into trivial work is an emerging trend in society, where the domain of the social increasingly depends on the will of the architects of a complex machine wired together with what are assumed to be trivial machines (or rather, non-trivial machines behaving as if they are trivial machines).

Having said this, the triviality, or non-triviality of a machine depends on the observer of the machine: another non-trivial machine, which – within the education system – is also subject to forces that try to turn it into a trivial machine. In examinations, for example, the objective is to appear to be trivial when children (and their parents, teachers and friends) know that they are not so. Indeed, the strategies for trivial behaviour under such circumstances may be highly non-trivial. The observer of a child’s examination script may also infer that the given answers are an indication of non-triviality, but they themselves but abide by the trivial rules of the examination system, and ensure that marks are awarded for the answers that appear on the official mark scheme. The making of the non-trivial machines into a trivial machine appears an important hallmark of schooling. More importantly, this trivial behaviour is seen as a mastery of factual truths. It is this relationship between trivial performance and truth which I want to draw attention to.

What then happens with the ‘higher learning’ within the university? Often, it is more of the same: the university’s exam system cannot escape the trivial machine. Sometimes however, the university usurps school trivial behaviour by exposing new questions – albeit if those new question might still demand a degree of triviality in their response. This usurping of established ‘trivial machine’ behaviour may account for something of Perkins's ‘troublesome knowledge’, although we would have to ask whether the establishment of a new kind of trivial behaviour within a new context of academic discourse really fits the criteria of Barnett’s disrupting of cosiness: cosiness is a property not of individuals but of communities, institutions, societies – it is ecological. An extreme view would be to say that the declaration of facts is a social act that upholds the institution’s declaration of scarcity of knowledge. But would be declare “2+2 = 4” or that the circumference of the earth is 40, 075km to declare a scarcity of knowledge? There appears to be some kind of commonsense line to be drawn. Here we might suggest that what matters with the declaration of a fact is not the fact itself but rather the human relations in the social situation within which it is asserted. Encounters with facts are always encounters with the world of other people: the encounter with gravity in the playground is one of where forces, understanding, care, concern and explanation combine. The meaning of an encounter with a fact is a realisation and orientation of shared experience. Whilst the outcome of such an encounter might look like the behaviour of a trivial machine, there is also an awareness of the inner life of others which lies beyond apparently trivial linguistic performances. How the inner life of a fact is communicated depends on the extent to which the situation the fact is encountered and shared reveals the authenticity of the moment: to say “fire is dangerous” in the context of a classroom setting which has nothing to do with fire is entirely different from saying the same thing after someone close has been badly burnt.

The relation between education, truth and factual knowledge requires further elaboration. There are a number of problems in relating truth to education:
  • Reductionism in terms of imposing barriers around truth and educational practice which effectively declare truth to be scarce;
  • An epistemic reductionism where truth is conflated with knowledge
  • An ontological reductionism where truth is conflated with conceptions of the real
Rather than accepting these tendencies, it may be more effective to consider that truth has a dynamic and that education is a place for studying those dynamics: education allow us to explore how truth works. A principal area such an investigation is to study how facts are communicated and the various skilled performances that surround them relate to the broader social context of education.  


University teaches its share of facts, but more critical to the University is the role of questions. In university facts can be challenged, assertions of truth questioned. The context of the warrant of assertability is called into question along with the fact itself. The mark schemes for the university degree measure this questioning in ways which are not measured in school. In other words, the declaration of scarcity of factual knowledge determined by the assertion of absolute facts is usurped by the declaration of critical knowledge held against a new regime of scarcity controlled by publishers and the academic elite. However, there are different orientations towards facts across different disciplines which mirror the different paradigms of thought that might be adopted by somebody. These different orientations towards facts might be typified as:
  • A critical or sceptical approach to facts might seek to debunk factual knowledge, exposing it as unsound or in the interests of a particular group (and at the expense of another). This may even be done for analytic propositions as well as synthetic propositions.
  • A functionalist approach might seize on facts seeking to exploit them in new designs and plans for promoting and using them. Analytical propositions about learning, positivist understanding of education, and so on provide good examples of this orientation to the truth.
  • A phenomenological/existential orientation to facts which looks, rather like Husserl did, for the foundations in the psyche of analytic or synthetic propositions. The purpose of this kind of orientation is to look beyond the statement of fact into the inner life of the person believing it. Artistic analysis might be found here.
When considering the classic orientations of truths either by considering the relationship between the correspondence theories of truth, then a functionalist orientation is most appropriate. If there is no correspondence, then there is little chance of exploiting a truth. The analytic equivalent is the coherence theory by which truth is intrinsically determined according the inherent meaning of propositions without adherence to an outside realm must therefore rely on some kind of deep phenomenology wherein the fundamental basis of establishing such truths belongs. By contrast to these two, there is the possibility of a dialectical approach to truth. According to this, truth exists between epistemology and ontology as the limit of opposing forces: truth is seen to be determined by a social process and material nature. Most importantly, different attitudes to truth co-exist and appear to stem from different paradigmatic orientations. The principal issue to then decide is where the paradigmatic orientations come from in the first place.


Truth and Limits

Neither Von Foerster’s ‘trivial machine’ nor his ‘non-trivial machine’ are really human. Of course, the non-trivial machine is a useful metaphor for the complexity and unpredictability of human behaviour, but (as with Ashby’s homeostat which is an excellent non-trivial machine) there are many characteristics of human behaviour which are not accounted for. Perhaps the most striking, which is fundamental to higher learning, if not to schooling, is to account for the drive for inquiry or the thirst for knowledge. The exploratory tendencies of living things continually place them in novel relations with their environment. Each of us feels an urge to explore, to overcome fear, to reach into the unknown. The relation between living things and the world is not one of survival but growth. The attachment relationship between mother and child is characterised by a mutual adaptation process with both parties reaching out, exploring new possibilities gaining new forms of independence. There is radical restructuring and change in relations, on the other there is continuity and determination of shared identity.

The causal chains between interconnected living things appear to work both in a bottom-up and a top-down way. Individual bodies and cells maintain consistency and viability of the organism, whilst an ever-changing environment presents opportunities for speculations of the organism’s development to develop in new ways: organisms appear to create their own abundant environment. Within recent work in systems theory, this two-way developmental mechanism have been characterised as, on the one hand, a homeostatic cybernetic mechanism of maintaining a steady state, whilst on the other, autocatalytic process which stimulate environmental conditions for particular kinds of new speculative development. The cybernetics of Pask, Beer, or Von Foerster (of trivial and non-trivial machines) is only half the story: something else must be happening to drive the exploratory process of growth.

If attachment relations exhibit this kind of two-way mechanism, we might then ask about the conditions under which scarcity emerges, how attachments might be damaged and the gradual systemic conditions for producing different kinds of paradigmatic approaches to truth and facts. Where is autocatalysis in this ecology of mechanisms by which both mother and child develop the conditions of abundance into which they can grow and develop become equally important? Bodily capabilities develop: babies will seek to explore their emerging capabilities through crawling, walking and so on. What about the parents? They have needs for growth too – yet they find these curtailed through their tie to the child. Growth is directed towards a world of objects which mediate between the child and the parent as ways of maintaining the identity of their relationship whilst affording the child space within which they might continue to explore and grow: playpens, baby walkers, monitors, and other paraphernalia will become important for these purposes. Who do parents listen too? What declarations of scarcity are they exposed to? Later on, TV, DVDs, Computer games, books, toys, designer clothing and mobile phones will continue this mediated relationship. The conditions of access to objects, the pressures on parents, the extent to which social isolation becomes stultifying all stand in relation to the choices that are made for mediating the attachment relations. The socio-economic circumstances of the family become important: scarce resources must be managed: time, effort, money, transport, etc. The objects of the nursery declare scarcity; the demands for perfection in child rearing declare scarcity. The ‘professionals’ of the childcare business get their teeth into parents, who in turn begin to turn their children into the consumers of the scarce.

The child’s autocatalytic processes become shaped by the means of scarcity declaration. The basic architecture of the trivial machine emerges from this attachment situation.  Objects declare scarcity, and with it a functionalist attitude to paraphernalia and a trivial attitude to knowledge. Object fixated attachment relations declare authority relations, with this the beginning of the scarcity declarations of professionals and ultimately the acquiescence with the school system. But sometimes the attachment situation is more complex. Without the economic means to supplant the official objects in their childcare, some parents find themelves having to improvise, to be creative and to be different –where creativity rather than consumption becomes the means of creating abundance. Self-organisation teaches a different approach. Then the attachments between adults, communitarian values and flexibility is provided in a way free from the scarcity declarations surrounding objects, and much more to do with creating the conditions for new growth.

Ecological Communication and Expectation

An ecological approach to communication privileges those theories of communication which emphasise the ‘betweeness’ of communication as a transpersonal dynamic over those (predominantly psychological) theories which speculate on agency and mental process. In the former camp, the theories of Niklas Luhmann and Talcott Parsons would appear consistent with ecological principals, whilst those theories which focus on intentionality as a psychological phenomenon (for example, Searle’s Speech acts) are more focused on agency. There is evidence for expectations being codified within a social system, rather than being psychological properties: money, for example, was acknowledged by Marx as a codified expectation. Social behaviours from gambling – either on horses or hedge funds – rely exactly on the explicit codification of expectation. The ‘market’ in education too relies on a codification of expectation: by this mechanism, institutions, qualifications and other things acquire status. Indeed, it is through some kind of codification of expectation that the declaration of scarcity actually has an effect. However, the codification may not be so much about the ‘expectation’ that money, gambling or education behaves in such-and-such a way, but rather that each declares scarcity which constrains expectation rather than determines it. In reality, deflating agency within the dynamic of social communications doesn’t avoid discussion of agency; rather it reframes it as social rather than psychological process. Luhmann’s presentation of the idea still carries with it the principles of German idealism, whereby the transcendental subject is constituted in a network of information and meaning processing.

In the literature on communication, emphasis is placed on information. Partly inspired by Shannon’s theory of information, communication is sometimes imagined to operate like a trivial machine (indeed, Pask’s conversation model has many ‘trivial machine’ characteristics): messages are conceived, encoded, transmitted and decoded. However, Shannon’s theory itself, as Deacon has noted, is a theory of human expectation: how are those expectations established? There are numerous philosophical challenges in characterising expectation. For example, no account of expectation can eliminate the problem of time, yet there is no reason why time should be considered to be a fact of nature and not itself a construct. Then there are different models of expectation. For example, mathematician Daniel Dubois contrasts three varieties of the logistic equation to characterise a. the flow of events; b. the expectation of a successor event from previous events; c. speculation about the past origin of events, and the logical speculation of future event. Francisco Varela has a similar description of the mechanism of consciousness within which any system of expectation might be assumed to reside. Katherine Hayles has elegantly expressed this configuration between the flow of events, and two levels of anticipation when she writes of human reflexivity:

"Reflexivity is that moment by which that has been made to generate a system is made, by a changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates."

Attractive and logically elegant as such statements are, can they explain how it is that looking into the eyes of an academic colleague can convey deeper insight than reading all their books? What lies in our understanding of one another is an engagement with recognising where each of us has come from and where each of us might want to go.

An expectation may be characterised, as it has by Rosen, Leydesdorff, Dubois, Beer and others, as an anticipatory system. This is a system which speculates on possible future contingencies, and such speculation might inform other aspects of organisation within a system. In Beer’s Viable System Model (See chapter 5), for example, speculation about the future (the mechanism of which Beer never explicitly elaborates) exists in tension with organisational processes whose job it is to manage the job in hand. The speculative processes of within Beer’s ‘System 4’ examine the ways the world might be changing and the changes within the viable system that might be necessary in order to survive in the future.  But what is speculation of future contingency, and what purpose does it serve? Within Beer’s model, the purpose is to guide agency in a way that counter-balances the ‘habits’ of agency which pertain to the operational function. Whilst operational agency behaves rather like a ‘trivial machine’, by contrast, speculation about future contingency throws something non-trivial into the mix. In generating new possible choices for agency, it new redundancies, new pathways, which to the operational system might appear superfluous except for the fact that the new redundancies make the simplistic ‘trivial machine’ choices more doubtful. This tends to annoy operational managers!

The generation of redundancy of functional pathways is a powerful antidote to the apparent ‘efficiency’ of operational management. The operational manager’s reaction to this is surprisingly accurate: “What a waste!” they say, accusing it of simply adding noise to the important work which they try to do: in other words, the speculation of future contingencies appears to be dissipative of the energies of the whole. In recent years, however, the importance of the dissipative structures in ecologies has become more marked and the relationship between dissipation and the production of redundancy studied as the principal causal factor in the determination of agency. Fundamental to this thinking is the idea that dissipation serves to catalyse the environment to produce the conditions for future growth. More significantly, the privileging of dissipative structures means that emphasis in the study of communication is not just placed on the information which is exchanged in communication processes, but on the time which appears wasted: everything from getting drunk in the bar, to sleep, to the general lassitude which is so frequently exhibited by scholars.

Statistical ecology suggests that dissipative structures together with negative information feedback, homeostatic loops and autocatalysis may work together in accounting for both the stability of a system’s identity and its growth and development. Ulanowicz demonstrates these ecological networks as ways in which the inter-relationship between species create dissipative structures which create the conditions for future growth. For economists like Veblen or Bataille, such dissipation is important in accounting for the waste which they see as fundamental to economic process: as Bataille points out, the history of the world is characterised by regularities of waste, whether it be through exuberant expenditure on monuments or wars, or in the arts or in sexual behaviour. Given this, we might consider the optimal conditions for the generation of dissipative structures. The collision and tension between different paradigms of thought is precisely the way in which redundancies of functional action might be generated. If higher learning concerns itself with the interaction of different paradigms of thought, then its purpose is to generate redundancies. However, we should ask where we have data to support this thesis.

Dissipative systems produce data at different levels, and whilst dissipative dynamics has tended to be ignored in education, it can be easily overlaid upon existing data. Such data might include the attachment situation which produces data about the emergence of behaviours in children and adults. In the ecology between carer and child, the dissipative forces act to produce the conditions for the development of both child and adult. There is also plenty of data concerning the impact of policy within education and more broadly on social structures and human behaviour. Policies frequently react to the dissipation of organisational energy, and frequently serve to reproduce it in a different aspect of society. Then there are the mathematical theories of micro and macroeconomic behaviour which carry some evidence to support them, together with deep case-studies of personal experiences in the light of systemic intervention in education and elsewhere provide stories which connect personal attitudes and transformations in social structure. Whilst such data collections may appear spurious and not directly commensurable, a dissipative focus serves to redescribe situations with emphasis on the relationship between their informational exchanges and the ground upon which those exchanges take place. The negative move is itself a generator of dissipation: it serves to make explanations of apparently unlike data commensurable.

Naturalism and Higher Learning

The conclusion one might reach is that Higher Learning is about dissipative systems: it concerns an essential social function in creating space for the generation of redundant pathways. This role situates the disruption of cosiness which Barnett refers to as a natural consequence of the generation of sufficient noise whereby established habits become questionable. As we saw in the beginning of this paper, this creation of redundancy or dissipation has disrupting and conflicting effects. On the one hand, it serves to create the conditions whereby new pathways may be explored in society. On the other hand, in doing this very thing, it declares the scarcity of the conditions for thinking exploratory thoughts and creating social transformation. In tackling this apparent contradiction, we might ask whether and how the character of higher learning might be more naturalistically examined, and whether a deeper understanding of its dynamics might help with the avoidance of the pathology of the declaration of scarcity of knowledge.

Most accounts of higher learning are metaphysical. Newman’s appeal to ‘universal knowledge’ - that most celebrated description - is fundamentally framed by his Thomism. Beloved by Vice Chancellors and Universities Ministers who wish to appear erudite and sophisticated, Newman’s work appeals because it manages both to speak to the heart whilst also remaining strangely aloof and intangibly related to practical reality: Newman is an easy target for misappropriation. Beyond the metaphysics are the objects, people, curricula, and management structures of higher education. Universities have always comprised these things, and their presence and role within the University is somewhat more stable than the vacillating ideals concerning the purpose of Universities. As social institutions, Universities present opportunities for the inspection of the ecologies that connect their people, objects, curricula and management structures. Among early attempts to study the social dynamics of educational institutions, the work of Veblen on Higher Learning which focused on management and the appeal of education to the ‘leisure class’, and the later work of Everett Hughes stand as important examples. Whilst insightful and deeply critical, this work was hampered by an analytical inability to characterise the relations between different parts of the social ecology, instead tending to focus on a description of the individual parts themselves (a tendency which continues to this day). With a statistical ecology, can we do better?

First of all, we are left to observe the things we can see: the communications and objects of the institution, its policies, functions, roles and the testimony of those who fulfil roles and functions. The purpose of any such analysis is to determine the homeostatic connections between components (people, objects, roles, structures) whilst also identifying the dissipative structures whereby stated functional efficiency is lost. The latter is inevitably more difficult to get at than the former, partly because a lack of efficiency is today seen as a threat to continued employment, but much dissipation can be inferred by analysing the actual processes, the intentions, the time delays for implementation and so on. Assuming that dissipations are forms of flexibility which create the conditions of abundance within which things can grow, and that mutual information creates the glue that holds the centre together, the relations between individuals, objects, technologies and structures can be mapped out.

Doing this allows us to compare the institution of higher learning with other forms of education, including the school. The dominant function of schooling is to train the trivial machine: its focus is on mutual information. In the playground there is flexibility for children, although for teachers, adherence to targets, examinations and other trivial machine paraphernalia means that there is little dissipative opportunity for them. The school teacher has to become a functionalist animal. Sadly, our Universities are becoming increasingly like this too. However, the central contradiction in the University’s constitution maintains space for asking the critical question about what higher learning is, and what Universities are for. Whilst view 1 dominates the HE landscape today, it cannot deny the importance of view 2, without which it is invalidated. All view 1 can do is assert that the conditions for the production of new knowledge are the increase in the scarcity of knowledge, which flies in the face of evidence of everyday life. On the other hand, defending the maintenance of the conditions for ‘fidelity to truth’ within the University which does not enhance the position of view 1 entails mapping out a broader social ecology which situate institutions of higher learning within the broader social fabric. 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Gleichschaltung of Institutional Statistics and Death in the University

I've been reading a lot of Everett Hughes's work recently. His most significant work is contained in a collection called "The Sociological Eye" (see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sociological-Eye-Selected-Science-Classics/dp/0878559590/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418834691&sr=8-1&keywords=sociological+eye). Hughes's principal focus is, I believe, very important: the ecology of institutions and society - very much forming the cornerstone of what is now termed the "Chicago school of sociology" (not to be confused with the Chicago school of economics which of course is practically its opposite!) I brought this up at the SRHE conference in Sue Clegg's keynote on social inequality and the role of education. I asked whether the focus was too much on identifying 'species' in society when we talk about inequality, rather than studying relationships. The question really was first asked by Hughes in the 1930s.

Ecological understanding of society was an interesting subject in the 1930s. Hughes took a particularly keen interest in the rise of Nazism, asking about what it was that distorted the relations between 'good people' which then led them to behave appallingly. Without wanting to be too hyperbolic, I think this is an important question now when we look at the behaviour of managements of all institutions, including universities. Under the "regime of scarcity" that calls itself 'austerity', managements have sacked people in large numbers, putting others under increasing pressure, driving them to extreme levels of anxiety and stress and rising rates of absence (which has consequent effects on everyone else) - mostly in pursuit of statistical proof of the effectiveness of the management, not scholars.

In September, Professor Stephan Grimm from Imperial College, London, was found dead in his home after apparently gassing himself. He had been 'under review' by the college authorities for not bringing in enough funding. In a reported 'posthumous' email, reported in the press (see http://felixonline.co.uk/news/4984/publish-and-perish-professor-sends-posthumous-email-on-how-professors-are-treated-at-imperial/), Grimm commented "What these guys don’t know is that they destroy lives. Well, they certainly destroyed mine [...] This is not a university anymore but a business, with a very few, up in the hierarchy, profiteering, and the rest of us milked for money." Imperial's comment on the 4th December (see http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_4-12-2014-18-0-17) looks like a somewhat desperate exercise in arse-covering.

Something seems to be going wrong with the ecology of our institutions. Much of what Grimm complains is patently true: salaries for senior managers have shot up in recent years, bringing insecurity for everyone else. We're told there's no 'job for life' any more... except for the 'job for life' of the person who tells everyone else that there's no 'job for life'! People's deaths can be the trigger for real revolt: Universities are fundamentally oriented towards truth, and the distortions of management can only be a temporary pathology before there's some corrective mechanism that kicks in. How much will it take?

In Nazi Germany, of course, it took a lot. Hughes's question is fundamentally, How did they get away with it? The statistician, in Hughes's view, provides both a clue and a possible cause. "Gleichschaltung" means "bringing into line", and is the name the Nazis gave to the process of gradually distorting the democratic mechanisms of Germany which gradually gave them absolute power (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gleichschaltung) The Wikipedia article covers the Nazi moves between 1933 and 1934. Hughes's interest is in the German statistician over this period. He points out that subtle changes resulted in the presentation of the German population having 'religion' but not 'race' in 1932, and by 1935, they had 'race' but not 'religion'. This was a statistical shift accompanied with growing hyperbole in the introduction to the statistical reports extolling the virtues of the regime, and gradually tending to show progress of the ethnic cleansing that was underway (in 1935, a new section detailing figures for "glaubensjuden" people following a 1933 census). Some of it is obscured in the statistician's gaze: Hughes argues "one has to dig the facts out from many tables. In 1910 there were 538,909 people of 'Israelite religion' in the Reich; 564,379 in 1925; 499,682 in 1933"

The Gleichschaltung was a subtle process of renormalising peoples' expectations. I think this is going in education. Where universities engaged in scholarship of various kinds, now they have impact factors, REF scores, citations, H-indices, journal rankings, student satisfaction, subject groupings, retention statistics and workload analysis. Our learning analytics identify different types of "pedagogies" (how are they identified exactly?), indicating their relative effectiveness, but more importantly the relative effectiveness of individual staff. What joy for the statisticians in HESA! Where scholarship was perhaps more akin to 'religion' - a set of practices, or a habit of mind - now it becomes a statistical trait, whose possession you are either blessed or burdened with, but whose possession may have little bearing on one's practices or habits of mind. Indeed, those most effective with their statistical labels will acquire the habits of mind geared towards feeding the statistics, not the business of scholarship. We kid ourselves with a 'mereological fallacy' - the confusion of parts for wholes - if we believe the habits of mind and practice of scholars can be broken-down into the aggregation of statistical metrics.

But this is Gleichschaltung. It is the bringing of the scholars into line. For who? Certainly not for Stephan Grimm, for whom it is tragically too late.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Queer Education, Powerful Knowledge and the big "YES!": Some thoughts on #SRHE2014

I'm slightly embarrassed to say that the most profound experience I had at the fantastic #SRHE2014 conference was catching a symposium at the very end when all the papers had almost all been delivered and there was a discussion going on. The session was a 'first' for the SRHE on Queer theory and Education recommended to me by Catherine Cronin (Thanks!). The atmosphere in the room was completely different from anything else I had seen in the conference (all of which had been of an exceptionally high level of academic engagement) - indeed different from anything else I have seen in any conference.

Throughout the conference, there'd been quite a lot of talk about about Michael Young's idea of 'powerful knowledge'. Sue Clegg's brilliant keynote (see http://www.srhe.ac.uk/conference2014/downloads/SRHE_Conf_2014_System_diversity_and_inequality.pdf) mentioned Morrow's work on "Epistemic access", and Ray Land talked about "ontological shift" (it was Land's presentation on the relationship between threshold concepts, Perkins's "troublesome knowledge" and ontological shift which really helped me to get to grips with the intellectual territory). All of these are important concepts in determining what it is we might mean by "higher learning" - a question of great significance at a time of market-driven widening participation, educational consumerism, fetishism, etc. Yet I was slightly troubled by Land's presentation of "troublesome knowledge": wasn't this reinforcing the division between the institution and the rest of society? Wasn't it simply feeding back to academics the cosy message that they were the purveyors of the powerful/troublesome knowledge, and their role in that power relation ought to be defended? Land argued that the knowledge existed in communities which traversed institutional structures reaching out into society through other institutions like hospitals, professional bodies, etc. I wasn't entirely convinced. It still seemed that the "powerful knowledge"/"troublesome knowledge" argument was upholding a function of education as the maintainer of what Illich calls the "scarcity of education".

Illich's battle was against what he saw as 'regimes of scarcity' - whether it was in education, health, energy, transport and even gender. I agree. Working for the University of Bolton (and there are many institutions like it), the regime of scarcity of knowledge is always the principle ontological barrier that academics face on a daily basis: the fact that perverse institutional structures (not really Bolton's fault - everyone's fallen into this), regulations, ridiculous learning outcomes come into head-on conflict with real lives and real experiences, difficult educational histories, social disadvantage and lack of employment. The function of those structures is too often to uphold scarcity: it is too often to say "no" when students submit their assignments, when the institution was only too happy to say "yes" when they enrolled not on the basis of any deep educational mission, but on the basis of market forces and managerial pathology.

I don't really buy the "Powerful knowledge" argument, nor do I accept "troublesome knowledge": indeed I think it may be pernicious. "Ontological shifts" do happen - but they are not scarce: they happen everywhere. I think what matters are "powerful conversations". It's the social dynamic between people, whether teachers and learners, or learners and learners, which changes lives, not knowledge (what is that, anyway?!). Institutions serve as the hosts of powerful conversations, and traditionally have been good at this. Powerful conversations are always fearless and always intellectually honest. As market forces erode institutional governance, fear takes over the institution, accountability compromised and core mission forgotten, the space for powerful conversations, troubling conversations, challenging conversations is also eroded (witness the Thomas Docherty case at Warwick). This erosion is not an erosion of some abstract "knowledge"; it is a real material erosion: removal of people who "don't fit" (another declaration of scarcity - again see Warwick's current round of redundancies); deprivation of funding to areas of the curriculum where critical challenge might emerge (the arts and humanities) and concentration of funding on fetish areas (sports cars, etc) or STEM areas where political critique is virtually impossible: STEM declares scarcity of 'technical knowledge' when that too is all around us.

Why is that session on Queer theory so important? Because it was a big "YES" rather than a "NO". I don't know the Queer literature (I've got a lot of reading to do!). But (and I don't know if this fits at all with the literature - I'm bound to upset somebody!) I have long thought that George Bataille's critique of rationality as a veneer over deeply irrational taboos resonated with what I heard Vicky Gunn describing as the problem of binary oppositions in our educational thinking. "YES" I thought. More importantly, Bataille's analysis of those deep, erotic impulses in human life was that they were simply a big "YES" - "assenting to life even in death". This is fearlessness. This is what makes us thirsty for knowledge; the "NO" only comes from fear. It's not that we all want to get laid (although most of us probably do), it's that this is the fire that makes us human. Isn't it the wellspring of knowledge?

Isn't it everywhere?