Sunday, 7 August 2016

E-learning and the Vita Activa/Vita Contemplativa distinction

The distinction between the Active life and the Contemplative life goes back to Aristotle and later the scholastic philosophy of Augustine and Aquinas. It is through the 20th century interpretation of Hannah Arendt that it has become more widely-known. A few years ago, when considering the potential impact of Personal Learning Environments, I wrote a paper where I drew on Arendt's arguments about the priority of the 'active life' (Aquinas, like most scholastics, argued for contemplation) and I considered whether social media participation was 'active' in the way she meant. I upheld a (perhaps hopeful) view that active engagement with online tools could become a kind of nexus between action and contemplation. Whilst I think the issue is critical to understanding the phenomenology of social media, I think it is now clear that my hope for a balance between action and contemplation was misplaced. As so many religious leaders try to remind us, contemplation is disappearing from our lives as we are increasingly sucked into a surrogate digital world which is fundamentally driven by money. The departure from contemplation is not new - societies have done this periodically over history. The consequences are always disastrous.

There is a central question about what 'agency' means in the context of Arendt's 'Vita activa'. Would she recognise what her mentor Heidegger would have seen as the 'fallen' (verfallen) behaviour not only with social media tools, but academic publication, bibliometrics and analytics as agency? I doubt it. The whole point about Arendt's agency was that it was thoughtful: she was thinking about the agency of Marx, of political revolutionaries, protest, sacrifice for a cause. The fallen 'unthinking' behaviour of social media is no different from the fallen, unthinking behaviour of all the "Eichmanns" that she saw surrounding her - not just Eichmann in the dock, but the Eichmanns in the witness stand. The confusing way in which the word 'agency' gets used today emphasises the point: Actor Network Theorists will argue, for example, that computers have 'agency'. But for Arendt, agency was moral: it goes to heart of the human condition, and it comes from the heart.

Universities have become very active places. Thinking is surprisingly rare - usually occluded by personal ambitions, ego and the pursuit of academic celebrity status. Universities used to be places where society did its thinking. If they no longer do that, where do societies now think? There is another more disturbing question. Universities have stopped thinking because political agendas have determined that they ought to stop thinking and do 'useful' things instead - like innovation (despite the fact that universities have often been obstructive to innovators who end up having to leave in order to succeed!).

In whose interests is it that society ceases to think? Perhaps Google, Facebook or Twitter might not complain too much - although they themselves were the product of thinking at one point. But conservatism, by its nature, is threatened by new thinking and new kinds of action. If Universities wish to rescue thinking (which they should), they should turn on the forces of their own conservatism. 

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