Monday 19 September 2022

Rethinking Education and a "Trope Recognition Machine"

I went to a conference at the weekend on "Rethinking Education". As is often the case with these things, there were some good people there and some good intentions. But I came away rather depressed. It's often said that there is nothing new in education, and events like this prove it. What it amounted to was a series of tropes uttered by various people, some of whom were aware that they were tropes, and others who genuinely thought they were saying something new. Meanwhile the system trundles on doing its thing - and while everyone there might admit that the thing it does is not very good, there is a surprising lack on clarity on what the system actually does. 

When we ask people to rethink something, it is often framed as an invitation to think about the future - to say, "let's bracket-out the system we have, and conceive of the system we want". But this is naive because the system we want is always framed by the system we are in, and it is always difficult to see the frame we are in, and what it does to our thinking. Frame-blindness has specific effects - one of which is the tropes.

At one point I was getting a bit frustrated by the degree of repetition in the tropes that a wicked thought occurred to me: what if we had a trope recognition machine? What if there was some device that could process all the utterances and classify them according to their trope identity. And of course, current machine learning is very good at this kind of job. But if you had a trope recognition machine, what use might it be? 

If we look at "rethinking education" as a problem situation - not the problem of "rethinking education" but the problem of talking about "rethinking education" - this problem is one of time-consuming redundancy of utterances. Basically many people say the same thing, and feel the need to say the same thing. Indeed, I suspect meetings like this owe their appeal to the opportunity they present to people to say what's in their heads in the confidence that what they say will "resonate" with what else is said. In other words, the redundancy is there in the desire to attend and speak in the first place. Perhaps we need to think about this - about the dynamic of redundancy in communication. 

One of the most interesting things about redundancy is how attractive it seems to be - it is after all about pattern, and patterns are what we look for when we try to make sense of something. So if we want to make sense of education, we need to go somewhere where we can fit into a pattern - a conference. But this is curious because the motivation of most people at conferences is to "get noticed" - to have their version of a trope which is distinct that everyone looks to them as some kind of originator of something which has been said before (actually the whole academic discourse is like this, but let's not go there!). So how does that work? How does the desire for collective sense-making through pattern and egomania fit together?

I've been reading Elias Canetti's "Crowds and Power" and I think there is something in there about this tension between the search for redundancy and pattern, and the expression of the ego. Canetti sees the individual as someone who wants to preserve the boundary of their self. They don't even want to touched by someone else most of the time. And yet, they also want to belong to the crowd. Although Canetti was opposed to Freudian psychodynamics, clearly his analysis of the crowd is treading similar territory to psychodynamics: the crowd is the Freudian super-ego. 

The search for redundancy in going to conferences and saying similar things to everyone else is crowd-like behaviour. It seems to be driven by egos who want to get noticed - to preserve and reinforce their boundary of the self. 

I think the best way to think about this is to see both the ego and the superego as essentially dealing with contingency. They have to find a way to maintain a balance between their internal contingency and the external contingency. That means that it is necessary to understand and control the external contingency. Creating redundancy through utterances is a way of establishing some degree of control over external contingency: it is a way of establishing a "niche" in which to survive (my favourite example of an organism using redundancy to create a niche is a spider spinning a web). 

What is discovered about the external contingency has an effect on internal contingency. The ego is troubled by the subconscious, which contains the vestiges of experience and desire from infancy - and the legacy of education. The ego is satisfied with the niche it creates in talking about education and feels more secure. (What appears as egomania may simply be a need to establish some kind of inside/outside balance). But as a result, conferences like this actually satisfy the psychodynamic needs of individuals struggling in a terrible system for a short time. They are essentially palliative. 

Understanding these dynamics at conferences may be a first step to remedying the problems in the education system itself. A trope-recognition machine could pinpoint the different positions and contingencies which are expressed in a group: it could highlight areas of deep contention and uncertainty and thus focus discussion on those issues, codifying the underlying patterns that everyone is searching for in a way which could save a lot of time and frustration. That might result in some better decision-making perhaps.

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