Wednesday 26 September 2012

Attachments, Metagames and Anxiety in the University

I have argued previously (see that anxiety can be interpreted in terms of attachments, or at least, awareness of the risks posed to maintaining existing attachments: taking care of your children, keeping your job, paying the mortgage, running the car, and so on. In each of these situations, there are networks of people to whom attachments are formed and the maintenance of those attachments are deeply interconnected: the attachments to colleagues is connected indirectly to your attachments to your family - if one breaks down, the other become severely threatened too. The argument I presented was similar to Bowlby's argument that internal viability or homeostasis was deeply connected to a network of relationships with other people (and possibly other things - for example, possessions).

This model of attachment can help to explain economic behaviour which appears at first sight irrational. My particular interest in this is that I can think of no greater irrational economic behaviour than to spend money one hasn't earned yet on expensive education! The risks are huge, and yet the decision is made (student numbers have not collapsed despite the most gloomy predictions). Why not? Probably because individuals judge that they have no choice. That is what I am interested in here.

The metagame that students engage in as they decide to go to university is one which we are only vaguely aware of. I've argued before that the University which really understands this metagame will transform the market (and wipe away a good deal of the competition). It is a complex metagame and I think it has to do with attachment.

With the theory of absence and metagames that I have presented in the last week or so, I have argued that conviviality is necessary for the shared identification of absences, and consequently the creation of new recursive concepts which can simply the metagame tree and help decision-making. But what if the convivial situation was completely unstable? One minute, there is one set of individuals with whom I have a relationship, next minute a completely different set? How is shared absence ever going to be determined then? How can meaningful recursive concepts be identified? How can learning happen? What is the emotional response?

The answer to the last question is easy: the response is anxiety and trauma. The individual is trapped in their metagame with no means of digging themselves out of it, because for that to happen they need shared absence which is stable.

It's not unknown for 18 year-olds to have somewhat turbulent emotional lives where attachments are in flux. Turmoil and anxiety usually accompany this. Their metagame tree is highly complex, and students' means for simplifying it are very restricted simply because of the attachment situation they find themselves in. My thesis would be that education stabilises attachments by providing what is in effect a surrogate 'family'. The students may have no choice but to pay money for this, not only because they might fear their chances of employment without a degree, but because the community they join in education is the best thing they can get in terms of finding a way of dealing with their own complexity. Frankly, it may be either that or a religious cult or gang.

This means that Universities, if they are to succeed with these students, must create stable social environments where students feel part of something. Where that doesn't happen, students will most likely drop out - but in a worse position because they will have incurred fees and other costs. They are likely also to be in a deeper emotional crisis, for which I think the University must bear some responsibility (I'm sure we'll see some law suits around this at some point in the future).

The organisational challenge for universities is that if they are to do this, they need a strong and stable staff body. It is unlikely that a move towards greater staff turnover in Universities (as has increasingly been the pattern in schools) will lead to this kind of security, despite the wishes of some University managements. It also means that the ultimate success of any online learning depends on the richness of the attachments that are formed through engaging with the technology. Given that communication online is usually by text, and such text communications tend to be more 'strategic' in nature than authentic, there are some big questions about the capability of any text-driven online platform to really provide meaningful educational experiences. It's not impossible, but I think it is very challenging in ways that are rarely appreciated.

What I am really saying here is that learning itself, the grasping of new concepts, the imbuing of the world with meaning, is not an 'individual brain' thing. It is necessarily social. However, the precise nature of the social environment - particularly its stability - is of fundamental importance in the discovery of new concepts. But this conclusion arises not from a positive description of what learning is; it arises from a deeper awareness of the limits of our rational engagement with the world.

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