Posts Tagged ‘John Taylor Gatto’

An Educational Autobiography

October 19, 2014

Education and the Internet — Part 1


Family background
School and university
Postgraduate studies
The history of ideology
The philosophy of language
First experience of teaching and the move to Cambridge


In an earlier post, Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy (2010), I observed that social critic Ivan Illich had anticipated at least one aspect of the Internet, when he referred to ‘Learning Webs’ (the title of Chapter 6 of his radical 1971 book, Deschooling Society). As I wrote at the time: ‘Illich died in 2002, and so survived long enough to witness the development of the Internet, but a quick search fails to find any specific comments by him on it.’ Therefore, we can only speculate about any opinion he might have had. I will return to Illich in a later post.

That the Internet is transforming society in general, and education in particular, is beyond dispute, but how it is transforming it is another matter. As an educator I have mixed feelings about the phenomenon. My own formal education, apart from recent postgraduate studies, was largely pre-Web, so I have been able to compare my early learning journey with the effects of this technology on my adult experience, as well as to observe its effects on those who have grown up (or are growing up) with it.

Beyond schooling in all its forms, there is also the question of the influence of the Internet on education in the broad social sense. Some philosophers and media theorists provide useful interpretive frameworks for such social developments, and I will draw on them later. Theory aside, however, it is clear that the reality of some Web innovations falls far short of the ideal promoted by enthusiasts, and in Part 2 I will elucidate this point from personal experience.

In this and subsequent posts then, I am tracing the development of my own views on ‘Education and the Internet’, as the former have emerged in the course of my own education and employment. The journey will involve a lengthy detour through the details of my postgraduate research, as the latter is relevant to the topic under consideration.

Family background

Learning was valued in my home, although neither of my parents went to university, and like many of his generation my father didn’t even make it to secondary school. Of course, there is more to education than schooling. My father was born in Dublin in 1920, the year before the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which established the Irish Free State. At that time, his family lived at 8 Charles Street West, within a stone’s throw of the Four Courts. Eighteen months later the latter building would be occupied by anti-Treaty forces, and subsequently shelled by the new National Army.

An explosion at the Four Courts during bombardment

An explosion at the Four Courts (domed building in the background, centre right) during bombardment, 28 June 1922

One of ten (surviving) children, he had a gritty start to life, growing up between the wars. Following a childhood injury, he suffered multiple bouts of pneumonia requiring hospitalization. Around 1937 he was scheduled for surgery, but Christmas was approaching and the medical staff decided to let him go home for the holidays. What they didn’t tell him, but he later learnt, was that the two other patients who had undergone this operation had both died. He must have recovered to some extent, because the operation was not carried out at this time.

He trained as an electrician and, after the Second World War, like many of his compatriots, he travelled to England in the hope of better prospects. By this time, antibiotics had made their appearance, so that when the chest operation became a medical necessity, my father survived. He also met his wife-to-be, who was an auxiliary nurse in the hospital. He took her back to Dublin, where they married in 1950. He subsequently found employment as an electrician with the state transport company, a position he held until his retirement in 1985 (when we were growing up he would sometimes point out wiring jobs he had done at railway stations decades earlier). A socialist in outlook, he also became involved with the Electrical Trades Union, eventually holding the position of branch secretary.

He was a practical man, and moderate in lifestyle. Although not a teetotaller, he didn’t frequent pubs, and unlike many of his generation he didn’t smoke, which would have been hazardous with one lung. Despite his handicap, he cycled a lot, including the nine-mile commute to work, although he could have travelled for free on public transport (he never owned a car). In his twenties he had been inspired by his reading of George Bernard Shaw to become a vegetarian, and this was a lifelong commitment. This lifestyle contributed in no small measure to his longevity, in spite of medical predictions, and he died just two months short of his eighty-fifth birthday in 2005.

My own childhood was certainly not as difficult as my father’s, although children of the Celtic Tiger and subsequent generations would find it challenging in some respects. I was the sixth of seven children, and grew up in a three-bedroom house on a working-class Corporation housing estate. Unlike our car-owning neighbours, we walked, cycled and travelled by public transport. There was plenty of a practical nature to be done at home. For instance, a daily requirement was making the coal fire, which heated the household water in addition to warming the ‘living room’. We also maintained a vegetable garden, perhaps a legacy from my maternal grandfather, who had been employed as a gardener in England. In addition to the routine chores, my father would enlist my help when he needed to do some job or other around the house. This was an apprenticeship of sorts, as my father demonstrated skills that could only be acquired through practice. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, the acquisition of such skills proved very useful later, both practically and theoretically. I will say more about this in a later post.

Me (centre) with my younger brother and father, fixing new ropes to the garden swing, an annual event (c. 1975)

With my younger brother (standing) and father (c. 1975), fixing new ropes to the garden swing, one of those ‘practical’ jobs that needed to be done every year or two. © Simon Kidd

Another part of my ‘practical’ education began when I was about twelve years old. One of my older brothers introduced me to his boss, the owner of a small horticultural business growing produce for the Dublin market. He leased several fields and some glasshouses in the Portmarnock green belt. I was to work there on and off throughout my teens, and even gained my first driving experience, on tractors. The work involved planting, weeding and harvesting, and was often hard. Sometimes it was difficult to stand up straight after hours of bending over in a field. Later, that same brother set himself up in a similar business, and I worked for him also. He included some direct selling of fresh produce to the public, via a roadside stall, so I became involved in that too.

School and university

Schooling was taken for granted in our working-class community, but education for its own sake was not especially valued. There were separate ‘national’ (i.e. state) schools for boys and girls. Huge class sizes in primary school meant that teachers often focussed on ‘classroom management’, although I think that in general, some extreme cases aside, we were far more respectful of authority than children in that age group today.

School photo (c. 1975)

School photo (c. 1975). © Simon Kidd

After primary school I followed in the footsteps of my older siblings, and continued my education with the Christian Brothers, at St Joseph’s Secondary CBS in Fairview. Although by that time most of the teachers were secular, there was an ethos of learning rooted in the founding example of Edmund Ignatius Rice (1762–1844). Even so, the methods were traditional, and emphasized learning of facts for examination purposes.

Towards the end of my secondary schooling (1983–85) computers were making an appearance in classrooms, but purely for the purpose of teaching programming. There was no user-friendly operating environment like Microsoft Windows, and certainly no networking. It was also at this time that the first home computers appeared, and I became the owner of a Sinclair ZX81, with 1K storage capacity! It had to be plugged into a TV and was useful for learning basic code. The display was black-and-white and there were no peripherals such as printers. All of that would change over the following decade.


The Sinclair ZX81 (dimensions: 167mm x 175mm x 40mm)

My undergraduate years (1985–88) were entirely computer free, and it was during this time that I developed a method for the memorization of facts for exams. This, however, is only part of the story. Certainly I attended lectures and took notes in my chosen subject of Philosophy, and likewise completed essays and sat exams. To use Education parlance, I demonstrated the acquisition of ‘content’. At the same time, however, I entered into the ‘discourse’ of philosophy. This happened both formally, through a combination of text reading, small-group tutorial discussion, and essay writing; and also informally, through argument (in the philosophical sense) with classmates. It was a slow process, an apprenticeship of sorts, and it extended into the postgraduate years.

Seen against this background, memorization was the tip of the iceberg. What I memorized for exams were not simply facts, but arguments that I had already formed, usually through essay writing. In order to write those essays, I had to read a selection of texts (articles, chapters of books, and whole books), take notes summarizing the chains of reasoning, and finally argue for a position on the basis of the foregoing. The entire process was one of analysis and synthesis, comprising what I would later discover were known as ‘deep learning’ and ‘critical thinking’.

That I was studying Philosophy only made the process more explicit, since it is the business of philosophy to study reasoning, and argument is the modus operandi of the discipline. It was through this apprenticeship that I learned both the power of reasoning, as well as its limits, for even the best reasoning ultimately proceeds from a starting point that we assume. All arguments, if pushed far enough, will take us back to underlying assumptions, and uncovering such assumptions is itself a useful process. Another lesson that I imbibed was that any position could be subject to logical dissection, and my lecturers even encouraged such scrutiny of their own philosophical positions.

I have fond memories of that time. It was my introduction to many of the great thinkers of the past and to the problems with which they grappled. Several of my lecturers made a deep impression on me, often as much through their character as through the content of their lectures. One of them, Fr Fergal O’Connor, lectured on Plato’s Republic, demonstrating the relevance of the issues for our own time. This elderly Dominican priest, with a wealth of life experience, was not overly concerned with formal education. He would tell us that we could achieve a respectable, if mediocre, exam result if we accurately regurgitated the content of his lectures, but we could attain first-class honours if we told him something he didn’t know. At that time I didn’t appreciate that he was encouraging us to be more critical and creative in our learning. Nor did I understand the tediousness for someone in his position of marking dozens of identical exam papers, although that experience was soon to come to me. (There are obituaries of Fergal O’Connor here and here.)

Fr O’Connor also introduced me to two other writers, the significance of whom to my own interests has only recently become apparent. The first of these was German classicist Werner Jaeger, whose three-volume Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (1939-44) elucidates the nature of ancient Greek education in the broad sense of ‘character formation’. The second was Alasdair MacIntyre, whose work in moral philosophy, beginning with After Virtue: a study in moral theory (1981), has been at the forefront of a renewed interest in so-called ‘virtue ethics’, which latter traces its roots through the Middle Ages to ancient Greece. One writer who has drawn out the implications of MacIntyre’s work for education in particular is Joseph Dunne, formerly Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at St Patrick’s College, Dublin. In the Preface to Back to the Rough Ground: ‘Phronesis’ and ‘Techne’ in Modern Philosophy and in Aristotle (1993), he acknowledges an ‘immense debt’ to that same Dominican priest who had inspired me. A later edition of this book is alternatively subtitled ‘Practical Judgment and the Lure of Technique’ and contains a Foreword by MacIntyre. Among others, the book deals with Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jürgen Habermas, both of whom played a role in my postgraduate research, the subject of the next section.

BA graduation at University College Dublin, 1988

BA graduation, University College Dublin, 1988. © Simon Kidd

Towards the end of my BA another dimension was added to my philosophical interests. A fellow Philosophy student recommended an introductory book on Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys. This was the beginning of my intellectual engagement with Eastern thought, an interest that lasts to today, albeit in a nonspecialist capacity. Eventually it encompassed all of the main Middle Eastern and Asian philosophies. My reading was supplemented by visits to various religious centres, including mosques and temples. I even visited Bede Griffiths in southern India, following an exchange of letters with him, after another fellow student introduced me to his writings on comparative religion. (For some of my nonspecialist writing in this area, see my reviews of Kevin R. D. Shepherd’s Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona and Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation.)

Postgraduate studies

In 1988 I graduated with a BA, having specialized in Philosophy, and I immediately enrolled as a postgraduate student. Initially I intended to complete a one-year MA by exam and minor dissertation, the latter being on the topic of Myth in the work of Eric Voegelin, having become familiar with this writer through one of my undergraduate lecturers. After some preliminary research, however, which included a study of Mircea Eliade and the neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer, my interest in the ability of myth to ‘organize’ experience developed in the direction of ideology and language, and I switched to a two-year MA by major dissertation. I was also influenced by my reading of One-Dimensional Man by Frankfurt School neo-Marxist, Herbert Marcuse. I will go into this topic in some detail, since it played such a formative role in my intellectual development and it relates to the subject of this post.

The history of ideology

Today the concept of ‘ideology’ has negative connotations. It is used to refer to the body of beliefs, doctrines, etc., that guide an individual, group or institution, and is often associated with political programs. It was not always understood in this way, however, as I will demonstrate below.

In his Novum Organon (1620), Francis Bacon (1561–1626) referred to idola (‘idols’), the false notions that obstruct the mind’s accurate comprehension of reality. Bacon categorized the different types of idols, with some being innate and others the result of socially determined distortion. Among the latter is the tendency to accept uncritically propositions that have become established with time. Language itself is a distorting medium through which we experience the world. In a move that was as significant for the development of modern science as for philosophy, Bacon proposed that the deductive logic of ancient and medieval thought be replaced by the method of induction.

Following Bacon, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715–71) and Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach (1723–89), developed the notion of the social determination of ideas, significantly linking it with power, including the power of religion. Helvetius recognized that domination is buttressed by the production and dissemination of certain kinds of prejudices: ‘experience shows … that almost all moral and political questions are decided by the powerful, not by the reasonable. If opinion rules the world, in the long run it is the powerful who rule opinion’ (De l’Homme). Significantly, it was also recognized that the powerful members of society do not need to impose their prejudices on the populace; rather, the latter adopt the prevailing opinion and, for some reason, prefer to live in ignorance of their true situation. For the Enlightenment thinkers, education represented the escape route from prejudice. They believed that behind the socially distorted understanding is a rational essence that can be liberated by the power of reason.

The term ‘ideology’ emerged in post-revolutionary France, where imprisoned aristocrat Destutt de Tracy (1754–1836) conceived an empirical science of thinking, designed to overcome false ideas. This was later developed in his Eléments d’idéologie, which defined ideology positively as the antithesis of prejudice. Napoleon initially supported de Tracy and his colleagues in the Moral and Political Sciences division of the Institut National, but later turned against them, branding them pejoratively as ‘ideologists’, impractical intellectuals who did not understand the real workings of government. In the final volume of his Eléments, de Tracy was forced to admit that economic interests were more powerful determinants of social life. The full implications of this idea were later drawn out by Marx.

Following de Tracy, the concept of ideology was developed in two major streams of modern thought, French positivism and German idealism, although neither used the term itself. In the former, Auguste Comte (1798–1857) conceived of knowledge passing through progressive stages, culminating in empirical science. In the latter, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) spoke in terms of history as the working out of Absolute Spirit (Geist), coming to know itself through its objectification in the world. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72) inverted Hegel’s process by describing the Absolute (God) as a projection of human qualities, with religion being a stage to be overcome.

There are several interrelated senses of ‘ideology’ in the writings of Karl Marx (1818–83). In his early writings, culminating in The German Ideology (1846), which he co-authored with Friedrich Engels (1820–95), he demonstrated his intellectual debt to Hegel and Feuerbach. Like Hegel, Marx saw history as a law-governed process; and like Feuerbach, he wanted to reclaim essential human qualities, which had been projected outside the human being and become ‘alien’ powers. According to Paul Ricoeur, this early work represented a progressive characterization of ‘the real’ and its opposite, ‘the unreal’. The former was identified with praxis, the creative activity whereby human beings produce the material conditions of their existence. This activity carries within itself the possibility that the products of labour, including social institutions, assume an existence independent of the conditions that give rise to them. This is ‘alienation’.

The ‘German Ideology’ that Marx and Engels criticized was, nevertheless, the philosophy of the Young Hegelians, including Feuerbach. They found in this ‘idealistic’ philosophy precisely the sort of distortion that occurs when ideas become separated from their basis in real life. This leads to the illusion that society can be changed by replacing ‘false’ ideas with ‘true’ ones, as the Enlightenment thinkers believed, rather than by altering the material conditions of life. As Marx wrote in his eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’.

In opposition to the German idealism, Marx and Engels proposed a materialistic philosophy that they believed would re-establish the true relationship between life and thought:

Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men developing their material production and their material intercourse alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.

This systematic or ‘epistemological’ conception of ideology, however, in which the distorting nature of ideology is internal to knowledge itself, simply inverted the problem of idealism. After all, how could the so-called material conditions of life have any meaning for us, if they were not already imbued with ‘ideas’?

Later in The German Ideology Marx and Engels provided a more political conception of ideology:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas …

In this sense, ideology serves the interests of a particular group, the ruling class. According to Marx and Engels’ description, the division of mental and material labour allows a section of the ruling class to become its professional thinkers, ‘its active, conceptive ideologists, who make the perfecting of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood’. We might describe this group as the intelligentsia.

Marx’s later formulations of ‘ideology’ did not escape from the paradox inherent in his earlier writings. For instance, in his Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859), he described ideology in terms of a ‘superstructure’ that depends on an ‘economic foundation’ (what he later called the ‘base’):

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

The first sentence reflects the political definition of ideology, while the second reflects the epistemological one. But is the ‘mode of production of material life’ not already ‘informed’ by ideas? And what happens to ‘the social, political and intellectual life process’ once the communist society has been achieved? What forms of intellectual life would exist then? And what did Marx think was the status of his own theory in this schema? Were his ideas exempt from the very causal process that they described? In short, the base–superstructure model presents the relationship between activity and ideas in almost mechanical (economic) terms, and this oversimplification cannot do justice to a theory of ideology. Consciousness is not a passive reflection of an independent world, and ideas have a more positive role to play in constituting our subjectivity.

The tension between the epistemological and political senses of ideology was bequeathed by Marx to the theorists who followed him, and resulted in various attempts to overcome it. Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), for instance, declared that one simply had to choose between bourgeois and socialist ideology. For Georg Lukács (1885–1971)  all thought is ideological, but that doesn’t make all thought (or ideology) equal. Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) conceived of ideology as an element in the phenomenon he described as ‘hegemony’, that is the institutions of civil society (family, school, media) as opposed to economy and state. Although coercion remains a possibility, through hegemony a dominant power secures its authority without recourse to it. In the words of Terry Eagleton, hegemony is ‘the “common sense” of a whole social order’. Although this would be true of any social formation, capitalism appears to represent a decisive shift in the ratio of consent to coercion; for the use of force, the naked manifestation of power, is only likely to reduce ideological credibility and destabilize the political status quo. As Machiavelli had recognized four centuries earlier, ‘deceit’ is more efficient than pure force. Hegemony represents the internalization of power – by its means, the individual lives under the illusion of self-government.

The epistemological circle inherent in Marx was not overcome by any of these theorists, since each one had to recognize his own historical situatedness, and this undermined any claim to objectivity in his theory. Perhaps the most sophisticated attempt was made by the Frankfurt School neo-Marxist Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929). In Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), Habermas distinguished three groups of sciences, each with its own distinctive ‘interest’. For the natural sciences this interest is one of technical control and manipulation. For the historical and interpretive sciences it is communication. Finally, the critical social sciences have emancipation as their objective.

Habermas credited Marx with having elaborated a theory of human nature and society in terms of practical interests. For him, Marx was actually engaged in forms of historical-interpretive science and critical social science. Under the influence of Enlightenment thinking, however, and in particular the celebration of the natural sciences, Marx conceived of his work in terms of natural science. For Habermas, then, Marx was himself subject to a form of ideological thinking – the ideology of Enlightenment attitudes towards science. Therefore, although Marx’s critique of capitalist society was still relevant, his categories had become redundant. Habermas wanted to reinstate the historical and interpretive sciences, in recognition of the fact that social activity is inherently meaningful, and cannot be reduced to causal explanation. Human beings do not simply interact, but exchange symbols in a constant process of communication, a process that can only be understood through interpretation.

In ideology, however, interpretation is not straightforward, since ideological communication is distorted, bearing as it does the marks of the power relations that pervade society. Therefore, Habermas insisted that the historical-interpretive sciences must give way to the critical social sciences, since only they have the ‘distanciation’ required by ideology critique. His ‘theory of communicative action’ represents his attempt to overcome ideology by positing an ideal of unimpeded communication towards which all utterances tend.

This notion brought Habermas into conflict with another tradition within European thought: the hermeneutical tradition in the Philosophy of Language. In order to understand this, it is necessary for me to retrace my steps.

Shantivanam Ashram (Saccidananda), Tamil Nadu, South India, February 1990

At Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam), Tamil Nadu, South India, February 1990. © Simon Kidd

The philosophy of language

As an undergraduate I had been attracted to the theory of the ‘language game’ developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), which supported the notion that words only have meaning in a context. My postgraduate research introduced me to the more radical idea that humans are interpreting beings per se. Historically this development represented the movement from interpretation as a regional discipline (e.g. Biblical interpretation) to interpretation as fundamental to all human activity. This shift had been initiated by Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), particularly with his notion of the Lebenswelt or ‘life world’, which was taken up by his student, Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and carried on by the latter’s student, Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002), in addition to others.

Thus philosophical ‘hermeneutics’ (from a Greek word meaning ‘interpretation’) was born. Gadamer emphasized the situatedness of human understanding within a ‘horizon’ of meaning. As we grow up we adopt the interpretative framework of our culture. Tradition has a determining influence over us. It was this consideration that led to the famous (and inconclusive) debate between Gadamer and Habermas, with the latter arguing that it is possible to transcend and criticise tradition, and the former responding that criticism may take place from within a tradition but can never entirely transcend it.

Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) took the notion of ‘situatedness’ further. He proposed that the philosophical search for meaning could no longer assume direct access to the truth. Instead it was necessary to take a ‘hermeneutic detour’. In particular, Ricoeur claimed that Marx, Nietzsche and Freud (whom he termed ‘masters of suspicion’) had shown that human beings are unconsciously determined by forces that are greater than themselves, whether the force be relations of production, the will to power, or the libido. Any search for truth would have to negotiate such factors.

Ricoeur later developed an interest in ‘narrative identity’. According to this theory, our life experiences are not disjointed episodes but rather integrated by the individual into a coherent story or narrative. In this way, the meaning of our lives is constructed through a process of interpretation, even if such a narrative is never overtly expressed.

Regarding ideology, Ricoeur provided a useful framework with which we may be able to accommodate the heterogeneous features of the phenomenon, defining it in terms of three concepts, each being successively dependent on the one preceding it. These reveal ideology’s ‘integrating’, ‘legitimating’, and ‘distorting’ functions respectively. The first concept is the most neutral, as it describes the power of ideology to integrate a society through self-image, justification, etc. From this basis, the second concept describes ideology’s role in legitimating power. Finally, based on the ability of ideology to integrate and legitimate, the third concept describes its negative role as distorting.

To see how the philosophy of language has influenced theories in education, see my History, philosophy, and the new Australian National Curriculum.


As part of my research into language and ideology, I also undertook an investigation of the area known as ‘semiotics’ (from the Greek word for ‘sign’, semeion). I was particularly interested in the work of Umberto Eco (1932–2016), who belongs to a tradition passing back through Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) to Roger Bacon (c. 1214–c. 1293), Augustine (354–430), and the Stoic philosophers. According to this tradition, a sign is a relation of three entities (or perhaps more accurately a process involving three entities). Peirce referred to these entities as the ‘sign’, its ‘object’, and an ‘interpretant’.

This triadic relation distinguishes semiotics from the ‘semiology’ associated with Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), which conceives of the sign in terms of a more ‘static’ dyadic relationship between a ‘signifier’ and a ‘signified’. In the semiotic schema, anything can become a sign of anything else, on the basis of the mediating function provided by an interpretant. A sign, therefore, is something that stands for something else, in some respect or capacity. Smoke can be a sign of fire, but it can also be a sign of human habitation. The implication is that signs require interpretation.

According to Eco, signs are interpreted according to a ‘code’, which is the sum of the cultural rules governing sign-functions. There are many interconnected subcodes, and any sign-function can be interpreted according to multiple subcodes, sometimes producing contradictory interpretations. Since the process of ‘semiosis’ is in principle unlimited, Eco invokes ‘context’ and ‘circumstance’ to explain how one interpretation becomes more plausible than another. For example, in the context of politics, ‘red’ denotes ‘communist’; and with the circumstantial marker ‘police’, it connotes ‘subversive’, etc. In the context of economics, however, ‘red’ denotes ‘debt’ (to be ‘in the red’); while with the circumstantial marker ’employment’, it connotes ‘unemployment’, ‘eviction’, etc.

Through association, particular contexts and circumstances become part of the compositional makeup of signs. A sign can accordingly be defined as a ‘set of instructions’ for its possible employment and interpretation (note the similarity of this to Wittgenstein’s notion that the meaning of a word is its use). These instructions will vary from individual to individual, age to age, and culture to culture. They also allow for the creative attribution of meaning (e.g. metaphor), an aesthetic process with the potential to enrich the code.

In semiotic terms, ideological communication represents the attempt to constrain meaning to a single interpretation, i.e. the desired interpretation that a group wants to promote. This runs counter to the unlimited nature of semiosis. Eco calls it ‘code-switching’: the privileging of one subcode while concealing others. He points out that mass communication often appears as the manifestation of a domination that attempts to ensure social control by planning the sending of messages. In a similar vein, John B. Thompson refers to the unprecedented growth of mass communication in contemporary society as ‘the mediazation of modern culture’ and he believes it has expanded the scope for the operation of ideology.

Eco points out, however, that interpretation occurs at the destination of a message rather than at the source. The sender of a message does not have complete control over its interpretation by an addressee. Therefore, rather than attempting to control a message by acting on the circumstances of its source, Eco advocates acting on the circumstances of its destination. He describes this as a ‘revolutionary’ aspect of the semiotic endeavour, a type of ‘semiotic guerrilla warfare’.

Semiotics, therefore, provides both a framework for the understanding of ideology, as well as the possibility of ideology critique and a pragmatic method of undermining it.

In conclusion, we see that the history of ideology and the history of the philosophy of language intersect at the point of tension between our historical (and linguistic) situatedness, on the one hand, and our attempt to overcome the distortions that arise from it.

Samye Ling, Scotland, 1990

At Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist temple, Scotland, 1990. © Simon Kidd

First experience of teaching and the move to Cambridge

At the time that I commenced postgraduate studies I also became a tutor to philosophy undergraduates. This was my first experience of being at the front of a classroom, and I grew to like it, even if it didn’t come naturally to an introvert. One of the challenges of the job was the marking of a hundred or more essays on the same topic. This was my practical introduction to the ‘normal distribution’, although I was not then familiar with the term. It was clear that there was a range of ability in any group. I wouldn’t tutor university students again for another seventeen years, and there would be a new challenge by that time.

Before that, however, in the spring of 1995 I moved to Cambridge, a place I had visited briefly a few years earlier. After a couple of nights in a B&B, I found a room in a shared house and obtained work as a pot washer in St John’s College. The latter was followed by two part-time jobs: one as a gardener at Newnham College, and the other as a bookseller in Heffers, the main academic bookshop in Cambridge and an institution in the town (since bought out by its Oxford rival, Blackwell). In the bookshop I worked in the Department of Oriental and African Studies, which was a very agreeable environment for someone with my interests.

With the help of a letter from the Professor of Philosophy at UCD, I acquired a reader’s ticket for the University Library. I also made contact with academics in what is now the Faculty of  Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and during the summer of that year I completed a survey of the secondary literature on a 17th-century Persian text called the Dabestan-e Mazaheb. This text, written during the reign of the Mughal emperor, Akbar, describes and compares various religions and philosophies, including Akbar’s syncretic Din-i Ilahi. I had become interested in this work as a result of my reading in Middle Eastern and Asian philosophies. I was even provisionally accepted as an MPhil student at King’s College, but was unable to obtain funding for further studies.

The bookselling job soon became full-time, and altogether I worked at Heffers for four years, dealing with students, academics and the general public. I encountered many interesting people, including some celebrities, and my first wife. I met the writer, John Cornwell, and became his assistant in the Science and Human Dimension Project, a ‘public understanding of science’ body based in Jesus College. Part of this role involved conference organization. Eventually I moved from bookselling to publishing, first as an editor and project manager, and then for a small company that specialized in digital encoding (XML).

Interior of Heffers main store, Trinity Street, Cambridge

Interior of Heffers main store in Cambridge

At this time I was also a member of the Scientific and Medical Network (SMN), an association of people with a broad interest in the sciences. They ranged from well-known academics, on the one hand, to university graduates and other intellectuals who maintained an interest in what might be described as ‘progressive’ ideas. As I later discovered, at the other end of the spectrum were ideas that are sometimes referred to as ‘lunatic fringe’. I attended meetings of the local SMN group, and wrote a couple of book reviews for Network, the SMN journal.

In 2003 I moved to Australia and became the primary carer for my two children, my wife having secured a senior academic position. When, in 2006, my youngest child started at a Montessori school, I grasped the opportunity to tutor undergraduates taking compulsory units in Philosophy and Ethics at a local university. Admittedly these students were not taking a degree in Philosophy, and there was the same range of ability that anyone might expect, but one factor came as a complete surprise to me.

In the intervening decade and a half, society had witnessed the advent of the Internet. Initially this had seemed like a useful tool for communication and the exchange of information. Email, for example, was fast and convenient. Then came websites conveying basic data. Subsequent developments saw the Web becoming more interactive (so-called Web 2.0): YouTube, Wikipedia, social networking, and so on. Illich’s notion of a ‘learning web’ was not simply realised – his expectations were exceeded, at least potentially.

My first intimation of the effect of this social change on education came from reading student essays in 2006. I found myself reading text that could not possibly have been written by the students I knew in the classroom. It was simply not their authorial voice. It was not necessarily the case that I was being given an essay that had been found online, although I became aware of this possibility. Rather I was seeing whole swathes of text that were being copied and pasted. At their worst, some essays were a patchwork of chunks of text cobbled together into the semblance of a coherent essay, with the occasional substitution of terms with synonyms. The problem was that they were usually not coherent, with the added disadvantage that such submissions usually took me more time to mark because I had to trawl the Internet to find the source of the various pieces in order to demonstrate their origin. Later I learned that websites had been developed for automatic checking of this kind, at the essay submission stage, precisely in order to combat fraud and reduce the time wasted.

Naturally these essays did not score highly, and in the worst cases they were an instant ‘Fail’. More surprising to me was that the offending students seemed to think that their inclusion of a web address in the references prevented them from falling foul of the university’s plagiarism policy. Furthermore, since these were compulsory units, many students were only concerned with obtaining the required ‘Pass’ grade needed for graduation. If they had postponed the unit(s) until their final semester, sometimes in a four-year course, a ‘Fail’ meant that they had to repeat the unit and postpone their graduation.

These were not minor considerations for the students concerned, since they had both financial and social consequences. What bothered me, however, was that such practices were inimical to the sort of deep learning that I had acquired as an undergraduate. The offending students were simply not acquiring the hard-earned skills of analysis and synthesis that had been necessary to good research and writing in the pre-Web era.


After a year of tutoring I got a job in the Extension department at the University of Western Australia, that part of the institution with a particular vocation for community outreach, and located at that time in the beautiful building and grounds of the former Claremont Teacher Training College. My areas of responsibility were Intellectual Adventures (which included the philosophical courses), Languages, and Writing and Communication. My time in this role was very rewarding: for me it represented education in a very positive sense – people studying topics of interest to them, motivated only by the love of learning, without testing or the awarding of qualifications (at most, there were certificates of participation). Courses were offered both by academics and external providers. Many of our ‘clients’ were of mature age, with enough disposable income and spare time to participate in such activities.

UWA Extension in Claremont

UWA Extension in Claremont

After a year and a half I was offered a position in the University Vice-Chancellery, and I experienced a very different side to the university, one more concerned with governance. In my role as a senior research officer, I became aware of various trends in third-level education, including institutional reorganization and the development of novel architectural spaces. It was during my twelve months in this position that I heard that the Faculty of Education was going to offer a Master of Primary Teaching degree. I enrolled in this course and spent the next two years studying the various ‘content’ areas of the curriculum, as well as principles of pedagogy, ‘special’ education, and ‘classroom management’. I graduated in 2011.

A large proportion of the course was devoted to practical and administrative aspects of teaching, as well as the content of the curriculum, but I was particularly attracted to the philosophical aspects of pedagogy, in particular the ‘social constructivist’ ideas of Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934). These I could relate to my background in hermeneutics. For example, according to social constructivism, education is a process of induction into the norms of a society, whereby meaning is actively constructed by the child. New information is understood (or interpreted) by being assimilated to existing knowledge frameworks. It is easy to see how such ideas are congruent with Gadamer’s ‘horizon of meaning’ and Ricoeur’s ‘narrative identity’.

Another unit that I particularly enjoyed was ‘Teaching and Learning with New Technologies’, which increased my understanding of the potential role of blogs, wikis, and other new technologies in education. The present blog began as a requirement for that unit. The lecturer maintains a very useful site with many digital learning resources.

What was not included in this course was the sort of philosophical questioning that was a natural part of my earlier degree. It was in Dublin that I had first read Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, whereas this book and others like it were not familiar to the majority of my classmates, most of whom were about two decades younger than me, and graduates in a range of degrees that did not include philosophy. It was at this time that I discovered other critics of schooling, such as John Taylor Gatto, although these ‘alternative’ authors were not on my official reading list.

There was one outlet for my earlier interest in the Philosophy of Education, however, in the form of the Capstone unit in the second year of my degree. This unit encouraged research in an area of personal interest, and I chose the topic of ‘giftedness’ from a philosophical perspective. The resulting paper was entitled ‘Giftedness and Philosophy’ and it is available here.

Around the time I was retraining as a teacher, I became aware of the movement advocating the teaching of Philosophy to children. A colleague at UWA was secretary of the Western Australian Association for Philosophy in Schools (APIS), and she persuaded me to get involved. I attended the Association’s Level-1 training and started going along to meetings. At the 2010 AGM I was elected secretary, a position I remained in until the end of 2014. Through APIS I also got involved in the Western Australian Philosothon, an inter-school Philosophy competition that started in WA in 2007 before becoming a national event in 2011. The competition has since spread to other countries.

I will return to a consideration of issues in Philosophy of Education in subsequent posts, but first I need to go into some detail about another aspect of the Web that I personally encountered during this period.

Continued in Part 2

Schooling the World

December 16, 2010

The film Schooling the World puts forward a provocative thesis. Is it necessarily the case that schooling (in the modern Western sense) improves life for the majority? The film reminds me of John Taylor Gatto’s point about compulsory schooling being damaging for families and communities. Like Gatto, it quotes Ellwood P. Cubberley, Dean of Stanford’s influential School of Education in the early twentieth century:

Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.

But the film has more of an anthropological angle, in which education is understood as enculturation – ‘the process by which a person learns the requirements of the culture by which he or she is surrounded, and acquires values and behaviours that are appropriate or necessary in that culture’ (Wikipedia). Culture itself is conceived in terms of an ‘ecosystem’, in which people sustain ways of life within their physical environment. This relatively harmonious balance is disturbed when any one element is changed. When we introduce our own system of education (schooling) into such a culture, we change it irrevocably. The film undermines our notion that other cultures are ‘developing’, a notion that entails an assumption of superiority, with our own culture always more advanced along the developmental path, or perhaps even at the summit of attainment.

There are also echoes of Ivan Illich. Readers may want to visit the blog, and the FAQ page is also worth a read.

The valedictorian’s speech

August 9, 2010

I am, once again, grateful to Steve Miranda for posting this commencement speech by Erica Goldson, who graduated from Coxsackie-Athens High School in New York State as the valedictorian:

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, “If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years . .” The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast — How long then?” Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.” “But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?” asked the student. “Thirty years,” replied the Master. “But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?” Replied the Master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

This is the dilemma I’ve faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn’t you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.

John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, asserts, “We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don’t do that.” Between these cinderblock walls, we are all expected to be the same. We are trained to ace every standardized test, and those who deviate and see light through a different lens are worthless to the scheme of public education, and therefore viewed with contempt.

H. L. Mencken wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not “to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. … Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim … is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States.”

To illustrate this idea, doesn’t it perturb you to learn about the idea of “critical thinking.” Is there really such a thing as “uncritically thinking?” To think is to process information in order to form an opinion. But if we are not critical when processing this information, are we really thinking? Or are we mindlessly accepting other opinions as truth?

This was happening to me, and if it wasn’t for the rare occurrence of an avant-garde tenth grade English teacher, Donna Bryan, who allowed me to open my mind and ask questions before accepting textbook doctrine, I would have been doomed. I am now enlightened, but my mind still feels disabled. I must retrain myself and constantly remember how insane this ostensibly sane place really is.

And now here I am in a world guided by fear, a world suppressing the uniqueness that lies inside each of us, a world where we can either acquiesce to the inhuman nonsense of corporatism and materialism or insist on change. We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. We have no choices in life when money is our motivational force. Our motivational force ought to be passion, but this is lost from the moment we step into a system that trains us, rather than inspires us.

We are more than robotic bookshelves, conditioned to blurt out facts we were taught in school. We are all very special, every human on this planet is so special, so aren’t we all deserving of something better, of using our minds for innovation, rather than memorization, for creativity, rather than futile activity, for rumination rather than stagnation? We are not here to get a degree, to then get a job, so we can consume industry-approved placation after placation. There is more, and more still.

The saddest part is that the majority of students don’t have the opportunity to reflect as I did. The majority of students are put through the same brainwashing techniques in order to create a complacent labor force working in the interests of large corporations and secretive government, and worst of all, they are completely unaware of it. I will never be able to turn back these 18 years. I can’t run away to another country with an education system meant to enlighten rather than condition. This part of my life is over, and I want to make sure that no other child will have his or her potential suppressed by powers meant to exploit and control. We are human beings. We are thinkers, dreamers, explorers, artists, writers, engineers. We are anything we want to be – but only if we have an educational system that supports us rather than holds us down. A tree can grow, but only if its roots are given a healthy foundation.

For those of you out there that must continue to sit in desks and yield to the authoritarian ideologies of instructors, do not be disheartened. You still have the opportunity to stand up, ask questions, be critical, and create your own perspective. Demand a setting that will provide you with intellectual capabilities that allow you to expand your mind instead of directing it. Demand that you be interested in class. Demand that the excuse, “You have to learn this for the test” is not good enough for you. Education is an excellent tool, if used properly, but focus more on learning rather than getting good grades.

For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.

For those of you that are now leaving this establishment, I say, do not forget what went on in these classrooms. Do not abandon those that come after you. We are the new future and we are not going to let tradition stand. We will break down the walls of corruption to let a garden of knowledge grow throughout America. Once educated properly, we will have the power to do anything, and best of all, we will only use that power for good, for we will be cultivated and wise. We will not accept anything at face value. We will ask questions, and we will demand truth.

So, here I stand. I am not standing here as valedictorian by myself. I was molded by my environment, by all of my peers who are sitting here watching me. I couldn’t have accomplished this without all of you. It was all of you who truly made me the person I am today. It was all of you who were my competition, yet my backbone. In that way, we are all valedictorians.

I am now supposed to say farewell to this institution, those who maintain it, and those who stand with me and behind me, but I hope this farewell is more of a “see you later” when we are all working together to rear a pedagogic movement. But first, let’s go get those pieces of paper that tell us that we’re smart enough to do so!

Primer for ed reformers

July 23, 2010

I’m very grateful to Steve Miranda for bringing this brilliant Washington Post article to my attention. Guest blogger, Marion Brady, is described as a ‘veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author’. Here he really gets back to basics, applying some common sense in the face of bureaucratic expert-speak. Several of the points remind me of John Taylor Gatto. It’s well worth reading the article in its entirety, but here are the core points:

* Learning, real learning – trying to make more sense of what’s happening – is as natural and satisfying as breathing. If your big reform idea requires laws, mandates, penalties, bribes, or other kinds of external pressure to make it work, it won’t work. You can lead the horse to water, and you can force it to look like it’s drinking, but you can’t make it drink.

* The ability to think – to infer, hypothesize, generalize, relate, make sound value judgments, generate brand new knowledge, and so on – is the main thing humankind has going for it. If thought isn’t tested, it won’t get taught, so if your reform effort depends on standardized tests, you’re in big trouble. That’s because nobody knows how to write standardized, machine-scoreable test questions that say how well a kid can think. Nobody.

* Saying to kids, “You’ll need to know this next year,” is a waste of words. If they can’t see the usefulness, right now, in their own lives, of whatever you’re trying to teach, they won’t learn it. Information may go into short-term memory long enough to pass a test, but that’s it.

They won’t allow what they think is useless information to permanently clutter up their minds. Think I’m wrong? What percentage of the American history you studied in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college, do you still remember well enough to, say, cite precedent when you argue the case for or against a particular Wall Street reform?

* If the success of your reform effort depends on really smart, knowledgeable teachers or administrators, go back to the drawing board. The percentage of those in the schools is about the same as in other professions, which means there will always be a major shortage. Respecting educators enough to get out of their way and let them do their work without being micromanaged by amateurs would increase the percentage of good ones, but not enough to assure the success of your reform proposal.

* Are you convinced national standards for school subjects is a good reform idea? Forget it. First, they lock in our 19th Century curriculum. Second, the human brain doesn’t make sense of experience by clicking between school subjects. Third, in the real world, everything connects to everything, and the connections are at least as important as the facts being connected. Fourth, standards should say what kinds of kids we want, not which facts we think they should have in their heads. Fifth, trying to standardize the young (especially now that the Chinese are determined to de-standardize them to encourage creativity) is a recipe for disaster. Kid creativity has declined steadily since No Child Left Behind was put in place.

* If concern for the achievement gap drives your enthusiasm for reform, know that differences in scores on standardized tests aren’t going to go away as long as the test items are written by adults who’ve grown up in the dominant culture. Too many of the items will be stacked against minorities, a fact that will remain hidden because of test secrecy and dominant-culture hubris. Complicating the problem is the fact that the gap triggers self-fulfilling prophecies which perpetuate it.

Those six insights are a start on a primer.

Here are eight more that experienced teachers think you need to know:

* Kids are a lot smarter than today’s education makes them seem.

* They learn more in small groups working together on a challenge than they do competing one-on-one.

* Without emotional involvement there’s no learning (and boredom doesn’t qualify as an emotion).

* Humans really do learn more from firsthand experience than from books and teacher talk.

* The brain uses a “master” information organizing system, and understanding it is important.

* For kids, passivity is unnatural, so sitting still hour after hour is anti-educational.

* The revolutionary implications of the new accessibility of information aren’t being taken into adequate account.

* Both teachers and learners are more powerfully motivated by the satisfactions of doing useful, high-quality work than by winning competitions.

Let’s raise kids to be entrepreneurs

June 22, 2010

This talk by entrepreneur, Cameron Herold, is very much in keeping with the ideas expressed by John Gatto and Ken Robinson, and even suggests a link between entrepreneurial tendencies and so-called Attention Deficit Disorder: