Shane Rambles about Education as Social Interaction
During our last conversation—and many conversations before that—you asked me if education is social interaction. I then looked back at your blog post from last week titled “The Ethics of Social Interaction.” I was looking, like the student on his cell phone, for a definition of social interaction, and I didn’t really find one. I found only an outline of how one person should treat another when he or she interacts with that other socially.
You recalled Kant’s thought. Here is my re-summarization of that thought. People should not treat one another as instruments or tools to be used in the achieving of a greater goal—a means to an end. For example, a head coach should not see his player as simply a way of reaching the championship. Instead, he should see his player as a player. My first question for you is this, Greg: What does it mean to view others as “an end in him- or herself”? In my brain, “ends” are goals. Maybe it’s better to think of an “end” as a product, though. I definitely see how people shouldn’t be seen as instruments, but I’m not sure how it can be good to view them as “ends” in themselves, either. Or is there a definition that I should know that I don’t of the word “end” (tight end? the end? ending? Ender’s Game?)?
I’ll start here even though I’ve already started once. Yes, I believe that education can be social interaction, and yes I believe it should be social interaction. If we posit that social interaction or communicative action (a discourse oriented toward understanding) is interaction wherein two or more parties are saying things to each other, to convey information to each other in order for both or all parties to better understand something, I think that education should definitely be that.
We’ve written and talked a lot about the traditional banking mode of education, and we know that it is most definitely not communicative. It is not social. I think it’s really important to note the collaborative quality of social interaction. Something is not social just because it happens in public. It is not social just because there are a lot of people around. There must be a cooperative and collaborative quality to the action for it to be considered interaction. For example, a few weeks ago, President Obama made a primetime speech to the American people wherein he outlined his goals for the Syrian conflict. Many people were in the classroom that night, but no one had the ability to talk back. That was definitely discourse oriented toward action. That isn’t to say that we didn’t learn things from that speech—I would say that we did learn some things, but it wasn’t anything that we couldn’t have read from a book. And it was a scripted transference of knowledge. Of course it’s impossible for communication to happen on a scale that large. I’m not even sure what it would look like if it could happen. I suppose that is the role of diplomats and phone calls. But Democracy should be communicative, yeah? I feel like I’ve gotten off topic.
You’ve corrected my clumsy use of the phrase “communicate to” several times. “Communicating to” happens in the traditional mode, even though you don’t communicate to people. This is what others have discussed as the “transference of knowledge,” which some people say is the definition of education. My second question to you is, should we say that education is the “communication of knowledge”? This is what education should be—parties communicating with each other toward truth or fact or being better people. I don’t know. I guess we have to tackle the goals of education at some point.
But our classrooms are not countries, and our goals are not the waging of military might. We have the ability to communicate in classes when numbers are as low as they are. I would say that if they were to put very many more students in our classes, they would hurt our ability to communicate with them. And to answer a question you asked me today while we were face-to-face, I’m not sure I will discuss online education in this post. Maybe that’s something I can do next week.
So for now I’ll stick with face-to-face classrooms. We’ve simplified our approach in the past to say “remember that students are people and treat them as such.” This echoes the Kantian bit from earlier. Students are not our means to a paycheck or to tenure or to great glory in the pantheon of great teaching. Students are not our means to excellent ratings on ratemyprofessor.com (even though I do have excellent ratings, and a chili pepper that signifies I’m a real looker). Instead, students should be seen as human beings. To be a bit more explicit and to draw on your work from last week, to recognize students as human beings is to recognize that they fit into the dignity/ respect paradigm outlined in your previous post. Therefore, they are people with dignity—with lives of inestimable value—and we are ethically charged to respect that, knowing as we do of our own inestimable worth.
And now, as you did in your post last week, I’ll mention some of the ways that this comes off the tracks. If social interaction claims as its “goal” (for lack of a better word since I know it is not goal-oriented but understanding-oriented) the attempt to reach mutual understanding, I think it should be expected that for education to function as such, there must be a mutual respect. That is, the same ethics that govern how I treat those students I interact with (dignity that feeds respect or respect that feeds dignity), must govern how those students interact with me. We’ve talked about my spring composition class that I felt at odds with. I felt disrespected. I found that the only way I could get them to show up and be prepared was through coercion, and I didn’t feel good about it. I felt like a hypocrite at every turn.
This will seem like a tangent, but stick with me. We’re reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Brit Lit recently, and we’re having the conversation about chivalry and Gawain and the lady in the house. The discussion finally comes to this: as a chivalrous knight, Gawain is charged with upholding the law of God—which means no adultery/ lying to the man of the house if he does—and respecting and being gentle with women. Now here is Gawain, being pressed from both sides by his chivalric code. Eventually, he has to offend the woman in order to stop her advances, which means that honesty trumps gentleness to women when it comes down to it. This is obviously a very simplified version of what was discussed.
I go into all of that to get to this: when I want to maintain a classroom where communicative action rules all, but that is being pressed by people who do not respond to it, at what point do I have to offend their sensibilities? You talked about hurting people last week. You specifically talked about violent offenses, but that isn’t the only way we hurt people. We hurt people when we do not respect them, and disrespect can take many forms. So at what point is that communicative relationship injured to the point that something has to change? How do we repair that relationship?
We know that Gawain eventually broke the rules of the game he was playing in that he took the green girdle, thinking it would save his life. This was a sign of disrespect for the master of the house, as he lied about receiving the girdle. Gawain offended the communicative relationship he had with the man, as he had been pretty honest from the beginning. Why did he do it? He did it to save his life, and it wasn’t until the green knight had his ax against Gawain’s neck calling him out for his transgression that Gawain finally confessed and asked for forgiveness. Gawain’s desire to save his own life trumped his relationship with the man in the house.
At some point in the relationship we have with students, we will be pressed. When do we break? Here is my final question to you: How do we establish mutual respect in the teacher-student relationship?
Until next time,