Home > Uncategorized > Shane Rambles about Education as Social Interaction

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,


Categories: Uncategorized
  1. October 3, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    At the risk of sounding like the great language-masseur Bill Clinton, it depends on what the definition of “we” is. If “we” is you and I or teachers, we can’t establish mutual respect in the teacher/student relationship because we can supply only one side of what is supposed to be mutual. If, on the other hand, “we” is a teacher and a student, an interesting if commonplace situation arises that provides a heuristic chicken-and-egg problem for any theory of communicative action. How is it possible to establish a discourse oriented toward understanding without having already established a discourse oriented toward understanding? Doesn’t “reaching a consensus” already imply having reached a consensus to reach consensus? Aaugh! Well, in a sense people generally have always already reached a consensus to establish discourses oriented toward understanding. People communicate so that they can coordinate action. People manifestly do this on a regular basis even if they know nothing about theory. But there are ways to take action without coordinating it with others. You can do something purely on your own, for example, or coerce action from somebody else. But there are practical reasons against the first, usually, and ethical reasons against the second. Everybody knows these facts and therefore employ various modes of discourse in order to coordinate action with others.

    Except they don’t. The fact that people manifestly do communicate in order to coordinate action inspires Habermas’s idealistic conceptions of universal “communicative competence” and the “ideal speech situation.” And one might reasonably claim that, theoretically, any two people can reach understanding about something. Practically, however, misunderstandings happen. Clearly, therefore, people can improve upon their communicative competence. They can develop skill in establishing discourse. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of this potentiality in themselves. Worse, there are factors, mainly systemic, that militate against the establishment of such discourses. I’m sure I’ll have occasion to rant about system in due course, but here I will merely note that beyond bypassing communicative action, social systems often actively interfere with them. Consequently, Habermas is moved to say, in Legitimation Crisis, that emancipation is only possible within an “already accustomed communicative way of life.” It is unlikely that thou and I will have much effect on ways of life globally, but locally, in our classrooms, we can go a long way toward establishing an already accustomed communicative way of life. It’s not that hard to imagine a world in which mutual respect not only is, but is universally acknowledged to be, the norm.

    Unfortunately, the concept of a norm implies that the norm can be violated. Everybody knows (though many deny it) that Robinson Crusoe is a myth and that we live and act in the world of people. Everybody knows (though many deny it) that most actions require cooperative effort. Finally, everybody knows right from wrong and furthermore knows (though many deny it) that this knowledge obliges each person to do the right thing. It seems, therefore, that the pressure you mention, which would cause us to break, is a violation of this universal norm of respect, which is tantamount to saying that the person who breaks up the communicative situation commits an injurious act. Now, it is a prevalent misconception than anyone who talks about ethics (like me and thee) believes himself to be morally superior. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that either concise Shane or verbose Greg would deliberately or irresponsibly contaminate a discourse oriented toward understanding with malice. So assuming that the teacher is acting responsibly and not committing injurious acts, the question then becomes, what is the right way to respond when one sustains an injury inflicted by another?

    So the problem is not so much how do we establish mutual respect in the first place, but rather, what should we do when somebody violates our dignity thereby treating us with disrespect. Well, our likely first impulse is to retaliate. But if there’s one thing I learned as a high school teacher, Shane, it’s that impulse = bad and reflection = good. Obviously we don’t want a world in which injured parties act as judges, juries, and executioners. But isn’t an injured party entitled to some redress? Well, I think it’s best in general not to go down the entitlement road. The dad of the Oyl family in the old Robin Williams movie Popeye constantly and ridiculously says, “You owe me an apology.” When discussing ethical norms it’s wiser, I think, to consider obligations than entitlements. Clearly it is the responsibility of the person who commits an injury to make amends. Protestations of innocence just compound the offense. On the other hand, when we commit an injury it’s entirely likely that we will commit more injurious acts in the attempt to forestall the consequences of the original injury. For a long time, especially when I was teaching outside the realm of adult education, I excused injuries to me as mitigated by the perpetrators’ immaturity. I think that was a mistake then, and it is surely a mistake now that I work in higher education.

    As we discussed in our face-to-face, I’ve endured an unusual frequency this semester of disrespectful behavior directed toward me from certain students. I was strongly tempted, and indeed I fully intended as of our last meeting, to contaminate these pages with blow-by-blow descriptions that I would sugar-coat as “reflections.” The fact is, when a person treats me as an object—of convenience, inconvenience, or ridicule—it makes me mad as hell. In short, injury causes suffering. Stop the presses! And I smugly praise myself for not retaliating. I was pressed, but I didn’t break. My immediate concern is, how do I hold the perpetrators to account? More importantly, how do I repair the teacher-student relationship that I know is essential to the educational enterprise?

    And here I fall yet again upon the inconvenient truth that there’s next to nothing of any consequence in the world that I can do by myself. Obviously I can’t establish, maintain, or repair a relationship with another person by myself. So this is what we mean when we mention social interaction: all the processes that go into making things happen in the world. So when you and I decide together where to meet for lunch, when my excellent rock band (Louder Than Dirt like us on Facebook follow us on Twitter) works up a new song, when a student signs up for a course, we interact in order to carry out the action that we already agree we want to carry out. And notice, when we speak of social interaction we are speaking almost exclusively of verbal interaction. Financial transaction scarcely qualifies as action. This fact leads to great misunderstanding in the world, since the fulfillment of basic necessities (and decadent luxuries) is managed by an economic system that bypasses communication in favor of the efficiencies of finance. Hence the banking model of education. But just as there are some things that money can’t buy, there are some actions that can’t be converted into transactions, and education is one of those. It is an interaction, and when one party damages the interaction, it’s over. The insistence on sincerity and non-coercion is purely pragmatic. Two people will not, cannot, achieve understanding if one of them attempts to deceive or threaten. Of course, many people allow themselves think that the can buy and pay for all sorts of illegitimate privileges, as when a student claims that tuition payments somehow allow atrocious actions towards others.

    So the view of life that reduces everything to financial transaction is both limited and inaccurate. But underlying this foolish prejudice is an even more harmful error, namely, instrumentality or means-ends calculation. Even the most doctrinaire defender of the free enterprise system acknowledges that people must expend effort to achieve goals that are not available for purchase. You and I have faced difficulties in seeing our way around goal-oriented action, and I don’t propose to ease the way completely here. But for the moment let’s content ourselves with the certainty that other people are not objects. While we each may cherish goals and personal aspirations, being a person—a human subject and not an object—is not in itself a goal, but is instead an end in itself. Unfortunately, the ethos of competition, within which capitalism thrives, leads many people to suppose that they should take try to take the upper hand in any social situation.

    So these are two overwhelming problems that provoke our project of communicative education: first, an economic system that regulates almost every aspect of life, and secondly, closely related to the first, the prevalent misunderstanding of the ethics of social interaction. The student who enters into a relationship with you in bad faith not merely offends your sensibilities but does you the material injuries of deception and disrespect. Certainly many people are misled by an educational system focused on outcomes to regard teachers as functionaries, essentially machinic. But then plenty of people merely regard others as objects, instruments or impediments as the case may be. On the other hand, a lot of tyranny is perpetrated by idealists and utopians. So we cannot act as if the already accustomed communicative way of life were an accomplished fact. We can, however, think truthfully and realistically how to go about pursuing it. We can resist the lie that would claim that disrespectful or antagonistic or coercive interactions are normal.

    Here I’m drawn again to rebut Camus. He is right to assert that amid the absurdity of life we are fundamentally, radically, existentially free—free to embrace or deny our fate. And contrary to existential doctrine, this essence, this intrinsic freedom, is an essential and indeed inescapable fact of existence. And because all people enjoy or are condemned to freedom, we might experience the freedom of others as an absurd (“hell is other people”—Sartre) imposition. Hence, there is no freedom without responsibilities, not the least of which is our ethical treatment of others. But we might also ask whether the limitations placed on our freedom are just, and most of the time they are not. The person who injures another unjustly limits freedom. The system that instrumentalizes people unjustly limits freedom. And when I irresponsibly allow myself to remain in bondage to prejudice, superstition, and provincialism, I unjustly limit my own freedom. Is the liberal ideal of education obsolete? Are teachers commissioned only to transmit knowledge of technical processes?

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