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Re: [xmca] Obama's Learn Act and 2 challenges

Larry, I fully support the "strategy" of simply "speaking up" wherever you are. I think I was about 50 before I figured why it is that other people don't "speak up." I think it is *fear*, fear of humiliation and fear of victimisation. I constantly make a fool of myself and actually however much I have publicly criticized the boss, apart from having a glass ceiling on my career, I have never been really victimized. Most people fear humiliation, and with families to feed, etc., fear the sack. By speaking up and not getting killed for it, you encourage others.

On "critique": a few years ago I came to the conclusion that "critical" (as in "critical thinking") is an ideal that is shared between the Left and the honest Right. OK, there are the Religious Right and Neo-fascists, and maybe it's different in the US, but in the UK and Oz, which is my experience, I have found "critical" a word with very wide acceptance.

On strategies: With disillusionment with all forms of party-building, I do think, with Larry, that use of the existing forms of agency has a lot to be said for it. After all, in the heyday of Parties, Fronts and Social movements, left-wing Parties, Fronts and Social movements were fighting against right-wing Parties, Fronts and Social movements. All are now nearly bankrupt as vehicles of social change. Beyond that, my personal strategy is to participate in collaborative projects with as wide a variety of people as possible, long term or short term doesn't matter. I agree (nowadays) with Jay, that little leaps are what is needed, and irreversible reforms.


Larry Purss wrote:
Jay and everyone who is looking for narratives.
I personally believe the process we are now engaged in with fundamentally viewing the world as relational at its foundation is the new narrative.
People like Martin Buber and Neibur are taking these ideas and introducing them into Judaism and Christianity. There is a revolution within Buddhism in Japan as they engage with Mead, Gadamer, and Continental philosophy (See Steve Odin's book "The Social Self in Zen and American Pragmatism.  Developmental psychology (Gergeley) is exploring the relational paradigm at the level of neuroscience.  Sociocultural theory does have a foothold in school settings which challenges Piaget (who is one of the psychologists who has captivated school discourse)
I personally believe in the imaginative power of acting "AS IF". I try to take a position in all activities in my professional role to introduce relational themes. I send an article to the superintendent, talk to our social-emotional steering committee at our board office. Talk to my principals, speak up at staff meetings, and at school based team meetings, when meeting with parents, and when intervening in a bullying incident. The paradigm we are articulating puts discourse and conversation at its center and I believe every time we act and speak and write (even a "behavior plan" as part of an individual education plan) we are influencing the emerging narrative.
The central question I am puzzled about is why most people stay silent and let the "committed few" dominate the conversation. Why have we retreated into the private realm where we converse with ourselves (even when the conversation is about not being private) This is where feminism has done a lot of thinking about finding your own voice within a community of others.
Yes,  I find it challenging to be offering an "alternative narrative" to the dominant discourse of individualism and being seen as this person who seems to be questioning every program and initiative presented.  However, whenever  new ideas (to the staff) such as "dynamic assessment" "reciprocal reading" etc are explored I contact the people to offer support and connect them to others in the district who are  acting relationally. Many of them have no idea the ideas are coming from Vygotsky but they are clearly moving in the direction of "Scaffolding" students work and having students teach each other.  In this way I'm acting "AS IF" my actions are contributing to a new emerging paradigm that is challenging the dominant narrative. Narrative therapy calls this introducing an alternative narrative.
 I am trying to understand the historical background that got us to this point in the narrative but it is not a monolithic story.  Entrenched, yes, but not monolithic. If the majority of people are walking around having an uneasy sense that things aren't working then that is the precise condition required to introduce a new alternative narrative INTO PSYCHOLOGY, EDUCATION, CHRISTIANITY, politics, the law, economics, and philosophy etc. When we start to see articles in Psychology Today, or the Economist, or the Christian Science Monitor, then viewing the world relationally will come to challenge the "almost" monolithic view of Cartesian individualism.
My point is do we need grand narratives, or many particular situated narratives to shift cultural values?  I know I'm being idealistic but so be it.  Hopefully there is a bit of objectivity in my suggestion

----- Original Message -----
From: Jay Lemke <jaylemke@umich.edu>
Date: Friday, December 18, 2009 5:45 pm
Subject: Re: [xmca] Obama's Learn Act and 2 challenges
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>

I like the idea of collecting narratives that have some chance of going viral, or of becoming part of the evolving folk wisdom of a community (or whatever an over-scale network like the USA is).

Some of these may be generic narratives: that formal schooling keeps dumbing down standards (not one that serves our purposes, alas, as it presupposes that standards are desirable, and standards means test results, not quality). Some may indeed be personal narratives of how we came to a habitus of critical thinking.

I was appalled a few years ago when some influential faculty colleagues protested at the inclusion of the word "critical" in the title of a new PhD subprogram. Their most pragmatic argument was that it would make us unpopular in (then Republican) Washington, but in fact they also just felt viscerally that "critical" implied some sort of anti-American agenda. I thought I'd slipped through a time rift back to the 1950s. And this was in a university that prides itself on its liberal progressive heritage and support for minorities and social justice in higher education.

I asked whether they were against critical thinking, and they said of course not, but the word "critical" implied a political agenda. (Of course, university programs, in public universities, could not be overtly political -- according to nearly all my colleagues, even the genuinely liberal ones.) I felt like offering a course on the educational theories of Chairman Mao, just to see what would happen! I didn't, but I found my phd students quite receptive to critical views of the educational establishment and even of basic educational assumptions in many other courses. In another university where I've taught, with colleagues a bit more to the left, the phd students were very left-critical, while the undergrads and MA students were much more conservative.

I offer these anecdotes as a reminder of the difficulty of promoting a discourse that espouses "critical" anything as a goal of education. It is not so long ago in the US that "developing patriotism" was an explicit educational goal, morphed post-Vietnam into "good citizenship", but with more or less the same meaning.

My own story is that home was a place where I was simply encouraged to think for myself, and my primary introduction to critical thinking came because my parents were of different religions and I was encouraged to sample various ones and choose for myself. At quite a young age. I decided that some were nicer than others, but none of them made much sense. I was a matter-of-fact atheist until I got as far as the eastern "religions" and realized things were a lot more complicated than what the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition sees. In any case I got to do a lot of critiquing of religious belief, which made me seem quite odd at school. I believe this was the early, developmental foundation of my critical habitus.

My high school had someone with a PhD who taught odd elective courses in sociology and the like, and was sponsor of the Philosophy Club. We actually discussed Marx in the club meetings (along with many others), and he asked us not to mention this outside the club. We were not being indoctrinated, just exposed and had some prevailing folk- discourses about communism (early 60s) corrected. And hardly anyone in the club was pro-Marx, but at least people were questioning what he actually said, rather than the myths about what communism was. I myself was not pro-Marx until a few years later.

My point in these stories is that critical and Left are far from synonymous. There are many grounds on which to critique social beliefs and social institutions. Once you get in the habit of doing so, you are, I think, more likely to wind up agreeing with a lot of Marxist analysis, at least of capitalism and the history of how we got the political economy we have and what some of its basic flaws are. But I think the fundamental outcome I would be looking for is just a widespread dissatisfaction with basic institutions and the beliefs that legitimate them. That is of course very dangerous socially and politically, and conservatives are not entirely wrong in being fearful of it. It leads quite as easily to HItler as to Lenin.

My own analysis, for what it's worth is this: it is nearly impossible to foment radical cultural change in any predictable fashion on a timescale of decades, but it is possible to marginally increase the normal rate of cultural and social-institutional change well past the point at which conservatives start screaming about "anarchy" while still having a quite functional social system. I also believe that fundamental change is not incremental, but saltatory (qualitative jumps); it's just that the jumps are not all that big. (There are, very rare, exceptions.)

So what's a small, realistic jump in the right (left?) direction for our educational goals? I, too, would like to hear narratives, either generic arguments, or personal stories, of how to move towards a goal for education of fostering critical habitus and away from one of cumulating testable knowledge.


Jay Lemke
Professor (Adjunct, 2009-2010)
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Visiting Scholar
Laboratory for Comparative Human Communication
University of California -- San Diego
La Jolla, CA
USA 92093

On Dec 17, 2009, at 10:34 PM, Larry Purss wrote:

I was making a casual comment, but your response does speak to
personal biases we all have when we talk about more
abstract theory.
I wonder how unique each of our paths are to how we start
question our assumptions. I don't think I can personally
credit my
family directly and I certainly reacted to the
meaningless of
school, quitting school in grade 10 (in the 60's).
However, I still think I credit school with learning how to
and enjoying fantasy and science fiction in elementary
school. I
would also credit living in the 60's counter culture as
I also agree that for many, school closed off exploration
stigmatized them (the whole culture of disability)
However I still
think my schooling (even in reaction to it) was formative and
me personally become literate.
My family narrative was my grandparents were coal miners
Scotland who immigrated to Canada in 1914. Therefore when I
think of
how I live today and what I value which is very different from
parents and grandparents my personal narrative credits
(and my disillusionment with schooling) as a formative part of
The question I ask is must the institutional structures
schooling be blown up and we start over, or is it
possible for
schools to evolve? I recognize either position can be
defended but
I guess I still idealistically am acting AS IF schooling can
transformed. I see schools as a reflection of the dominant
values and if we are attempting to change cultural
practises then
schools are as good a place as any other to engage in that project.
But I do agree with Jay that the people in power who make
are not thinking about learning theory. However, the
question still
is do we at least make an effort to transform schools or say
it is
an impossible task.
I wonder if my personal narrative and how I think about my
(looking back, projecting into the future, and acting in
present) colours the position I take on this debate. Since I
to act within that system I must believe it can be changed. At
I think this on good days.

----- Original Message -----
From: Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net>
Date: Thursday, December 17, 2009 8:28 pm
Subject: Re: [xmca] Obama's Learn Act and 2 challenges
Cc: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>

Larry, speaking for myself, it was more likely my parents,
both members of the CPA, but certainly not the MacCarthyite
education I got at school, who taught me to critique my own
society ... though school gave me plenty of early target
practice. And I think the point Mike, Jay and others have
made (along with Bourdieu whom I referred to) is that people
mostly learn critique at home. Alternatively, their home
becomes the first target of their normal adolescent
critique. But not school.


Larry Purss wrote:
I agree that the forces of inertia are daunting but there is
always an
alternative story.
The question I ask is if the system is so monolithic how did
all the
people engaged in CHAT learn to critique their own culture
because I'm
assuming you think that is happening on this website.
I'm making
another assumption that many or most of us went through that
system.  You might say that we are the exception to the
rule but my
answer is if we are the exception how did that happen.
To me the bigger puzzle is how people who inhabit CHAT are
changing the
world?  I will introduce another metaphor that I think
can capture the
imagination. It is how we re-establish the "commons".
A place where people with their differences gather and
interact to find
common ground.  This speaks to the book "Habits of the
Heart" which was
popular many years ago. That book saw the loss of the commons
as central
to our loss of shared purpose.
In summary, reflecting and critiquing one's own culture as an
pursuit of cognition can leave us inhabiting ivory towers but
leave the
structures in place.

I know this is common sense on this site but Andy's post
generated the


----- Original Message -----
From: Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net>
Date: Thursday, December 17, 2009 3:55 pm
Subject: Re: [xmca] Obama's Learn Act and 2 challenges
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>

When I was first exposed to the idea that formal schooling
is a machine for producing failure (via the MCA
article for
discussion) I recoiled in disbelief, but have come to accept
it as an obvious truth, despite the efforts of almost
everyone involved in the system to make it otherwise.

Still, could I throw another question at this idea? During
the 70s and 80s in Britain, there was a folk belief
that the
school system did everything it could to ensure that a kid
*never* failed. If a child, for example, was doing
poorly in
maths, they would be moved into a "stream" where the
bar was
set so low that no-one could fail. When kids come out the
other end of the system (and according to legend) their
parents believed from school reports which have shown "pass"
all the way through, that their child has successfully
"graduated" only to discover that they can't read or do
basic arithmetic, and cannot get any job they would want.

I think my interpretation of this story is that this
does go
on, and it is just another way of producing failure, proving
that it happens despite teachers' efforts. Is that right?

And Greg, I think I agree with what I took to be Jay's
vision of the kind of education we need: training in the
ability to critique one's own culture. And this is
what is
absolutely ruled out.

And Bourdieu shows how the dominant social classes deftly
move the goal posts every generation so that no amount of
educational efforts at upward mobility are widely
successful.>  >

Gregory Allan Thompson wrote:
I was intrigued by Jay's post. It seems to cut to
the core in
a very straightforward manner.

In response, I wanted to pose two challenges:

First, I wonder if there might be ways to present the
alternative to thinking of education merely in terms of
testable knowledge/skills? It seems that there are
circulating>  > > discourses that could be picked up on
(troped upon?) and which
would help to shed some light on an alternative to
this. For
example, the common cynicism of people of all political
persuasions about testable knowledge.

It would seem like an important part of this project
will be
to couch it in terms that aren't so left-ist and
exclusionary.>  > > I know this may seem like "selling-out"
to some, but in the
world of policy pragmatism, it is hard to see any
other way to
make this change happen (short of revolution - and
since I
haven't heard this word spoken on this listserve
(except with
regard to ontogenetic development) I will assume a deep
pragmatism resides here).

To give an example, I recall a story that one of my
mentors,>  > > Frank Margonis, used to tell about Dewey's
way of
characterizing testing. It went something like this:
(actually>  > > this is taken from the only place I could
find it, a 1959
School Review article - anyone have a better
description?).>  > >
"Dewey once remarked to a younger colleague in the
department>  > > of philosophy at Columbia University that
the techniques of
"intelligence" tests reminded him of the methods
used in
Vermont during his boyhood to weigh pigs. A thick
plank was
laid across a stone wall and then stones of a
predetermined>  > > weight were piled on one end until the
pig at the other end
was brought to balance."

Here is a rhetorically powerful way of criticizing
intelligence testing - but, of course, it is one
that wouldn't
carry much weight today because it is far from most folks'
experience. So, what kinds of pithy stories can we
tell today
that would point out the problems with the testable
knowledge/skills paradigm?

I don't know if this listserve is the place to share such
stories, but I just wanted to put it on people's
minds. But if
anyone has a brief narrative to share, I'd be
interested in
helping to make it "go viral" (as they say today -
or maybe
someone could make a 2 minute Youtube video?).

Oh, and I promised two challenges at the outset but I've
already mentioned the second: how do we make this
agenda not
simply a "leftist" agenda? I would think that
Dewey's notion
of "democratic education" might be useful (if only
it could be
purged of its apparent political affiliations). Or maybe
"citizenship education" (although i suspect those on
the left
would feel that this is not sufficiently
pluralistic). Would
there be a way to dovetail this with some type of Ethics
education that would appeal to those on the right
who get all
excited about "character education"?

Dewey is said to have learned from Jane Addams (in
what must
have been a somewhat "antagonistic" moment of
debate) that
antagonisms are "unreal". Addams believed that
antagonism was
always unnecessary and never arose from real objective
differences. Rather it was simply due to the
injection of the
personal attitude and reaction, thus delaying and
distorting>  > > the recognition of meaning. Dewey says
that he realized that
he had been interpreting the [Hegelian] dialectic
"wrong end
up" - he had seen the unity as the reconciliation of
opposites, instead of the opposites as the unity in its
I wonder if there might be some truth to this in all this
political bickering about what is best, educationally
speaking, for our children? (and btw, kudos to the
folks on
this listserve for avoiding simple politicizations
of the
problem, as we often see around us: "we're
right/good/intelligent and they're wrong/bad/stupid").

Whether with this administration or others, it seems like
there might be hope (!?) to move beyond the testable
knowledge>  > > view of things, and, more importantly,
beyond a view of
antagonisms between people as inherent to human
nature (wasn't
this at the heart of Marx's vision of communism?).
But my
analysis thus far is simply interpreting the world
in various
ways, as someone once said, the point is to change it.


p.s. Having read Marx in some detail this quarter, I
wanted to
add a critique of "pscyhologism" ("individualism" in the
translation of Marx that we read) to Jay's critique
of the
dominant view of education, but I fear that it will take
nothing short of a Revolution to allow us to see
ourselves as
anything but self-determining psychological
individuals (or
rather, psychological realizations of our genetic
individuality). But in the event that anyone has any pithy
narratives that capture the absurdity of this rather
hegemonic>  > > belief, please do share. I've got a career
ahead of me in
which I hope to develop this critique, but there is
no time
like the present for developing such a database of
narratives.>  > >
Message: 7
Date: Wed, 16 Dec 2009 17:37:58 -0800
From: Jay Lemke <jaylemke@umich.edu>
Subject: Re: [xmca] Obama's Learn Act
To: lchcmike@gmail.com, "eXtended Mind, Culture,
Activity">  > >>  <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
Message-ID: <C1BF12E2-5893-4BB5-AE8C-
3D721BF8D958@umich.edu>>  > >> Content-Type: text/plain;
charset=US-ASCII; format=flowed;
Let me sound a slightly skeptical note, though with the
admiration for the efforts of Kris and other
sophisticated>  > > educators
to influence policy in Washington. Maybe some of
these points
may also
be informative for the non-US xmca-ers.

I don't really think that US educational policy is about
learning. It
is a branch of SOCIAL policy. It is, for
politicians and many
about equity, justice, moral values, quality of the labor
Conservatives by and large won the battle from the
over the
definition of educational quality: it means
knowledge and
skills, as
assessed by simple, mass-administered tests. They
succeeded>  > > because
what they proposed was very close to common folk-wisdom
schooling. They proposed what they did to prevent
education>  > > from
becoming about learning how to critique and change
the status
Within the framework they established, the liberal left
looked to see
how they (we?) could still use education as an tool for
justice. The answer basically, from Head Start to
NCLB (the
policy) was to try to insure that children from
poor families
enough extra programs to help them compete with
kids in
the world of testable knowledge/skills. I think
that is the
that Obama is still on. It seems likely to me that his
experience would be telling him that kids in under-
communities go to school relatively unprepared for its
demands, and so
pre-school programs should be targeted to diagnostically
needs relative to predictable school demands. That
how the
language of
the proposed bill sounds to me.

Politicians, senators, and even higher level staff people
don't know much about learning theory and don't
have the time
learn. If it is theory or models that use
unfamiliar ideas,
all the
less likely to be able to persuade or communicate.
evidence for early social learning or artifact-hybridity
development may as well be discourse from Mars in their
National political policy I think cannot be realistically
expected to
embody advanced learning theories. That discourse
should have
practical effects far more locally, in terms of
what teachers
taught about good practice in schools, and maybe
what others
who are
trying to innovate new approaches to education that
go beyond
classroom-only paradigm take into account.

Apart from trying to avoid overly narrow language (and
importantly, administrative interpretation of
language) about
kinds of programs can get federal funding, I think
the core
issues at
the national policy level ought to be more about
goals. Equal
opportunity in practice is a widely shared goal;
the means to
it are
much debated. What is less addressed, I think, is whether
and skills acquisition should be in itself the primary
goal. So long as that conservative principle is
maintained,>  > > social
equity goals will lead to bad educational practice
for all,
especially for those most in need.

Reading, for example, is NOT "fundamental". It is a
diversion>  > > from
serious educational thinking. (R.I.F. was a slogan long
supported by
the right, though not only by them.) Reading is a
tool, to be
and used as part of larger inquiries and activities with
goals that
mean something to the learners. Those could be play
goals, or
empowerment goals, or altruistic goals. So long as what
schools will
demand of kids on arrival is that they be prepared to
decontextualized de-coding skills (i.e. "reading"),
and do
well on
tests of these that are even more isolated from
anything with
meaning, then all pre-school preparation programs
will be
targeted at
preparing students for mindlessness. And social
equity and
justice agendas in social policy will support this.

It's not about the means. It's about the goals.


Jay Lemke
Professor (Adjunct, 2009-2010)
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Visiting Scholar
Laboratory for Comparative Human Communication
University of California -- San Diego
La Jolla, CA
USA 92093

Greg Thompson
Ph.D. Candidate
The Department of Comparative Human Development
The University of Chicago
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