A Ku Indeed!

Local Knowledge, Effective Teaching

Posted in Academia, Course Material, Pedagogy by Chris on December 20, 2008

Reading Daniel Bell’s book it has struck me that his points about East-West human rights dialogue can be generalized to other areas of one’s life where successful communication between parties is required. The most immediate connection that came to my mind while reading was the teacher-student relationship – how should we, as teachers, approach our students with the lessons that we have prepared for them to learn?

One of Bell’s major “take home points” is that values are locally grown. As a result, when human rights advocates come into a local situation wielding their normative beliefs and standards and apply them judgmentally to a given foreign local context, they fail in both of their aims, which are: (a) to convert the local population to belief in their standards and (b) to bring the practices there in line with what those standards would demand.

Bell’s point is that (a) is doomed because values are local – it makes little sense to simply come onto the scene and inform people of what their values should be. This is not how value-commitments originate. Instead, they are naturally connected with historical and cultural narratives intrinsic to those local communities, and as such cannot be divorced from them. His claim to (b) is similar, but here he is claiming that psychological commitment to a value system is generated from local concerns and historical and cultural narratives. Thus, not only is it the case that the actual status of value commitments (whether they are authentic or not) is a function of their local emergence, but it is also the case that psychological motivation to orient oneself in accord with this practice or that one can be a function of how well one is capable of “fitting it in” with one’s cultural narrative (that one is immersed in as a member of that local community).

This makes me think of teaching immediately, and how difficult it is. Especially for someone who, like me, teaches ethics regularly. The central problem is this: how do you get students to actually think about these values and norms in a serious way? How do you get them to rethink their own lives? How do you get them to make decisive commitments to be better people?

I know some instructors who try the “attack” methodology. When presented with some practice or behavior that the instructor finds unsavory (and that students participate in), the instructor asks for “arguments” for this view. When presented with them, the teacher demolishes them (sometimes using the arguments of the authors being read in class), and afterward looks out on the room wondering if anyone is willing to still commit to the kind of life he/she just showed to be logically flawed. I mean – who would want to “out” themselves as living a logically inconsistent life, right?

Though I am a philosopher, and I obviously love and appreciate arguments, it has struck me more and more over the years that very few people I know are committed to their moral claims and views because they, over time, seemed to stand up the best against counter argumentation. Very few people assemble premises and say “aha! – practice X follows from this! I commit to X now!” If anything, we start with conclusions first, and then only later (perhaps after being prodded to do so by some pinhead philosophy professor) assemble “arguments” to be trotted out when required. As a result, it is not surprising that when these arguments are demolished, the commitment to the values and norms remains, much to the frustration of philosophy professors everywhere.

This strikes me as somewhat related to what Bell is saying. Students, like anyone else, generate value commitments from their own local environments. There is a “narrative” for that student that tells him/her who she is, and how her life is put together in an orderly sensible way. That narrative hooks up, in some cases, with a larger cultural narrative about what it means to be a self, what it means to live a meaningful life, and so on. It is somewhat futile to try and convince a student that the selfishness that starts with him or herself as an “independent atomic entity” is wrongheaded when this is, after all, the narrative through which they understand themselves and the world.

Instead, if Bell is right, we need to be able to understand our students much better. We need to see the worlds in which they are immersed. We need to dig into the narratives (even the sub-generational ones) that are deeply interwoven into their senses of selfhood. Only from there can we hope to get students to see how the new value systems we are presenting to them matter or are important. But this will require “local knowledge” – we’ll have to use both the local realities of the student’s life, coupled together with a way of connecting up what the authors say to the narratives through which they understand themselves. Only in this way can we hope to be effective at all.

Thinking in terms of my Existentialism post, and also my post on local knowledge, I wonder: how many of us teachers are really just “dabblers” who are “playing at being serious” at the task of teaching? We have a lot of “knowledge to impart” to the natives, of course. We’ve collected our degrees that inform us that we are specialists in “the gossip” or “idle talk” of the philosophical community.

I have no doubt that I am guilty. I find myself at times having no desire to immerse myself into the worlds of my students. I don’t want to take those sorts of risks with my time and efforts. Perhaps part of it is a desire not to take the risk of exposing myself to other value systems. After all, at 42, you start to get a bit comfortable with your own. Perhaps part of it is arrogance. I think my own commitments are true; they don’t need to be hooked up with “local values” in order to be effective. Like the philosophy teacher who tries to convince through logical argumentation, I think they are a priori convincing.

In these senses, perhaps ineffective teaching can be like the situation of the ineffective human rights theorist that Bell talks about. Perhaps we as teachers, like the human rights theorist, need to be more open to what we can learn from other cultures, or our students in this case.

But what investment this requires! Who is up to this task?


2 Responses

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  1. Phil Hand said, on December 20, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    Wow, you’re an ambitious teacher!
    “how do you get students to actually think about these values and norms in a serious way? How do you get them to rethink their own lives? How do you get them to make decisive commitments to be better people?”
    I have to say, at the university level, I’d be pretty dubious about whether one even *should* be doing these things, let along how one might go about them. While teachers of children probably do have a responsibility to guide the development of their charges, when you’re teaching someone over the age of 18, I feel that you should probably be pretty hands-off. University is a place where students can be exposed to an awful lot of knowledge and ideas; and it’s a place where they can mature through their interactions with other students and scholars; but I don’t think that lecturers should be “getting” students to make commitments.

    Which is not to say the problem doesn’t exist. I’ve taught English at university level here, and I certainly did want to “get” the students to reassess their learning methods. But I would argue that I was working within the framework of goals already recognised and accepted by the students: they wanted to speak better English and to pass their exams. I suggested that the methods they had chosen to achieve those goals were not optimal, and offered advice on how to improve them – and the extent to which my advice was (a) correct and (b) taken up reflects how good a teacher I was. In achieving (b) – getting students to accept my recommendations – the issue of “where they’re at” is definitely important.

    But hang on… As well as recommending methodologies, actually, maybe I did try to change their goals as well. Because I often tried to suggest that English competence is rather different to what they imagined (that fluency and being idiomatic are as important as/more important than having a wide vocabulary). So would that count as trying to get them to make a commitment to something they weren’t originally committed to?

    And would this language learning example be comparable to ethics, which feels like a much deeper part of oneself than foreign language ability?

    Clearly this is more complex than I thought 2 minutes ago when I started writing. But my initial reaction remains: I’m a bit taken aback at the idea that teaching ethics involves an attempt to change students’ ethical values. Their beliefs and understanding, perhaps; but not directly their values.

  2. Chris said, on December 22, 2008 at 7:26 am

    Hi Phil,

    I should correct a false impression, if I’ve given one off! I’m actually very much a foe of “advocacy teaching”, if this is taken to mean convincing students that this or that particular value is the one to live by.

    I am an advocacy teacher in another respect, though. I try very strenuously to get students to recognize the value (ah, there it is) in taking ethics, or reflection about ethics, seriously.

    One way to do this is to get them to appreciate the beauty of the different perspectives we read throughout the semester. The Tao Te Ching, The Metaphysics of Morals, Utilitarianism, what-have-you, it doesn’t matter.

    In light of my complaints above, my concern is really this: how do we get students to take these arguments seriously? The only way to have them truly engage with these different minds and thinkers is to seriously entertain what these folks say. One way is to beat on them the persuasive nature of their arguments. Another would be to “connect up” what they say to some pre-philosophical intuitions they already have about their own identities and place in the world (via some connection to a larger historical and cultural narrative they participate in). I think the “hammer them with arguments” approach is a waste of time, if this is your goal.

    And in the end, it seems to me that this is somewhat the point Bell is making about the human rights dialogue and his conception of “local knowledge.”

    In any case, at the end of the day, if I am trying to “change their ethical values” as an advocacy teacher, it is only in the sense that I find it imperative that they take the ethical life more seriously. Past that, I have no doctrine to impart.

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