02 December 2009

On insisting on belief

Uncannily, this links to the previous post.

It appears that there is a resurgence of Political Correctness on some US campuses, and the linked article is getting hot under the collar about curriculum changes at the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development.

A campaigning group called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education claims;
"If the Race, Culture, Class, and Gender Task Group achieves its stated goals, the result will be political and ideological screening of applicants, remedial re-education for those with the 'wrong' views and values, [and] withholding of degrees from those upon whom the university's political re-education efforts proved ineffective."
My reading of the University's web presence is that the above is a gross over-statement, but I don't want to get into that fray.

There's another take on the story here.

Instead, I do want to engage with the very fraught question, in some professional education programmes, of the assessment of student values.
  • these are often represented by beliefs --in the sense of assent to propositions--as just-about-assessable proxies for underlying value-commitments. 
(I'm currently reading Armstrong, 2009; one of her major arguments is the distinction between two senses of "belief", which I had hitherto believed originated with Buber but she shows has a much more venerable provenance, between pistis [crudely "commitment"] and emunah ["assent"]. She argues that the ascendancy of the latter sense is an Enlightenment phenomenon.)

Values are at the lowest level commitments to tolerating some inconvenience or hassle to act in a certain way. By extension, lack of preparedness to tolerate the hassle suggests that an opposing value may be inferred. (This framework I concede is very simplistic, but stick with me.)

Action is the gold standard by which values may be assessed. "Espousal" (Argyris and Schon, 1978) is not enough. But action demands an opportunity to act, and happily --and appropriately-- most practice opportunities in professional education programmes do not expose students to those demands.

So we are forced back on proxies; simulations and case-studies. These suffer from problems at both ends of the explicit-implicit spectrum.
  • Practitioners tend to favour explicit scenarios. "What would you do if...?"
    • Of course, this signals fairly clearly what you are supposed to do, which is usually not a matter of exposing one's values so much as one's familiarity with institutional procedures (when in doubt, ask the boss).

  • Teachers favour more subtle cases where there is an ethical/professional problem lurking in a seemingly innocuous case. (Confession: I really enjoy devising these.) But the convolutions of building the scenario may be so byzantine that we lose touch with reality.

    • [I once built a fantastic scenario around an obsessed persecuting ex-partner to pose questions --OK, legal rather than ethical-- for a class, only to be demolished by a participant who pointed out that the legal dispute was a civil rather than criminal matter and so all the subsequent argument was moot...  At last I may have found a way to recover some worth from those moments of utter humiliation.] 
Several years ago, one of our external examiners (for the social work course on which I then taught) observed in the meeting of the examination board that although it was clear that the students had been taught "anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practice" on the course, they did not make any use of their learning in their assessed work. [He had a vested interest, incidentally, having at the time recently written a book on the subject... I'm sure that this had nothing to do with his remarks.]

Indeed they didn't. Frankly they had more sense. They saw through the whole charade, as an exercise in compliance by their pusillanimous tutors. They had indeed learned from all the teaching, but they had learned simply how to play the game and profess assent to the hegemonic creed. They knew very well, in short, that what you say and what you do are quite different things. As does every grown-up person.

Yes, the values you practise are utterly critical to your work. But the last thing you want is to train people to be hypocrites. I have major reservations about the Minnesota programme, but as befits this blog they are principally about its educational assumptions rather than its political aspirations.

Oh, and if you are not craft-competent as a teacher, everything else goes out of the window.

But the argument has drifted a little, from the principle to the practice.
  • I'm training Anglican ordinands (hypothetically). It is (or used to be; I don't claim to be up to date on this) part of the contract that in order to be ordained they had to profess assent to the 39 articles of faith of that church. The requirement is notoriously much fudged, but it is clear and up-front and, critically, relevant. Presumably, if you don't want to sign up, you don't want the role...

  • I'm equally hypothetically selecting a candidate for a political party. They will have to be seen to espouse the part manifesto if the party is to endorse them; but it is as much the party's choice as theirs... And do they have to believe/accept the manifesto? Or just keep their reservations to themselves?

  • I'm training and of course assessing student social workers (not entirely hypothetical--I did actually do that for a couple of decades. See the point above about the external examiner's remarks.) It clearly matters what they do, but what they believe...? The PC argument is that "going through the motions in compliance with departmental requirements" is not enough. Only the practitioner who has taken to heart the transformational insights of anti-racism (see here) can proactively detect institutional discrimination before the formal procedures pick it up (let's leave aside the unfortunate side-issue that unwillingness to confront the cultural practices of minority groups has almost certainly lead to the deaths of a number of children and the suffering of many more--not to mention vulnerable adults...).
I can see the point of the Minnesota initiative. Indeed, some of the material which informed this paper was clearly coming from a similar base. But is it legitimate?

1 comment:

  1. South Park covered this issue rather more floridly in "The Death Camp of Tolerance" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Death_Camp_of_Tolerance


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