Praise Hell – Rewarding Disobedience

Posted: March 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

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  1. Joseph Blanton says:

    I have two questions after reading about this rather interesting award. The first concerns some anecdotal evidence from some of my friends in the Honors college about how going against the grain is discouraged. I’m not going to name classes, but sometimes when Honors teachers have given the task to, “write this paper in an original or different way” they give the paper back with, “well, I didn’t mean different in that sense.” It seems a fundamental aspect of asking for originality is not having preconceived notions about what that will look like. How can we obtain LEAP outcomes in Honors if “Critical and creative thinking” is stifled beneath a rubric already written? How can we take risks if those asking us do not reward it when we do it? (In some cases, I make no claim this is pervasive.)

    The second concerns Brecht and his radio. Is this “leaning toward order [that] stifles productive change” the same as Brecht’s claim we have “inconsequential literature [and] educational institutions”? It seems like Brecht is getting at that there are some institutions that benefit from the status quo being preserved, but that maintaining it is detrimental to the advance of society and culture itself.

    • The answer to your question is simple, though perhaps not satisfying. I don’t know the precise way to strike a balance between expected learning outcomes and unexpected discoveries. Therefore, it’s quite reasonable for me to imagine that the class you leave unnamed is my own, a possibility which does not bother me. My course offers no perfect results or solutions, because it is in as state of constant development. Nobody ever gave me a book telling me how to teach. And even had someone done as much, I can’t imagine I would have agreed with all or any of it. The point is that the teacher is, or should be learning as much in class as the students. That said, I have tried my best to use simple expository form to give students a guiding and reassuring structure within which write, while at the same time allowing them enough latitude of content to say something surprising and disruptive – though, as MIT suggests, this should be done in a socially conscious way. If MIT is offering such a reward, it’s most likely at least in part in response to write books and articles by William Deresiewicz, all claiming the elite schools, and not typical state schools, are all conditioning students to become “excellent sheep,” ready and eager to follow instructions that will hasten their migration to Wall Street.

      The point of Deresiewiecz’s argument is not that students should become knee-jerk anarchists, but rather than need to slow down the pace of their education, so as to be able to reflect and get an education at all. This would require putting in serious time with literature, art, and other disciplines within the humanities – none of which students are administrators seem to value anymore. In opposition to these trend toward specialization, streamlining, and supporting only marketable research, MIT has long permitted and even encouraged ‘hacking’ – student pranks the likes of which our school would scarcely tolerate. Because ingenious pranks – such as furtively constructing a fire truck atop the school’s administration building – require a level of creativity and coordinated planning of a sort that can never be taught in a conventional classroom.

      https://www.wired.com/2013/03/mit-hacks/

      To return to your initial question though, I can, again, offer no definitive answers. All I can saw is the disobedience may well be a form of what Kant called ‘aesthetic judgement’ – the ability to make moral choices in the absence of an airtight theory or a preponderance of evidence. While this can never be methodically taught – and Kant is fully award of this – it can nevertheless be cultivated. And I’ve tried to use my classes, in particular my IT8 class, as an occasion for students to experiment in creative ways. I’m not perfect at what I do, as is true of everyone. But I might a sincere effort provide an example of risk taking, if only in the manner in which I teach. I hope I have been able to teach students something along these lines.

      • Joseph Blanton says:

        Oh no! Perhaps a disclaimer was in order: I was referring to my friend’s comments from past IT courses only. I haven’t finished your class, so I would reserve judgement until the end, but I feel the assignment expectations are being laid out explicitly so far. This is not the arena to lay out passive aggressive feedback.

        The explanation is appreciated regardless.

    • To reply to your second question, Brecht, an unapologetic Marxist, is interested in the critique and fundamental transformation of the liberal institutions of his day. He seem most of the innovations introduced to theater – just one moderns liberal institutions – as mere gimmicks, ways of keeping theater barely alive; or, as Fried would put it, “prolonging its agony.” The point, for Brecht is to radicalize theater to such an extent that it becomes something entirely new, as an form of entertainment, but also as an instrument for radical social change. In addition to the theater, the schools are similarly treading water at best, struggling to find new incidental ways to stay afloat and their energies become depleted, but without creating anything that would actually teaching students something other than complacency and conformism. For this reason, Brecht argues that the theater and school should be merged, such that entertainment become instructive and critical, while education meanwhile becomes playful and invigorating.

      There’s much more to say about this. But it boils down, again, to Brecht’s determination not to reproduce a society of excellent sheep. We’ll continue this conversation in the classroom.

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