What does it mean to think of comparative education beyond the human? Is our field based on assumptions of individual autonomy and Western Enlightenment thinking that sees time as linear and progress as possible? Does a “posthuman future” hold new possibilities for our research? And can our field live with such dissonance?
Earlier this month, the Post Foundational Approaches to Comparative and International Education Special Interest Group of the Comparative and International Education Society organized a webinar entitled “Exploring education beyond the human” to think through some of these questions.
In this special addition of FreshEd, I’m going to replay our conversation because I think the ideas discussed push our field in new and important directions.
Citation: Zhao, Weili, Carney, Stephen & Silova, Iveta, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 178, podcast audio, October 28, 2019. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/beyondhuman/
Transcript, Translation, and Resources:
Will Brehm 1:21
Welcome Weili, Iveta, and Steve to the webinar and to FreshEd. So, to start, I want to sort of give a little bit of context before we jump into this conversation on education beyond the human. We’re speaking at a moment where the world is riven by student led climate strikes. Greta Thunberg is perhaps the most well-known and household name. And in a way, these movements nicely capture the CIES 2020 theme: To Think Beyond the Human. At the same time, many of the themes being raised within this rubric are not exactly new within scholarship, whether we’re talking about ecological thinking, climate science, social and economic precarity, the limits of capitalist resource exploitation, a Western centric modernity, and so on. So, this tension between the old and what is new in trying to think about and rethink education, and specifically comparative education, is what I hope we can spend some time doing within this conversation. So, I’d like to start with Iveta: Education beyond the human can be read in a variety of ways. How do you approach it?
Iveta Silova 2:37
Thanks so much, Will, for having us on FreshEd, and for the first question. There are definitely so many different ways to approach the question of education beyond the human. And as you already see from the title of the conference itself, it’s not the education post human. We very deliberately chose the term “beyond” to signal the much-needed relationality of humans and more than human worlds around us as well. So, this is one of the, maybe, main angles that I’m approaching it from. This discussion of education beyond the human also very deliberately is positioned within the current climate crisis discussions and experiences that we all have. Because undeniably, the climate crisis situation that we are in is a result of many centuries of human centered developments that we all contributed to. Especially higher education institutions, in addition to many other institutions as well. But for centuries now, we have been producing theories that position the human at the center of everything else, and especially more recently, with also theories of economic growth and other Western philosophical ideas of human exceptionalism really led to this very precarious position that we are in right now. So, as you said, there are very many ways to approach it. And I personally approach it from this idea of “more than human” world that we have to reposition ourselves in, in a more relational way to other species and other beings, whether they are living or non-living beings on Earth. And hopefully to engage with the world in many different ways. Also experiment with thought in more radical ways than we have experimented so far, especially in the area of education. And of course, there are lots of technical solutions that we can think about and also link to this theme, but the idea with framing the discussion in terms of “beyond the human” is to open multiple ways to approach the discussion. And also, multiple ways to approach the plural worlds that we are all parts of. And for me, these are the worlds of the nature, seasons, and spirits of the ecosystems and environments, of cyborgs and of goddesses, of artificial intelligence, and of the ancestors. So, a wide variety of entry points into the conversation. So I guess the idea was to open up the conversation to the ideas that have existed already for a long time, but maybe have been neglected, but also open the space for some radical thought experiments that we can also play with.
Will Brehm 5:48
So Weili, would you agree with Iveta that we need to be talking about “beyond the human” rather than the idea of “post human”?
Weili Zhao 5:57
Yes, I think so. To me the, the term “post” indicates a linear time, like pre, post, past, present, future. But “beyond the human” is a more comprehensive word to me. So, I do cultural foundations of education, mostly looking at some Chinese, Asian wisdom, like Confucianism and Taoism. So, to me, what does human mean? For example, from the Confucian perspective, maybe human being is made relationally instead of foundational individualistic center of being. And then from the Taoist point of view, it looks at the human/non-human world more relationally, more aesthetically, probably. Yes, so I totally agree that “more than the human” is better word than post or pre.
Will Brehm 6:57
And Steve, would you see anything different here from Weili or Iveta?
Stephen Carney 7:02
I wouldn’t say different. I think Iveta gave a good overview of why we can’t keep in this paradigm of consciousness where the human is in the center. I can certainly see there are a number of ways to get beyond that if we’re to deal not only with the current crisis, an environmental crisis, but also the challenge we have in coming further with concepts. I was happy to start the discussion around the notion of post human. That was, I think, part of the terms we were given. But I think Weili is right as well, that that has a linear connotation. And that traps us, in some sense, in working with the human. But I think that’s a problem we all have anyway, because we’re trying to come beyond human-centered scholarship, but nevertheless, the ultimate aim of that scholarship is to improve human life. I think that’s the challenge of climate change now: that we’ve created this problem, and we have to get out of it ourselves. And so, we’ve got to somehow work with, in some sense, traditional human problems. The next stage of modernity will be the first one where those in the most disadvantaged situations will be the first to experience what comes from the current age of modernity. Most of us listening to this program will be able to protect ourselves from the worst impact of what’s coming. And usually modernity, the fruits of that, comes to the middle class or to the wealthy, or those with connections and whatever. And we’re in a situation now where the next stage of humanity will be much more uneven in ways that we can’t easily address through social policies. So, we’ve got to get beyond thinking about our science in terms of humans, but it’s still going to always be for humans. And that’s something that I struggle with, in thinking how we actually do a science that’s for the planet, but where humans are still going to be a major part of our thinking.
Will Brehm 9:19
It seems like what we’re talking about, in many ways, is really rethinking a lot of our field’s foundational assumptions. And Weili, you brought up looking at the field using sort of non-Western modes of thinking or traditions, and you brought up Confucianism and Taoism. And I want to sort of explore a little bit more what that actually looks like. You mentioned linear time and changing the focus on the modern notion of linear time, but are there other elements to non-Western thinking beyond the human that we should be considering in our scholarship, in our foundational assumptions of comparative education?
Weili Zhao 10:01
To me, I like what Will mentioned about this dilemma: that we try to get rid of the human centeredness. We have no other choice but to come back to the human world. That makes me thinking about a distinction I’m struggling with between this human centeredness, put as the anthropocentrism and the word of “human agency”. There’s a senior sinologist, Roger Ames, and he and his colleagues have been doing work on Confucian, reinterpreting Confucian work, hopefully as what it is. So, they said when they try to translate the intellect into English, and they found many many places were talking about, “What does it mean to be a human?” And then they found none of the places really speak direct to the Western idealistic, the essential notion of human being. Instead of using the common concepts like virtue, or moral education, or individualistic human beings, instead they proposed a new term: “Confucian role ethics” to rethink human beings as being relational, as being made through playing relational different roles in various settings.
Will Brehm 11:32
And Iveta, I want to bring you into this conversation. How would you approach rethinking some of these foundational assumptions in our field?
Iveta Silova 11:43
That’s a really good question. And actually, I have been rethinking a lot of my own work in the recent years as well. Actually even going back to the very first article I published as a graduate student in 1996, which was on textbooks in Soviet Latvia, and also looking at these textbooks in the context of transition from the Soviet to the post-Soviet, and kind of looking at how some of the main ideas of the human, of the time and space, have changed during that process. But since then, I also have added some of the pre-Soviet textbooks, to look maybe more comprehensively and broadly at these textbooks. And I’m not sure if it was because I brought a sample to this research, or probably because I myself have changed quite a bit over the years too, but suddenly I have noticed so many more things that I have never noticed before. So just to go back to some of the previous comments as well: So for example, along alongside the linear times that children learn in early literacy textbooks, they also learn, in the Latvian context, even during the Soviet times, and in the post-Soviet times, they also learn the circular time. And they learn how life revolves around the different stages of the sun and the moon, and how it revolves around the different nature seasons. Or you know that there is a very very deep rootedness that is also taught at the same time as the ideas of modernization and urbanization are taught to children. And then ultimately, which I think also was surprising to me, and maybe because it also was such a very close part of my growing up in Latvia that I maybe did not even notice it immediately in textbooks when I was doing analysis of these textbooks as a academic, as a comparative education scholar. So, I also noticed, looking at them more recently, that these textbooks are also teaching children to how to communicate with stones, with flowers, how to listen to them, basically how children, or humans more broadly, are no different at all than the stones that they pass by on a daily basis. And so, to me, it was really interesting just to observe my own kind of transformation. Because when I started doing research at Teachers College at Columbia, I obviously was trained very specifically to look at particular things and not notice other things. And I think once you shift your gaze – but I think it’s not only the gaze that your shift, I think it’s also when you move yourself in a different way – you just see that there are so many other worlds around. And we, in comparative education, only write about one world -the Western modern world and the schooling that is so central to it. But I think if we only kind of shift ourselves and the way we look at the world, I think we can notice so much more. And that’s really fascinating to me.
Will Brehm 15:18
It is quite interesting, this idea that these multiple worlds exist, it’s just we’re not able to see them because of our own particular training, or upbringing, or socialization, or whatever it is. And all three of you mentioned this idea of relationality, trying to bring relationality back into some of our methods and epistemologies of our own research in the field of comparative education. But I want to sort of also think historically here, because this idea of relationality has been for quite some time, a topic of discussion in the field of comparative education. So, Steve, how should we be thinking about relationality? And what is the value of looking back it history of other scholars of comparative education that have also talked about such a concept before?
Stephen Carney 16:07
Before looking backwards, I guess it’s good to have an object in mind. I agree with Iveta, that comparative education in particular, has always had a one world approach. Even when it wasn’t trying to export a particular educational method and research approach, and then policies, it was nevertheless seeing the world through a common lens. And then differences were always able to be measured or assessed based on like an epistemological zero point. So that’s in the DNA of comparative education, which is a big problem. But if we’re talking about where we’re at now, and the changes that are coming in scholarship, I guess it would be helpful to try and take some bearings there and agree where we’re going. So of course, there’s a climate crisis. People are responding to that in different ways in curriculum, and with advocacy, and then taking the broader approach that Iveta talks about in scholarship; there’s a lot of different responses there. But, I guess, from my perspective, I guess, I started my academic work in comparative education doing critical ethnography, so some sort of very light, Frankfurt School critique, but often leveled against the development industry, but also elitism in host countries. And then I moved into Foucault, and I didn’t really immerse myself in that, and then I sort of left, and I’ve gone into something that’s probably much more postmodern, in a way. But one of the things I notice now, reading the journals – especially when environment is not necessarily the aim of the article, but is a subtext – is much of the work on new materialism is one of the growing areas that’s undoubtedly going to become important in comparative education because it’s now a major strand in educational studies. So, a lot of those new materialist scholars do fantastic work exactly along the lines Iveta was talking about: about seeing things that were always right in front of our eyes, but because of various processes, I guess like abyssal thinking. De Sousa Santos would say they were excluded for now … You only see a stone if you could use a stone, you wouldn’t see it for the thing in itself, but for what it could be in terms of exchange value. We’ve always been in the world where everything is available, but we’re just like de Sousa Santos says about world knowledges: we live in the West, with maybe five or 10% of the world’s knowledge accessible to us. Most of the understanding of the world is invisible to people in the West. And I think that’s been the problem in comparative education: that we’ve been able to see the world, but only on certain terms. So, I think New Materialism is one important reference point for a lot of this discussion, because it builds on the past, I think, in many productive ways, but there’s also a healthy critique there for how we come further. And I think many new materialists came out of Marxism and then transitioned into Foucauldian governmentality theory, and that many of them have told me, and some have written about, how it just no longer provided the vocabulary they needed. Bronwyn Davis was one who said, “Post-structuralism just doesn’t carry the concepts anymore. I can’t use the concepts for what’s coming in the future.” Others, I think Betty St. Pierre has said that post-structuralism has come to the end because it was so deeply mired in humanism. Even though it was trying to decenter the subject, it’s just trapped in humanism and there’s just not concepts for it to come further. So now we’re at a stage, I think, with something like new materialism. It goes back to what I started with: it’s a tricky area, because you’re trying to do justice to the world as it is. But of course, it’s always received through the thinking and writing subject. And that’s a challenge, I think. We know that from both Eastern religion and, undoubtedly, from a lot of indigenous belief systems, that to put words on things reduces them to something much less than their essence. And we’re in the business of writing words, you know. We’ve got a real challenge, because we have to end up using this really inadequate science system to explain the richness and complexity of the world. But having said that, it’s a long way to introduce the notion that many of these things have been there, at least in the Western tradition, without going into a lot of detail. We all sort of know it comes back in some Southern theory writing that Spinoza’s idea of one world, as “monism” is something that never really was enabled to flourish in Western philosophy. Descartes’ idea of the “thinking subject” became much more of a dominant way of thinking. And the idea that reason could conquer is something that we still live with I think all through the sciences, including comparative education. But this idea of unknowability and otherness and difference, that’s been there. That was there in Kant’s philosophy. It was there in Hegel, even though he had this notion of a system that would lead through dialectic reasoning to absolute consciousness, where you could understand everything. You could negate everything. He said that because we needed to do that through human consciousness, there would always be things that we could never grasp. And we knew that in romantic philosophy, that men – human beings – were in the world, but they could never realize themselves without nature. Of course, that was still a project about men at the center, but it was already acknowledgement then that there were forces much bigger than reason that would help us become, not knowledgeable, but to become aware. And of course, that went through to Nietzsche, which is the starting point for a lot of our contemporary ideas, even though we may not realize it anymore. Nietzsche’s ideas of perspectivism, the challenge to metaphysics, the challenge to idealism, and then to ethics, morality, where the subject always drifts back into the center, and the world is seen through not only consciousness, but morality. We know that these things have been traps in Western science for 300 years. And I think new materialism does its best now to be aware of this trap: that it’s the thinking subject that needs to express the unstatable, the impossibility of knowing. So, you could use new materialism – which to me, it sounds like a harsh critique – but most new materialist work I read is centered in Deleuze only. And of course, Deleuze was building on Nietzsche who was building on those critiques of Kant and Hegel, you know those things get lost. So, it often sounds like Deleuze was the original thinker who was taking us beyond the human. And I think those things were there, at least in the Western intellectual tradition, from Kant. And so one of the things I’m trying to do now, in a book, that’s trying to retheorize and consider new methods in comparative education, is to go back to some of those historical debates, if you can call them that, about what can man know. What are the limits to our knowledge? And what is there beyond the knowable? Because I think that’s the starting point for new materialism: what can we know beyond the things we’ve ever looked at before?
Will Brehm 23:51
So Weili, is what Steve saying about the value of new materialism something that you would use in your own scholarship, or in your own thinking, when you consider ideas of beyond the human?
Weili Zhao 24:07
I find the idea on the limitation of the vocabulary fascinating. To me, I would usually put it as the issue of language, and not just the language, and also the English grammar. Or maybe not just English grammar, but Western language systems, the grammar. My work draws upon Heidegger’s thinking, Foucault’s thinking, a lot. For example, this representation issue. What is the most often critiqued in new materialism? And to me, representation is not reducible to metaphysics, to language only, but inevitably linked to the issue of language. So currently, I’m working on a paper that draws upon Susan Handelman’s work, ‘The Slayers of Moses’. She traces back these theological roots of representational thinking through the Greco-Christian principle of “seeing”, which is grounded modes of representation. That behind the Greek drive to see through image. So that’s to me, fascinating, and she explicates that preserve of seeing in comparison with Rabbinic modes of hearing. What I’m doing now is relate these two to the Chinese I Ching, the mode of observing. So, observing, it’s not just a psychological notion that presumes a subject to see something as an object. Rather, it tells a different story, a different onto-epistemology, that is based upon the Chinese, the Asian Chinese correlative cosmology, things like that. So, I really like the idea, the limitation of the vocabulary, not just the vocabulary, but language, or the Western metaphysics. And another thing: I think being relational, to me, depends upon how you think about relation, the concept of relation. And Heidegger, in a nice piece of identity and difference, I think he mentions there are two ways of relating relation as a relation. So, between, for example, things A and B. So, usually, people start with presuming this A and B as separate essentialist things. And then you connect them together, basically by asking: What is the essential identities of A or B? But Heidegger says there’s another way of thinking about relation as the belonging together, not putting the emphasis on the togetherness, but instead on the word “belonging”. In that case, that disrupts this “ontic” viewpoints of A and B that relate them into a dynamic movement in between, which is relation per se. So, I really like these ideas, fascinating and inspiring to me.
Will Brehm 27:21
So, Iveta, I want to bring you into this conversation, because what Weili is sort of beginning to talk about is really a new way of understanding the idea of comparison, which is the field that links us all together. How do some of these critiques of the human, of the subject, of decentering the subject of relationality, of new materialism that we’ve been talking about – how does this impact the very methodological discussion of comparison?
Iveta Silova 27:51
That’s a great question. I’ve been reading a lot of work by Isabelle Stengers, and just very recently have read one article that is exactly on comparison and how we can rethink comparison in this context of the ideas we are discussing right now, in modern human worlds. So, she makes this really interesting claim that true comparison cannot be done one way; it has to be multidirectional and involve, on equal basis, all of the beings that are involved in the comparison. And it has to be done “full force and with no foul play”. And by foul play, she basically means that one person or being cannot impose his or her theoretical framing to interpret or analyze the other; that it always has to be a two-directional, or multidirectional comparison. And so, to me, such comparison is built on a very deep relationality as well. It also captures these ideas that we are never alone, that we are always becoming with the others. And so here the work – I think also Stengers’ works connect really nicely with Donna Harraway’s work, right. So, the comparison is not done by an individual person that was in a particular framework, but already, from the very beginning, is framed as a process of becoming with. So, I think that’s really interesting to explore. And if we approach comparison from this perspective, then I think for me too … So, I have been recently been playing with the idea of comparison as actually being the connective tissue between the different worlds or different groups or different ideas, rather than at the dividing line, which I think we usually use comparison as. And probably the best example is all of the rankings that we see on PISA, on TIMMS, so this is where the comparison comes as a creation of divisions and hierarchies. But what if we think about comparison as actually creating connections, or being the connective tissue between the different – whether it’s ideas, or beings, or worlds, or whatever we are comparing?
Will Brehm 30:27
So, Steve, would you agree with Iveta? She’s beginning to talk about some of these critiques of the current field of comparative education. How do you see the current field of comparative education? What are the limitations? Where are your critiques coming from this new materialist perspective that you have articulated?
Stephen Carney 30:47
I certainly wouldn’t label myself a new materialist. I guess some people do that. I’m not sure it’s necessary to have a label. But I think the way the way Iveta was articulating the challenge is absolutely right. I don’t know that Stengers piece, but I think there’s a lot of richness of concepts just in the two or three minutes she explained that article. Things have moved a lot. If I could be not so humble, I’ve been part of a generation that includes Iveta and some other good colleagues, that have really shifted things in the last 10 years. Of course, the core of comparative education, I think hasn’t changed much since its high-water mark in the ’60s. And with government policies, and we know all that about funding flows and so forth. We know a certain sort of comparative work. As Iveta says, that’s a dividing work. That’s still the most dominant form. And then that filters through educational programs and doctoral training, policy work, and it’s a cycle. So of course, we’re in a field that we’re part of undercutting, by thinking we’re comparing, and looking for different objects. And that object is always outside us as the observer. And we pick objects that are deliberately in a family, but they’re different. And in some way, that’s like a psychosis we have in our field; that’s what we think of as comparative. But I think Iveta turns that around, from within a Western … I’m not sure it’s a Western or a Southern thing, but from a tradition that I could understand very easily. I think she opens up to an entirely different comparative project. And I guess Weili could find the same thing. Certainly, in Taoism, you would find the same reluctance to separate objects, both from themselves and from the position of the observer. Not knowing that piece from Stengers, I think we could all be encouraged to think of comparative work as multidirectional and multidimensional. I think you could convince even the hardest, quantitative people in comparison. They would understand that argument, I think. And we could move towards a more humane and more humble way of doing comparative work. I’m sure that’s possible one day. But I like this idea she only just mentioned about from Stengers, saying, “and there can’t be any foul play”. Because that gets really tricky again. I think we can all understand the Southern knowledge critique: that we can no longer explore the world on our terms, and that we have to have not only an awareness of the other, whoever that might be, but we have to be able to take into account all of those different interests and understandings of the world. How you codify that into a language, or into a research report, that’s a visual document mainly grounded in text, that’s another thing. What I’ve struggled with: I think it’s easy to see comparative education as an act of pure violence. Of course, it’s just violent. It’s always just been violent. And it came out of violent cultures. It was violent cultures that invented science. And they imposed that, and they’ve used it for their own means, just like you use a gun. It’s just been that science has been violent. So, getting away from that will be difficult, because we’re also trapped in institutional arrangements where certain ideas are valued more, certain publishing forms are valued more, certain languages are valued more. And all of those things contribute to foul play. I’ve taken another route, which I’m not sure it will be successful, but in the book I’ve been writing with a colleague in Denmark, we have deliberately compared three countries that comparativists would never compare together. In the way I did with my earlier policyscape thing, trying to compare policy frameworks in three radically different countries. So, we’ve done that about young people’s engagement in school in urban Denmark, in South Korea, and in Zambia. And they were deliberately contexts that people would think of as different, geopolitically different, in different ways. Although we didn’t accept that. And then we’ve deliberately written this book in fragments. Even the theory and method chapters are written in fragments, because our position – which came, I think, a little from Southern theory, but also from postcolonialism – was that the original state of the world was fragmented. And it was part of the enlightenment project to unify that into something that looked coherent. So, we’re all doing research in context, where coherence is the most valued thing, but that itself is a project: to find coherence in a world that’s fragmented, that’s a project. But we have this naivety of thinking it’s an honorable … it’s a scientific task to get to the original state. The original state was coherence, and research is aimed at finding the coherence. I’m not sure that was ever the case, and certainly not the case under global conditions. So, we’ve deliberately written a book that’s fragmented to reflect the way – and this is the foul play thing – but to reflect the way that we think young people look at the world. They don’t panic when they see fragmentation. They make fragmentation work for them, as we all do in our daily life. So that’s sort of like a framework for trying to write about the world. But the danger is, it’s still the author in the center. It’s still two white Europeans writing about the world. And in writing this book, we were both really influenced in our own ethnographic work by the writing culture movement, this notion that ethnography is about creating the world, not representing the world. We often have this naive view that when we do ethnography, we represent the world. But of course, as we write it, we make the world. So, if the world is fragmented, and the writer is making the world, that’s a double challenge for comparative work. If you can’t just study a place, and the author no longer has an authority, where do you go after that? And so, in my case, I was really inspired … I’ve always been inspired by literature, but as Iveta was sort of implying, that was something – a passion, and an expertise I had, that I had to leave at the door. I couldn’t bring that into my scientific work, which is insane. Because what my scientific work was always literary work anyway. But now, I’ve tried to make my academic work literature. Bourdieu would call it “social poetics”. Jean Baudrillard would call it “fatal writing”, where you’re deliberately writing to confuse and to undermine. But I’ve been really inspired by magical realism in literature, Latin America literature in particular, but my favorite book of all time was Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which actually told you … in some sense a fantasy novel got closer to the truth of India’s story of independence than any history book would have helped you get to. So, we’ve been writing in fragments, but then also, in some sense, I hate to use the word, but “inventing” our data. We always invent our data because we decide what we put in our research report. So that’s always just the tip of an iceberg of the empirical field. It’s always fabricated anyway. But now we’ve deliberately tried to write from the perspective of young people, but often in ways where young people have told us things, and we’ve seen things, that would undermine our credibility. So it remains to be seen whether that works, but we’ve got sections where we’re describing what a young person says and does, but then also having another section where the young person develops another voice, where they’re reflecting on our position as researchers. And the aim is to make the reader realize, all the time, that they don’t necessarily know where they stand; that you can’t take the text at face value. That truth is something you will only ever understand as awareness much later, when you’ve digested what you’ve read. But you’re not going to get the truth just coming out of the page. But that’s sort of turning comparative education into literature. And I think Iveta does that really well in a recent article she wrote, not as a literary style, but bringing in this notion of magic and myth, and the non-modern. So that you think, “Well, this is not fantasy. She’s not writing about fantasy, but it’s not truth either.” But maybe fantasy and truth were always part of the same thing, it’s just that we were brought up in our academic worlds to separate them. And that was an unfair and unreasonable and silly distinction to make, between the real and the not real.
Will Brehm 40:07
What this conversation has sort of focused on now is a lot about these ethical implications of our research, of comparative research, have focused on really challenging what the empirical even is in our “science”, and if it can even be called empirical anymore. So Weili, I want to bring you back into the conversation, and just ask: How do you approach these big issues of ethics, and what is empirical, inside your own research? And focus on the struggles you have. What do you struggle with when trying to actually move “beyond the human”?
Weili Zhao 40:50
One branch of my study is trying to focus on the newly emerging scholarship of study as an alternative educational formation to the economic-based learning logic. So basically, Tyson Lewis had a book, ‘On Study’, which draws upon Agamben’s potential and impotential in 2013. And his second book, called ‘Inoperative Learning’, came out in 2018. And I like that work, because the second one, what he called “inoperative learning” as a form of study, and he told me he got inspiration from a Chinese Tai Chi statement, or way of thinking, “the weak would defeat to the strong”, basically, or the young would defeat to the A. And then, thinking about this, what counts as a possible study moment, or what counts as the possible clearer event for study to happen, that makes me really to look at those educative moment as a data for empirical studies, instead of looking at big data. So, I wish I could do work on quantitative, big data, empiric stuff, but I can’t. So, what I do, is try to look, observe, for example, the classroom teaching and learning, and to watch out for those moments. Exactly it’s very hard, because we’re using the human perspective. So, we are so used to our own style of reasoning, and our own limitations of thinking. So sometimes, it is happening, study educated moments happen all the time, but the problem lies with us. It’s us who fail to recognize and see those moments. So that makes me challenge the methodologies I usually use. So, I do phenomenological stuff, and I usually try to find those disruptive moments, when normal learning activity is suspended. In the past, I would gloss over those moments as kind of not meaningful, but now I will particularly pay attention to those moments, and see and unpack the happening, and the possible happening, and the way it suspends our otherwise naturalized styles of reasoning.
Will Brehm 43:29
Just to follow up, would you then say that the project that you’re working on is about building new knowledge, or is it about deconstructing sort of what we, or you, know?
Weili Zhao 43:42
In a way, if I could put this way, to try to challenge some common sense, and how it becomes common sense, how it is normalized as normal. So, for example, I recently did a paper on critical Confucian “do after me” pedagogies. Because in Chinese classrooms, teachers will mostly say, “Do after me”, “Read after me” in language classes. And in math classes, they will model the problem-solving, the equation-solving procedures on the blackboard. So, I basically observed a few teachers teaching, a few weeks, and I found it very intriguing that the teachers, in a very nuanced way, explain the steps by steps. And they say, “It’s very important to do this. You cannot omit this A step, or B step, or C step.” But they never explain why. So, to me, that moment jumps out. It strikes out as pedagogically … I mean, the pedagogical meaning or significance of “doing after me” is not consciously reflected on by the teachers themselves. So, in the interviews, I asked them, “Why? Why do you emphasize that a lot, but not explain how it is related to mathematical thinking?” So, I use ethnomethodology, not the mainstream sociological research and methodology, to find a moment when the student makes an error in doing this equation on the blackboard. So basically, that disrupting moment shows, through his hand gestures, now looking at what he thinks I’m looking at, how he moves, how his hand moves, actually. So, from his hand movements, I discern a moment that he kind of made an error, and he stops his flow and then move back. Returned to repair the error, something like that. I zoom on this moment, and using ethnomethodology perspective, to see how our thinking flow is embodied, or not, or disrupted. So, this moment, I call it kind of “educated moment”. And I go back to the teachers, talking about those moments, and help them realize this possible connection between these pedagogies of method and the mathematical reasoning – what is called “critical thinking” to me.
Will Brehm 46:31
So Iveta, do you also explore these educative moments in some of your work? Do you see your work, or the project that we’re sort of working and discussing here, as deconstructing what we already know, or sort of building up this knowledge, or perhaps perhaps both simultaneously?
Iveta Silova 46:54
Yes, I actually see this project as happening at multiple levels, and through multiple directions. And so, to me, for sure, there is definitely an important task of deconstructing what we have been faced with for so long to unlearning the old habits of thought. But in those moments too, I actually look for, many of these lessons in deconstruction actually do come in some disruptions that happen in established order of things that usually we don’t question. And something goes wrong, and suddenly “poof”, the status quo is disrupted. So, these moments I think are really really interesting to then really focus in and understand what else is going on. But I think it’s also in addition to deconstructing or critiquing the main foundations of thought, Western modern thought in particular. I think there is another project, I think another project is bringing into focus other knowledges that have been maybe remained invisible, or that maybe have been framed as illegitimate, or as unimportant. So, I think that’s another important project. And I think the third one is also kind of experimenting with thought, and with ideas, and playing with ideas in maybe new and different ways. So, I think that’s another maybe a third thread that I think is important as well. Not only critiquing the deconstructing, but also bringing into focus what’s already there but we are not really working with for many different reasons. And I think that third line is all about experimenting. And so it was actually really funny – I’ll tell a short story: I just recently wrote an article for a special issue that’s called Moving Beyond the Western Horizon, that I am also coediting together with Jeremy Rappleye, with Euan Auld, and with You Yun and it will be published in East China Normal University Review of Education Journal. So, I just wrote an article, which I was writing as I thought, empirical, real research article, and one of the reviewers read it. I just received the review. She absolutely loved it. And she said, “This is just a fabulous, speculative thinking work.” And the whole time I was writing the article, I thought I was actually doing real “research”. But again, who is to say what’s real? Anyways, but I think the whole point of speculative thinking, of fabulation, which Steve mentioned before, is crucially important to rethink what we do as researchers and as academics.
Will Brehm 50:14
So, as we draw to a conclusion here, I want to be self-critical. I want to ask about, okay, sure, it’s easy to critique where the field was, it’s easy to propose all these great new ideas, but what are we missing? So, Steve, can we start with you? By way of conclusion, basically, how can we be self-critical? What are some of the gaps? What are some of the blind spots in these different ways of doing comparative research that we’ve talked about today?
Stephen Carney 50:47
I think it’s still the case when you go to a conference, your average delegate will get up and make a presentation and say, “I’ve studied such and such in this context, and I did these interviews, and here’s what the data said.” And it’s almost as though they’re a commentator bringing in that classroom from Wisconsin or Zambia or whatever, and they’re giving you access to that real thing. And if they’re very good at their job, they’re just able to give you more access to the real thing. And I think that’s just part in the DNA of Western social science: to be realist, to be practical, to be valid, generalizable, all those sorts of things. So, I think the biggest blind spot is that we’re not humble enough to realize that we’re always thinking about, and writing about, the world from a perspective. And we need to be able to defend it from that perspective without rejecting others. I think that things would be much easier if someone could tell us, “There is one right way”, we just haven’t found it yet, right. But there’s never going to be one way. That would be reducing the world to a level of banality. There’ll never be one way to understand things. So, I think that’s the biggest blind spot. And I think the very best students are aware of that, but I would say also they end up gravitating towards the type of area that we’ve been discussing today. Those ones who have that humility, that they realize the subject is a construction, that reality is a myth, that writing is violence, and so forth. They’re the ones that end up coming to our table at the conference. Whereas the mainstream, the production of academic scientists is based on an entirely different logic. I think the SIG was one small intervention that was difficult to get accepted, believe it or not. That took more than a year for the board just to accept the idea of a non-scientific SIG. Having a conference now, that is on a radically different perspective, is a start. I think it’ll be difficult for people to live with the dissonance, to come to Miami with business as usual, and be at a conference where it’s not possible to go home with the same view of the world. These are sort of blind spots that are much more fundamental about what it means to be a researcher. We can always have our different strategies of advocacy, of making education programs, which I’ve done, or of writing good articles, which we all do. That’s sort of more hit and miss, about volume and access to people. But I think that the biggest blind spot is how our collective delusion that we think where we’re actually studying and explaining the world. It’s delusion.
Will Brehm 53:47
Weili, few questions, I mean, do you share that same notion of delusion that Steve is talking about? But more importantly, how are you self-critical in some of these thoughts that you’ve discussed today?
Weili Zhao 54:02
To me, what strikes out, or what Steve said resonates with me, is to think about where does education and knowledge come from? For example, education is not just a field, brought out of nowhere. And now people always critique education or the social scientific scientism epistemologies that ground to the way the knowledge is constructed and reproduced in education. But in my own work, I have a language background; that’s why I always look at the issues of being representation, meaning hermeneutics, exegesis, something like that. So, a challenge to me is to think about what kind of conditions of possibility that have made education and knowledge possible. That’s what we usually ask. But now I’m asking what kinds of onto-epistemological principles that have made the current thinking about education as limited as it is? What have made it impossible to rethink about education as what education could possibly be? That’s what I’m struggling with now.
Will Brehm 55:28
And so, for the final question, I’ll return to Iveta where we began, and ask about your own blind spots. We’ve pointed out a lot of blind spots of the field, and critique of the field, and this sort of notion of moving beyond the human. Do you anticipate, or if you think about it, are there particular blind spots within that conception of comparative education?
Iveta Silova 55:57
There’s probably so many blind spots that we are not even aware of at all. But, to me – and it’s really interesting because it resonates so closely also with what Weili has been talking about, and also Steve – I think, to me, it’s also the questions about what else aren’t we seeing? What else is beyond that we can’t even comprehend and imagine? And again, here, I will refer back to Isabelle Stenger’s work, because when she talks about this idea of speculative thinking, or SF, that also others play with, she really talks about it as this thought experiment that helps us to reimagine the world differently, but also resituate the given within a much vaster set of possibilities. And so, one strategy that she suggests we could use for that, is ask a question, “And if?” something could be differently. And so that’s kind of the question. And something that in radical thought experiments that maybe are really missing in our field, right, because we’re not really asking about other ways of thinking, or doing, or being. So, to me, that’s a major challenge, ask this question, “And if?” all the time. But also, I must say, it is something that really really inspires a lot of curiosity. It also makes comparative education much more exciting for me than it was before. So, playing with this “And if?” question is absolutely fascinating.
Will Brehm 57:50
Well, thank you, Iveta and Weili and Steve for joining this webinar. It was inspiring. It does make me get new excitement for the field of comparative education. So, thank you very much, and I guess I’ll see most of you in Miami next year.
Stephen Carney 58:07
Iveta Silova 58:07
Thank you, Will.
Weili Zhao 58:08
Thank you. Bye bye.
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