Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Pandering to the Capitalists

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 15, 2000

Posted to DEOS-L, 15 August, 2000

More quoting than usual, but the exchange between John Hibbs and Joe Clark serves to set the context. More comments below...

"Clark, Joe" wrote:

From: John Hibbs [mailto:hibbs@BFRANKLIN.EDU]

About the language of the institution, particularly when it involves "outsiders", there is no nit so small it cannot be picked.

About helping that pour soul in Kenya who wants ideas on how to bring education to his village, not one single post.


Mmmmmm, indeed. That old George Wallace straw man rears its head again: impotent academics playing semantic games while the world falls apart around them. That was one of the arguments against gender-inclusive language, I believe -- wasn't it, girls?

Go ahead. Let the language constrain you -- already many can't see the world in anything but materialist terms because everyone is a customer and we all want to run everything like a business.

Yep. Buncha pointy-heads ranting about nothing, trying to protect their pathetic domains with obtuse jargon (those sharp unbiased economists see *right through them*).

*That's* the ticket! ;-)


OK, we have three separate issues here all running together to form an unsightly mass:

1. The question of whether members of this list (or academics, or left wingers) are doing enough to help people in Kenya

2. The question of whether language is important in academic and non-academic debate, and

3. The question of whether academics are doing anything useful (other than protecting their own turf).

Each of these issues is potentially incendiary and each of these issues has served as a historic flash-point between two contending communities.

DEOS is useful as a list because it includes people from both the right and the left, the corporate and the public, the isolationist and the globalist - but it is useful only insofar as it serves as a forum for dialogue, and not as an arena where combatants are able to shout down their opponents.

As to the issues...

1. It is a common left-baiting tactic for a right-winger to point to some evidence of a leftists' material well-being and to argue that the leftist is violating his own principles by holding back this wealth from the poor. It has some merit since leftists are often from wealthy countries, enjoy a high standard of living, and are subject to human wants and needs as much as anyone else.

But as the comment often comes from the right, the person commenting is usually wealthier and in a better position to help than the leftist, and the leftist is in a position to suggest that (a) the right winger gained his wealth at the expense and further impoverishment of the poor, and (b) that desipte being in a better position to help, the right winger is doing nothing at all, not even matching the admittedly small actions taken by the leftist.

And so with the issue in Kenya. If my own situation is at all typical, I have no comment on this matter because I am not in a position to evaulate Kenya's needs nor to suggest effective answers. While my knowledge base is probably sufficient, I know too little about Kenya to be able to talk about what would work and what wouldn't - the best I could do is to infer by anaolgy to impoverished communities in Canada's north, which which I do have some experience.

But at least as a former development educator (ie., a person who animates learning about conditions in less developed countries) and a regular contributor to aid and development groups, I am doing something - what I can, at least. The fact that I cannot in this forum make a positive contribution does not mean that I have made none at all.

John Hibbs - who makes the comment - is in a much better position to help Kenya. He is certainly wealthier than I am, in a better position than I am, and most likely more knowledgable than I am. One wonders why, insetad of baiting leftists, he didn't come forward with a constructive comment of his own.

Not that I am trying to pick a fight with John Hibbs, since I respect and value his opinions and point of view (but hey, John, you make the point, you take the heat... :) ). I am only here offering an analysis and possible responses to his point of view.

And to take it one step further: I would be more than willing to travel to Kenya, to meet with educators in that country, and based on my knowledge of current and emerging educational technologies, offer concrete proposals. I cannot afford to fly to Kenya, however. So John, here is my proposal: I will take a month out of my life - a substantial contribution - if John Hibbs will fly me to Kenya and pay some living expenses, something I'm sure he could easily afford.

2. The name 'Joe Clark' conjures in my mind (as in any Canadian's) an image of a fumbling former Prime Minister, a man who was unable to count the number of people in Parliament and as a result became one of Canada's shortest lived Prime Ministers. So it is ironic that the comment from language would come from Joe Clark - a different Joe Clark, obviously - and in such a way as to remind me of the link between language and perception.

Philosophers differ on this point, but I can argue that the meaning of any different word is based on the association between that word and related concepts (and the moeaning of those concepts to other concepts still, a network of meanings which is supported around the edges by feelings, experiences and memories). So, for example, the meaning of the word 'France' is in a complex way derived from our experiences and thoughts about the Eiffel Tower, French people, the Second World War, Quebec, and so on. Each person's list of associated concepts is different, and hence, each person's concept of 'France' is different.

As one word is uttered, associated concepts arise in our minds. These associated concepts are sometimes called the 'connotations' of the original term and form an essential part of its meaning (logical purists would disagree with me on this point, but addressing them would force me into a hopeless digression). Thus, choosing the word 'student' invokes one set of connotations, while using the word 'learner' invokes another set of connotations. This is why many feminists dislike the word 'girl' - which invokes images of dependence and helplessness, as would any image of a child, and opt instead for 'women'.

Connotations are learned associations, and like all associations are strengthened through repeated use, a fact advertisers and marketers exploit as they try to associate in your mind the product they are trying to sell with positive images, so that the positive images become a part of the meaning of the the product name. Because they are learned, and because each person has his own set of experiences and feelings, one person's offensive (or useless, or theory-laden) term will be another's inoffensive (or useful, or value-free) puff of air.

Educators must deal with associations every day, since it is not possible to introduce a new concept to a person without relating it to an existing concept (which is why, by the by, personalized education is so much better than standardized education). And educators, more than most people, are aware that the terminology they employ in their discussions conveys a meaning which extends well beyond the dictionary definition of the term.

As I mentioned above, one of the values of this list is that the participants come from different environments, and in the context of this particular discussion, some come from traditional academic circles and some come from corporate education circles. So it should be no surprise that the meanings of some essential terms differ in each of these respective groups.

Terms like 'customer' and 'consumer centered' and even like 'marketing' carry a very different meaning for people. Traditional educators associate these terms with media manipulation (keeping in mind that advertisers and markets do explicitly attempt to manipulate our perceptions) and also with a particular (right wing) political agenda. It should be no surprise that they react negatively to such terminology, for it (to them) represents the forces opposing their life work.

In the business and corporate education community, however, such terms carry nowhere near the negative connotation, not because such people are trying to end public education (though perhaps some are; there is some overlap here), but because they are reflective of some recent business paradigms in which the needs of the end user (purchaser, consumer, customer) drive corporate and educational processes. They reflect a (welcome) regonition on the part of businesses that people want and demand choice, they want and demand personal service, and that those businesses which fail to provide this, will fail.

These same values are reflected in some segments of the academic community (and explicitly rejected by others - the recent Chronicle article about accreditation springs to mind), but these values are reflected in a completely different set of terminology through the use of phrases such as 'learner centered', or 'guide by the side'. Such phrases seem like mere puffery to the corporate world, sicne they contain none of the same connotations, and debates about whether we should call them 'students' or 'learnings' seem like an exercise in mere pedantry.

3. Because academics are not in a position to effect concrete change (see point 1) and because academics devlop their own community (and hence, vocabulary and set of associations) (see point 2), they appear to the outside world to be engaging in little more than navel-gazing. There is some justification to this claim.

There are two kinds of debates people can have regarding vocabulary, meaning and connotation: in the first, we look at what people mean by the words they use; and in the second, we tell people what words they should be using. Especially in a dynamic language like English, there will ever be a tension between the two uses, just as there is always a tension between description and prescription.

Traditionally, language has belonged to academics. For it is they who, from a position of knowledge, wide experience, and currency in many disciplines, were able to establish the precise and correct uage of terms. Insofar as any non-academic challenged that domain, it was from a position of ignorance, and the best they could offer was a definition which was less distinct, more fuzzy, and therefore prone to misuse and ambiguity (the learned discussions of the word 'hopefully' offer a prime example of this debate).

Due to improved information technology (starting with the proliferation of books and magazines and cumulating with video and instructional technology), academics are no longer in sole possession of a detailed knowledge of words, concepts and things. Many non-academics quite rightly argue that they, rather than inexperienced academics, own the knowledge and discipline required to define terminology. Even in those domains where academics remain current and expert, there is a growing body of non-academics who profess equal merit and qualifications.

An oligarchy which is losing control first loses control of the language.

The sign of such an oligarchy seeking in futile fashion to retain control is one which sees the oligarchy abandoning debate of substance in order to focus on debates of language.

"Let them eat cake," is a linguistic concession, one which symbolizes the loss of language, and hence, of power and control.

Though academics are likely to remain a force in society, they will remain an effective force only if the concede to society the right to define its own language and seek to express themselves in those langauges. It is not possible to employ value-neutral terminology, but it is possible to remember that you are writing to multiple audiences. Words, terms, and phrases have connotations, and it is important to understand these nuances and to construct a reply which engages the audience on that level.

In a world where their power is slipping away, in other words, academics must become increasingly student-centered, focussing as much on the students' beliefs and experiences prior to a learning engagement as they do on the desired learning outcomes subsequent to that engagement. They will have to become - in the words of the corporate educator - customer-centred, providing customized and personalized learning opportunities with an emphasis on outcomes rather than on processes.

And all *that*, to wrap up, is why the Chronicle and the AFT are *wrong* when they say that teachers and academics must "control" the development of online learning.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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