Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Belief

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 10, 2005

Seb Fiedler asks himself why he is increasingly alienated from the underlying ideology of modern education and concludes that it is the result of neo-liberal propaganda that has changed the concept of 'education' over the years. "I am sure," he writes, "some of the trusted, unquestioned ideas that guide the current discourse on reforming universities readily come to your mind: the holy market, competition, cost efficiency, tuition and fees, standardized evaluation, and so forth."

Placing his thoughts into context is a 1970 lecture from Gregory Bateson, Ecology and Flexibiltiy in Urban Civilization. Bateson writes, "the frequency of use of a given idea becomes determinant of its survival in that ecology of ideas which we call Mind; and beyond that the survival of a frequently used idea is further promoted by the fact that habit formation tends to remove the idea from the field of critical inspection."

Bateson's proposition should sound familiar to the student of philosophy. It is almost identical, in content and vocabulary, to that expressed by David Hume. "All belief of matter of fact or real existence," writes Hume in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, "is derived merely from some object, present to the memory or senses, and a customary conjunction between that and some other object." How, for example, do we come to believe that one thing causes another? When one thing is often followed by another, we fall into the habit of expecting the second when we see the first, and as this habit becomes entrenched, we say that here is a connection between one and the other.

Ritual and repetition form an important component of belief. As Hume notes in the Treatise, "The devotees of that strange superstition usually plead in excuse of the mummeries, with which they are upbraided, that they feel the good effect of those external motions, and postures, and actions, in enlivening their devotion, and quickening their fervour, which otherwise would decay away, if directed entirely to distant and immaterial objects." By keeping the forms and icons representative of the faith firmly fixed in front of their followers, the fathers of the church ensure a lively and habitual representation of belief.

Why is this important? Part of it, certainly, is the explanation of how it is we came to associate the principles of economics to education. A priori, there is no reason to expect that the principles of one domain would work in another. Yet we see them repeatedly applied - a critic of mine recently argued against free educational content on the grounds that students would not value the learning that resulted. Why would we suppose that a monetary determination of value (a network semantics expressed as a willingness to pay) would apply in learning? But, as Fiedler notes, a century of conflict defined by competing economic systems has created an environment in which it is natural, inevitable, to apply the basic principles (in our sphere, at least) of economic capitalism to all domains.

But the more significant part is that Hume's theory of belief is also a theory of learning, and a theory which, when examined, stands in opposition to what seems to be taken for granted as learning theory today. I have commented before on the paucity of the idea that knowledge is acquired like bits of capital and stored in the vault of our mind, opposed the idea that knowledge is cumulative, like acquisition. The theory of learning represented, say, in standardized tests or even such models as constructivism imply that knowledge is like a series of sentences, possibly related, that may be amassed in some sort of internal encyclopedia. In the lecture model of learning everyone caricatures, these sentences are delivered to you; in constructivism they are created by the students themselves.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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