Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Preserving the Tradition (2)

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 06, 2005

David Wiley offers a measured, though contrary, commentary on my post.

He writes,
If people did not treasure and preserve the histories of their fields,
not only would we not know about phlogiston theory, heleocentric
orbits, and using leeches, but there would be nothing to keep us from
making these same mistakes again.
This is, in my view, incorrect, and for two related reasons (both based on Kuhn's analysis).

First, from the point of view of the practitioners, none of these theories were wrong; they represented the best and most up-to-date science in the field. They weren't 'mistakes', in any genuine sense of the term. True, these theories turned out to be wrong in fact, but the lessons we learn from their proponents are not lessons on how to avoid similar mistakes, save, perhaps, the lesson that orthodoxy can sometimes be wrong. But the proof of this is in the demonstration, not the history.

Second, we can't make those sorts of mistakes again. It's a case of "you can't get there from here". A practitioner in chemistry today cannot arrive at phlogiston theory - the language of chemistry cannot express it. Phlogiston has no atomic number, no weight, enters into no known reactions. Similarly, an astrophysicist - whose first lesson in the discipline was 'the Earth orbits the Sun' - cannot make a mistake calculating gravitational influence and arrive at geocentricity. We will make, are making, new mistakes, but these won't be and cannot be recognized as such except from the perspective of the future.

History is important. But we need to distingush between preserving the history *of* the discipline and history *in* the discipline. There is a role for historians, a significant and important role, but it is not the same role as one who is a practitioner of the discipline.
 It is only through the careful
preservation and study of what came before that one can come to a
serious conclusion that the current line of work must be rejected, and
that efforts must proceed in a new direction in order to be fruitful.
Again, I do not believe this is correct.

It is true that the motivation for change typically comes from within a discipline - or perhaps more accurately, from within the frame described by the discipline, if not the discipline itself. It stems from explanatory gaps, predictive failures, contradictory or incoherent assumptions, limits in applicability. Modern Newtonian physics stipulated that light, being massless, could not be influenced by gravity. But light bends in a gravity well, a phenomenon that can be observed whether or not one is a Newtonian. This and a dozen other problems prompted a justified scepticism.

But the successor to Newtonian physics was not to be found from within the domain of Newtonian physics. It required, not a careful understanding of the flaws, but rather, a change in the way of seeing the world. It required, in this instance, that Einstein 'step out' of the theory and to imagine a world in which the rules did not apply. What would happen were mass not constant, were time not invariant? The 'serious conclusion' is propelled not by the rejection of the old theory, but by the discovery and elaboration of the new one.

Kepler did not require a knowledge of geocentricity in order to arrive at his equations; what he required were Tycho's careful observations and that radical new mathematical theory employing algebra and Cartesian coordinates. And indeed, one would argue, that had Kepler held as his primary objective the maintenance and propogation of the discipline, he would not have been able to step out of a world dominated by Euclidian geometry and Aristotlean impulses in order to replace a theory that was, for all practical purposes, working fine.
We need not stay in line with the current methods of working toward
goals in order to do our own work toward those goals. Frequently
history and literature point us in useful directions; just as often
that record helps of steer clear of known dead ends.
Knowing the history *can* be useful, and it would be foolhardy to deny that it is sometimes actually useful. But a knowledge of the history is not necessarily useful, and it is not the only thing that is useful.

To turn to our present discipline, a knowledge of history informs us that beating our children will not produce the best learning, were we able to contemplate such a theory. But in order to see the way forward, we are better prepared with a grounding in neuropsychology, modern scientific methodology, anthropology and sociology, and the times being what they are, economics. Better to spend time immersing oneself in these practices than in the method and practice of applying the rod or the basics of phrenology.

Indeed, I hasten to point out, not infrequently even the goals change. In contemporary 'learning science' the goals are, I guess, higher grades, better test score, or if we get all meta about it, better and deeper knowledge of mathematics, language, science and history. My own feeling is that the future will find this narrow and irresponsible, when the genuine objectives of learning are social (lower crime rate, improved health, increased knowledge) and personal (life satisfaction, self-expression, sense of worth) and will ponder why we ever thought a knowledge of trigonometry, except in unusual circumstances, ever led to this.

The Zorastrians care.
Well, yes, but it would hardly follow that we must all become Zorastrians, or, for that matter, that the preservation of Zorastrianism is the purpose of religion.
While not exact in number, I stand by my comment in sentiment. The
vast majority of people who move through our programs are looking for
a certification. They're not looking to become stewards of anything.
For example, they will be interested in literature that shows that
certain approaches "work." They will be largely disinterested in
familiarizing themselves with the history of very illustrative
failures. 'I mean, who cares about a bunch of stuff that didn't work?'
I'm sure that the majority of people do not perceive themselves as the stewards of the English language either, but for all practical purposes, they are. And while a study of Latin would no doubt be useful in some circumstances, it is not in most, and in fact, the majority of people do not study Latin. And it's not that our ancestors have somehow failed in their stewardship of language, and it is not that the use of Latin, rather than English, in ancient times was somehow a mistake, that it somehow didn't work.

This is important: a tradition, a discipline, a field - these are not preserved by a select few. They are preserved by *all* the people working in the discipline, and importantly, most of all by that majority of people looking for a certification and a job. It may please professors to believe that they have a unique role, but you can no more manufacture a tradition than you can manufacture behaviourism. And, indeed, the sense that there is something that is the tradition, discipline or field distinct from what the practitioners actually practice is a fallacy. The discipline of archaeology just is what the combined efforts of those who practice archaeology do.

Or to put the same point another way: who would be so brazen to claim that the preservation of a tradition, discipline or field is uniquely the preserve of those who hold PhDs in it, or of those who hold professorships at universities, and that the remainder of the practitioners are in every sense historically insignificant? Who would say that teachers contribute nothing to what we know and understand and feel as teaching, and that the only record of importance is that carried forward by the doctors and the professors? It is important to remember that the university studies that licensed the teacher form only a small part of his or her life and experience in the field. Perhaps the professors are racconteurs, but to suppose that they define the field, that they somehow uniquely preserve it is not only the ultimate of hubris, it is also empirically wrong.

I have no doubt that David did not mean exactly this when he wrote the words above, and feel certain that he would reject the proposition just expressed above. But if not this, then what? Remove the stricture of exclusivity, and the notion of 'stewardship' loses its force. It becomes apparent that the idea of professors or PhDs as stewards is a mythology, a common story that binds the faithful together and fosters a sense of exclusivity, but is nonetheless a fabrication.
Particularly at the doctoral level, tradition *is* passed on from one
person to another - from advisor to advisee. Tradition is also
propogated via groups who share a common practice, but far too often
that practice has nothing to do with being a steward of the field. It
much more frequently has to do with job interviews, the latest web
application development framework, and the cool new name we're calling
the field (I guess it's learning sciences for the next seven years or
In order to make this assertion work, it is necessary to identify a distinction in kind between 'tradition' and 'practice'. Most such distinctions, I suspect, will amount to distinctions similar to that between 'the story' and the 'telling of the story' - a difference, that is, that is only apparent.

I had a lot of 'tradition' passed down to me from advisor to advisee. As time passed, I found it impossible to distingush between the story and the teller of the story. I, too, have a story to pass along; being barred by lack of certification from the practice one-on-one counselling sessions with the children of rich parents, I pass on my stories in alternative fora, such as this one. Am I a part of the tradition? Is the story I tell distinct from the teller? Where is the distinction? What was it that was measured for in the dissertation, in the exam? Does only the professor of English carry on the tradition of the language? Or does Jorn Barger, the man who coined the word 'weblog', now homeless and penniless, and certainly not a professor, get some of the credit too?

The definition of a PhD, of a professor, cannot be *what* that person professes. This way lies madness and confusion.
If the old is not preserved, but absorbed and reformed, then what will
the next generation read?
The new.
Will they read the commentaries of their fathers rather than the originals?
Will we all read Geometry textbooks from Pearson rather than Euclid?
Of course. I did (though I think it was McGraw-Hill). Historians may read Euclid, and write synopses that will translate the original from the Greek and from the ancient view of the world into a form I can understand. But a full and complete knowledge of geometry is possible without a reading of Euclid.
Many will. And they will not be
stewards of the field in the way I think they should. You see, I
believe it becomes increasingly harder to be a responsible steward,
because the amount you must know, love, and build upon becomes larger
with each generation.
Would Fermat still be Fermat had he never read Euclid? Hilbert? Bourbaki? I have no idea whether any of these thinkers actually read Euclid, but I venture the proposition that they would be just as much 'stewards of the field' whether or not they read Euclid.

You don't have to read your grandfather's journal to become his inheritor; you just have to have his genes.
Imagine if the Fugues of Bach were not preserved
and treasured, per se, but were absorbed and reformed by current
cultural influences, so that today's student of music gets Britney
Spears and 50 Cent.
Were Britney Spears and 50 Cent to comprise the entirety of contemporary music this would be a good point. But this is hardly the case, and nobody seriously supposes that any student of music would limit his or her studies to these two artists. It is illegitimate to take a part of the contemporary tradition, imply that it is inadequate, and then employ this as an argument against the contemporary tradition.

Let us take Bach, who remains (just barely) part of contemporary music (unlike, say, the mostly lost and unlamented Johann Adam Reinken). Would it be necessary to hear original performances of his music in order to preserve the tradition, or will a recording by the London Symphony Orchestra be sufficient? Must we read commentators from 1723, or will diluted opinions from the 1800s serve to inform us? Do we need to study and learn *all* of the music from 1723, or is what has been carried forward and reformed in numerous way by our predecessors sufficient?

And even more to the point - suppose every music PhD and professor were (perhaps because of modern hip hop) to suddenly collapse and die, leaving us for a period of time with no music PhDs or professors - would Bach at that point become 'lost'?

I think that remembering Bach is important, remembering Reinken rather less so, but that this memory is carried on by the musical community as a whole - including Britney Spears and 50 Cent, whether or not they have ever even listened to Bach. Music professors and PhDs play a role - but it is not *that* role.

 A steward of the field of music will know both,
and will not reject the one because it is old. Neither will they
devalue it because it was "proved" wrong later. It is an important
part of our intellectual heritage that has value to later participants
in the field, and preserving this kind of knowledge is exactly what a
steward should do.
But nobody here is claiming that things should be rejected because they are old or devalued because they are wrong.

Again - we need to distingush between preserving the history *of* the discipline and history *in* the discipline.

To say otherwise is to say (for example) that 50 Cent is *not* a musician, not a steward of music, unless he plays Bach. And, less persuasively, that one is not a musician, not a steward of music, unless he also plays Reinken.
Here, I have to agree. I think there is some of this going on in the
professional organizations in our field right now. There is a
difference between (1) reverencing what the field is trying to do and
(2) reverencing the way the field is trying to do it.
When I talk of 'ossification' I am speaking not merely of reverencing the way the field is trying to do something, but also what the field is trying to do.And more - what entities people in the field deem exist, what constitutes an appropriate vocabulary, who, even, constitute the founders of the field, the tradition that is being kept alive (one wants to speculate about the legions of subversives who kept the name Nietzsche alive).
Outcasts are cast out by the high priesthood. That is to say, new
ideas are only seen as radical when academics - of all people - refuse
to open their minds. Or in other words, whether a person becomes an
outcast or not has much less to do with them than it does the rest of
the field. But you can not reject the importance of (2) above simply
because there is a tendancy to over-reverence it. This would be like
outlawing peer-to-peer networks because there's a risk that someone
might pirate a Britney Spears and 50 Cent song on them.
Perhaps. But my disagreement isn't like that.

It's more like a dispute over whether there is such a thing as 'piracy' at all, over whether the associated behaviours ought to be called something else (such as 'file sharing'), and over whether file sharing is even something thatg is wrong at all.

Orthodoxy is willing to work with me so long as we both agree that it's piracy and it's wrong; then they can see a middle ground where some (limited) peer-to-peer networks might be allowed (under strict monitoring and DRM, of course). Challenge that presumption, and it is no longer a dispute about methodology, it's a dispute about the nature of the enterprise as a whole.
You are arguing for openmindedness, for a society
or field that can accept ideas that seem less connected to the
tradition than others might. This is of course exactly what is needed.
Right. That is what I am arguing for. And more.
However, I see no reason why deep reverence for a field must be
equated with closedmindedness.
It becomes closemindedness when it becomes *definitive* of the field.

And when you define the purpose of a PhD as stewardship, you make this deep reverence definitive of the field.

Stewardship cannot be definitive. Indeed, as I suggested above, it should not be considered a role of a particular caste at all.

The object of our enquiry lies elsewhere.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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