Hardening of the Categories

One way we might examine the dynamic and complex environments around us is by breaking those environments down as systems and subsystems. Much can be revealed about the structures that constitute our environments, their interplay with other structures, and the substructures that work together to produce a larger whole. Often, in the course of such an examination, we uncover mechanisms that constrain and produce particular types of “behavior” that we might identify as a bias.

Taking the university as an example, here’s a very rough breakdown of the overall system into subsystems and the various sorts of biases that each presents. By no means is this example meant to represent a completely accurate and/or comprehensive model. It’s a rough and incomplete illustration.

1. The University (reflects institutional bias)

2. Colleges (reflect fiscal and ideological biases)

3. Schools (reflect institutional and historical biases)

4. Humanities & Arts, Social Sciences, Hard Sciences (reflect methodological and historical biases)

5. Departments (reflect fiscal and political biases)

6. Specialities (reflect historical and methodological biases)

7. Core curricula (reflect historical and institutional biases)

8. Syllabi (reflect both systematic and individual instructor biases)

9. Classrooms (reflect institutional and physical biases)

Above, below, and between these categories we can observe other categories. There are likely a number of lateral categories as well, but the point is merely to illustrate the number of potential biases imposed by the structures that constitute the environment. To name a few, we might identify the larger university system and its parent institutions in Federal and State governments. We might talk about standardized testing as a means to drive admissions. We might focus on the various technologies, old and new, that affect and enable the flow of information within and between institutions, but you get the point.

As educators, what’s the message we send to generations of learners, when we tell them the goal is to find their voice, or to be a critical thinker, or worst to think outside the box. The biases that permeate the environment create a sort of double bind that makes the student of the 21st century a schizophrenic of sorts. If the medium is the message, students are actually learning in their university experience that the world is organized according to highly bureaucratic mechanisms that need to be navigated in order to get anywhere. The lesson is that information is highly structured and that knowledge is terminal. Students learn that all outcomes can be evaluated according to rigid and simplistic technical criteria that are organized either by arbitrary percentages or by ambiguous letter assignments. Institutional administrators learn that all solutions can be boiled down to money, government intervention, or the imposition of even more incentives on teachers and students. To that point, we find the mission of the Department of Education:

The mission of the Department of Education is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.

“Student achievement,” “preparation for global competitiveness,” “fostering education excellence,” and “ensuring equal access” are the components of the mission. There are questions about how one goes about evaluating student achievement in a systematic way. What are we trying to compete with in the global environment and what would constitute success? How does one go about fostering excellence, and what constitutes excellence to begin with? There are questions about equal access, but one might argue that the only role the Federal government is equipped to deal with is the issue of access.

In whatever respect, it’s easy to see how the mission of the DOE can filter down to the institutions it oversees and the way in which political and fiscal biases, tied to the ideological bias of the technical and institutional, shape the overall system. The student is a victim of this gigantic tangle of biases, and we haven’t even addressed the conflict that exists between the informal learning that goes on outside the system and the style of learning that occurs in the formal system itself. Neil Postman discussed this in terms of the First Curriculum (the underlying media environment of society) and the Second Curriculum (what happens in the school system). It was also his playful use of the term hardening of the categories that illustrated his critique of the separation of knowledge into distinct, separate disciplines. It’s a meme that emerges out of Marshall McLuhan’s work.

Through the illustrations I’ve tried to provide here, I suggest that hardening of the categories is not only a matter of specific distinctions in knowledge but also the clogging of the arteries the occurs in education as a result of competing biases that collectively constitute the environment in which learning of a particular kind is supposed to occur. As I walked the campus of Temple University yesterday, I noticed a couple of examples of the structural biases at play in the university environment.

The first photo is the building assigned to both Education and Social Administration departments at Temple. This is not at all an uncommon organization of knowledge at American universities and reflects the larger institutional biases of the system. Education is a matter of social administration in America. Social workers and teachers are trained in the same place. Both are instruments of government intervention on society, tools designed for the purpose of targeting and tinkering with citizens to make them competitive in the global (and domestic) marketplace (that’s how the even larger system defines itself). It’s not to say that there’s no value in using knowledge of a highly defined nature to train people on the front lines of actual struggles. From a practical perspective, it seems like a logical place to focus the concern of higher education. The problem is that the whole of formal learning becomes permeated with the ideological biases of the structure precluding the adoption of other perspectives.

The second photo links psychology and speech, which is absolutely appropriate for a variety of reasons, but why not psychology and communication? Why not anthropology, psychology, and communication? Why not speech and art? Why not speech and English and foreign languages, and sociolinguistics? It’s somewhat arbitrary when put in this context and it becomes easy to see how the inclusion or exclusion of political, fiscal, and institutional divisions can influence methodology, core curricula, and a host of other things as well. Students are generally unaware of these concerns and are general never taught that such concerns are principle in their quest for knowledge. The environment is invisible as are the biases inherent in the system(s). Education, and its related institutions, join with the religion/church complex, democracy/government complex, and other pillars of society to constitute a symbol system to which great allegiance and devotion are afforded. Questioning any of these symbols at their most fundamental levels can be met with great scorn and anger. We tolerate superficial criticisms of the institutions but their basic nature, and their right to exist, are unquestioned. This makes real, critical examination very difficult and you will find many students (and teachers) highly resistant to systemic revelations. There’s a pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain mentality about reform that keeps us from the internal conflicts that would necessarily arise when pulling the curtain back on things we have internalized so personally.

Still, it must be done. A lot is revealed about who we are and how we got here when we approach systems in this way. We’re able to begin at a more enlightened base when we engage in our critiques and examinations, and in the case of education we return our efforts to the roots of learning as a highly personal relationship between individual, community, and culture.


About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
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