Archive for February, 2007

Bakhtin argues that the self is responsible to the other while Levinas argues that the self is responsible for the other. It is the distinction of the to and for that E. B. White presents through two characters in his iconic children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web, the story of how a spider contributes to saving the life of Wilbur the pig as she becomes responsible for Wilbur as the other. At the same time, Templeton, the rat, in a self-seeking role, also becomes responsible, not for, but to both Wilbur and Charlotte as Charlotte works to save Wilbur’s life.

From the Bakhtinian perspective responsibility to the other is anchored in the notion that my actions are what the other calls to task; what the other requires of me. My choice to act responsibly is one in which the self is satisfied without regard to the outcome for the other to whom the self acts responsibly. For Bakhtin, responsibility is not a selfless act but, quite the contrary, a self-conscious act. Levinas, on the other hand, argues that there is an ethical imperative that originates even before there is a self; this imperative is one in which the self has the absolute responsibility to act for the other; to selflessly care for the other even at the peril of one’s own existence. Understood from this perspective, Bakhtin and Levinas occupy two sides of the same coin. Both require the self to act in a responsible manner toward the other. The fundamental distinction is one between a self-conscious act and a selfless act.

In Charlotte’s Web, Templeton chooses to assist Wilbur at the urging of Charlotte but only when he sees value in the act of assistance for himself. In a self-conscious manner, Templeton comes to the aid of Wilbur if and only if he receives what he understands to be a benefit of equal value for himself, for example when Charlotte convinces him to search for words because if Wilbur is sent to the slaughterhouse Lurvy will no longer bring the slop to the barn, a delicacy Templeton desires. Templeton is acting in a Bakhtinian manner, responsible to both Charlotte and Wilbur. Charlotte, on the other hand, acts in a selfless way toward Wilbur. She is interested in being responsible (response-able may be a better way to re-present the notion of responsibility here) for Wilbur by selflessly spinning webs that urge the humans, especially Uncle Homer, to save Wilbur’s life. In the end, even as she is dying and needs to save her energy, Charlotte spins one final web for Wilbur; Charlotte is a true friend in a Levinasian sense.

As children read Charlotte’s Web it is important that they understand the distinction of being responsible to someone else and being response-able for another person. The ethical imperative of the for is, however, not necessarily easy for 3rd through 5th graders to understand. One suggestion is to create a dialectic in which Templeton’s and Charlotte’s acts with regard to Wilbur are compared and contrasted. Children can then see for themselves the benefits of being response-able, of being selfless regarding the other suggested by Charlotte’s actions as opposed to the self-conscious responsibility to the other suggested by Templeton’s behavior.

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Standards in American Education:
The Element of Surprise

If by the neologism, diffrance, Derrida (1978) is representing the idea that existence is framed by the past and the future, presented only as a trace of the present formed between past and future, and that the moment represented in the trace of present is neither fixed nor fluid, rather it is movement attached to all of the periods of past laid out prior to the phenomenon of the trace, while adapting out of necessity for survival to the alterity, or otherness, of the future, then, it seems to us that diffrance forms a frame from which to address the out-of-control movement toward standardizing American education through an appeal to the absolute nature of culture and the need to transmit the fixed nature of the values obtained by that culture to the young. For our purposes, we assume that diffrance includes, at the barest minimum, the idea we summarize above and, while this may not be the only useful definition of diffrance, for the purposes of inquiring about standards it forms a workable frame from which to investigate how standards may or may not do justice to American Democracy.

As we use the word trace it is only reasonable to make clear what we mean by the term. At once trace references the now and beyond the now bi-directionally. Derrida (1993) refers to the idea of trace indirectly as he writes autobiographically about writing in Circumfession:

“Without what I wrote in the past, or even what I seem to be writing here, but do without, foreseeing or predicating what I could well write in the future, so that here I am deprived of a future, no more event to come from me, at least insofar as I speak or write, unless I write there, for every man for himself, no longer under his law, improbable things which destabilize, disconcert, surprise in their term” (p. 30)

Here Derrida is responding to Bennington’s (1993) critique and categorization of Derrida’s work. Bennington focuses on both categorizing the schema of thought but offers predictions on what Derrida might have to say in the future. Derrida’s response is to explore the underlying nature of the trace as found in writing as writing focuses on the future while becoming an artifact of the historical past the moment it is abandoned by the author. Once inscribed to the past, writing provides no surprise or rich interpretative approaches to thought, rather, it simply is. The act of writing, on the other hand, is, at once, rooted in the future as it becomes embedded in the historical. Once written writing exists without change or changeability. The act of writing, because of its proximity to the future remains fluid, surprising, and potentially destabilizing as the writer struggles with alternatives presented. The idea of trace is extended to and lies within the period of time that is instantaneously formed, and then immediately unformed, between the static past and the fluid future.

Trace can also have a strong proximity to the historical past. The trace obtained in this writing to this point is anchored in the text of Derrida’s (1993) reflection Circumfession. As we write we are tied to the text of Circumfession seeking to construct meaning from the words of another as that other was writing with a proximity to the future. In either case, however, the proximities turn around on top of each other for while we are tied to the text, we also write with a proximity to the future as Derrida, writing with a proximity to the future, was tied directly (or not) to Bennington’s text. Furthermore, Derrida chose to tie his writing to additional texts including St. Augustine’s Confessions, borrowing both form and language to record his own trace representing diffrance. This is not simply to say that the bi-directionality of the writer is tied to a singular historical past or a multiplicity of possible futures only one of which will play out, rather, it is to say that the reciprocal interplay of past and future play themselves out within the idea of trace which is, in turn, represented by diffrance.

Diffrance itself accounts for trace by insisting that the writer strive to investigate all that is different from, in opposition to, and perplexing about a given proposition while differing a permanent solution to the problems posed by the given inquiry. In this sense diffrance accounts for the ability of the writer to alter his or her position upon subsequent readings of the same text. In short, diffrance suggests that problems investigated never are subject to ultimate solutions, rather, they remain open questions allowing one to not categorize thought but account for the “improbable tidings, which destabilize, disconcert, surprise in their turn.”

Diffrance suggests that to know something is, at best, diaphanous, a shadowy figure on the cave wall, subject to a trace suspension of disbelief, if only for an instant, as the present encroaches on both past and future. “One writes,” states Derrida (1993), “only at the moment of giving the contemporary the slip.” (p. 63). Because the trace exists only in the moment and then vanishes without a trace only to give way to a trace in its placead infinitum, or at least until the moment of one’s death, and because each subsequent trace opens the door to surprise, the notion of knowing and diffrance is contained within linguistic boundaries.

“I am the last of the eschatologists, I have to this day above all lived, enjoyed, wept, prayed, suffered as though at the last second, in the imminence of the flashback end, and like no one else I have made the eschaton into a coat of arms of my genealogy, the lips’ edge of my truth but there is no meta-language will mean that a confession does not make the truth, it must affect me, touch me, gather me, re-member me, constitute me, without that meaning, as always, putting an end to, and speaking before you, confiding in you at present what in another period I called my synchrony, telling you the story of my stories” (p. 75)

Knowing, for Derrida, is storied. It represents the intricacies of story telling and the momentary intersection of diffrance as represented in the ever present trace. It is the notion that as one moves forward in time toward the future while remaining shackled to the past, the writer is never subject to categorization or systematization. Quite the contrary, while categories and systems may arise from the relationships to past and future, the word that is penned is always open to a surprise to both the self as writer and the other as reader.

The Relationship to Standards

What does diffrance and trace have to do with standards in education. Let’s see if we can not make this clear. In a nutshell, what Derrida focuses on is that standardization, categorization, and systematization rests on a faulty foundation, one that fails to recognize a reciprocal relationship of the learner, inquiry, and content. Furthermore, standardization is a form of totalization, something that must be avoided at any cost. This is not to deny rigor nor is it to deny serious academic inquiry rather, to deny standardization, in the final analysis, supports both.

Bennington, G. (1993). Jacques Derrida. In J. Derrida (Ed.), Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1978). Writing and difference (A. Bass, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1993). Circumfession. In J. Derrida (Ed.), Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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During the last century, as school enrollment grew and education in the United States developed into a universal birthright, the character of schooling changed. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, schools were places in which students acquired classical knowledge without regard for usefulness or application. Knowing was privileged over doing. As the 20th century marched through time, as immigrant populations were being absorbed into the American mainstream, schools were transformed into places where professionals and quasi-professionals were to be trained to become contributing members of society. Spurred on by a nearly religious reliance on scientific progress, the mantra of public education, whether progressive or not, was to produce contributing citizens for the American Republic. Schools began to privilege doing over knowing.

Today, as we are barely into the 21st century, schools and schooling has turned full circle and, at least in political circles (and some professional education circles as well), school is now understood almost entirely in terms of technical expectations. The problem is, however, that this reliance on technical practice is not producing better students. Linda Darling-Hammond reported that in states with aggressive high-stakes testing programs students performed more poorly than in states that had non-aggressive or non-existing high-stakes assessments.

The fundamental tension is one between knowing and being able to do. I want to argue that knowing, being armed with knowledge of both classical antiquity and focused content is a path to being able to do. By learning to think clearly, to articulate, to write, to be able to make appropriate inferences and so on leads directly to an ability to perform at high levels in any task, professionally oriented or otherwise. I want to further argue that training in a professional or quasi-professional setting does not guarantee the ability to think clearly, the ability to make correct decisions.

The American obsession with testing and performance is counter-productive. Not only will children fail in the end so the nation will not be able to sustain a productive workforce, but the loss of intellectual capital in the process may be irrecoverable in either the short or long term.

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If you want to read a disturbing report then head to this link.  The predictions that most schools in the Great Lakes area will be ‘failing’ by 2014, the year that NCLB requires all schools to be performing at or above grade level, is disturbing to say the least.  If you are not sure about NCLB and the damage it is doing to public education, or even if you are, then this piece is something you should not ignore. 


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Dan Laitsch discusses the impact of high stakes testing on schools and children in the technical report found at the link below. He references the “negative consequences” of high stakes testing and analyzes those consequences. In his conclusion he makes four specific policy recommendations that he urges policy makers to follow. This is a good technical read.

“While such an accountability system may be sensible on its face, it does not account for multiple educational purposes or the complexity of assessment. Nor does it allow educators opportunity to use appropriate data thoughtfully to design comprehensive school reform. Instead, the stress on rewards and punishments based on test scores forces schools to consider the data generated as evaluative rather than as useful for informing instruction. The result is a system that appears coordinated, but results in a number of unintended-although not unpredictable-negative consequences.”


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The link below provides teachers with a number of resources for excellence in teaching for their classrooms. I have reviewed the history and language arts sections and I find them to be competent and useful for the classroom. This is not to say that one should not tweak them to fit the local context of teaching but they do make for a really good starting point as one begins to think about unit and lesson planning. Of course, the best part of these resources is that they are FREE–a service of federal agencies. Why not take a look?

FREE — Federal Resources for Educational Excellence

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I posted a brief comment regarding NCLB and creativity at Helium. The link below will take you to that post. Thanks for taking a look at this short piece.

Is the American education system taking creativity away? – Helium

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