We Think, Therefore We Are

October 5, 2008

Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0: an excellent paper on opening up education, or OUE, by John Seely Brown, Visiting Scholar and Advisor to the Provost at the University of Southern California (USC) and Independent Co-Chairman of a New Deloitte Research Center, and Richard P. Adler, Research Affiliate at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto and Principal of People & Technology, a research and consulting firm in Cupertino, California.

I quite like the distinction Brown and Adler make between the Cartesian and what they call the social view of learning:

One of the promises of the social learning model–not often talked about–is that it moves us away from the deadening effects of reductionism that I spoke about in my last post. So far as schools have followed the Cartesian model Brown and Adler describe, they’ve shut off a great deal of important conversation about what we each and collectively believe about the nature of things. Philosophically speaking, the modern world sees fundamental metaphysical matters as relative: you have your world view and I have mine. But, contemporary thought says that even if it was to grant that such talk is about absolutes, it is not clearly and distinctly knowable in an empirical, or Cartesian, way and therefore falls outside any profitable discussion. Faith claims are like flavours of ice cream in this sense. Psychologically speaking, the modern world sees any transferring of what it deems mere opinion as proselytising or indoctrination. Thus, the very structure of modern pedagogy inhibits robust discussion of the very things that move us most deeply, as I said in my August 23, ’08 post “First Things.” Moreover, the structure of modern pedagogy says such discussions are unimportant.

On the other hand, a social view of learning might reawaken intelligent conversation about first things, or faith claims or metaphysics–whatever we want to call those frames of reference that shape all we say and do. First of all, it is about dialogue, which is something structurally different from the essentially one-way communication in the Cartesian model. In dialogue, we seek one of two things: the truth, if it can be known; and if it can’t, which is more often the case, a better understanding of the problem. We come to these by comparing our views with those of others. That simply can’t be done in the Cartesian model.


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