Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Undergrad Reflections: What's it all about?

This is the second in my series on life as an undergraduate student. Bear with me during the boring bits, since the last couple of paragraphs offer some candid self-reflection on my drift to the political right.

I have quite a simple theory of education: education is the process of relaxing assumptions about the world. The further down the path of education we move, the more assumptions are relaxed, in search of the ultimate intellectual nirvana: a worldview completely devoid of assumptions, which sadly seems a theoretical impossibility. By assumptions, I refer to things that we accept as 'given' without needing explanation or justification.

To see this theory in action, a simple example close to my heart: the study of politics (or as those of us who wish to make the subjective appear objective might call it, political science). Without exerting much intellectual energy, you can apply the same framework to things as diverse as language, creative arts, engineering, medicine, business, economics and the law.

As primary school students, we take the world completely on face value. Our knowledge of politics is merely the recall of a handful of verifiable uncontested facts - who the Prime Minister is, what the houses of parliament are called. This is a simple reality that we unquestioningly accept, blissfully unaware that beneath these benign facts exists a dense discourse.

Then we enter secondary school, where we relax the assumption that things have always been as they are. We study to history of our country, with ideas of colonisation and social conflict and we learn about the anticedents of the institutions that exist today. We become comfortable with the idea that the things we previously took for granted had to evolve to become as they are. At this stage we are still in a headspace devoid of theoretical explanations. (For most people, this is the furthest they reach in their understanding of the world.)

In the final years of high school, we relax the idea that the present state of things is somehow an inevitable outcome of our history. We come to realise that things with which we have become familiar (such as the doctrine of the separation of powers, the independence of the public service) are in fact important and deliberate constructions put in place in preference to alternative arrangements. To use a hotly contested phrase, we come to realise that our system of government is the product of evolution rather than Intelligent Design. Ever so slowly, we come to appreciate the remarkable achievement that is a functioning democracy.

As undergraduates, we relax the assumption that institutions are important in themselves, and come to realise that they are merely manifestations of theoretical ideas. Debate, therefore, occurs at the level of these theoretical ideas, hence we are opened up to a world of liberty, democracy, justice, conservatism and the subaltern. Once we make this intellectual leap, we come to see that the neat consensus of societal objectives (peace, freedom, prosperity, equality) that we previously accepted are in fact hotly contested, and occasionally incompatible, and it is necessary to negotiate a path through. We also come to see that the institutions which purport to manifest particular ideas can in fact fail to do so. We therefore become open to the possibility of change or alternative constructions of the world.

And for what awaits those studying as postgrads and beyond, I can only speak speculatively rather than from experience. My hunch is that we relax the assumption about the nature of human beings and human society, and the study of politics begins to overlap with the study of psychology and sociology. The political meaning of the fundamental aspects of social organisation come into question, so that even the most innoccuous word, object or person takes on a political meaning.

This framework is useful at understanding the disjoint between 'elite' and 'popular' opinion. Elite opinion thinks of the world as (at least) undergraduates would, and so hold few assumptions about the way it is. Popular opinion operates with more assumptions, at about the level of the high school student. So when a given issue arises, elites concern themselves with the theoretical challenges posed by an issue, whilst the populous take the existing theoretical worldview as given and so think only of the practical implications.

Consider, for example, the issue of mandatory detention of asylum seekers. On this debate, elites concern themselves with theoretical questions of global justice and human liberty, and so take a sympathetic view of the plight of asylum seekers. Popular opinion, however, doesn't consider these questions and concerns itself only with the immediate practical effect (hordes of foreigners, threat to national security).

To the populous arguing with the elite, these adverse practical effects are the only consideration needed in forming a view, and the elite's antipathy toward these things appears foolish and naive. To the elite arguing with the populous, these practical effects are merely details to be dealt with in pursuit of a fundamental ideal.

(Sure, there are plenty of elites and the populous who defy this portrayal of their viewpoints, however this tool is useful for explaining major currents in opinion. And those who do take an opinion contrary to that suggested by the sophistication of their world view usually justify it in their own coin, such as the elite who might argue that 'mandatory detention curbs the incentive for people smugglers', or a member of the populous who might argue that 'women and children couldn't possibly be a real threat'.)

So the real benefit in a university education is helping a student understand why things are as they are, and how they could be different. University encourages you to challenge even the most foundational and permanent features of the world, by virtue of the fact that these features are constructed rather than natural.

For most students, this drives them toward progressive or even radical politics, as they come to realise that the social hierarchy that they'd previously accepted as immovable can in fact be washed away with the tides of history. All of a sudden the Anglo-hetero-normative-patriarchal-capitalist nature of supposedly neutral institutions becomes obvious, and plotting for their destruction is the only sane thing to do.

For me though, ever the contrarian, the relaxation of assumptions about the world pushed me toward a more conservative strain of politics. It become evident to me that the prosperity, peace and liberty that we enjoy in Australia and the rest of the western world is not some birthright granted to us by a higher being, but is instead the product of the wisdom and decision-making of earlier generations. Had they have made a different set of choices, we may have ended up under tyranny, in poverty and devoid of basic freedoms. Crucially, should we make a poor set of choices, we may yet end up is this dreaded dystopia, such is the impermanence of the current state of affairs. The fundamental tenets of life as we know it need defending - whether it be from religious extremists, political extremists or economic extremists - and to glibly assume that these tenets will exist ad infinitum may be fatal.

A university education forces you to take nothing for granted and recognise that every aspect of the world has a reason for being as it is and that nothing is permanent.

Or as John Maynard Keynes once said, "In the long run, we're all dead."

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mate, got my marks today and they sucked. I very much needed to read what you just wrote. It helps to keep perspective and appreciation of what uni really is. thankyou

Charlie said...

Ari,

Great post, and one that perhaps illuminates for me a little how you've ended up on the right (even if I don't share your conclusions). Makes last night's pub conversation easier to understand, too.

I wonder, though - do you nevertheless rule out the prospect of a more egalitarian, co-operative society?

You think that you will let go of assumptions about human nature in your post-grad life. Might this include the classical liberal assumption of humans as self-serving, coldly rational beings?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting reading Ari. I really enjoyed this.

I'm not sure about evolution analogy since in society we are talking about an 'unnatural' system (with fairness, safety, whatever) unlike in nature where things are harsh and unpredictable.

In fact, unlike the evolution of nature, social progress has often relied on intelligent leaders (and founding fathers) to shunt things away from undesirable outcomes and towards their current state of affairs. It may be a long process but it's not exactly evolution as I understand it.

But that's a minor point. I still like the framework.

Tafty.

Anonymous said...

Your analysis is interesting though I would go further to derive more specific types of education as leading to certain outcomes - I have no doubt that strict religious schooling, or any schooling that 'educates' in a very dogmatic way, may in fact tighten assumptions as the pupil gets older.

I cannot bring myself to use the word 'elite' in the intellectual sense for this reason. There have been periods in Western civilisation where no doubt the 'popular opinion' holds less assumptions than the 'elite', particularly in times of civil unrest and revolution. A slave in Ancient Athens would have disagreed with Aristotle's argument that there is such a thing as a 'natural slave'.

Anonymous said...

Ari, nice piece although may I question the description of yourself as a contrarian? Possibly in the narrow sense of a university education you might have a small claim but I had always seen progressives as society’s true contrarians who determinately swim against the flow. The great ones like Christ, Ghandi, and Martin Luther (all whom would neatly fit the description of those you consider we need defending against), seem to pull the rest of us along in something akin to an eddy effect, but for the ordinary contrarian in is just plain hard work.

It is fairly evident in Australia at present there are many who have found the work too much, cast off their moorings, inflated the tractor tube, slapped on the boardies, sunscreen, and terry-towelling hat, stuck a tinnie on the chest and headed off for the ride. After appearing at least to have anchored yourself for a while it would now seem you have joined the flotilla. Sure you might grab at the odd overhanging branch every once in a while and muse a little while looking back upstream, but nowadays the only use of your paddle is too take an occasional swipe at the swimmer coming the other way, including a little contrarian duck.

We can only hope that it is a gentle snag that pulls you up before you are lost to some Niagara.

Cheers

Cameron

Anonymous said...

Well that post is self defeating. If that's the vibe out there, then Ari probably is the contrarian.
Nice piece too.

Daniel said...

The process you describe happens in all sorts of subjects and may be a necessary thing. So we are told that the nucleus of an atom is 'orbited' by however many discrete electrons. Then later we are told that there is in fact an amorphous 'electron cloud' in which one cannot distinquish between one electron and the next. Sometimes a simplification is necessary to then understanding a more complex explanation further on.

However in other cases I think we should do away with the simplification as soon as we can. Why do we ever have to tell teenagers that political debate is defined by 'left and right' when the more accurate explanation that "there are many different persons and groups that have overlapping but differing interests" is one they can readily understand because it conforms with observed behaviour among their own family and friends?

Well into adulthood many - even those who have been to uni - continue to hold assumptions that distort how they understand politics. Assumptions like "if you are not part of the solution then you are part of the problem" or "my enemy's enemy is surely my friend" are a huge impediment to a more frank and constructive public political discourse.

Anonymous said...

Who the fxxx are these 'elites' you keep talking about? People who drive Mercedes Benzes and send their kids to private schools? Stupid word. Say what you mean.

Anonymous said...

It’s a good piece Ari. A strange piece, albeit a good piece all the same. I don’t agree with your theory on education at all. I think it treads the waters Cameron was talking about as some sort of fledgling stoic’s crisis. Futhurmore, it isn’t only untenable it doesn’t really make any sense. Granted your view on education contains similar undertones to Cartesian logic. However, one has to question the intrinsic value of a “relaxed assumption”. Whether one delves into the minimalistic mindstates of the sixties era, or the libertarian “intellectual nirvana’s” you think people are trying to seek now, a world completely devoid of assumptions has little if any use for the pragmatists. No matter what era they happen to tread. And no matter how many sitting ducks they happen to push aside. A good example of the type of condition I think students and academics alike suffer from at the University of Melbourne is a nirvana where they feel safe to express their opinions without being ostracized or looked at as “the other” in polite intellectual circles. You once said you “felt like a butcher at a Vegan’s convention” when you were in the face of some radical feminists at Melbourne University. On the academic side of things I once met an academic in the music department who was so disillusioned with music pedagogy he didn’t even bother trying to teach us theory in first year. He wanted to focus on “how the music makes you feel”. So in your theory of education while it is conceptually flawed, it has some cognitive merits. If you want my advice personally, finish the Reflective memoir and try to formulate a different view on education free of the overrated intellectual elitism Melbourne University tries to propagate for itself. Most of them are just sitting Ducks…


As far as your typology of student learning etc this is remarkably esoteric. Yes, you may have a perfectly good and morally sound reason for this. You do mention “most people” in your brief analysis of “understanding the world”. So I really don’t know where you are going with this…

Tafty: You have to realize its also the framework of a personalized reflective critique of the educational system. It is always going to bear the mark of some arbitrary prolonged “evolution”. It isn’t so much the evolution of the social system that’s inherently unnatural- I give you that. Its Ari’s evolution as a human being. His preference for an evolving democratic system and all its put in place to be there. He's calling it an "evolution" to appreciate it more. I think his worldview is “My discourse” over “My world”. And even if it isn’t its still a reflective commentary coming from him. It's perfectly natural...

Anonymous said...

Dear previous,

I couldn't really understand much of your comment at all, unfortunately. I did try.

But as for the last part, well ... derr.

Tafty.

Anonymous said...

Tafty: Good to hear the "derr"

Don't know what you mean exactly about not

"understanding" it.

Anonymous said...

Tafty: Hrmm on second thought, ok maybe I wasn't clear. What I mean by "cognitive merit" is Ari has obviously pushed made a conscious effort to push a few boundaries. His intellectual "nirvana" isn't a view uncommon to those around him though. Particularly in the arts. From the radical feminists to the dissatisfied music professors. People want to be sure about what their education means to them. Devoid of assumptions...

When I say it contains undertones of Cartesian logic I mean it utilises doubt as a central tenet.

I'm not sure about where you come from though so maybe you take on a different perspective.