Category Archives: Recommendation

Kipnis and the Advance of an Unwanted Argument

Kipnis-3D-UnwantedAdvances.pngLaura Kipnis is provocative, and there’s a degree to which the deliberateness of her provocation and the joy she takes framing her argument in the most provocative way that makes her a provocateur. Nevertheless, in Unwanted Advances Kipnis offers an incisive diagnosis of, among other contemporary cultural issues, the bloated Title IX bureaucracy and the backdoor anti-feminism it sustains under the guise of feminism. The book jacket blasts this broadside at contemporary feminism with the forceful lack of nuance that characterizes her entire book: “If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama.” The point is made at greater length and with a bit more precision in the final thoughts.

Women want to have sexual adventures and make mistakes, but there’s a growing tendency, at the moment, to offload the responsibility, to make other people pay for those mistakes–namely, guys. Women don’t drink; men get them drunk. Women don’t have sex; sex is done to them. This isn’t feminism, it’s a return to the most traditional conceptions of female sexuality.

As evidence for this diagnosis, Kipnis offers two broad case studies. The first is that of Peter Ludlow, a Northwestern University professor of philosophy who resigned over issues related to sexual activities with two students. The official narrative (which you can read at length here) is that Ludlow abused his power as a professor to varying degrees to harass or assault these two students. Kipnis argues that this narrative is only believable as long as the secrecy of Title IX tribunals is held as sacrosanct, as is the “mantra” that “survivors must be believed.” (“The problem is the unacknowledged slippage between ‘survivors’ and ‘accusers.’) When the confidential evidence of the Title IX investigation is brought to light–which Kipnis takes almost puckish relish in doing–and when people are given the epistemic space to evaluate harassment or assault allegations the way they evaluate other truth claims, the story crumbles (or at least wobbles).

The other case study is Kipnis’ own Title IX investigation, the result of two Northwestern students who objected to an article Kipnis wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education (and a subsequent tweet about the outrage it sparked). The students charged that Kipnis had created a “chilling effect” on the ability of students to report sexual misconduct and that the very act of mentioning the charges against Ludlow “was retaliatory and created a hostile environment” for the accuser.

Perhaps unwittingly–though doubtless not as unwittingly as she makes out–Kipnis had found herself in the middle of a larger cultural battle raging around campus sexual assault, one that people of her perspective and temperament had already functionally lost in the public discourse even as they continued to fight it out in front of Congress and the courts. On the one hand, the loudest voices in campus politics and on Twitter and in the culture at large, belong to a camp that Kipnis calls “primary preventionists.” These are people “who believe in targeting potential offenders [men] while promoting overall cultural change.” On the other hand, there are the “risk” or “harm reductionists,” the people “who want to educate potential victims about how to decrease their chance of victimhood–using a buddy system at parties, not falling asleep with male study partners, and so on.”

It’s really a debate about the relationship between agency and blame (or, as I’ve written recently with reference to Kipnis, causality and culpability). Risk reductionists worry that primary preventionists are so busy blaming men that they give them all the power and, in Kipnis’ words, “replicate the supposedly passé social idea that men have agency and women are people to whom things just happen.” Meanwhile, primary preventionists believe that the stress on women’s agency is a cover for (or at least tantamount to) blaming victims. Kipnis quotes one expert as saying, “Society needs to establish a zero tolerance for sexual violence. Instead of saying, ‘don’t get raped,’ which shifts the responsibility onto a potential victim, the message should be ‘don’t rape’ and focus on holding perpetrators accountable.”

Both characterizations (blaming victims vs. disempowering women) are parodies of the intent of the respective positions, and the students Kipnis talks to show clear signs that, in real life, their response to the sexual culture on campus are less ideologically pure and more mingled. Yet Kipnis offers a level of pragmatism and cynicism that resonates, at least with those who of us who are not naively optimistic about human nature.

Yes, there’s an excess of masculine power in the world, and women have to be educated to contest it in real time, instead of waiting around for men to reach some new stage of heightened consciousness–just in case that day never comes….Teaching affirmative consent is great–sure, keep doing it until it works. (It’s not going to.) Yes, harassment and assault are structural problems; yes society has to change….Nobody thinks self-defense training will be effective in every case. But it would change the outcome in plenty of cases, and we’re doing women no favors by not training them in how to deal with the range of situations they’re likely to face.

These are precisely the things policy makers and public intellectuals struggle to say. The idea of “training women to have more agency is somehow taboo,” Kipnis laments. This particularly true if you accept the statistics offered by Kipnis, from the New York Times, about the success of some risk reduction programs in reducing assaults by as much as 50%. There are, according to the author, no comparable statistics for the success of the currently en vogue primary prevention programs. If there is a campus epidemic of sexual assault (and Kipnis expresses measured skepticism), then women have a right to the best tools for preventing those assaults–not sometime in the bright and glorious future but now when it is happening. “‘I’m not excusing the male’s behavior by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think that young women are part of the solution.'”

I came in to Unwanted Advances already both a cynic and a pragmatist (on this and many other issues), so Kipnis provided a wealth of new insights and anecdotal support for positions I already essentially held. This is perhaps the greatest flaw in her case, that it is entirely in the form of a diatribe argued from anecdote. As a feminist intellectual and academic cultural critic, Kipnis provides an unusual voice for a position normally stereotyped as fitting only for a “huffing and puffing…bow-tied neocon.” That in itself was reassuring for me, both personally and intellectually. But for every story of Title IX injustice, there is certainly a case of an assault victim who received no justice, a harasser who escaped both scrutiny and consequence. What then is the takeaway from Kipnis’ book even for those who do not, who cannot agree with her.

More than anything, Kipnis argues for transparency, epistemic honesty, education, and dialogue.

We’re never going to decrease sexual assault on campus–a goal I assume everyone shares–if we can’t have open conversations about it. Having control over your body is, especially for women, a learned skill; it requires education. It also requires a lot more honesty about the complicated sexual realities hiding behind the slogans than is currently permissible.

Unfortunately, our current climate of purity tests and public denunciations allows no space for any of this. It isn’t that I know I’m right–though I necessarily believe that I am. Conservatives have been wrong before. Men have certainly been wrong before. I’ve personally be wrong before. Kipnis, I hope, would have the humility to say the same about women, feminists, and herself as well. The problem is that campus administrators, politicians, and activities have come to the conclusion that wrong ideas can be legislated out of existence. They cannot be. Racism and sexism have found ways to resurrect and replicate in every generation without regard for laws and regulations.

Wrong ideas only go away when they cease to be useful, when the paradigm no longer functions meaningfully to interpret the world. In other words, if risk reduction (or pragmatism or cynicism) are wrong, the only way to rid the world of them is through suasion or obsolescence. They cannot be shouted down. They cannot be legislated away. If you want a bad belief to disappear, you must–and we stress the titular metaphor beyond the breaking point now–allow the unwanted argument to continue to advance until it becomes so absurd that not even its most staunch proponents will employ it anymore.

In the meantime, all Kipnis asks–all I ask–is that we do whatever needs to be done to stop some sexual assaults along the way.

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Whose Religion is Christianity?

Lamin Sanneh asked the title question in his 2004 book of the same name. In spite of being in school studying world Christianity at the time of its publication, the book never made it onto my radar. That is perhaps not surprising given that Sanneh deliberately rejects the style of the academic essay in favor of a dialogue, proceeding not through argument and evidence but innuendo, supposition, and a mix of rhetorical and leading questions. It is a provocative and approachable way to write but not necessarily a useful one for academics.

Even so, when I heard that a friend of mine who has recently entered seminary was assigned the book and since Sanneh died earlier this year, it seemed as though now might be the time to take it up. The title question is certainly intriguing enough. Given that he has made a career writing about Christianity in Africa, it is not surprising that Sanneh makes clear that Christianity, if it belongs to anyone, does not belong to Europe. In fact, he draws firm lines of connection between the imperial ideal of medieval Christendom and the 19th century missionary impulse to make global Christianity in the image of European Christianity.

Sanneh is right to point out the extent to which Christianity in Europe was a culturally conditioned reality and the degree to which these cultural conditions were misunderstood as inherent to Christianity. Though he does not address it, after the Chinese Rites controversy was settled against the accommodationist Jesuits, the equation of European Christianity with true Christianity has been de rigueur among Catholic and Protestant missionaries from the North Atlantic. Even so, the recognition that European Christianity is culturally compromised (or, more neutrally, conditioned) negates only one possible answer to Sanneh’s question: Whose religion is Christianity? Not Europe’s.

The problem is that all manifestations of Christianity are culturally conditioned, including the Christianity of the first century, shaped deeply as it was by the Mediterranean world in which it was born. If “original” Christianity was conditioned by its culture as well, then that leaves relatively limited possibilities for how to answer Sanneh’s question.

On the one hand, there is the primordialist tack that says that the “original” Christianity (whether or not culturally conditioned) is the true Christianity and that, in so far as it is possible, we should try to mimic the substance of that Christianity insofar as it can be translated into our culture. (When it can’t, of course, the problem must be with our culture and not with primordial Christianity.) This is certainly a familiar viewpoint for me, having grown up in the Churches of Christ. Sanneh would surely  (and rightly) point out that these primordial fantasies are always filtered so heavily through our North Atlantic cultural prisms as to be distorted beyond all meaningful similarity.

But his version of this primordialism isn’t any more satisfying. After asking himself about the significance of the rise of non-European versions of Christianity (particularly in Africa), Sanneh responds that in these new expressions of Christianity, the West can encounter

the gospel as it is being embraced by societies that had not been shaped by the Enlightenment, and so gain an insight into the culture that shaped the origins of the NT church. That might bring about a greater appreciation for the NT background of Christianity.It might also shed light on the issues of the early church faced as i moved between the Jewish and Gentile worlds.

This is the same fallacy dressed up in African rather than Euro-American garb. Sanneh has quite nonsensically divided the world into Enlightenment and non-Enlightenment societies, as though the influence of that one European intellectual movement alone accounted for all the cultural peculiarity of Europe. This has the strange effect of flattening all other societies (and by implication feeding myths of European exceptionalism). The truth is that the churches of Africa are equally but differently distant the New Testament church. Primordialism can answer the question of “whose Christianity” but it cannot overcome the challenge of access, no matter what cultural version of Christianity is under consideration. None of us can go back.

Another response is to assume that no culturally conditioned version of Christianity is true Christianity. Instead, we might imagine that there is a pure, undiluted Christianity behind all cultural versions, that since Truth only breaks into the world through people and in human societies, that it must necessarily always come dressed in the various garbs of human culture. This too resonates with much of what Sanneh has to say, particular when he notes that all “contexts, after all, are constructed strategies” that must be approached with shrewd sensitivity. Sanneh sees, quite poetically, in our culturally different expressions of Christianity the prerequisite for authentic fraternity:

[D]isagreement is not a barrier to dialogue. On the contrary, it is a test of the willingness to presume on each other’s goodwill and to covet the best for each other. To be charitable is to be deserving of charity oneself. Without difference dialogue would be moot. If you feel the need to conceal what you believe for fear of difference, then dialogue becomes just a show, and agreement an illusion.

If diversity rather than colonial uniformity is the future of Christianity–as Sanneh seems to believe, nowhere more so than when he rejects the idea that African Christians might try to reform Euro-American Christianity–then it seems as though true Christianity must be in the Neoplatonic source material of our common faith. The problem, however, remains access, as Sanneh never theorizes what it is that stands behind these various expressions of Christianity to bind the faith together or how we can tap in to it. (He, in fact, praises the lack of orthodox line-drawing in African Christianity as one of the ways it is superior to European Christianity.) He still claims that “doctrine and exegesis are important” without telling us by what common standards we can debate doctrine and ignoring that exegesis (rather than hermeneutics) is a peculiarly Enlightenment European approach to Scripture.

The desire to distill Christianity into its immutable core in an effort to unite culturally and linguistically diverse communities has been, to varying degrees, the great challenge of churches from their early years. It is the source of the conciliar tendency in Orthodoxy and the dogmatic tendency in Catholicism. The Churches of Christ aimed to make common sense the key to unlock the platonic mysteries of uncorrupted Christianity. Sanneh charts no parallel project in African Christianity, leaving open the possibility that the only thing left for diverse Christians to agree on is their difference itself. They would be, in essence, agreeing only to disagree.

There is a third, even less appetizing answer, one that would appeal mostly to the doctrinaire secularists that Sanneh scolds for ignoring the rise of Christianity outside of Europe and North America. They would answer that Christianity is “no one’s.” Rather than there being a primordial or a Platonic Christianity, they would suggest that Christianity has no meaningful existence beyond its particular cultural expression, and that unity (if there is such anywhere) is a rhetorical tool rather than a reality. The question then becomes ridiculous, and (like many fashionable scholars of early Christianity from Sanneh’s day) we can talk only about Christianities all equally legitimate–or, more commonly, equally illegitimate.

Sanneh is right to title his little book with a question, as he quite deliberately refuses to provide a satisfying answer to the core problem of his text. If we must (and he, and others, have convincingly argued that we must) abandon the orthodox hubris that one extant branch of Christianity has a claim to perfect–or even just best–belief and practice, then what are we left with? A backward looking utopianism that ignores the impossibility of cultural translation? A Platonic idealism that must resolve itself either into Gnosticism or unbounded pluralism? A postmodern nihilism that makes religion the meaningless expression of ethnocentrism or solipsism?

Maybe there is no good answer. What I can say with some certainty is that Sanneh doesn’t provide it.

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The Many Layers of Brightburn

I went to see Brightburn this week, and let me preface what follows by saying that as a movie, judged purely by entertainment value, the film is good but not great. I probably won’t buy it; I may never even watch it again. Even so, as I was driving home from the cinema, I couldn’t help but wonder at the many different levels that the story worked on. It occurred to me that, had this been directed by Jordan Peele instead of by the juvenile minds behind PG Porn, it might have been the subject of the same kind of glowing and relentlessly analytical think pieces that appeared everywhere about Get Out and Us.*

Whether the Gunn brothers meant it to or not, Brightburn operates at a number of relatively sophisticated levels that let the film linger on longer in the mind than its low budget effects and jump scares might otherwise imply. [Warning, I make no promises about spoilers beyond this point.]

The first and most obvious level, the one nearest to what the filmmakers evidently intended, is as a critique of transhumanism, not unlike others I have profiled here in the past. The film was marketed as a subversion of the Superman origin story, a grimly realistic assessment of what it might look like for a god-man to suddenly appear on earth. The naïve assumption at the basis of superhero logic is that such a being would be benevolent toward us lesser mortals, as though there were an inviolable connection between higher-order physical abilities and higher-order morality (defined as humanistic altruism). Not all super-people are heroes, but the unspoken but foundational rule of the superhero world is that there are at least as many superhuman heroes as there are superhuman villains–or, perhaps more precisely, that the balance of superhuman power in the final estimation tilts slightly but significantly toward the good. (More on this in a moment.)

Brightburn turns this on its head, observing as does philosopher John Gray, that power may not yield a benign paternalism. In fact, there is no reason to assume it should. Since the power of Brighburn over humans mortality is almost total and their power over his mortality is almost nonexistent, the closest analogue in the real world is the relationship between humans and animals. That suggests a range of possible behaviors for superhumans, all of which find expression in the film. People domesticate and feel affection for certain animals, as Brightburn does (intermittently) for his family and–in an even more perfect parallel–for the little girl that he has a crush on. People kill animals out of fear for harm (mortal or merely inconvenient) they might do, as Brightburn does when his life or his domestic peace are threatened. People kill animals for sport or out of disgust, as does Brighburn to a waitress at a diner that he considered a pest. Brightburn behaves toward people the way that people behave toward animals, and that (more than the Superman narrative) has the savor of reality. Contrary to the Billie Eilish lyrics that sound over the end credits, Brightburn is not the “bad guy.” Not really. He is just something else. When he tells the school counselor that he is “superior” to other students who he had hurt, he sounds like a sociopath to the people in the film. All the audience hears is clarity. He is superior.

The basic arc of the film operates on other levels as well, though these may not have been intended or fully realized by the filmmakers. It is, second, a rather telling critique of the frailty of contemporary social dynamics. The film shines a particularly harsh light on the impunity with which people do evil to one another, and to the extent to which Brightburn is evil, he is evil because people made him that way. The myth that there will always be a little more evil in the world than good is not confined to heroes vs. villains. It is a reflection of the more general belief that people are, on the balance, good–if not any particular individual than at least humanity in the aggregate. The film, however, shows the fragility of this myth

When the carnage of the film starts, it is not the result of any great malice on the part of Brightburn. He merely parrots the behaviors and attitudes of the people around him, with the sole difference that his behaviors are exaggerated to match his abilities. When a student allows Brighburn to smack his head on the concrete during gym class, Brightburn responds by crushing her hand. This inspires fear in everyone around them for reasons that are clear on the surface and then murky when you consider them. After all, the blow to the head–equally deliberate–was the potentially more deadly act; the hard hand squeeze, in contrast, seems like overzealous but not disproportionate revenge. The real fear comes from the shattered illusion that there is an outer limit to the consequences of our actions. Born of a false sense of power and reliance on the very social rules that we expect to protect us, people (like the malicious little girl) treat others viciously with impunity. Brightburn–like any sociopathic character (think Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America)–indicates how precarious our way of life is when someone is not bound by our rules and limitations.

The mother of the girl with the injured hand didn’t learn this lesson at first. She stood in the principal’s office, demanding that the boy be arrested, calling him the same kinds of names that got her daughter’s hand broken, and attacking his parents. Brightburn’s mother doesn’t hit her, the way we might expect her to, because the situation unfolds under the dutiful and watchful eye of the principal and the sheriff. Brightburn is not bound by any of this. He calmly takes an eye for an eye, responding to the mother with all the anger and visciousness that she treated him. When the school counselor threatens him, he responds in kind. When the sheriff tries to exert his authority, Brightburn dispatches him without theatrics.

In every case, the “evil” of Brightburn is a mere repayment with interest of the evil that has been doled out on him. This is especially true of his parents, both of whom he loves and respects up until the very moment they betray him. When his father becomes rough with him, Brightburn gets rough back. Even so, he is willing to mend the relationship until the moment his father (knowing full well it will be ineffective) tries to shoot Brighburn in the head with a rifle. The patricide that follows is a quid pro quo. The same is true of his mother, who Brightburn embraces only to find that she intends to stab him in the back. Then she too must die.

In this reading, Brightburn is still not the bad guy, although the concern is less with transhumanism than with the nature/nurture debate. Though the filmmakers include a epiphanic moment of evil awakening, the rest of the film leans heavily on the idea that Brightburn has been taught to be evil by observing how others interact. The issue here is not that the superhuman is powerful and for that reason disinclined to do good; the issue is that he has learned from us to be evil, but that his power prevents that evil from being checked conventional social rules or policing authorities. Brightburn is how we would all act if we too were bulletproof.

The film provides ample space to consider nature and roots of evil in individuals and society, but there is a third level at which the film operates that is only tangentially related to these themes. In some sense, the film operates as a hyperbolic consideration of adoption anxiety–for both children and parents. Coming from a composite family, the most common objection I hear to the idea of adoption is “but what if you end up with a bad kid.” (It’s rarely phrased quite so bluntly, but the sentiment is the same. No one ever asks about the numerous defective kids that people bring into their families naturally and entirely by accident.) Brightburn takes that question to its most fantastically dark place: what if the kid you “adopted” was an extraterrestrial, immortal psycho-murderer? How strong are the affective bonds between parent and child when not fortified by biology? How long and under what circumstances does your love endure?

The answers Brightburn gives are actually quite touching, as both parents retain their familial orientation and their strong affection for Brightburn even up to and through the moment that each attempts to murder him. Brightburn, for his part, takes the knowledge that he has been “found in the woods” comparatively in stride, continuing to love his parents up to (and possibly through) the moment he actually does kill each of them. Families with adopted children may not find the ultimate message of the film all that endearing, insofar as it superficially seems to confirm fears about adopted kids, but they will certainly see in it the clear struggles that composite families face.

“Do you even know who his real mother is?” “I’m his real mother.” This exchange between a nasty individual and Brightburn’s mother has perhaps more emotional resonance than any other in the film. “You know what I meant.” “I know exactly what you meant.” The candid struggle between the need to suppress the otherness of the adopted child and to affirm the uniqueness of the situation. The anxiety and crisis of identity the child feels as his “true” origins are gradually revealed. All of these play a part in making this sub-plot of the film feel very real in the midst of a lot of fantastic unrealism.

For all this, Brightburn is also a film where the camera lingers for a full thirty seconds on a woman trying to pull a shard of glass out of her open eye. So I’m trying to be careful not to over-intellectualize it. Nevertheless, the filmmakers have hit on a truly polyvalent tool for considering our anxieties about social decorum and cohesion, as well as our struggle with the fabric of good and evil beyond the narrow limits of our experience. It’s a film worth seeing–certainly if you like horror movies or superhero movies, but also if your looking for an interesting vehicle for considering some deeper (perhaps unintended) meanings as well.

*Frankly, I loved both of those movies and, based on the subject matter alone, I think that Brighburn probably would have appealed to Peele as a project. He may even have made a more entertaining film out of it. The critical response would have been different, though. That’s my only point.
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Exposing the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (and Ourselves)

Personality BrokersI hate personality testing. And I hate the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Not as much as some other personality systems, to be sure, but enough that the last time my wife brought it up, I regaled everyone within earshot at IKEA about the deeply theoretical flaws in personality systems that rely on binaries—even the complex four part binaries of the MBTI. So when I flipped through the first few pages of Merve Emre’s Personality Brokers—a “strange history” of the MBTI—I thought I had hit the jackpot: a reputable history of the MBTI’s origins written by the professed skeptic. In her opening passage, Emre even went so far as to characterize the study as an investigation, the kind that produces “a kind of low-level paranoia. Files disappear. Tapes are erased. People begin to watch you.” The following lines hinted at an exposé of the dangerous cult of personality (double entendre intended) surrounding Isabel Myers and her test. Hooked, I settled in with every expectation of gleefully hate learning about the history of the test in every revealing and embarrassing detail.

What Emre actually delivers is something more measured and less titillating, facts which I can forgive in part because I am embarrassed by the maniacal joy with which I approached the book and in part because the sincerity of her approach humanizes the history of the MBTI without dulling any of the relevant criticisms.

Personality Brokers is not so much a history of the test as it is a double biography of its two founders, Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers, and there is clear effort to rehabilitate these women without conceding meaningful ground to the product of their labors. Emre makes clear that, even as a skeptic, she cannot escape frustration with the fact that one of the key criticisms leveled against the MBTI is that people then and now scoff at the lay origins of what is ostensibly a Jungian psychological tool. Disbelief that the originators were women is a recurring theme in Emre’s narrative, and, while time has muted or masked those objections, the idea that untrained hobbyists would perfect the science of personality continues to be an easy ad hominem to challenge the validity of the test.

In contrast, Emre depicts the women as tireless and rigorous autodidacts, whose work made every effort to conform to both the prevailing theories of psychology and the dominant modes of testing and verification. These were not bored housewives with nothing better to do than devise addictive personality tests—notwithstanding the remarkable fact that the first iteration of the MBTI was basically a Cosmo quiz, appearing in 1926 in the New Republic as “Meet Yourself: How to Use the Personality Paint Box.” They were college-educated, careful students of Jung, who tried to apply sophisticated and cutting edge psychological theories to the problems in their immediate orbit. Sometimes these were stereotypical problems of marital bliss and effective childrearing; sometimes they were the loftier goals about predicting and preventing postpartum depression and selecting effective spies that couldn’t be cracked by the Soviets.

These were incredible women doing incredible work in an age when this was particularly difficult for women to accomplish. Yet Emre rightly diagnoses their push for broad applicability, the mass value of the MBTI, as the key to its failure as a scientific instrument. The more the women needed Jung’s theories to apply to everyday life, the more they had to be abstracted from anything with verifiable clinical value. All the old objections remain and find occasional reiteration in Emre’s narrative: people’s type shows high variability (from test to test in as short a span as a week), the test has biases along gender, racial, and economic lines, the self-reported nature puts results at a remove from reality, and the vagueness of the type categories creates a broad enough umbrella to find assent regardless of what kind of person you actually are. (This, it turns out, was done purposefully to increase marketability once the test let Myers’ hands.) More than all of this, however, Emre cites the need for the test to work—for everybody and in every situation—as the original sin of the MBTI.

For all this, Emre concludes that the MBTI’s greatest failing is also its core strength. The ability of the test to quantify an individual, to put them into a marketable category of type, allows for a ease of self-discovery that has a way of removing the shame from who we are. If you can’t get along with your spouse, perhaps you are contrasting types. If you fight often with your parents, it may be a clash of types. If your child is struggling in school, perhaps the teacher just doesn’t understand how a child of your type learns. By teaching us who we are, the MBTI also tells us why our lives are unfolding the way they do. It can be liberating to understand oneself, especially if that understanding comes dressed up in the trappings of psychological jargon and authority.

This new-ageyness of the MBTI had never been part of my criticism of the test—which had always been more purely theoretical (perhaps reflecting my type…)—and I am indebted to Emre for introducing me to this line of critique. In the end, the act of self-classification and the classification of others is about the absolution of responsibility. Cloaking a problem in type excuses the student from learning, the couple from trying, the child from submitting to its parents. Advocates of the MBTI would argue that the indicator tells you how to navigate those problems rather than how to avoid them, but even anecdotal experience with personality typing (of any system) shows that its explanatory power is dismissive

Katherine Briggs used it this way against her son-in-law; Isabel Myers used it the same way; and sitting around the dinner table with my in-laws the great tradition continues. “You do that because you’re…” or “You say that because you’re…” Left brained. Type A. INTP. Emre sums it up best when she points out the vast gulf that exists between the old MBTI slogan “You’re not one in 16. You’re one in a million” and the actual use of the test in hiring and firing, college admissions, career planning, relationship counseling, and social media. The moment you consent to—even invite—categorization, you cease to be an individual and become a type.

That’s the whole point, the usefulness of the MBTI and other personality type systems after all. With that loss of individuality comes a necessary loss of culpability for the way that your life unfolds. You become the Marxian individual, making your own history but not within parameters of your own choosing. Within the limits of your innate type, you cannot be held responsible for your action. A slightly less renowned philosopher put the same sentiment this way: “Oh there ain’t no other way. Baby I was born this way.” What Gaga, Marx, and Myers-Briggs all seem to have in common is the idea that the surrender of the self to the destiny of birth is somehow liberating. That’s not a liberation that I want any part in.

On the whole, I recommend Personality Brokers enthusiastically. It is a thought-provoking and accessible bit of biography of the unwitting crafters of one the great cultural phenomena of our times. Though far from a quick read, Emre writes in an engaging style mixing insight and measured criticism with humanity and candid self-reflection. Though most consumer reviews have been superficially parsed into negative “true believers” and positive critics, Emre’s text is evenhanded enough to have something to offer everyone. Like the MBTI training group that provides the substance of her conclusion, Emre provides space for advocates to ask questions and seek answers without necessarily abandoning the self-actualization that MBTI offers, for better or worse.

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Inuyashiki and the Critique of Transhumanism

Inuyashiki CoverThe best science fiction is always that which lays bare and critiques our contemporary desires. It should expose to the critical light of fictive realization the unexamined, uncontested aspirations of the present moment. This is precisely what Inuyashiki does with regard to transhumanism and the desire for technology to press humans beyond their mortal limits. The work of renowned mangaka Oku Hiroya, Inuyashiki began as a manga and found even broader reception in the fall of 2017 as an anime adaptation and the spring of 2018 as a live action film. The story follows the divergent path of two individuals–a high school student and an older salaryman–who are accidentally killed by aliens but resurrected in hyper-advanced mechanical bodies. The narrative tackles many important themes, one of the most overt of which is the common cultural anxiety in Japan about the fitness of Japanese youth to carry on the legacy and values of predecessors from the boom years. (It is no coincidence that the protagonist is an adult who looks aged far beyond his years, the antagonist a disaffected youth.) Equally important, however, is the way that Inuyashiki explores the implications of transhumanism, a philosophy that advocates the augmentation of human intellectual and physical abilities through advanced technology with the ultimate aim of transcending finitude and, with it, death. To understand the critique of this philosophy, a brief overview of Inuyashiki is necessary. (Fair warning: what follows makes no effort to avoid spoilers.)

The story centers on two main characters already alluded to: the titular Inuyashiki Ichirō and the ironically named Shishigami Hiro. (“Hiro,” pronounced like “hero,” is a play on words in both English and Japanese since “hero” comes into Japanese as a loanword from English.) Inuyashiki is an unassuming salaryman in his early 50s (though he looks much older), unappreciated by his family and disenchanted with society. Shishigami is a seventeen-year-old high school student who cares only for his immediate friends and family, with little interest or affection for the rest of the world. By coincidence the two happen into the same park at the same moment when an alien spaceship appears, obliterating both men. The aliens, having violated their own version of the prime directive, resurrect them both using the only raw materials available–advanced weapons from their ship. What Inuyashiki and Shishigami do with their new augmented bodies constitutes the main arc of the story.

With some initial reluctance and an enduring clumsiness (think your grandfather on Facebook), Inuyashiki turns his power to the social good. He saves a homeless man from a murderous group of children and, significantly, chooses to shame them publicly rather than punish them physically. He pulls people from burning buildings, politely asking the people he saves for secrecy and anonymity. When he encounters more violent enemies, like the yakuza, Inuyashiki (subconsciously) permits himself to take more extreme measures, though he still cripples rather than kills the gangsters. He wants them to spend their lives reflecting on their misdeeds.

Shishigami takes a diametrically opposite course. He immediately begins wandering into the homes of random strangers and killing everyone present. In a particularly graphic early scene, he shoots a father who is bathing with his toddling son and then allows the weight of the father’s slumped corpse to drown the child in a tub of bloody water. At times, Shishigami kills with more purpose, but that purpose is narcissistic rather than noble. When his childhood friend is picked on, Shishigami kills the bullies. When Internet trolls harass his mother to the point that she takes her own life, Shishigami kills the trolls. When police shoot his girlfriend, Shisigami kills the police. The pattern escalates into a final, total confrontation with Japanese society.

The two directions that technological augmentation take in the story represent the greatest hopes and darkest fears of transhumanism, and Inuyashiki presents them as equally plausible outcomes. Both characters flirt with the hyperbolic violence made possible by their extraterrestrial weaponry; both occasionally use alien healing technologies to practice extraordinary virtue. Both cherish their home life; both are frustrated with the world beyond their homes. The central dilemma that drives one to heroism and one to villainy is how to interpret their humanity in the absence of conventional limitations like mortality. As Inuyashiki himself observes, “Death is what makes life precious and dear to us.” Without death, nothing anchors transhumans like Shisigami and Inuyashiki to their humanity. This problem, and it alone, determines the course that each character takes: do I choose to be human even though my circumstance no longer requires me to be or do I jettison my humanity in spite of how it has already defined me?

It is probably significant that it is the older Inuyashiki with more experience in life, more familiarity with his own humanity, who choses to continue to operate by human moral codes rather than adopting the amorality of a superior life form. Even so, he vocally doubts his own humanity, suggesting to a friend that he has become a monster every bit as much as Shishigami has. Taking on the voice of optimistic transhumanists, the young man he’s talking to marvels in response that Inuyashiki is the “most human” person he’s ever known. It is clear from this inner turmoil, however that the continuation of that humanity is a conscious act of will, something that Inuyashiki chooses–whether out of conviction or habit–rather than the logical outcome of his augmentation.

If anything, it is Shishigami who behaves more logically. His is an egoistic and ruthless rationality, one that sees clearly his own nature, his own desires, and the predictable responses of the world to his existence. When he wants money, he takes it. When he wants amusement, he manufactures it at the expense of others. When obstacles get in his way, human or otherwise, he destroys them. And why shouldn’t he? The people around him constantly try to reason with him about the gross immorality of his actions, but Shishigami only expresses confusion. He reasons that, in his new transhuman state, no one is smart enough to catch him in his so-called crimes and, even if someone were (as they prove at times to be) no one is powerful enough to stop him. When his romantic interest gapes at the revelation that he is a mass murderer, he dismisses her shock matter-of-factly: “I’m not human anymore.” To him, that seems to explain it perfectly.

Inuyashiki No Longer Human

And he’s quite right. Philosopher John Gray has made the same criticism of those who advocate transhumanism as a positive good (rather than merely as an unavoidable future).

As the post-human species that humans have created mutate and evolve, human history may indeed come to an end. The question remains why transhumanists find this prospect so appealing. Is it because they think humankind is only a channel for values that transcend the human animal, such as knowledge or information? But unless you posit a Platonic heaven beyond the material universe, it is hard to know where these values are to be found. They are not features of the natural world. If such values are to have any claim on humans, they must have value for humans.

Gray warns that humans that have transcended the finitude that defines them as human may shed human values along with their mortality. Like the Formics of O. S. Card’s Ender’s Game who have evolved in such a way that the concept of murder is non-translatable, transhuman super beings are as likely as not to have any interest in human morals or priorities. Gray imagines that, at best, they will be “a parody of human beings that once existed,” of which there is great variety. Just as likely though, they “could evolve to be like the Demiurge of the Gnostics, malignant or careless in [their] treatment of human kind.”

A more apt analogy for Inuyashiki is not the Gnostic Demiurge but the fickle gods of ancient Mesopotamia. In ancient Sumerian myth, humans existed for the convenience of the gods–to do their labor and cultivate their garden, the earth. When the noise of those labors became a nuisance and interrupted the gods’ slumber, the deities of Mesopotamia decided to kill all of humanity. Shishigami faces a similar problem when jackbooted thugs disturb the quiet life of virtuous retirement he had chosen following a repudiation of all his past crimes. Rather than letting him rest in peace and quietly atone for his sins, the government shoots him, his girlfriend, and his girlfriends’ grandmother. It is then that Shishigami draws his most audaciously rational decision: to kill everyone in Japan. He explains the decision to his girlfriend with consistent bluntness and rationality. The Japanese will never stop hunting him, so all he has to do to live with her in happiness forever is to kill all the Japanese. No longer killing for revenge or amusement, Shishigami now decides to kill methodically and rationally to achieve a clear and concrete goal. His own peace and happiness. Thus, the distinction between humans and gods (or transhumans) is clear in their attitude toward mortality and murder. While most humans would lose sleep over perpetrating a genocide, gods kill precisely so they can rest easy.

Inuyashiki Like a Deity.jpeg

Inuyashiki ends on a superficially redemptive note for Shishigami, the kind of neat conclusion that satisfies the readers’ need for narrative completeness but softens the blow of the stories moral arc. In the end, both Inuyashiki and Shishigami must sacrifice themselves in order to rescue the world from oblivion at the hands of a massive asteroid. Yet even in this, Inuyashiki remains consistent to its themes, as the two men sacrifice themselves for very different reasons. Inuyashiki considers the sacrifice to be the culmination of his humanity, but Shishigami kills himself and saves the world only because he cannot tolerate the idea of letting his friend and girlfriend die. His narcissism is pure and allows the story to continue to contrast the nobility of humanity with the unreliability of transhumanity.

In the final estimation, neither man is truly human any longer, and both wear humanity like a mask. The hyperbolic altruism of Inuyashiki finds him revered like a god; the hyperbolic violence of Shishigami evokes a similarly godlike terror. People are everywhere at the mercy of their will, and it is precisely the fickleness of this will that makes transhumanism so frightening. Transhumanism promises the end of humanity, a fact on which advocates and critics agree. The transhumanist vision of the benign breaking of the shackles or our mortality, but Inuyashiki wryly observes that this is only one of two polarities. Both are equally possible, and the difference between them is a functional coin toss.

History teaches us consistently that new technologies are turned to evil purposes long before they are applied to noble ones. If we really are approaching a technological singularity, former humans may move so thoroughly beyond a nobility rooted in mortality that there is neither time nor cause for course correction. In other words, fear the transhuman because chances are they won’t fear you.

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John Gray’s Chaotic Taxonomy of Atheism

John Gray Seven Types of Atheism (cover)During my formative intellectual years, atheists were my favorite people to talk to. Unlike Christians, the majority of whom had been raised in less polemical denominations than I had, atheists were fellow dogmatists, many of whom had arrived at their conclusions as a conscious act of will rather than by way of intellectual inheritance. Empowered by the ascendance of New Atheist thinkers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris–who stocked the young atheists rhetorical arsenal with a bevy of state of the art weapons–many of these atheists were itching for a fight every bit as much as I was. Time and experience taught me early, however, that for every budding knight on a crusade against God, there was another atheist who read more of the Dalai Lama than of Daniel Dennett and who was a little disconcerted but mostly bored by the religious zeal of his irreligious fellow traveler. Atheism had all the intellectual diversity of Christianity even if it lacked the institutional structures and neat taxonomy that made Christians so much easier to classify.

So I was delighted to see that philosopher and outspoken atheist John Gray was publishing what appeared to be a clear articulation of the diversity of atheist thought and a taxonomy for navigating its various types. Seven Types of Atheism is a brisk and enjoyable read, under two hundred pages in print. Gray manages to squeeze an incredible demonstration of his breadth of knowledge into that short span so that I left the book feeling, if not better informed, than at least securer in my grasp of information already glancingly encountered elsewhere. To a certain extent it even achieves what it sets out to accomplish, though not in a way that is complete or entirely satisfying.

It may be best to begin with what Seven Types is not, namely a lengthy repudiation of New Atheism. In fairness, the book never claims to be this outright, but much of the marketing seems intent on presenting this as a broadside against the most popular form of contemporary atheism. The New Atheists get their mention in Gray’s text, but it is fleeting. He disposes of them quickly and cleanly, with all the attention he (and I) think they’re due, before moving on to spend most of the book talking about any number of other atheisms that deserve his attention. (To his credit, he states this up front: “[New Atheism] contains little that is novel or interesting. After the first chapter, I will not refer to it again.”) I confess, I had gone in hoping to find a secular counterpart to David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions, but that was never the purpose of Seven Types.

This is not to say that Gray doesn’t have a bone to pick with what he considers flawed atheisms. Though he foreswears evangelism, he admits that his “own preferences will be clear” by the end of the book. Gray proves true to his word, taking on contemporary atheism in broad and uncompromising terms early on:

While atheists may call themselves freethinkers, for many today atheism is a closed system of thought. That may be its chief attraction. When you explore older atheisms, you will find that some of your firmest convictions–secular or religious–are highly questionable. If this prospect disturbs you, what you are looking for may be freedom from thinking. But if you are ready to leave behind the needs and hopes that many atheists have carried over from monotheism, you may find that a burden has been lifted from you.

We’ll set aside how clearly that last line smacks of proselytizing and allow that, while he spends much of the book criticizing the flaws of lesser atheisms, Gray stops short of advocating for his favorites outright. His diagnoses of the various atheisms popular in the present and recent past are clear, rigorous, and damning, but this doesn’t stop much of the book reading like a “No true Scotsman” style policing of the boundaries. The evident longing for an atheism cleansed of monotheism is a clear appeal to purity that strikes a sour note in a text calling on atheists to examine their unspoken, religion-dependent assumptions.

This does not, however, preclude Gray achieving his primary tasks: demonstrating the diversity within atheism (past and present) and proposing a system of categorization to bring order to that diversity. It is in this first task that Gray is on much stronger ground. Seven Types offers a clear picture of an intellectual world in which the absence of God does not require the absence of ideological difference. Particularly in the Christian West (the region and time period that Gray’s expertise seems to confine him to), the assertion of atheism almost always involves the repudiation of God rather than God’s mere absence. The result is that the repudiation of God takes on different significances for different thinkers, entails different consequences for society, for ethics, and for individual fulfillment. Seven Types assembles an impressive cast of characters to illustrate this diversity, rich with quotes, anecdotes, and character studies to who how atheism has real and consequential differences that are every bit as irresolvable as the differences between religious sects.

Classifying those differences, however, proves a much more daunting task for Gray. True to its name, Seven Types does suggest a seven part typology for considering atheist thinking: New Atheism, secular humanism, faith in science, faith in politics, misotheism, atheism without progress (a kind of affirmative nihilism), and mystical atheism. The titles Gray assigns are a little unwieldy at times, but had he defined them clearly and illustrated them succinctly, they would have been a very productive start to make sense of the chaotically diverse catchall of “atheism.”

But Gray has a principled disinterest in drawing clean borders for his categories. The name of his book, significantly, is modelled after William Empson’s 1930 Seven Types of Ambiguity.

Ambiguity, [Empson] suggested, is not a defect but part of the richness of language. Rather than signifying equivocation or confusion, ambiguous expressions allow us to describe a fluid and paradoxical world. Empson applied this account of ambiguity chiefly to poetry, but it is also illuminating when applied to religion and atheism.

Gray celebrates this ambiguity in his treatment of his own categories, bearing out his introductory observation that, for Empson, “there could be no such thing as ultimate clarity.” The seven types of atheism overlap and intermingle. They bleed together historically and theoretically. Most (five at least) suffer from a common defect of proposing God surrogates. “Contemporary atheism is a continuation of monotheism by other means.” It’s hard to pin this lack of clarity on Gray, since for him it is clearly not a defect but a feature of his method. It may excuse Seven Types, but it doesn’t make its chaotic taxonomy any more satisfying. Or useful.

A final quibble, already alluded to, relates to the narrow focus of Gray’s argument–a function probably of the narrow nature of his expertise. Though nods are made to the atheisms of religious systems like Buddhism, very little concentrated attention is given to atheism beyond the confines of Euro-American philosophy. Rich traditions of atheism exist beyond these spheres, particularly given Gray’s loose definition of the term “atheist” to mean anyone who has “no use for the idea of a divine mind that has fashioned the world.” This describes more than post-Christian philosophers in Parisian salons and American academies. Whether the rest of the world’s, the rest of history’s atheists fit into Gray’s taxonomy must be a task for a thinker with a different set of qualifications and skills.

As I await that project and a more detailed secular refutation of New Atheism, I am left to judge Seven Types on its own merits. What Gray offers is a critical consideration of the great variety of atheist thought as well as a trenchant critique of those who would mindlessly juxtapose religion and atheism. For these reasons alone, it is worth the brief amount of time necessary to read.

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Creative Schools: Afterword

Creative Schools CoverKen Robinson concludes Creative Schools with a very brief Afterword that attempts to summarize the key features of his work and speak to its grand significance. “The stakes have never been higher, and the outcomes could hardly matter more.” It’s a heavy exclamation point at the end of a work the author clearly considers to be of resounding significance. Yet that Afterword is not primarily the subject here. Instead, the time has come to wrap up this review of Robinson’s book and to draw some more general conclusions about the success or failure, merits and demerits of the work as a whole. Having begun this task so many months ago, I returned to my introductory thoughts to consider to what extent my expectations were met or subverted as I worked through the book. In reading my mixed but generally optimistic attitude about Robinson’s message, I cannot help but feel I have been disappointed by an argument that feels mostly sound but lacks the structure, depth, and rigor to be ascribed to as an ushakeable faith.

In his subtitle, Robison’s most general promise appears to be a window into a transformative, grassroots revolution in education. What he has presented instead is a Chicken Soup for the Postmodern Teacher’s Soul, full of inspiring anecdotes but little practical advice, data-driven analysis, or theoretical coherence. Certainly there is little that is truly revolutionary, and Robinson must constantly admit that much of what he advocates is already happening–evidence that the revolution is real, from his perspective, and justification for an overreliance on description in the absence of a prescriptive model. The truth about these trends seeps through the cracks in Robinson’s rhetorical armor often enough, including in the Afterword when he drops the language of revolution in favor of telling teachers what to do “as the pendulum moves back, as it invariably does” toward greater creativity and flexibility in the classroom. (Because nothing says revolution like the mechanical oscillation of machine parts.)

Teachers in line with the latest educational models and trends may find a pat on the back from Robinson for being ahead of the revolutionary curve, but there is little there that will challenge them. Those who need challenging are no more likely to listen to Robinson than they are the hundreds of other college classes, staff meetings, or professional developments that are already pressing many of the general principles that Robinson espouses. Who then is this revolution for?

Beyond this revolutionary promise, Robinson sets himself three more specific tasks at the start of the book: to critique the current system, to theorize a different system, and to explain how to get from one to the other, from present to future. None of these really describe the content of the majority of the book with any great accuracy. He spends less time critiquing, theorizing, and explaining than he does illustrating, encouraging, and complaining. To the extent that he has consciously approached his stated task, however, he has been met with mixed results.

In my pre-reading exercise, I expected the Robinson and I would find the most agreement when it came to critiquing the current system. Yet I found Robinson’s critiques far from convincing, in part because they lacked surgical focus and in part because they often circled back on his own theories. The lack of focus was most evident when Robinson over-relied on his own metaphors as a target for his criticism. Setting up parallels between industry and education, for example, bled into critiques of education-as-industry as if the analogy had been spoken into reality by Robison’s clever parallelism. When he did make more pointed assaults on the present system, he often ignored (or waffled about) how these same critiques applied to his own system as well. In his final chapter on policy, I noted that for all his complaints about standards for students and accountability for teachers, these were both a key feature in his advice to policy makers. Standards cannot be both the problem and the solution.

But then, the solution offered left a lot to be desired. I was concerned in my initial remarks that the utopian dreams I had for education would not match Robison’s utopian dreams. In the end, however, it seems that Robinson had no such dreams. That sounds more complimentary than I intend. Certainly, I agree with Robinson’s final conclusion that “there is no permanent utopia for education, just a constant striving to create the best conditions for real people in real communities in a constantly changing world.” Even so, he promised in the introduction that he would answer the question he gets asked most often: “If you could reinvent education, what would it look like?” The answer is an unsatisfying, “like the best of what we have, but more of it; and different in every place, but united by some ideas; more a striving than a condition, a common spirit rather than a common approach.” That doesn’t make for a compelling e-mail to your congressman.

It doesn’t make for a compelling philosophy either. Though Robinson’s thoughts never really rise to the level of “theorizing,” by my definition, his advice does smack eerily of the utopian anarchisms of the twenty-first century. The idea that common principles can and should replace common rules and goals, that atomization in service of individualism and difference is a laudable aim, and that natural goodness, potential, and inclination will win out if unimpeded by industrial forces sounds like a platform more suited to an Occupy collective than a serious educational theorist. On behalf of anarchists, let me just say, what a load of malarkey.

This just leaves Robinson’s practical advice for how to achieve this goals, what I suggested originally would be the real test of the book’s merits. Unfortunately, Robinson is as light on practical advice as he is on theory and critique. What he offers is often sound, and I found his description of the potential changes teachers, parents, and administrators could make in their very limited sphere of influence reasonably helpful. (The advice for policymakers seemed less realistic.) But the scope of those spheres of influence made clear that what each group could hope for was not total, system-wide revolution but marginal gains in their local communities. That’s probably enough for most people, who don’t really care about the everyone quite like they care about their own children, their own students, their own teachers. It does, however, fall well short of Robinson’s promise to his readers. In his own words, Robinson insists that “revolutions are defined not only by the ideas that drive them but by the scale of their impact.” The realistic scale of his impact lays bare the flaws in his revolution.

Packaged differently, Creative Schools could have been a useful and enjoyable read. A different subtitle (reflecting a different authorial stance) might more accurately read: Uplifting Stories from Educational Innovators. He could lose the claims to serious critique or policy reform advice and focus instead on helping teachers find inspiration in the link between local innovation and local vitality in education. That’s a legitimate purpose for a book, one that would serve readers much better than false promises of revolution.

This post is part of a running review of Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. For an introduction and contents of this series, see Creative Schools: Introductory Remarks.
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Creative Schools: Changing the Climate

Creative Schools CoverIn his final chapter, Robinson finally turns to education policy at its highest and most broadly effectual level, that of policymakers. Having spent most of the book focusing on how the absence of meaningful policy change has placed the burden on teachers to make what changes they can where they can, Robinson finally considers what he would do if he had the power to radically reform education policy across the globe and why he believes that, in spite of the self-evident superiority of his perspective, change is so slow in coming. His recommendations are conspicuously lacking in concrete legislative proposals, but this is mostly consistent with Robinson’s general attitude toward top down, one-size approaches to education reform. What he offers instead are the principles by which education policymakers should approach their civic responsibilities. He describes these as “climate control” rather than “command-and-control,” imagining policy makers not as determining the course of education but as “creative the conditions in which schools can transform themselves.” The conditions that need to be created are familiar to readers at this point:

  1. Fostering health: cultivating student motivation and engagement; ensuring the recruitment, retention, and training of high quality professional teachers; and providing an “uplifting vision.”
  2. Nurturing the ecology: inspiring confidence in and commitment from teachers; promoting alignment and coherence between various parts of the system; and ensuring that resources (financial and otherwise) remain well-focused.
  3. Promoting fairness: encouraging partnership and collaboration rather than conflict and competition; promoting strategic innovation; and by advocating for change on the policy level while ensuring that permission for change exists at the level of practice.
  4. Providing care: setting high standards; creating systems of accountability for teachers; and promoting continuous professional development for educators.

It’s the sort of pablum that sounds right and feels good and doesn’t invite much thought. Frankly, much of it is sound–even if it is packaged in such a way (and positively drowned in anecdotal support) so as to make it suspect. Policymakers should turn their attention away from standardized testing and toward policies to improve training, recruitment, and retention of educators. (This, presumably, is the high-minded garb used to dress up the more venal motives of teacher pay hike advocates.) Perhaps most significantly, Robinson correctly recognizes the role that policymakers should play in aligning systems, since in the complex and highly institutionalized world of modern education there is a “constant risk that the preoccupations of different interest groups [will] become misaligned.”

Even so, some of this analysis seems oddly hypocritical, particularly when “providing care” is said to include setting high standards and creating accountability for teachers. Surely Robinson intends this to be taken in the context of a creativity-driven, non-competitive educational environment, but there is no denying that these are precisely the impulses of the standards movement that he has been butting up against. His inclusion of these goals here, however heavily qualified, serves as further evidence that his approach is not revolutionary.

Revolution or not, the changes Robinson advocates have not made it to the level of policy in most places–his profusion of anecdotes about successful policy reforms notwithstanding. He makes an effort to explain this fact, offering a relatively complete list of contributing causes for educational inertia:

  • Risk aversion – the risk associated with failure in an accountability-obsessed educational system outweighs the perceived potential benefits of innovation
  • Institutional conservatism – national institutions are by definition slower to change than individual teachers, classrooms, schools, or districts
  • Cultural norms – whether it is Confucian values in East Asia or Republican deference to the free market in the US, culture often works against the superior system advocated by Robinson
  • Profit motive – too much money is tied up in the current system of education for it to be changed without resistance
  • Political ambition – career politicians worried only about the perpetuation of their power and position rely on education standards for “political posturing”
  • Command bias – politicians are more familiar and comfortable with command approaches to authority than with roles as facilitators

Robinson is right on all accounts, at least in his general framing of the problem. (His chosen examples for “cultural norms” suggest serious prejudices on his part–not to mention considerable blindspots about how competing and equally contestable cultural values influence his own system.) He offers little, however, in the way of a roadmap through or around these problems. Perhaps he shouldn’t be blamed for this; those problems are much larger than any individual could tackle. And if the solutions to those problems were simple or practicable, they would already have been implemented. Yet, Robinson promised practical (and revolutionary) solutions to the real problems facing education. His consideration of the hurdles facing meaningful policy changes leads me to believe real revolution may be the only quick solution to the listed problems. (As long as we don’t think about the track record that actual revolutions have at solving the problems they start out to address.)

This failure to meet his own assigned task–or, to adopt the language of the classroom, the inability to achieve the standard set out at the beginning of the lesson–speaks to the broader flaws in Robinson’s book. Those, however, will have to wait until the final post in this review.

This post is part of a running review of Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. For an introduction and contents of this series, see Creative Schools: Introductory Remarks.
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Creative Schools: Bringing It All Back Home

Creative Schools CoverIn his aptly titled penultimate chapter, Ken Robinson makes his way into the final educational frontier, the home, where students spend most of their time and where teachers and administrators exercise the least control. Even as the studies increasingly recognize that the home is a key component determining the attainment of students, the modern home is a dramatically changing place. Robinson even offers a startling statistic that a minority of American students currently live with both biological parents. Skeptical, I took a look at his footnote. In 1960, 73% of children lived with both biological parents; in 1980, that number had dropped to 61%. As of 2014, that number is now only 46%. The family structures on which education relies for its success have become increasingly diverse and increasingly uncertain. It’s difficult terrain, but Robinson wades into it with advice for both parents and for teachers/administrators.

Following line after line of disclaimer about how he has no right to offer advice and how there are whole books on the subject and about how every parent is different and has different parenting priorities, Robinson finally gets around to offering two pieces of (predictably) less-than revolutionary wisdom for parents. The first is that children are individuals. Cautioning parents not to see themselves or other relatives in a child, he drops the following truth bomb: “Individuals are most like themselves.”  So axiomatic as to be useless, the advice fits right in, tonally and logically, with the broader book. The other advice is equally true and unsatisfying: “People commonly move in unexpected directions, discover new interests, or take unplanned opportunities.” So don’t try to shape your children’s destinies based on your expectations of them. However they end up going, things will not go according to plan. Now, I have the decidedly good fortune to be childfree, but I hope that my child-endowed friends and family do not need to be told these basic truths. Not really.

They do, however, need to be told something else, which Robinson adds as a kind of “what not to do” addendum to his two pieces of advice. They do not need to hover constantly overhead ready to intervene at a moment’s notice, a parenting style now commonly known as “helicopter parenting.” These parents inject themselves into their children’s lives at the slightest sign of trouble, lobbying teachers for better grades, excusing a child’s misbehavior, and (later in life) even registering them for college classes and trying to negotiate their first employment contracts. This can be disastrous for children, who need struggle, failure, and hardship to develop psychologically.

The only problem with Robinson’s critique is that he is, once again, preaching to the choir. In a book written to appeal to teachers (and, to a less extent, school officials), there is little chance that helicopter parents are going to make up a significant demographic. The number of parents thinking about and engaged in school reform is tragically low, something that educational reformers like Robinson are keen to note when they tout the virtues of parental involvement. Those same parents that Robinson describes as struggling “more and more now with the practice and financial challenges of raising a family and with balancing the emotional demands of the many different roles that being a parent involves” do not have time to sit back with a cocktail and skim through his serial educational anecdotes. (That sort of silliness is left to academics.) Telling teachers about the evils of the “that doesn’t sound like my child” parent seems like an emotionally gratifying waste of ink.

This chapter does offer one last point of interest though. Robinson has been writing for more than two hundred pages at this point about the need for personalization rather than standardization in learning, something that I noted in a previous post would essentially require a one teacher to one student ratio for schools. To his credit, he implicitly concedes that point in this chapter when he describes homeschooling as “the ultimate expression of family involvement in personalized learning.” And he’s right. Though there will always be a lingering association between homeschooling and parental eccentricity or social maladjustment, in theory at least home education under a competent and engaged parent-educator is the ideal scenario from Robinson’s perspective. Tapping into the primordialism that he promised in his introduction but never delivered on, it is even safe to say that homeschooling is the original, pre-industrial form of learning.

The fact that we now have an economy in which having one parent function as a fulltime, in-house educator is impracticable on a large scale makes the hope of achieving this return to primitive learning a utopian fantasy. But if Robinson had advocated for it more rigorously, at least he could legitimately claim to be an advocate of revolution.

This post is part of a running review of Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. For an introduction and contents of this series, see Creative Schools: Introductory Remarks.
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Creative Schools: Principles for Principals

Creative Schools CoverHaving completed his examination of the learning task (by looking at teaching, curriculum, and assessment), Ken Robinson turns his attention to what is essentially a meta-educational topic: administrators. That designation (mine, not his) is not intended to suggest that administration is not critical to achieving the educational objectives of a school; Robinson argues just the opposite. But administrators have a very different role, one that needs, in Robinson’s opinion, to be disentangled from the managerial norms of the industrial model. For Robinson, a good principal and a good administrator more broadly is one who equips and empowers schools to succeed in all three areas of the learning task. He phrases it like this:

In schools, great principals know that their job is not primarily to improve test results; it is to build community among the students, teachers, parents, and staff, who need to share a common set of purposes.

That community building purpose resonates strongly with my experience speaking with both principals and teachers. Principals have expressed frustration to me with how little of their day can be given to tasks that have a clear and meaningful educational purpose. District meetings and the attendant paperwork consume the lion’s share of their time. When they see teachers, it is not to build to communities but to conduct performance reviews (one of the few places where I think Robinson’s industrial metaphor holds up well). When they see parents, it is not to discuss a common set of purposes but to defuse conflicts and enforce discipline. This lack of community–this prioritizing of supervision over guidance–is a common theme for teachers I speak to as well, for whom a good principal is one who sees them people and can compartmentalize administrative and non-administrative personas.

How then does Robinson imagine fixing this problem? He singles out two tasks that principals should focus on. The first is creating room for and then provoking change. With uncharacteristic theoretical soundness, Robinson correctly asserts that “culture is about permission.” It is about what your group says is okay to do and who gets to make that determination. The principal should be the source of this permission, and Robinson argues the convincing position (even if he doesn’t argue it convincingly) that greater permission means greater innovation.

This includes, most importantly, permission to fail. More than anything, this is what is lacking in schools. The stakes are so high and the measure of success so narrowly defined, that the risk of failure outweigh the rewards of success when it comes to educational experimentation. A teacher who tries a new classroom management technique, a new classroom design, a new instructional approach may reap significant rewards in student growth or achievement; more likely, the gains will be small or imperceptible. Meanwhile, that teacher risks position and career in an environment that has no room for error and no forgiveness for non-renewal. Changing the culture of permission is rightly placed at the feet of principals, even if Robinson acknowledges that “challenging those conventions can be sensitive work.”

The second area of activity for principals is “beyond the gates,” as ambassadors tot he community at large. Schools, like other organizations, need a face, a public persona that can interact with the world at large in a coherent, digestible way. The principal takes the vision of the school out into world and sells it to the district, to the parents, and to the community. They then return with the demands, expectations, and shifting conditions in society in order to keep the school an adaptive and responsive institution. Doing this, however, requires principals to know their schools (beyond teacher evaluations) and to know their districts (beyond administrative meetings).

The problem with this, and with Robinson’s rosy vision of principal led change in general, is that principals are not at the top of the food chain. They are answerable to a higher authority–superintendents and school boards typically. While most principals that I know are former educators themselves and still deeply steeped in a worldview not wholly alien to their teachers, most superintendents and school boards are political rather than instructional animals for whom the perspective of a classroom teacher might as well be extraterrestrial. They, not to mention state boards and national cabinet departments, tightly constrain the degree to which principals can shift the lines of permission or spur adaptation to changing conditions on the exterior.

Admittedly, that is part of the problem that Robinson has identified with the standards movement and its top down model of control and reform. Moreover, the limited “do what you can where you can” approach can and should apply to principals as well. But it is precisely this limited call to action that makes the changes in question less than revolutionary. As Robinson admits, “I know many great schools that practice most, if not all, of the principles discussed so far.” So do I, and my experience with teachers and principals is that those that don’t cannot rather than will not change. They agree with the critique; they agree with the solution; they just do not have the space to act on it. In other words, short an actual storm the Bastille style revolution–in which the people divorced from the learning environment but not from seats of power–are brought to heel, Robinson is just preaching to a choir that has already exhausted its hallelujahs.

This post is part of a running review of Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. For an introduction and contents of this series, see Creative Schools: Introductory Remarks.