Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Eight: The Mind-Body Problem

This is a continuation of earlier posts.

When I was a French teacher at Ashern Central School, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada, I started to place critiques, mainly (although not entirely) of the current school system. At first, I merely printed off the articles, but then I started to provide a summary of the article along with the article. I placed the summaries along with the articles in a binder (and, eventually, binders), and I placed the binder in the staff lounge.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”).

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions. In fact, I could have placed this (and other posts in this series) under the title that I have used for another series of posts, “The Radical Left Needs to Call into Question Existing Social Institutions at Every Opportunity.” For further understanding of the stressful context in which I provided the summaries, see the post  A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and Its Representatives, Part Eight.

The context of summaries related to the brain was that the principal of Ashern Central School, where I worked, started talking about “brain research’ and how teachers needed to implement such research in their daily teaching practice. He even placed an article on brain research in our school mailboxes. As a consequence, I researched the issue and provided critical summaries that critiqued his reductionist view of human intelligence as “brain work.”

The relevance of the issue has to do with division of labour between intellectual labour and manual labour. Typically in schools, there is an emphasis on “academic learning”–which means purely intellectual pursuits at the expense of the use of the body as an essential aspect of the learning process. To ignore such issues is to ignore a cleavage in our society that needs to be repaired through the creation of a socialist society that eliminates such a division of labour.

I must emphasize that such work is necessary despite the possible negative repercussions by management. If we are afraid to question management and employers in our own workplace, how can we expect others to challenger their particular employer? How can we expect to unite to challenge the class of employers generally if we fail to challenge our own particular employer?

It is much easier to criticize other employers than one’s own–just as it is easier to criticize other nations than one’s own.

Such criticism is also necessary since the class power of employers is supported in various ways, including ideological means. To fail to challenge the power of the class of employers in diverse domains makes it all the more difficult to challenge them at the economic and political level. This is a typical weakness of social-democratic or reformist approaches to challenging the class power of employers. They idealize one or more domains (such as the public sector or education or law) without engaging in inquiry into the real nature of these domains (see, for example, Reform versus Abolition of Police, Part Two).

Good morning, everyone,

I sent the attached article last night to the ESJ Ning. If anybody has any suggestions for improvement (in terms of content or in terms of attempting to communicate with the ESJ chairs), I would appreciate it.

I prefaced it with the following:

The author (Eric Bredo) of the following article, “Evolution, Psychology and the Reflex Arc Concept,” argues that John Dewey’s 1896 article, which criticized the reflex arc concept of psychology, formed an initial ground for Dewey’s critique of modern school systems. Dewey incorporated Darwin ’s theory of evolution in his psychological theory and in his educational theory.

The reflex arc of psychology incorporated the difference and link between sensory nerves and motor nerves, on the one hand, and the spinal cord and the brain on the other. Psychologists interpreted the link in purely mechanical terms (one following the other in time). They interpreted the response of human beings as merely a mechanical following on a predetermined stimulus. Ideas mechanically emerged and were then mechanically transformed into responses as the spinal cord and the brain created images, which then led, mechanically, to responses through the motor nerves. The spinal cord and the brain served as mechanical mediators between the senses and the motor response.

Dewey criticized this theoretical psychological model because living beings do not act in exactly the same manner as inanimate nature; although living beings are always physical-chemical beings, they have additional properties that modify the behavioural attributes of the physical-chemical world. Dewey used the illustration of a child who reaches for a bright candle. The child is not stimulated by the bright candle to reach the bright candle, nor is the stimulated with another, independent stimulus when she is burnt. Rather, the child is actively involved in determining the nature of the stimulus through the act, in the first instance, of looking (through the use of head muscles and eye muscles). The child’s use of motor muscles and nerves leads to a sensation of seeing the bright candle so that motor action mediates the sensation (or the supposed stimulus). The stimulus is not therefore “given” passively but actively is achieved through the child’s own act. The achieved stimulus, through the act of looking then guides another, interrelated act of reaching for the candle (if it is within reach and, if not, in the act of walking towards the candle). The act of looking guides (limits) the act of reaching, and the act of reaching guides (limits) the act of looking. Each act is functional with respect to the other act within the total act.

The so-called stimulus of the bright light from the candle itself depends on the context of the child seeking to find out what the nature of the bright candle is by reaching for it. To reach for it, she must first orient herself and her body parts so as to get a clearer view of the source of the brightness (clarification is required through the act of looking). She then further clarifies the nature of the object through the act of reaching, which is mediated through the persistent act of looking. Without such a mediation, the act of reaching may well lead to overshooting or undershooting her grasp and thereby lead to a failure to act according to her intended goal of reaching for the bright candle.

The stimulus of the bright candle is thus a product (and not something “given” or antecedent to the act of looking). The stimulus is constituted in part through the act of looking; the child is just as much implicated in the construction of the stimulus as is the existence of the bright candle in the child’s environment.

The assumption that the response of reaching for the bright candle is independent of the act of looking is typical of a mechanical view of the situation. The act of reaching, however, is not just a physical act but an act impregnated with intent: it is reaching for the bright candle. It is a purposive act. To be successful, the act of looking must mediate the act of reaching. The act of looking, though initial in time in relation to the total act of touching the bright candle and hence in that sense the stimulus, must function to control the act of reaching so that the response is not a response to the stimulus but a response into the stimulus. The act of reaching mediates in turn, the act of looking; the act of looking is limited by the act of reaching (the child just cannot look anywhere). Just as life is a process which is mediated by implicit goals that limit actions (the goal of the reproduction of life, for example), so too is an act, with limiting actions that mutually define the total act. Each sub-act must be linked to and mediate the other sub-acts, and the total act (the ultimate goal) must mediate each sub-act from the beginning.

Once the goal of reaching the candle has resulted in a burn and the withdrawal of the hand by the child, the act of looking may then mean the sensation of burning under certain circumstances. The act of looking is modified in meaning because of the earlier experience of looking and reaching for the bright candle—if the child learns to connect her acts to the consequences (doing and undergoing). One aspect of learning is, then, to connect up one’s acts with the consequences of those acts.

The act of looking is mediated by spatio-temporal movements (such as the act of reaching); we learn to observe not just with our eyes but with our previous experiences that incorporate other acts (such as spatio-temporal movements through locomotion). The act of looking is adapted to (modified by) the act of moving. Similarly, when we move, we learn to mediate our locomotive acts (adapt, control or limit them) through our sense acts.

If a similar situation presents itself, but the nature of the object is unclear, then inquiry is needed to determine the nature of the object before acting intelligently. The nature of the stimulus needs to be reconstructed so that an appropriate response can be forthcoming. It is here that the emergence of consciousness is relevant; consciousness emerges when there is an ambiguous situation, giving the child the time necessary to inhibit action and reflect on and explore the situation.

The nature of the object needs to be clarified, not absolutely, but in relation to the earlier experience of the child. The child does not know what to do because of the ambiguity of the object. Once the object is clarified, then the child can act in a unified manner again intelligently. To act without clarifying the nature of the object would be unintelligent.

Inquiry (and exploration), then, forms an essential condition for all learning. Furthermore, inquiry involves an evolving relationship between the child and her environment. Both the child and the environment undergo reconstruction or evolution, with the child learning, in part, through her own actions (self-determination).

Since both the child and her environment undergo induced change through the initiation of the child’s own actions, by changing her environment she may (if she connects her actions to the consequences of her actions) change her own capacities (habits or structures that have a function in the environment). Learning then can be considered self-change through action on the environment in such a way that new connections, both “subjective” (structural habits internal to the individual) and “objective” (structural conditions in the environment). The terms “subjective” and “objective” are in quotation marks because, in reality, the life process always involves the living being and its environment.

Schools typically waver between treating the child (the living being) as primary and the environment as secondary, or the environment as primary (as in outcome-based education) and the child as secondary. The life process, however, is a continuous process that can only be separated into subjective and objective aspects for specific purposes as, for example, when the relationship breaks down.

In real learning, it is the situation and not one side or the other of the life process that is changed since the situation requires inquiry and change (which involves both aspects of the life process—although not necessarily in equal measure, depending on the situation). The rhythm of life requires varying focal points as the situation develops: the drama of life.

Human life, however, generally involves others as part of the environment so that the immediate environment for most individuals is social (and even when it is not, it is mediately, through language—a social product—as well as the production for the conditions of life, such as food, clothing and shelter).

More concretely, in educational terms, learning must involve the participation of the student in her education, but the environmental conditions must involve the setting of situations that involve the need for inquiry. Inquiry also requires the use of the body, and the use of the body can be intelligent or unintelligent. Learning is not some academic exercise (although the modern school system treats it that way). Intelligence is really an adverb—to act intelligently, which in turn reflects back on the individual as a characteristic of the individual—the intelligent person (an adjective). Thought and intelligence are not abstract characteristics of individuals but active ways of acting in the world. It may be necessary to step back and reflect (distancing oneself from the environment)—but only in order to act more intelligently in the world.

The contempt for bodily activity characteristic of the modern school system is in essence contempt for real intelligence. The typical split of “mind” and “body” that has typified philosophical disputes since Plato, with the bias towards the abstract, the academic and the spiritual and against the concrete, the practical and the instrumental, is really against real inquiry and elitist—and against real education.

Bodily habits, provided that they enable students to expand and deepen their connections to their environment instead of restricting it, express the developmental process of education. Habits form the stable means by which consciousness, with its focus on foreground, becomes part of the habitual bodily actions that stabilize our recurrent relations to the environment and thus form the basis for generalization (not just “concepts” characteristic of elitist views of education). The development of the consistent habit to engage in inquiry is the ultimate goal of education—education as growth.


Social Democracy or Social Reformism and Trade Unionism: Their Social Limitations and Methodology, Part Two

In my last post, I referred to the self-righteous attitude of many of the social-democratic left, who consider anyone who tries to broaden the discussion to include wider considerations to be “delusional.” Their methodology, I argued, can be considered mechanistic since they try to isolate incidents from the wider social context and treat them as independent of those wider contexts. In fact, they revel in such isolation, taking pride in their narrow-minded attitude, and self-righteously opposing any who try to broaden the discussion.

For example, as noted in my earlier post, Tina Faibish, president of local 552 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), made the following commentary:

From Tina Robin Faibish “come on are you kidding me, you can not look at these two issues as if the level of unjust is similar or comparable because they are not!”

Note the self-righteous attitude of such a reply. How dare I take into consideration anything else! This is her attitude.

Her social-democratic friend then pipes in, when I try to broaden the discussion:

Liz Seaward Ash Fred Harris one thing has nothing to do with the other…you’re delusional..

Not only is this a self-righteous attitude, but it is a hostile attitude. Calling someone delusional is meant to be an insult, of course.

Let us leave these attitudes to one side, though (although anyone who wants to broaden the discussion these days should expect hostile and self-righteous attitudes from the social democratic left). Let us turn to the issue of methodology by referring to John Dewey’s philosophy of human nature. This philosophy considers human life to encompass physical, biological and social aspects that involve a process. This view of human life as an inclusive process has many implications for social analysis, but I will restrict it to the issue of abortion and the human body.

Dewey considers life in general in the following terms (from Experience and Nature, pages 277-278:

Every “mind” that we are
empirically acquainted with is found in connection with
some organized body. Every such body exists in a
natural medium to which it sustains some adaptive connection:
plants to air, water, sun, and animals to these
things and also to plants. Without such connections,
animals die; the “purest” mind would not continue with out them. An animal can live only as long as it draws
nutriment from its medium, finds there means of defence
and ejects into it waste and superfluous products of its
own making. Since no particular organism lasts forever,
life in general goes on only as an organism reproduces
itself; and the only place where it can reproduce itself is in
the environment. In all higher forms reproduction is
sexual ; that is, it involves the meeting of two forms. The
medium is thus one which contains similar and conjunctive
forms. At every point and stage, accordingly, a
living organism and its life processes involve a world or
nature temporally and spatially “external” to itself but
“internal” to its functions.

The only excuse for reciting such commonplaces is that
traditional theories have separated life from nature, mind
from organic life, and thereby created mysteries.

The idea that life (or the life process) involves something that is physically external to the body but is functionally internal can be easily understood if we try to hold our breath. We need elements from the air–which are physically external to our body–and this need is functionally internal to the continued existence of the body. If you extend this idea to all your needs, whether physical or social, then you can see that your life process extends far beyond your immediate physical body.

What has this to do with abortion and the issue that Ms. Faibish raised concerned the law in Ohio about preventing 11-year-old girls from having an abortion if they are raped? If control over the life process involves control over the immediate human body but does not end there but rather extends to the environmental conditions that are physically external but functionally internal, then control over the body is a necessary but insufficient condition for control over our own human life processes.

From John Dewey, Experience and Nature, page 295:

Those who talk most of
the organism, physiologists and psychologists, are often
just those who display least sense of the intimate, delicate
and subtle interdependence of all organic structures and
processes with one another. The world seems mad in
pre-occupation with what is specific, particular, disconnected
in medicine, politics, science, industry, education.
In terms of a conscious control of inclusive wholes,
search for those links which occupy key positions and
which effect critical connections is indispensable. But
recovery of sanity depends upon seeing and using these
specifiable things as links functionally significant in
a process. To see the organism in nature, the nervous
system in the organism, the brain in the nervous system,
the cortex in the brain is the answer to the problems which
haunt philosophy. And when thus seen they will be seen
to be in, not as marbles are in a box but as events are
in history, in a moving, growing never finished process.

The radical left needs to analyze the connections of the world in terms of something that is physically external but functionally internal. With such knowledge, it needs to criticize persistently the social-democratic left, who in general isolate now one aspect of what is functionally internal, now another aspect.

Such an approach is necessary if we are to both oppose those in power and those who ultimately propose to reform the world without radical restructuring of our lives. Along the way, we can of course expect to receive insults and be oppressed in various ways. That should be expected–but it should not deter us from doing what is necessary to oppose the power of employers as a class and to create a society worthy of our own nature as human beings.

But what does the radical left do in Toronto? Pander after the reformist left’s narrow point of view, refusing to challenge such views at every turn. They are like those who believe that the human life process goes beyond the human body but refuse to criticize those (the social democrats) who believe the human life process does not include the interconnected workplaces in the first instance in a particular country and, ultimately, throughout the world.

The radical left talk a lot about democracy these days, but democracy does not entail tolerance to mistaken ideas. It is the duty of the radical left, among other things, to show that the ideas that social democrats hold are mistaken by challenging them. Why does it not do so?

What do you think?