Monthly Archives: November 2013

Critical Theory and Knowledge/Power

Wang’s article on Foucault was particularly challenging, but the idea of the way knowledge and power are interrelated is one of particular interest to me. I am interested in how the dissemination of knowledge might help others become more powerful, particularly those who belong to typically underprivileged groups such as minorities and those living in poverty. Can education truly help individuals in this group escape the barriers imposed on them by race, ethnicity, or class and find places of power in a society that shows preference toward Caucasians of upper-middle class background? As we now have a well-educated African American president in office, it would seem to be that the answer to that question is yes. But many other African Americans would argue that their race continues to stand as a barrier to power.
Also, some would argue that our society puts people of race and people of poverty at a disadvantage when it comes to getting that education. Although all students can learn, not all educations are equal. Schools located in areas of poverty may find it tough to attract and retain high-quality teachers, and often lack the resources necessary to provide a quality education. Students may come to class hungry, and may have to balance school with before- or after-school jobs to help their families make ends meet. Others come home to empty houses as single parents work long hours or two jobs. These students have no assistance with homework and no funds for projects such as presentations or displays. Minority students may lack parental role models for education, as many have parents who never completed school or whose education ended with high school.
This brings me to my next question. If knowledge is equated with power, perhaps those in power want to keep knowledge out of the hands of the less powerful. This would explain the exclusivity of Ivy League schools and why those with a lot of power get a more exclusive education than the general population. With the best education contained in private institutions available only to an exclusive few, it is easy to see how those in power remain in power, and how difficult a revolution of power would be to achieve simply on the basis of the acquisition of knowledge.
Another scary thought is the move of the government to begin to standardize education. While standardization sounds like a great idea in practice, it is only good if the standards seek to bring all students to an equally high level. Unfortunately the reverse is true, and standardization has the tendency to reduce the quality of education to the lowest common denominator. I also worry that there is an unseen motivation behind this government control of education, and the eventual outcome will be similar to what you find in George Orwell’s 1984. If the government can begin to control what is taught in schools, it may begin to shape the nature of education itself and use that to control young minds. While it might be a stretch to think that students could be taught to believe that 2+2=5, we have already seen some of our history re-written to match political agendas. It is not unlikely that propaganda could determine what is included (or left out of) a standardized, government-controlled curriculum.
These are all the ways that the concept of knowledge/power intrigues me as an educator and a researcher. While I’m still relatively new to the concept of critical theory, I would like to take time to explore some of these questions in greater depth as I pursue my studies.

Moral and Ethical Philosophy in a “Value-Neutral” Social Science

I’ve got to tell you that I have a genuine problem with the concept of a “value-neutral” social science. I understand that many scientists want to divorce themselves from the concept of a God to whom they must answer, and that the idea of morals and values is often equated with religion. However, I think we must still develop and hold to a set of moral and ethical standards by which every scientist, social or otherwise, must be bound. It is not OK for scientists to do research on human subjects without their informed consent. It is not OK for scientists to mistreat at-risk populations such as children or prisoners.

I have serious problems with stem cell research as it involves the intentional termination of viable pregnancies for the purpose of research. The cost of unborn lives is too great. They say that potential cures for serious diseases may come out of such research. I contend that the aborted fetuses may have grown up to be scientists who found cures for these diseases without the need to terminate human lives in the process. To terminate a life on a prospective cure is not right. Beyond that, the abortive nature of the research is unnecessary; healthy umbilical cords can be collected for stem cell research following live births.

If the creators of the atomic bomb felt badly after the bomb was used to kill innocent people, what they felt was correct. Scientists often justify their work, telling themselves that their cause is just or that the people they work for are honest and righteous, and yet their consciences cry against them, screaming at them to stop. They know down inside that there is the chance what they are doing will be abused or fall into the wrong hands. There are some things that should not be explored. There are some inventions we should not invent. I know it is human nature to delve into the unknown and explore but I think we need to know our limits and listen to our consciences.

The problem with so much of this philosophy about morals and ethics is that it rests in the eye of the beholder. “It’s right for them, even if it’s wrong for us” is a quote Noddings uses to explain how Relativists might permit the practice of mutilation of women to continue in parts of Africa. But how can mistreatment of humans be right anywhere? It’s because it’s “Relative”.

I don’t believe that morality is really relative to anything. I believe that our moral grounding was founded on the mind of the Creator. The reason that many Christians are hypocritical and try to justify their own behavior or the behavior of their society (the practice of slavery, for instance) is because they base their morality not on what God says, but on what is expedient or normal or culturally acceptable. God’s moral code was founded on two basic principles – that we should love and honor Him above everything else and that we should love others the way we love ourselves. Based on those standards, we would never want to be slaves, so we understand it is wrong to keep a slave. We would not want to be mutilated so we understand it is wrong to mutilate another person. We desire to live and therefore understand the value of a human life.

Even Kant developed an ethical philosophy that sounds very much like the second half of God’s moral code; in fact it reads almost like the Golden Rule: “Do unto others that which you would have them do unto you.” Regardless of where you stand in your beliefs about God, that moral code works. If you wouldn’t like it being done to you, it must be wrong. We tend to be “relative” over things happening to others, but when we talk about ourselves, it becomes personal. If our ethical and moral standards for our treatment of others were personalized, I think we would be much more apt to uphold them and our responses would be far more compassionate and less hypocritical.

The Usefulness of Theories and Research for Explaining a Learning Experience

Can research and theories inform us about what is happening in a learning experience? How useful is the information a theory or a research study provides to us? As discussed in Noddings (2012), educational research extends beyond the scientific, empirical research we’ve discussed in some of our earlier readings. Qualitative research, borrowed from the field of anthropology, has been embraced by educators as a way to better describe the reasons one particular intervention might work better for a group of students with certain characteristics or traits. Other educators interested in using the same intervention could then compare their group to the group described in the qualitative research study to see how well their group compared, to see if the intervention might be effective in their particular situation. Education also uses the empirical, qualitative studies to take the results of an intervention and generalize them to a population of students which share the same characteristics as the group being studied (for example, all fifth graders). Because education uses both qualitative and quantitative research to explain a particular learning experience, we can often get a lot of information about that particular situation, and in some cases we can generalize it to all students with certain shared characteristics.
It is through the use of such research studies that theories have been formulated regarding the way learning happens. Although we can’t get inside the brain to determine the way learning really occurs we can try different interventions and create different scenarios intended to produce learning and try to determine the best approaches to stimulate learning and under what conditions learning tends to occur. As trends and patterns emerge, they are formulated into theories. The theories may then be restated as hypotheses and subjected to further research testing. Eventually the theories are either disproved or accepted as possible explanations for how we learn.
Unfortunately no research gives us a 100% accurate picture or explanation for what happens in a learning experience. This is because research is imperfect. We can only test a small portion of a population. Even if the portion is a representative sample, it may still vary from the population in certain important aspects which could influence the outcome of the research. Our results could be messed up by factors such as mortality (who dropped out before the study was completed) or the Hawthorne effect (the effect is caused not by the difference in intervention but by the extra attention received from the researcher).
Theories also give us an imperfect view of reality and no one theory completely explains learning. There are elements of truth in behaviorism, cognitive learning theory, and social-constructivism, but none of them corner the market on truth. Because these theories are only partial explanations of how we learn, they cannot completely explain a particular learning experience. They can, however, help us shed light on why a particular technique or intervention was successful or unsuccessful.
While we cannot give complete credence to theories or research, they are valuable tools that educators can use to evaluate their practice and explain the experiences of their students to others.
Noddings, N. (2012). Philosophy of Education: Westview Press.