Carnal Knowledge

In an article ‘On the Essence of Education’, Alex Sidorkin argues provocatively that ‘Education owes its existence to death’ (2011: 522). As the specialised knowledge required to maintain human existence becomes harder to learn within the span of a human lifetime, we invent new techniques for the massification of learning – these technologies are what we call ‘education’. Taking us through a number of stages of the development of education, Sidorkin points ahead to a final stage – Learning 5.0 – in which learning ‘will defeat death itself. We will learn to extend our productive lives … And/or, we will learn to download semantic memory more efficiently into our children’s minds’ (523). At this point, the educational demand of balancing limited time, inclination and resources with the requirements of specialised learning will be overcome. The close association of education’s final end (in both the teleological and the terminal sense) with overcoming death resonates with the transhumanist hope of attaining ‘substrate-independent mind’. Sidorkin’s language of ‘downloading’ is suggestive of a brain-machine interface, and only a mind that could be transferred from one (organic) substrate to another (synethetic) could permanently escape biological entropy.

Although the language is new, the association of the transfer of knowledge with the disembodiment of mind is, of course, not. As Plato’s location of knowledge in the immaterial realm of the forms depended on his doctrine of the transmigration of the soul, the educational belief that knowledge can be ‘downloaded’ from one mind to another or uploaded from some external source (a book or other medium) participates in the current technological metaphor of the lossless transfer of data from brain to hard disc to page. Just as (software) programmes can survive transfer from one (hardware) server to another, the transhumanist hope is that an artificial emulation of a human intelligence might eventually be able to persist in digital space, overcoming its current dependence on instantiation in a particular biological form.

Contemporary attempts at conceiving learning scientifically, far from being ‘materialist’, assume the essential disembodiment of knowledge. So cognitive psychology describes the mechanisms by which ‘knowledge’ is transferred from teacher or page to working memory, from there to long term memory, back again to working memory, and so on in an economy of ‘load’. Neuroscientists interested in education, even, must disembody knowledge before they can look for its ‘neural correlates’ in the viscera within the skull. While it is tempting to think of knowledge as persisting across different material instantiations (mind/ voice/ page), what is offered in teaching is an explication, which is an abstraction from what is known. In teaching, as in attempts to ‘store’ knowledge through writing or other notation, the knowledge (or rather, its reduction to the form of an explication) becomes a ‘datum’. What is given, of course, is not what is learned, and although a datum might persist across material instantiations, the explication is not and never was the knowledge.

This insight can be expanded with reference to the work of Michel Serres, who reminds us that if all acquired knowledge required an explication, then ‘By this line of reasoning, we wouldn’t know very much’ (2011). This ‘foolishness’ prevails, Serres argues, wherever attempts at educational assessment require that a student can recall a given explication with clarity. In place of clarity and recall, Serres offers an account of learning which ‘drives gestures down into the blackness of the body; thoughts too, besides; knowing is forgetting.’ He adds that ‘Happily, I’ve learned many things by heart, that wonderful expression, whereby people show things can be learned in such a way that they do not yet rise back up to the brain; my body chewed it over and made it my own, without my knowing it.’ ‘The unconscious,’ Serres argues, ‘is the body’, and ‘Human intelligence can be distinguished from artificial intelligence by the body alone.’ Stronger yet, ‘A mechanical procedure can reproduce any of the understanding’s operations, never the actions of the body.’

Serres reminds us of a learning that preceded what Sidorkin calls ‘semantic memory’, and involved adjustment to the movements of the mother, communication through the touch of skin. These ‘mimetic processes flowing since the dawn of time’ persist into the classroom, where ‘The teaching body dances its knowledge softly … so that, through virtual mimicry of its gestures, a few ideas will enter their heads via the muscles and bones, which though seated and immobile are solicited, pulled toward the beginnings of movement, perhaps even by the written work’s little jig.’

In a paradox that far from escapes Serres’ attention, what characterises the body’s ‘hardware’, and renders it so distant from the promise of lossless data transfer, is precisely its inefficient malleability. The knowledge of the body is characterised by feedback, noise and resistance to the clarity of the explication; it has a history of folds and convolutions by which it is lost, returns and transforms.

One implication of Serres’ insight is that it undermines the hope of maximising education’s efficiency. ‘Invent a powerful enough memory’ (as Serres characterises the hope) ‘and there will be no more need to economise.’ Rather, since the body’s knowledge has a material history, it will always take time to educate a body. I once observed teachers being instructed in response to a psychological study to have blank white walls in their classrooms, to minimise distraction from the offered explication. The various attempts to perfect the operations of the cognitive mechanisms of attention, memory and perception are efforts to prevent the mind from wandering. Serres urges us rather to let the body learn.

This caution against the implicit metempsychosis of even avowedly materialistic approaches to learning is consistent with various relatively recent disciplinary turns – embodied cognition, the sociology of the body, carnal hermeneutics, and so on – and can be expressed in its starkest terms as follows: knowledge is meat.

Serres, M (2011) Variations on the Body, Minneapolis: Univocal

Sidorkin, A (2011) ‘On the Essence of Education’, Studies in Philosophy and Education 30:5, 521-527

Remembrance in Schools: Ritual, Power and Peace

This is the abstract for a symposium session I will be participating in at BERA Conference 2018.

Each November, commemoration of the First World War (and subsequent military conflicts) is almost ubiquitous in schools. The significance of Remembrance is widely contested in the broader public sphere during the period of marking the centenary of the events of 1914 to 1918. Yet – as a seemingly one-off event outside the regular curriculum – Armistice Day in schools has been subjected to surprisingly little scrutiny. The four papers in this symposium bring together empirical, historical, anthropological and philosophical perspectives on Armistice commemoration in English schools.

Remembrance in schools: Connecting Past and Present (Dr Annie Haight, Oxford Brookes University)

The Remembrance in Schools project (2013-2019) investigates armistice commemoration in primary and secondary schools in three counties. We have explored teachers’ perspectives through two online surveys (2013 and 2016) and interviews (2017), and observed remembrance events in November 2017. This presentation focuses on teachers’ accounts of the ways in which the two world wars, and especially the First World War, are remembered, presented and discussed, through their schools’ remembrance events. Behind almost ubiquitous practices (the silence) and symbols (the poppy), lie nuanced variations in teachers’ views of the knowledge and values that children gain from armistice commemoration in schools, which are inflected by individual schools’ histories, local community contexts, and pupil demographic, and teachers’ own histories and ideals.

War and Peace: Armistice Commemoration in Schools in late 1930s Britain (Dr Susannah Wright, Oxford Brookes University)

Acts of collective remembrance were performed each November in interwar years Britain, with participation very much expected and, to an extent, policed. This paper will focus on armistice commemoration in schools. Schools as sites for acts of collective remembrance have not yet received sustained attention. I focus on 1937, a time of rearmament and gas-mask fitting 19 years after the end of that conflict, when increasing numbers had not personally experienced the First World War. A uniquely rich historical resource, moreover, survives for that year, in accounts of armistice commemoration written by teachers (27) and pupils (9) for Mass Observation, the newly founded British social research organisation. Though not representative of the teacher or pupil body, these provide a snapshot of what went on in different types of schools, and authors’ own perspectives. Armistice commemoration in schools, these accounts show, often followed patterns which connected to rituals and forms in the wider civic sphere. Yet these patterns were also inflected by the spaces, timings, age of pupils and teachers, and power relations of the school institution. Teachers and pupils, as political actors, engaged in common rituals but found outlets for their different attitudes to armistice commemoration, and ideas about war and peace.

Rituals of Remembrance: Armistice Commemoration in English Schools (Dr Patrick Alexander, Oxford Brookes University)

Ritual remains a profound context for the reinforcement, reproduction, and contestation of moral values. Beginning with Durkheim, there exists a long tradition of scholarship in the sociology of education that has explored the ways in which ritual can be mobilised in order to maintain or challenge notions of social and moral order. In this paper I explore these themes in relation to rituals of remembrance carried out in ten English Primary and Secondary schools during November 2017. Drawing on the work of Van Gennep, Turner, and more recently Wulf, I explore structure, symbolism and discursive content of ritualised remembrance activities in these schools. I focus specifically on the contemporary politics of remembrance, the nature of ritual performance and its relationship to affect, and the need to engage critically with the oft-unrecognised but ever- present legacy of colonialism.

A Canon for Peace? (Dr David Aldridge, Brunel University London)

This paper develops the philosophical approach to remembrance in schools begun in David Aldridge’s ‘Impact’ publication for the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain. It acknowledges that only part of the issue has been considered there, because much moral education has more to do with the cultivation of moral sensitivity than appeals to reason; in most cases there is thus no clear application of an ‘epistemic criterion’ (such as might be derived from the work of Michael Hand). An educator in the arts or appreciative reading cannot escape a consideration of the moral intention behind selecting or presenting particular material. This connects with the literary question of whether art can be ‘put to use’ in service of moral ends (and, if so, what transformations it would undergo), and also the educational question of when to teach with the explicit intention of guiding the affect/ emotions and when to let the ambiguity of the text lead inquiry. These questions will be considered in relation to ‘canons’ of war poetry.

Respondent: Dr Richard Davies, University of Central Lancashire

You can download my open access Philosophy of Education Society ‘Impact’ publication, How Ought War To Be Remembered in Schools?