And if ALL classrooms, preschool through graduate school, is not sufficiently alarming, how about in ALL students and teachers and professors and administrators? Plus with a little luck, and using active coordination of themes and cultivated beliefs between education and the media, those interested in transformative change in the 21st century hope to spread the mental and emotional contagion to parents and enough voters generally to ignite the change via the ballot box and ALL institutions.
So how does the mouthful phrase ‘dialectical materialism’ fit into this vision? That is something I have struggled with for a couple of years now. I basically got it, but not well enough to translate into a pithy analogy for mass consumption. I suspect much of that is deliberate to prevent alarms from going off recognizing its use to prompt revolutionary cultural change. I knew it was about consciousness and had been coined not by Marx or Engels, but by Joseph Dietzgen. Like them, his revolutionary intentions forced him into exile in the Anglosphere, countries much more accommodating of dissent than Germany or other parts of 19th-century Europe. Instead of London or Manchester, England though, Dietzgen relocated to the Chicago area. But what precisely merited exile by authorities wishing to retain existing political power?
The recent recovery of some lost Nelson Mandela transcripts that quoted him as saying: “to a nationalist fighting oppression, dialectical materialism is like a rifle, bomb or missile. Once I understood the logic of dialectical materialism, I embraced it without hesitation.” I read that and immediately wished someone would concisely explain that logic as I was quite sure it was still lurking in our midst, ready to mount an invisible attack against existing institutions, values, beliefs, and other cultural norms. Last week, my personal project, supposedly unrelated to the blog or book or speaking engagements, was to investigate when the law shifted to being seen as a cultural weapon. Just a matter of personal curiosity so I ordered a book I had seen mentioned, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. It was published in 1983 by a then Harvard Law Prof, Harold J. Berman.
I was expecting a more straightforward history than what I encountered. I certainly was not expecting to read on the first page of the Preface that “A world ends when its metaphor has died.” Well, that got my attention as nothing is more prevalent now in education ‘reforms’ than the determination to excise factual knowledge of the past or science or human nature and substitute some type of metaphorical belief, usually called a ‘lens,’ as in the new C3 Social Studies Framework or a Generative Metaphor from Donald Schon and Chris Argyris’ Action Science work.
Continuing on in the Introduction, I found a determination to jettison the reverence for the Anglo tradition of the common law, and language about the law being not “a body of rules,” but a “process.” That statement sounded eerily similar to what radical education reformers like Linda Darling-Hammond, or sponsors like CCSSO, are using to describe what the REAL Common Core implementation is about. Not transmitting a body of knowledge anymore, but cultivating desired ‘habits of mind’ and hoped for ‘dispositions’ amenable and primed to act for wholesale social change.
Perhaps because it is a book designed to change the nature of a particular institution-the nature of law, law schools, and the role of the judiciary, Berman’s book is quite graphic about using the word ‘dialectics’ to describe the process of changing values and beliefs in people so it will have an impact on how and whether they act. Those actions in turn can affect the material world and the physical environment, which in turn acts upon those who inhabit it. A dialectical process back and forth involving the material world, but it all starts in consciousness. Mental and emotional beliefs. Dialectical materialism. Change the consciousness of enough people and the world itself and the future can supposedly be changed in predictable ways.
That’s the theory of how to “transform the social and political and economic realities” and it was revolutionary enough in the 19th century to merit exile and, perhaps, prison in certain times and places in the 20th. Now a willingness to push it can get you a lucrative ed doctorate credential intended to secure a six-figure taxpayer paid salary and then pension for life. That is if you cooperate with the right people and force the right theories on unsuspecting schools and students. What a transition that is for an infamous theory!
Dialectical materialism then is the actual theory that underlay outcomes based education and what was really being sought from it. Because it is an off-putting term with a clear history and proponents calling it the equivalent of a cultural “rifle, bomb or missile,” the real name for the theory gets left out. Instead, we get language about Growth Mindsets and not Fixed and Grit, Perseverance and Tenacity to euphemize the actual dialectical mental and emotional change to arrive at the desired synthesis in a person who will act.
This vision of education as dialectical materialism to change the student’s values, beliefs, and dispositions so they will likely act as desired upon the world can be seen as recently as last Friday as Michael Barber and Pearson released a Michael Fullan authored document called A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning. That report also helpfully ties together the actual intended Common Core implementation in the US to what is going on in Canada, Australia, South America, and Europe. A global vision of the kind of perspectives and Worldviews that education is to inculcate for the future.
Everything is designed around experiential learning and getting students ready to act in desired ways. To see the past through so-called present and future needs. It’s not just the students being primed to act in desired ways. I keep hearing reports of teachers being told to stand and chant as a necessary component of new required professional development, while I notice how the leaders of the training just happened to be active in outcomes based education in the 90s. Or a recent story of videos being shown of enthusiastic cheering at various emotional public events like sports. Then the teachers are told that they must stand and cheer exuberantly at every mention of the phrase “Common Core” during the presentation. Does it remind anyone else of Michael Barber’s work with rebellious UK teachers years ago where the mantra was “First, act, then belief comes?”
To me, it is reminiscent of another of William Henry Chamberlin’s observations from his 30s experiences of collectivism that we encountered in the previous post. He noted that “human personality, for instance, may sometimes be dwarfed and standardized under the influence of democracy. But in the totalitarian states it tends to disappear altogether; the individual is simply sunk in the collectivist mass that votes, marches, salutes, cheers with the regularity and precision of an automatic machine.” That term ‘totalitarian’ may seem a bit misplaced when talking of the US or UK or Canada or Australia, but every one of the political and economic and social philosophies Chamberlin was writing about from personal experience was grounded in dialectical materialism. It is the foundational theory behind changing values and beliefs. What varied, then and now, are the particular beliefs that can be deliberately cultivated as useful for transformative change.
It is easy then to see the belief in Catastrophic Manmade Climate Change as one of today’s useful cultivated beliefs as well as the hyping of Inequality and the push for Communitarianism (misleadingly hiding in the definition of Career Ready as well as what will constitute a Positive School Climate). The intense focus on continued racism and sexism in reading selections and classroom discussions provides the same function. Useful beliefs that will likely compel a belief to act to transform the world in predictable ways. Others are more subtle, like the regular complaints over the religion of Islam being portrayed as inherently innocuous in ways that disregard known, provable, potentially dangerous facts. Or the economic misconceptions being deliberately cultivated and then tied to revered figures like Martin Luther King as Democracy Collaborative/Good Society’s Gar Alperovitz did recently. http://sojo.net/magazine/2014/01/beyond-dreamer
We are going to talk next time about how this dialectical vision has become incorporated into the teacher evals for licensure and promotion to ensure compliance. Another dialectical process to ensure actual change in the material world.
Unfortunately all these intentions just cannot shake off the effects of unintended consequences and perverse incentives in that same material world.
The one where we all live and pay taxes to finance these millenarian visions of unrealistic, and nonconsensual, transformations.