Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Self-organized groups and the methods and ethics of accessing learning resources

Jay Cross has posted some further reflections on the Hole in the Wall project that was presented in a keynote speech by Sugata Mitra at Online Educa Berlin two weeks ago.

It seems to me that the key to the success of HiWEL is the notion of "self-organized groups" who learn on their own. If education is to become truly non-invasive, it must refrain from defining both the goals and the means to reach them, entrusting the groups with this task. If educational gurus notice that a group is neglecting what is considered "essential" in the curriculum (for whatever reason, whether it’s basic security, survival or simply an existing set of values), the group could be challenged to account for why they may be neglecting a certain topic or reminded of the interest in pursuing it. Respecting the self-organizing group and its decision-making capacity is the sine qua non of success. It also happens to be the absolute opposite of the organizational principles of traditional education and training.

It's worth reflecting on how learners in self-organized groups use external resources to solve problems. One of Sugata’s anecdotes in Berlin concerned a girl who was overwhelmed by the exposure to the micro-biology courses in English (a language she had to learn as the medium of instruction). She stole some money from her mother to phone her uncle in Delhi, who she hoped might be able to explain in simple terms what DNA was. His vague and unscientific but nevertheless informative answer gave her the minimum she needed to begin constructing her understanding of the lessons she wanted to explore.

In other words, everything one already knows or has access to in the world becomes a potential resource for building rather than simply receiving knowledge (traditionally from a single authoritative source). This is probably the best answer to Andrew Keen as well because it demonstrates that even not fully reliable sources of knowledge (the uncle) can contribute to the construction and refinement of knowledge. Being exposed to a multiplicity of sources and entering into dialogue with them is the best way of evaluating the components of knowledge and understanding relationships between complementary elements.

I expect that within the family (in Indian culture) the mother could forgive her daughter for the theft. It’s worth noticing that in some cultures – and especially within educational institutions -- that theft would not be forgiven and the child would be branded as a real or potential delinquent. It’s the old Jean Valjean problem that our western cultures are still struggling with, where the “rule of law” can easily become a rigid regime of “law and order”.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The risky way of making cultural discoveries

We're now approaching the point where nearly everyone realizes that the actions in Iraq over the past four and a half years -- apart from the military and political toll -- have been an unmitigated cultural disaster. An article in the Washington Post brings the point home once again, pointing out the deluded nature of the most recent official strategy of the AmerIcan occupation.

Here's a sample from the article:

Humam Hamoudi, a prominent Shiite cleric and parliament member, said any future reconciliation would emerge naturally from an efficient, fair government, not through short-term political engineering among Sunnis and Shiites.

"Reconciliation should be a result and not a goal by itself," he said. "You should create the atmosphere for correct relationships, and not wave slogans that 'I want to reconcile with you.' "

One can find two of our classic tools of cultural analysis right there: task- vs relationship-orientated cultures and the status of time. Hamoudi identified "short-term political engineering" as something alien to his culture, seeing it implicitly as central to US culture.

The first step in cultural enlightenment for the invaders was to discover that military domination and the imposition of one's own system of law and order doesn't quite work. That is, law can be imposed, but order doesn't necessarily follow. (US culture would work a lot better -- even inside of the US -- if the core value were "trust and order" rather than "law and order", law being simply the formalization of trust).

The second step in cultural enlightenment is what we are now seeing, absorbing the lessons from the reaction of the local culture against the newer strategy of "short term engineering" that replaced radical destruction. The last two years have remarkably resembled the dance scene in West Side Story, where the social worker played by a smiling, optimistic John Astin tries to get everyone to mix and have fun. "Bright ideas" about democracy and "mixing" are just that, both "bright" and "ideas" against a dark background of concrete conflict.

I expect the next phase of analysis (following continued failure) will be to realize -- as hinted in a Newsweek article yesterday -- that the current celebration of deal-making ("let's make a deal" * is a fundamental AmerIcan reflex that is worlds away from diplomacy despite superficial resemblance ) considered an inspiring model by Bush and Patraeus and heavily vaunted in the media, is just another artefact of AmerIcan that makes no sense in Iraq. American deal-making isn't so much haggling or horse-trading -- traditional in the Middle East -- as fixing the "right price", making the sale and expecting the customer as well as the seller to respect the sales contract.

Here's a sample from the Newsweek article:

The U.S. military discovered too late that Iraq's tangled network of tribal leaders is a major key to security. Yet over the past year, "government from the bottom up" has become one of Ambassador Ryan Crocker's favorite catchphrases. As violence has declined in Sunni enclaves like Ramadi and Fallujah in recent months, commanders have
tried to replicate the apparent success of the region's Anbar Salvation Council elsewhere. Last summer American military commanders spent millions of dollars on "concerned local citizens" programs—essentially paying off tribal sheiks to keep their followers from planting roadside bombs.

Isn't there something fundamentally appalling about the number of things that are "discovered too late" on the part of a nation that has put itself in the position of teaching others how to behave?

Finally, when will the AmerIcans -- including the Democratic presidential candidates -- realize that culturally speaking the visible presence of occupying authorities (and their soldiers) as purveyors of a new social order, or even simply as mediators, is the principle obstacle to any spontaneous and home-grown reconciliation or stabilization? That too is cultural. So long as one is aware of the interfering Other in the midst of all of one's decision-making processes, the element of trust,
without which understanding can never be achieved, will be absent. The sad reality, however, is that so long as the question of who exploits Iraq's oil goes unresolved, the AmerIcans will be there, proposing one culturally inappropriate solution after another and "discovering too late" the cultural truths they hadn't anticipated.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Can two lame ducks walk?

We need to beware of lame ducks, traditionally considered harmless especially when they are unpopular at home. Can the next 15 months prove that lame ducks may be dangerous, especially if they work in pairs? The Guardian hints that a duck-billed catastrophe may be in preparation.

The historical situation is unique. Bush and Cheney have, by their own consistent and unwavering choice, defined themselves as the "All-eXXon-dares the Great", conquerors of the Middle East and Protectors of the Mesopotamian Cradle of Petroleum (once quaintly known as the Cradle of Civilization). Cheney appears to be totally committed to the idea of complete conquest... and Bush appears to be totally committed to Cheney. If these two lame ducks manage to lean on each other (clinging desperately with Cheney's right wing), they may end up with two legs to walk on long enough to launch their Strangelovian attack on Iran, with Cheney in the role of Gen. Jack D. Ripper and Bush in that of TJ Kong (the TJ clearly standing for Texan Junior "King" Kong, an apt description of the son of the other President George Bush).

This is where the quagmire in Iraq and the sheer degree of unpopularity of the current administration may add fuel to the fire, or rather a few megatons to the bomb. In the waning months of his presidency before what looks to be the imminent victory of a Democrat, it may appear that the only way to force the future administration to "stay the course" would be to attack Iran, transforming the Iraq fiasco into a world war and a quest for absolute control. They might even consider that there's a remote but not impossible chance of cancelling the election.

This is where Gordon Brown could become a hero, because without a prominent and loyal European ally (sometimes referred to as a poodle), the chance of the US carrying out such a plan without being ripped to shreds by the international community is zero. The remaining question would be, if Brown refuses to join the coalition of the thrilling, would Sarkozy see that as an opportunity to put France in the coveted position of America's Great Ally (the AGA Con)? I don't think Sarkozy is that stupid, partly because the one issue on which he hasn't convinced the French to trust his self-proclaimed "new deal" is Bush's foreing policy.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The housing market crisis

Everyone is worried not only about the US housing market but also about its ripple effects on the world economy. Oddly this demonstrates that what everyone considers a virtue -- the dynamics of the marketplace -- may well be a recipe for long-term disaster.

The economy -- as Panurge (i.e. Rabelais) understood it five centuries ago -- is based on the willingness of people to purchase the useless and, why not, nefarious to keep money (means of payment) circulating and expanding the overall supply. If people only looked after fulfilling their real needs, the economy would appear to stagnate. Of course, doing so might also impel them to think about what real needs are, which will always be a matter of controversy but happens to be one of the bases of human culture in general and all human cultures. Our clever deduction -- made concrete by the evolution of industrial economies -- that the only "serious" human need is for money is founded on our mathemetical intelligence: money is the only recognizable common denominator and furthermore is a (presumably) manageable resource. It is this "scientific orientation" that sets our "globalizing" culture apart from all other human cultures of the present or past.

It may seem odd to say that the crisis of the housing market is an instance of the perversity of our "needs analysis" glorifying the useless and nefarious since housing is unquestionably a basic human need. But does the suburban US house -- with all the sociology that goes with it -- really represent a human and social need? Can there be a problem of "lebensraum" at the level of families as there is with nations? Isn't the model itself one that creates a gravitational pull towards the fabrication and consumption of the useless and nefarious? This has in fact been seen, in Panurgian fashion, as the main driving virtue of the model, duplicating Panurge's insistence on enjoyment as the principal consequence. But with its long-term consequences on the environment (now readily recognizable) and its less apparent but possibly deeper effects on social relations, both direct and indirect (through the fraying of bonds of solidarity), the US housing market may be the indicator of the weakness of the paradigm. The useless and nefarious have a price, or rather two prices: the one you pay for the goods themselves and the one humanity pays for the unsettling effects of those goods on our physical and social environment, effects that will be magnified for future generations.

In cultural terms the analysis may seem so simple as to be simplistic. We deeply believe that a dynamic economy is good because it creates not only jobs, but also wealth itself (partly through jobs) and ever more virtuously spreads that wealth (partly through jobs). Politicians know that the only thing that "sells" is the promise of jobs ("It's the economy, stupid"). This becomes more morally complex when the suppliers of jobs are companies like Halliburton who prosper when the most morally contestable policies are enacted, but the overall impression is that its all for the good since activity is ensured (activity = money and money is the measure of all good). One of the reasons why war is actually perceived as “good” – especially since the “godsend” of WWII that allowed the US to emerge from the depression -- is that it is a guaranteed form of activity, creating credit and debt and employing millions of people within a system defined by a hierarchical logic that makes things easy to manage because not dependent on the anarchy of the marketplace and largely immune to the hazards and debilitating effects of moral reasoning (Hamlet style).

It is our belief in the "goodness" of the equation that appears to be unshakable and linked to our notions of the goodness of democracy. After all, it's people with jobs who vote! And it's people with jobs who buy houses. It may even be that the regular crises of the economy (recessions and even the occasion crash) serve the purpose of reinforcing our faith in the principles that underlie the system.

My feeling is that the predicted "clash of civilizations" will not be between regions or religions but rather between human cultures (which still do exist and whose most visible but not unique or even essential glue is often religion) and the globalizing Panurgian culture of debtors and creditors who thrive in a state of mutual dependence obliging them to create the useful and the useless, the good and nefarious. We may in fact have no choice as the price of our purchases continues to mount and the means of payment, constantly increasing, turn out to be permanently and fatally insufficient because with the creation of one type of value (mercantile) other more fundamental values are ignored in the best of cases and destroyed in the worst. Compounding the issue is that thanks to our unshakable belief in the virtue of creation for its own sake, we become unable (or at least unwilling) to measure what is being destroyed. Awareness of this principle and the severe risk it entails could be taken as the common denominator of the ecology and the global protest movement (altermondiste), which has yet to formulate an alternative set of cultural values, focusing primarily on physical conservation or the imaginary return to an undefined and idealistic status quo ante bellum (the war being the industrial-capitalist revolution). Not that it should be held to exercise that responsibility, since it actually belongs to the cultures of the world to do so more or less locally.

The clash I would foresee (but which I’m not predicting as an historical inevitability) is between the globalizing finance-rooted economy on the one hand, and, on the other, the world’s diverse cultures somehow allied with a global protest movement and endowed with a certain persuasive force that will be acquired lesst through efficient organization and more through the increasingly obvious failures of the Panurgian paradigm as the useless is increasingly revealed to be nefarious.

A brief reminder of Panurge’s ideal world of debt and credit :

« Représentez-vous un monde autre, onquel un chascun preste, un chascun doibve, tous soient debteurs, tous soient presteurs. O quelle harmonie sera parmy les réguliers mouvemens des cieulx...Entre les humains, paix, amour, dilection, fidélité, repous, banquetz, festins, joie, liesse, or, argent, menue monnoie, chaisne, bagues, marchandises troteront de main en main... »

Very modern vision, in’t? At least Paris Hilton (if she read French) might recognize it. Panurge continues

« Charité seule règne, régente, domine, triumphe. »

Charity (Agape) is here the notion of non-libidinous love (call it “loving concern and empathy”), not the giving away of surplus money. But the fact that Rabelais uses the word in this context (in the first quote he writes “amour”) shows how much of a visionary Rabelais was, hinting that the traditional Christian virtue of Agape would become a mechanism of the future debt-based economic culture!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Politics or the language and culture of sports

MSNBC published an interesting article on the use of sports metaphors in politics.

While the anecdotes reveal a great deal about the trend itself, I found it worthwhile to delve a little deeper into the cultural meaning of the rhetoric. Below is the article with my interleaved comments.

Bush runs White House with sports terms
The Associated Press

Updated: 4:06 p.m. ET July 15, 2007

WASHINGTON - Running the country is no game. It just sounds like one sometimes. In the Bush White House, sports are a metaphor for life. Better keep up if you want to play.

Consider how President Bush describes his time left in office.

"I'm going to sprint to the finish," he likes to say.
Not content to run alone, he used the phrase to defend Tony Blair in Blair's dwindling days as Britain's prime minister.

"He's going to sprint to the wire," Bush declared of his pal.

The sports imagery changes when slow is the preferred way to go for the White House. Take the way the administration defends its global warming strategy against criticism it has lacked urgency.

"This is a marathon," explained Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "It's not a sprint."

Sports metaphors have become a pervasive way for Bush and his team to describe almost anything. Expressing ideas in terms of athletics is so routine in the highest levels of government — just as it is in more typical workplaces — that even people who do not follow sports are used to it.

Fairness means leveling the playing field; focus is keeping your eye on the ball. Send in the heavy hitters if you want results. If sacrifice is called for, then take one for the team.

"It's just the way we speak. Our language is permeated with these terms," said Harold Ray, a sports historian who identified 1,700 sports metaphors in a book he co-wrote about the topic. "We just assume that everyone understands them."

It may seem to be "just the way we speak", but it’s also the way “we” think. Culture encourages and pre-validates certain ways of thinking. The view of historical events as a sporting event, with winners, losers, rules of the game (procedures) and time limits is deeply rooted in US culture. The reference to sport has become a pattern for dismissing responsibility (we played by the rules of the game, not by those ethics or logic). This possibly derives from the underlying Calvinist belief that games and theology are linked: the propensity to attribute victory in a sporting contest to divine intervention (predestination). Sport has consequently become more than a convenient metaphor. It has taken on an ontological, ethical and eschatological character. We are invited to believe that our responsibilities are defined in terms similar to those of athletes and that playing the game is a way of putting oneself in the hands of the Great Playmaker and fulfilling His objectives (concerning gender, in US sports coaches are almost always men, though women are now accepted as referees, even for men’s sports. “Playmakers”, on the other hand, are therefore typically male and usually white).

Football metaphors meet language barrier
When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was forced to answer critics of a plan to shut down North Korea's nuclear program, she needed a way to urge patience. So, naturally, the administration's top diplomat used the language of a football game.

"This is still the first quarter," she said. "There is still a lot of time to go on the clock."
The powerful notion behind this is that history radically changes when a “terminal” event occurs. US culture believes that all games have ends after which we play by a different set of rules, whereas other cultures see history as a continuous struggle or dynamic harmony (yin and yang) of cultural forces that do not fundamentally change. The US was founded on a revolutionary rewrite of the “rules of the game” following an act of will validated by a belief in “destiny” (the semantic link between “predestination” and “manifest destiny”).

It’s worth noting, however, that Condoleezza Rice has also used another clear beginning/clear ending metaphor, when she qualified the 2006 war in Lebanaon as “birth pangs” of the Middle East.

The lingo does not always translate, however.

The same day in February that Rice spoke in Washington, U.S. nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill was in Beijing and described what private discussions with North Korean officials had been like.

"For those people who are not Americans, you won't understand this metaphor," he cautioned reporters. "But it's always like 3 yards, 3 yards, 3 yards. And then it's always 4th and 1, and you make a first down and do 3 more yards."

Apart from not realizing that this must be utterly incomprehensible to most of humanity, Hill seems not to be familiar with American football itself, the source of his analogy. On 4th and 1 teams almost always choose to punt (surrender the ball to the other team). The lack of precision in the use of sports metaphors (see the Cheney example immediately below) is an indication of how they function culturally: as a means of persuasion based on referring to a mutually accepted norm, the “logic” of sports. Of course, the “logic” of any sport is an arbitrary, closed and artificial system unrelated to and certainly not constructed on the principles of logical reasoning. Deferring to the authority of the game and its rulebook has become a privileged means of avoiding logical and moral analysis.
Got it?

By his own admission, Vice President Dick Cheney fumbled his reference to football when he tried to describe progress in Afghanistan.
"It's sometimes 3 yards and a cloud of dust. There's no home run — touchdown, home run is a flawed analogy — no touchdown pass to be thrown here. But it can be done," Cheney said.

I’m left wondering where the “cloud of dust” comes from. American football is played on grass (real or artificial) so dust is foreign to it. Baseball – which Cheney has mixed in here – does produce dust when sliding into bases. Is he thinking of the dusty landscapes of Afghanistan? Does dust play a role in his typical “strategic thinking” (i.e. throwing dust into the opponent’s eyes)? Or is there some deeper unconscious meaning here which only his analyst might be in a position to reveal?
It is now understood that when a topic becomes popular to kick around, it is a political football. The White House has used that term to describe an eclectic range of matters, from medicare to taxes to former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Switch in power, not sports talk

In October, just before the congressional elections, Bush said Democrats were a tad arrogant in assessing their chances of winning control.

"They're dancing in the end zone," he said. "They just haven't scored the touchdown."
Fun is the reward of victory, which itself is – or should be – the reward of hard work. While fun appears to be a strong value in itself (or perhaps rather the visible outward sign of other deeper values) it is suspect if it isn’t related to merit. There seems to be a moral division of society into two opposing camps: those who try to have fun without earning the right (the lazy and irresponsible) and those who can flaunt it because they have proved their worth (through some form of accomplishment, which generally means through compelling assertiveness possibly associated with a talent or hard work).
Then the Democrats won.
So the power dynamic changed, but not the sports talk.

How does the White House choose to challenge leaders in Congress? "Step up to the plate," Bush spokesman Tony Snow said.
But in reality the White House ended up using “executive privilege” to refuse to send their batters to face the pitcher! This highlights the function of sports metaphors: to reassure, to give the impression that decisions taken are both logical and inevitable (the link between logical and inevitable is of course an extension of Calvinist predestination).
What is the Democrats' motivation for investigating the firing of eight fired U.S. attorneys? "An opportunity to score political points," Bush claimed.
Will Bush now start vetoing more bills? "The ball really lies in the court of those in Congress," Snow said.

At heart, Bush is a baseball guy, a former co-owner of the Texas Rangers. He knows the rule when the ball and the runner reach first base at the same time: The tie goes to the runner.

Turns out, that is exactly how Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts explained a ruling that loosened campaign finance regulations.

"Where the First Amendment is implicated," Roberts wrote, "the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor."
The notion of ties has an ambiguous status in US culture. Ties are difficult to tolerate because there always has to be a winner. Historically in US football it was possible to have a draw (as in soccer), but draws are associated with indecision and ambiguity, neither of which are tolerable and both of which can be associated with the moral crime (attributed by Bush to Keryy) of “flip-flopping”. I believe that draws were definitively eliminated from professional US football in the 1950s (but they may still exist in university football????). Ties are also messy when making calculations to produce statistics (which happen to be a key feature of US sports, eminently worthy of cultural analysis in its own right).
Even the spy world can be explained by sports metaphors; CIA Director Michael Hayden uses them all the time.

Pressed to justify why so many senior intelligence jobs are filled by people with military backgrounds, Hayden used a phrase better associated with a general manager of a football team: "They were the best athletes available in the draft."
The use of the metaphor permits evading the question and at the same time links with “beliefs” associated with meritocracy, a fundamental feature of US culture.
As for Bush, it is no surprise that sports metaphors come easily, said Ray, a retired professor from Western Michigan University.

"With his baseball background, and with the way presidents have honored sports champions, it's a natural," Ray said.

The underdog of politics

Indeed, if Bush is ever free to put life in the context of sports, it is when teams come by the White House. He loves relating an underdog story to his political career.
"They said you didn't have a chance," he told the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006. "I kind of know the feeling."

One bit of caution, however, applies to explaining sensitive matters in sports terms — don't shoot and miss.

Just ask former CIA Director George Tenet.
In the run-up to the war in Iraq, Tenet chose a common basketball phrase to describe the strength of the case against Saddam Hussein. Tenet now says he was talking broadly about the case that could be made against the dictator — not a faulty assurance that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Either way, his wording has come to haunt him.

It was not, as he infamously put it, a "slam dunk."

Copyright (of the original article) 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
The history of the “slam dunk” in basketball and the perception of its significance in US culture is interesting in itself. The inventor of basketball, Dr James Naismith (a Canadian), placed the basket at a height of 10 feet in order to put it “beyond human reach” (in itself an interesting cultural concept). When Lew Alcindor (later to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) dominated smaller players university basketball with the slam dunk, it was outlawed (a case of “levelling the playing field”!). But the gesture of aggressively slamming a ball through a hole struck such a vital chord in the perception of US sports spectators that not only was the slam dunk reinstated as a legitimate gesture, but professional basketball elevated it to the highest level of athletic expression and inaugurated the “slam dunk contest” associated with the All-Star game. The slam dunk – as used by Tenet -- has become a curious metaphor for assertiveness, power and minimization of risk.

All cultures describe politics with sports metaphors and to some extent thereby recognize politics as a game, though the paradigm is more likely to be chess (pure strategy) than outdoor sports. Unlike the US example, they tend to distinguish more clearly between politics and government, the “game” being played by professionals amongst themselves but not extending to the lay population. On the other hand, “the ball in his/her court” has become a dead metaphor in most European languages. What appears to be fundamentally different in most of the examples cited in the article is the attitude behind the use of metaphor. The speakers – generally those who wield power – are in most of the cases (but not all) using the metaphor to establish less a comparison with the way politics “plays out” than the idea that government is an established game, where you (the governed) don’t discuss the rules but apply them or allow them to be applied. In other cultures, games do not have this level of authority or depth of metaphysical import, but in the US where the ideas of “challenge” and “fun” are close to being fundamental values and are certainly moral gauges (fun almost always trumps “seriousness” -- seen as a fussy Old World concept -- and ends up justifying outrageous and ethically suspect behaviour, as seen in the cult of celebrity, from Donald Trump to Paris Hilton).

It’s also worth noting that most of the speakers cited use sports as an analogy (in rhetorical terms, a weak comparison) rather than as a metaphor (suggesting identity or some form of umbilical link between the two terms), but implicitly rely on a common understanding of the validity of sport as a metaphor for life itself.


Saturday, June 09, 2007

Example of e-learning

As a contributing member of the Learning Circuits Blog I thought it my duty to respond to Dave Lee's appeal this month to point to some examples of e-learning. I expect that his intention is to use a bottom-up approach to help resolve the nagging issue of what e-learning is (i.e. how we can define it) and how whatever we think it is can actually solve practical learning problems. And we shouldn't forget the complementary issue of whether it will attract and maintain learners' attention to the point that they actually spend the time to get the results.

Below are some examples of e-learning that my team produced as part of a vast course of business English for non-English speakers. The focus is on the acquisition of language and communication skills in English, rather than what I call "knowledge about the language". The entire cycle of learning, starting at a fairly low level, is based on a film, with a main plot, multiple subplots and a wide range of communication-focused activities, that we authored and produced as interactive video specifically for this purpose. The main story is resolutely cross-cultural, the "star" of the film being an American consultant arriving in the UK and grappling with his own version of culture shock. This problem of adapting to a different context highlights the fact that learners are constantly working on three different levels:
  1. Language acquisition (vocabulary, syntax, grammar... but all of it channeled through communication problems and stylistics, i.e. rhetorical strategy and choices in observable contexts),
  2. Communication skills: the art of getting one's point across to others and reacting appropriately (interpreting and dialoguing) to theirs,
  3. Adapting to a foreign culture, where even if the language is comprehensible the behavioral codes are different and permanent sources of misunderstanding.
The implicit strategy of this extended experience of e-learning is one of community dialogue, since each development (plot, relationships in the video, context, etc.) or set of activities is meant to create a shared experience that provides a base for reflection, discussion and creative development. In other words, the e-learning is there only to get the process going, not to account for the learning, which -- and this is particularly appropriate to the learning of language and communication skills -- can only be social.

For that reason, the material is accessed uniquely through a collaborative platform in which dialogue in the community (including learners and trainers) provides the true basis of a learning process that aims, under the coach or trainer's guidance, at achieving balance between programmed and unprogrammed input, on the one hand, and creative output, on the other. The mechanical output provoked by the programmed activities (quizzes, games, simulations) we consider as fundamentally trivial, serving the unique purpose of consolidating input and creating a common frame of reference facilitating social communication.

The first three examples offered here are part of a series of activities taken from the more advanced levels of the course. The final one comes from the first part of the course (a lower level), where learners are not expected to have achieved a basic comfort level in expression and communication. Quite noticeably, the more advanced examples are concerned with strategy and style, the less advanced with problems of basic recognition of meaning.

Word of warning: because everything turns around the video scenes, this will only work correctly with a reasonably fast connection.

Here are the advanced sequences:

Last minute preparations

Imperfect communication

Getting even

In the following lower level activity, the language is simpler and the challenge is focused first on identifying voices (a specific listening but also a social skill) and only later on the actual language. At the end of the activity (and only at the end), the learner can "study" the text through the Storyboard, which is only accessible after the final game in the series, in this case a multimedia crossword puzzle.

Fred arrives in London from Heathrow aiport

In the full set of resources, the types of activity are extremely varied, designed to address questions ranging from perception (visual, auditive) to negotiating strategy. But the basic rule is context first. It may be seen from these examples that the design of activities contains a specific strategy of inciting learners to go back to a context they have already discovered and even explored in various ways, to milk it further. This may seem to be superficially repetitive, but with a new learning objective it leads to the kind of creative redundancy that we all require to learn our native language or even particular professional skills.

Those interested in the methodology or in other aspects of this product are invited to contact me. We will be shortly launching a new course specifically aimed at intercultural business skills (nothing directly to do with language learning, though the two are always intimately related).

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The perception of perception: a deeper dimension of culture

A fellow interculturalist has drawn the group's attention to a book by Wayne Baker, Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception. It claims that the problem of a "moral crisis" within US society is merely rhetorical (the distortion of perception) and that, according to the blurb, " America has not lost its traditional values, that the nation compares favorably with most other societies, and that the culture war is largely a myth".

My first reaction is to place such books in their context, which is, at the same time, academic, commercial and psychological. In other words, a book about society is first of all an artifact that belongs to the culture and reflects the culture's values as much as it pretends to analyse them. Just to give one example of how the cultural system works in this particular case: Baker sets himself up as the opposing camp in a general trend (consisting of lamenting the deterioration of values) and cites all the successful publications that have taken what he suggests has become the dominant view. He clearly points them out as the adversary whom he has chosen to combat. He's the brash challenger, the righter of wrongs, the bearer of a contradictory truth. Creating polarity and thereby drawing the spotlight to oneself is a standard feature of US culture (assertiveness, linked to the cult of success and celebrity). Framing discussion not as a deepening dialogue but as a contest between opposites is a standard and respected reflex in US culture. I would even go so far as to call it a "value" (but more of that later).

Having read the introductory chapter (only), I think a lot more could be said about the cultural nature of Baker's book and the institutions involved (academe, the book publishing world, the media and possibly politics). I would suggest that this is the type of exercise we need to do with any and all books that pretend to reveal some new truth about society, or about anything else for that matter: science, literature, economics, etc. This is my suggestion to those who go on to read the book (thank you Barthes, Foucault and Derrida).

All this is to say that I agree with Baker's main thesis, which I take to be less provocative than his expected "perception" of it. US culture is still intact!. But that's something we interculturalists already knew. Fundamental values are never lost. And in every culture, they are constantly challenged (often but not exclusively on the basis of both generations and economic class), which rather than being a sign of weakness or fragility allows them to evolve and adapt to a changing context. Where Baker appears to be off the mark to me is in his failure to see that the rhetoric about "culture wars" in itself represents, not a recent deviation but the manifestation of a fundamental and stable US value. Although he repeats the famous quote from Clifford Geertz about culture as a web, he doesn't appear to approach culture in the sense that Geertz understood it. He claims that his "objective... is to interpret the changing webs of significance spun of values in American culture." But he also says, and even more assertively, "My main concern is moral values--fundamental values about right and wrong, good and evil, noble and base--that live in the hearts of people and are embodied in institutions." That is a far cry from Geertz's "webs of significance". And that places Baker squarely within the culture wars, rather than outside, at an objective distance as a cultural observer. He also seems to fail to appreciate the disconnect in all cultures between "the hearts of people" and "institutions". But that may well be a particular feature of US culture: the fusion of identity between the individual and institutions, real as well as imaginary (i.e. a government "of the people, by the people, for the people"). He actually alludes to this awkward fusion when he appeals to Habermas's theories, but doesn't seem to see the forest for the trees.

In short, I would issue this warning: all discussions of values will be vitiated if we mix or simply fail to distinguish
a) notions of morality that include criteria for determining "good and evil",
b) attitudes towards specific institutions (family, church or religion -- already not quite the same thing -- government, real and ideal, etc.)
c) lifestyle preferences.

Even more risky is isolating one as the key to the others, which Baker seems tempted to do when he talks about his "main concern" (moral values). I'm also far from sure that the World Values Survey gives us a fair picture of what interculturalists or what Clifford Geertz might want to see as "values".

Baker does offer us one bit of information to think about:

"A Pew survey of religion and public life, conducted in spring 2001, found that 55 percent of Americans felt that religion was "losing its significance" as an influence on American life. This figure dropped to 12 percent in mid-November 2001, two months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but rose again to 52 percent in March 2002, six months after the attacks.21."

This suggests (and I must say my personal experience bears this out) that the confusion between religion and politics in US culture may be deeper than even Habermas suspected. But it also suggests that the Apocalyptic strain of historical hermeneutics, inherited from the Puritans, is still domiinant. That fact alone tells us more about the depth, less of values than of historical fantasies that permeate US culture (a good starting point would be the foundational castration myth implicit in the story of George Washington's chopping down the cherry tree and not telling a lie").

My tentative conclusion, which would only be justified after reading the whole book: Baker's book is in itself an example of how systemically coherent US culture remains today and how well it has adapted, as an economic force, to a changing world in which it is called upon (or has called upon itself) to play an increasingly dynamic role. The question he appears to elude is how that force, once it's in contact with other powerful cultural forces with "values" that draw their energy from other principles (and not only those recognized by the World Values Survey), may evolve both externally -- in conflictual international contexts -- and internally, through real or simply "perceived" "culture wars".

The real problem is both historical and semantic. The semantics concern the notion of "value" and I'm certain that there is little common ground among the various interlocutors, whether they be Baker, his declared opponents (the doom merchants lamenting moral decline), the World Values Survey, Hofstede (who claims that the WVS reflects his own findings), Clifford Geertz or our community of intercultural consultants and trainers. That problem alone would make the book difficult to read for me (I don't find his style very seductive either). As for history, it is as much economic as cultural, a nasty fact we tend to forget after Fukuyama's declaration of the "end of history". So long as the US can control or at least dominate the exploitation and distribution of global resources and markets, the culture will remain politically stable, which means that Baker's thesis is correct and US society will continue to cling to its beliefs (rather than values) about what is right and wrong, good and evil. The war in Iraq may, in the end, be less a question of economic and military overreach (controlling Middle Eastern oil) than a clever distraction intended both to hide and reinforce US domination of global markets elsewhere (especially financial). If that can be managed and military and economic dominance ensured, even at the price of local failure in the Middle East (as in Vietnam), then US "values" will remain stable for a long time to come even as lifestyles continue to conflict, generating the kinds of spectacles where groups or individuals can continually draw the spotlight to themselves, make the news and become celebrities. The "culture wars" are nothing more than a manifestation of one of the organizing principles of the US economy and culture.

In any case, the debate about what we mean by "values" seems to me wide open. It would be nice if we as a group (the interculturalist community) could contribute to a discussion focused a little too tightly on US "culture" and its états d'âme. By taking a broader perspective, we might just possibly manage to impose a definition that is closer to what we know about cultures and human psychology and less tied to the fairly recent historical tradition of nation-states. One senses in the background of Baker's preoccupations that the whole thing is about "America's self-esteem as a nation", curiously placing his contribution in the category of the omnipresent self-help books so dear to the publishing industry. The funny thing is that the same anguished soul-searching has been taking place not only here in France, but also in the UK, Spain, Italy, etc. Perhaps it's simply a general symptom of the waning of political modernism and specifically of the European style nation-state itself.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Big Brother

A fellow interculturalist has pointed out the interesting ambiguities and contradictions in the recent incident concerning racist insults in the UK reality TV series, Big Brother. Rather than focusing on judging whether it's a reprehensible example of racism, he sees it as a reflection of reality from which we can learn. I totally agree and believe we can use this kind of public incident to examine some of the key features of our current "civilization".

In a BBC News item, here is what some Indians seem to be saying about the incident:

"People in Mumbai, Shetty's home city, were asked by BBC Radio Five Live whether they thought she was a victim of racist bullying and some said they thought it nasty without being racist."

The question underlying this kind of observation is "what is the status of nasty and what is the status of racist?"

Of course, the real cultural problem for me is less the behaviour of the individuals than the status of "reality shows", which I’ll come back to in a minute. The "racist or nasty" distinction serves to highlight the fact that what we call racism is not only complex (extending from simple racist reflexes to fully elaborated racist theory, with latent or manifest racist attitude somewhere in the middle), but also needs to be understood on several different levels: the public, the private and the unconscious. A good case could be made (and has been made) for the assertion that we are all unconsciously racist. Some would even say it’s a natural function of our “selfish genes” (not being a fan of Dawkins, I wouldn’t go along with the exploitation of this flawed metaphor). But if this is so, it belongs to the realm of the unconscious and if we accept the related notions of ethical choice and free will (notions that are contested by some philosophers), then unconscious predispositions do not determine our attitudes and our behaviour.

In a classical Freudian framework, a permanent dynamic relationship exists between the id (where the unconscious resides or is “structured” according to Lacan), the ego and the superego. This too is a flawed metaphor, but it has the merit of identifying three visibly active and well contrasted layers of human behaviour: the impulse (id), the calculated move or choice (ego) and actions that are influenced and in some cases determined by social norms, including culture and law (the superego). The incidents in Big Brother seem to be largely at the unconscious level, meaning that they can be corrected at the conscious level (ego) and the societal level (superego). It's interesting society is making something of a hash of it, which tells us a lot about our current culture, especially as filtered through – but more significantly – regulated by the media. And this is what I find most dangerous, that our thinking and our “new” cultural reflexes are being programmed by the media.

As for Big Brother itself, the question may legitimately be asked, “but what are we to expect when a group of people are held in close quarters for so long?” The idea of being in close quarters but at the same time visible to the public, while interacting with people one has not chosen oneself, is profoundly ambiguous in that it mixes up all three of the standard personae associated with the three levels of the personality. It is in the intimate sphere that the id has some room to operate. The privacy of such situations allows our psyche occasionally to let off the steam of the unconscious, since it will then encounter factors of resistance that will send it back into its normal unconscious state, usually with no long term consequences other than refining one’s behavioural learning process. Resistance comes in the form of the personal and moral reactions of those who share that space, who are usually people we trust and/or with whom we share our social culture. That certainly isn’t the case in Big Brother.

The private sphere is also where the ego is developed and modelled through interactions with others: Freud called the process a series of identifications, which I take to be Freud’s most pregnant contribution to cultural theory. The modelling of the ego allows it to take moral precedence over the unconscious impulses and establishes the legitimacy of the external, social point of view as a regulator of egoistic behaviour. As “regulation” develops the superego is formed, representing the “rules of the game” by which one is first judged (by others) and ultimately ends up judging oneself (our conscience).

The media quite obviously represent the public point of view that is instrumental in informing the superego. But in the context of Big Brother this is perverse, because the medium (television) is mixed up with aspects that in individual psychology would belong to the realm of the ego (survival and self-assertion) and even the id (the affirmation of impulses, which is what the spectators are “expecting” to see).

What’s ultimately both comic and tragic about this incident and its aftermath is the way “serious social commentary” is reframing the content of this literally perverse context. The perversity is exacerbated by the fact that the participants are already celebrities of a sort (having never seen Big Brother or any of its avatars, I’m not very sure about how this is structured – are they real celebrities or wannabes? -- or how it may play out, but it seems to me to be an obvious source of confusion).

The interest in analysing incidents such as this one for cultural as well as psychological and sociological reflection is indeed great, as my colleague, Steve Crawford, suggested. I’m sure there are many other interesting takes on it, including an analysis of the “legal” side of this (already a part of the official debate).

And just to complicate things further, there appears to be a somewhat similar incident taking place in the US around a more classic TV fiction series, Grey’s Anatomy, where one of the actors (black) used an insulting term for a gay colleague on the set (in private, of course) and this was reported to the media, creating a major scandal.

The past twelve months or so have brought a rich harvest of public/private racism: Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and now these two latest incidents. There are a lot of issues here. It would be nice if the intercultural community could show some leadership on helping to analyse these things… in public!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Reporting and building the new "new world order"

Several colleagues have recently come back to a theme that has preoccupied a lot of people since 9/11: the docility of the US media in the face of policies that were manifestly mistaken or based on lies and whose long-term consequences were predictable, had anyone had the courage to predict. (Neutralizing this basic intellectual capacity seems to have been a permanent feature of the current administration's strategy, who even today claims a monopoly on prediction, the latest example being the justification -- via the utopia of a unified, stable Iraq -- of the coming "surge").

About a week ago I read an article by René Lefort in the Nouvel Observateur concerning the situation in Somalia. Having seen the news items in the U.S. press about the pursuit of "key members" of al-Qaida in Somalia -- articles in which no recent historical background was offered -- I was pleased to discover a journalist who could fill me in on a bit of context. What a difference when compared to the accounts in the U.S. press, where the Ethiopians were the good guys and the Somalians (because they had allowed themselves to rebuild their society from the ground up under the tutelage of Islamic Courts) were the bad guys. Now it may well be that since 9/11 the idea of Islamic Courts conjures up in Washington the idea of Taliban and/or al-Qaida (= evil), but the facts put forward by Lefort indicated that this wasn't the case at all. Lefort made some effort to explain the political and social logic behind a movement that had been increasingly successful in restructuring an anarchic society that had been effectively left in the hands of warlords, to the detriment of everyone else, including the clans (the basis of Somalian social organisation) and the nominal government, with no power or authority or historical basis. To keep the story short, Lefort recounts that the U.S. encouraged Christian Ethiopia to invade Islamic Somalia promising and supplying US military support, accompanied by specific actions against the culprits who provided the ultimate pretext for the invasion: 3 presumed members of al-Qaida (and this presumption dates back to 2000, when Clinton was president)!

Now if Ethiopia's invading Somalia reminds me of anything, I'd have to say it's Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 (for which there's good reason to believe that the US initially gave a tacit blessing) and which provoked a strong international alliance intent on establishing a "new world order". But let's not talk about double standards, since the the "war on terror" does away with all nuance, providing a much simpler key to the new "new world order" of the future.

There's obviously much more to the Somalia story, so I thought I'd look at what the US press had to say now that things were seriously hotting up. Lo and behold, in the best, most thorough and "analytical" articles, there are only the vaguest hints about the actual historical context. Hints that do more to hide the historical facts than to reveal them. The rest is about who is against whom, and what religion or state they represent. Nothing about the political evolution of the country over the past 15 years, its social structure, its specific traditions, the status of Ethiopia, the intricacies of US strategy, etc. In short, it's treated somewhat like a sports story, an account of who's winning or which team is rising in the standings.

The Washington Post offers the most "thorough" article I've been able to find in the mainstream US media (the NY Times remaining far more superficial and the LA Times -- usually fairly analytical -- only giving the equivalent of a "box score" in sports). For those interested, here's the WP link.

The Guardian doesn't do much more, though they align some interesting facts about recent events in the Ethiopian-US dialogue. Still, they seem not to want to know about any context not furnished by the Pentagon. The Independent doesn't do much more, but the Times finds another ruse for avoiding the issues: developing the travelogue approach, highlighting local colour and the semi-modern folksy reality of the locals (including their links to British popular culture!). The conclusion is consistent with what we know about the situation, but the article gives no indication of why it is so in terms of context.

So where can we find some more thorough analysis that corroborates many of details of context in the Lefort article? Try the Toronto Star.

This article by Thomas Walkom offers a range of detail that Lefort didn't mention and generally conveys the same message, laying out the longer-term political implications as well and drawing parallels that help illuminate our understanding of US foreign policy and where it's taking us.

Two things emerge from this:
  1. the US mainstream press is still beholden to the administration and the Pentagon and seems unwilling even to suggest that there are other angles of interpretation of what amounts to unprovoked acts of military invasion (as I say, to be compared to Saddam invading Kuwait),
  2. US foreign policy has taken on a knee-jerk regularity of encouraging and allowing destruction and murder -- but even worse, the dismantling of local social infrastructure -- whenever there's a vague reason to suspect the "harboring" of enemies, even if the number of those enemies can be counted on one hand.
This last point seems to me to sum up the difference between the pre-9/11 political world and the post-9/11 one. What used to be seen as a problem for criminal justice (the model used in Britain to combat IRA terrorism) has been transformed into a pretext for regime change, nation-building and "regional remodeling". Read some of the quotes from US authorities about how they consider themselves responsible for defining what kind of government Somalia should have and who deserves to be a part of it. As the Toronto Star points out, the parallels with Iraq and Afghanistan seem obvious.

The final lesson in all this: read the Canadian press whenever you have doubts about the thoroughness of what the press in any of the "coalition of the willing" countries offers you.

And the final lesson for us interculturalists: don't take seriously any news article that doesn't lead you towards an understanding of the society itself, however superficial (you can always learn more). Politics abhors sociology because it fears social reality. The pattern of cultural blindness behind political and military action is, as the Toronto Star hints, one that is being repeated in many different places, but because mere political/military solutions no longer have the lasting power they once had, we're plunging ever more deeply into cultural conflict. It isn't a clash of civilizations, but an organized power struggle.. and it's getting more and more frightening.