Mentoring in Anthropology: Thoughts on Praxis, Anthropology, and the Teaching/Learning Process

My last post considered some questions about mentoring in anthropology and whether we as anthropologists have anything specific, particular, or unique to add to a discussion that is happening in many places, including the scholarship of teaching and learning, undergraduate and graduate research, schools of education, and specifically in anthropology. The comments on the post provoked a lot more thinking about mentoring on my part, so here I want to pull out some of the comments and questions to elaborate further. I’ll post on one or two questions at a time this week.

Mentoring and Anthropological Praxis:

In my last post, I suggested that mentoring might be something to consider as part of anthropological praxis, which led to questions about what exactly I envision to be anthropological praxis as well as how mentoring might or might not fit in. I’ll elaborate on mentoring more below, but first just a kind of simple explanation of praxis and how we might think about a specific anthropological praxis:

Praxis, as I use it, is the process of developing critical knowledge that leads to action (which then leads to critical knowledge, etc). Critical knowledge is knowledge that communities (that could be communities of academics or other kinds of communities) produce through experience, analysis, and dialogue. Critical knowledge is founded on an understanding that “truth” is partial and perspectival. In other words, the knowledge we produce may or may not (and perhaps more often does not) reproduce the status quo or what my students and I have talked about as “received wisdom” (that we didn’t have any input in creating and that often doesn’t match our own experiences). Often producing critical knowledge begins with recognizing a disconnect between our experience in the world and what other people say about the world. We might be talking here about personal (or individual) experience, field work experience, organizational or academic experience, or other kinds of experience.

Action, in the words of Shawn Ginwright (in Camarrota and Fine 2008) who was borrowing from James Baldwin, works to “make the world a more human dwelling place” (see this bibliography for reference information). That’s vague, broad, and clearly open to quite a bit of interpretation, not unlike the rest of this framework. But I think this is where the anthropological perspective fits in quite nicely. I’m not arguing that we, as anthropologists, somehow have a corner on studying “the human condition” or “culture” or “human experience” or however else you might talk about what anthropology is at an introductory level. But I do think we have some ways of talking about human experience that lend themselves to this kind of framework. I’m still working out my own details on that, so I’ll leave it at this suggestion here.

Action doesn’t have to mean political action or what we might broadly gloss as “social justice activism.” I see mentoring as part of praxis in both the development of critical knowledge and as an action in and of itself – but one that I want to approach with a little bit of caution. Let me explain a little further by way of response to some great comments on my last discussion of mentoring.

What Is Mentoring (and should I be calling it that)?

Several people asked me how I define mentoring and suggested some possibilities for how I/we might think about it. Here are some highlights:

Ryan said that teaching (and mentoring) should “be about finding ways to open up a space for investigation and dialogue about humanity”.

John McCreery pointed out that there are different ways that philosophers and other intellectuals have thought about teaching/mentoring. Referencing Stanley Cavell’s book Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism, he said, “conventional models of learning assume travelers all climbing the same peak. Those higher up the slope have a duty to lend a hand to those lower down and the right to insist that they follow instruction based on superior ‘been there, done that’ knowledge.” However, alternative views suggest instead that “we are all learners traveling across a great plain to multiple destinations.” In this scenario, we might all be teachers at some points and learners at other points where we cross. The momentary teacher models his/her expertise, but the momentary student decides what to do with that teaching. Mentoring in this model is collegial. Says John McCreery, “People on both sides recognize that there is something to be learned from the other. There is mutual respect and a willingness to reserve judgment. Leaping to conclusions is not allowed.”

Finally, Andrea L. Jenkins asked, “Is ‘mentoring’ the verbiage that really fits within the mold of critical pedagogy, or even just anthropological praxis in nominally instructional settings?” She suggested that the word mentoring may not really get at what is happening as we engage praxis. How can we talk about these “many directions” suggested in John McCreery’s metaphor of teaching/learning as traveling across a great plain to multiple destinations?

I like this “fellow travelers on a great plain” idea. It gets pretty close to how I think about mentoring. A more conventional model of teaching/learning is like the banking model of education that Freire outlined – the teacher is the actor who disseminates the knowledge, while the students are the passive recipients of that knowledge which they accept without question. That kind of model assumes quite a lot, including that all students have the same goals for education (to ultimately think just like the teacher). Many educators have long argued that alternative frameworks based on a more “collegial” understanding of the teaching/learning relationship are better models for education because they are more likely to produce critical thinkers whose newly produced knowledge has the capacity to “make the world a more human dwelling place”. So I won’t focus on that argument here except to say that although we may all be fellow travelers we don’t all have the same power to reach our ultimate destinations, something that I think is really important to consider in this mentoring relationship. What I do want to consider is how mentoring fits into the ways that I/we practice anthropology.

Andrea brings up a good point about the terminology used. I haven’t come up with another word yet, but here are some preliminary steps towards definition of the process that I’m currently calling mentoring. I want to use a modified version of the framework for a public anthropology in Willen, Mulligan, and Castaneda’s recent article in Medical Anthropology Quarterly (Take a Stand Commentary: How Can Medical Anthropologists Contribute to Contemporary Conversations on “Illegal” Im/migration and Health?).

  1. Mentoring is about listening (on all sides of the relationship). But it isn’t just about listening. It is about listening to voices that don’t always confirm what we already know or think we know. So as a mentor, I have to be willing to acknowledge the experiences of a mentee even if it contradicts my own thinking (and vice versa). This is part of that dialogue Ryan was talking about and leads us towards the collegiality that John mentioned. Willen, Mulligan, and Castaneda, although not talking about mentoring, suggest that the work we do as anthropologists might better be framed as “engaged listening,” rather than “giving voice”.
  2. Mentoring is about teaching (again, all sides of the relationship). But it often takes place outside the classroom. As a mentor, I have to be willing to teach from what I know, but in a way that allows space for the co-construction of knowledge, what Willen, Mulligan, and Castaneda call “democratizing knowledge.” Both as part of mentoring and as part of producing anthropological knowledge in other ways, this kind of co-construction of knowledge has the potential to “push anthropological theory, methods, and publishing in fresh directions.” Perhaps co-producing texts in a mentor/mentee relationship, as many of us have likely participated in, is one place this is already happening?
  3. Mentoring is about offering up and sharing experiences. This is where the dialogue that Ryan talked about comes fully into the picture. Willen, Mulligan, and Castaneda argue that anthropologists who seek to engage in a public anthropology must learn to “translate ourselves” for different audiences. The same, I think, is true of mentoring. In some ways, this translation is just basic to communication, but I think the call to translate ourselves is more complicated. It involves not just “being clear” but also understanding as much as possible the positionality and experience of others so that our words “make sense” in some way even if we disagree.
  4. Mentoring is about shifting and rethinking power relationships. But it does not eliminate them. It’s pretty hard for me to imagine any relationship being constantly one of completely equal sharing of power, and often in academic mentoring relationships, the imbalance is strikingly obvious (full professor mentoring incoming undergraduate student for example). But if we think about mentoring in the context of Freirian praxis, we can be intentional about using the relationship to shift and rethink power relationships. I think that can come through thinking about mentoring as I’ve outlined above.

So whatever we end up calling it, and I agree with Andrea that mentoring might not be it, this relationship is one that I think happens unintentionally quite often. I don’t mean that we don’t realize that we are mentors or mentees, but rather that the relationship is sort of naturalized as it emerges from institutional structures, the frameworks of college education, and for anthropologists anyway, the dynamics of the field. It is a relationship in which dynamics of power are always at play, and it is one in which there is potential for mentors and mentees to have significant impact on the academic world, on their own personal communities, on their field communities, etc. For those reasons, I think it’s worth being more intentional about how we mentor and mentee. In the next post, I’ll get a little more concrete about what this relationship might look like.

References:

Willen, Sarah S., Jessica Mulligan, Heide Castañeda. 2011. “Take a Stand Commentary: How Can Medical Anthropologists Contribute to Contemporary Conversations on ‘Illegal’ Im/migration and Health?<http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1548-1387.2011.01164.x/abstract>” Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 25(3): 331–356.

Mary Alice Scott is assistant professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University.

UPDATE: References added.

Mary Alice Scott is assistant professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University. Her research focuses on health disparities in the U.S.-Mexico border region.

25 thoughts on “Mentoring in Anthropology: Thoughts on Praxis, Anthropology, and the Teaching/Learning Process

  1. In order to be more intentional about how ‘we’ mentor, anthropologists also need to be willing to be more honest about institutional/structural/unconscious racism and sexism (among other biases) and how these make anthropology the ‘white public space’ of the Brodkin et al. article such that the kind of mentoring you are advocating does not happen because some people are perpetually viewed and treated as race/gender subordinates who do not have valid perspectives to share about their experiences–experiences which are not the same as those in positions of greater privilege, who differentially benefit from the very power asymmetries ‘mentors’ don’t want to talk about, as equals, with these subaltern mentees.

  2. What is the Brodkin et. al article?

    I find anthropology to be one of the best disciplines that recognizes the inherent power structures in academe, but that doesn’t mean discussion should be silenced. More clearly, I don’t think political science for example as a “critical native political science” etc., though I’m sure it would make for a much more informed political science.

    I think what might be more productive to think through is the value that is placed on the mentoring of faculty at elite theory-oriented programs and the reproduction of not simply the academy, but the academy in the image of 15 or 20 departments.

  3. Allow me, if I may, to introduce a bit of anthropological perspective on mentoring. The following is from the Acknowledgments to my book on Japanese consumer behavior.

    This book is dedicated to the memory of three men: Victor Turner, Tio Se-lian, and Kimoto Kazuhiko.
    The first was an anthropologist whose teaching is inscribed in the shape of this book. He taught me that an anthropologist works with three kinds of data, things observed (here the Seikatsu Shimbun, the internal newsletter produced by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living that provides much of this book’s content), the native exegesis (represented here by the conversations with HILL researchers interleaved between the chapters), and the economic and demographic background that cultural analysis neglects at its peril.
    The second was a Grand Master of Daoist Magic who allowed a fledgling fieldworker to become his disciple and by trotting him the length and breadth of Taiwan made it perfectly clear how much goes on in modern, urban Asian societies that escapes the boundaries of the villages and neighborhoods in which anthropologists usually work.
    The third was a Senior Creative Director who hired a hapless scholar and turned him, with much labor, into a copywriter unable to tolerate stereotypes of the kind this book attacks.
    Looking back what I see in all three is a willingness to listen, a passion for detail, a flair for the dramatic, and a breadth of humanity that transcends the places and moments in which we met. I am proud to call them my mentors and to try, however poorly, to follow their example.

    I have written before about Turner’s knack for treating everyone as a peer with something interesting to say. My relationships with Tio and Kimoto were those of apprentice to master. Both expected me to learn on the job by pitching in to accomplish the task in hand, setting the scene for a ritual on the one hand, or creating advertising. In another world, Tio would have been a superb Rogerian therapist, non-dogmatic, non-directive, and non-judgmental. Kimoto was prickly and fierce, willing and able to call an idea crap and demand alternatives or improvements. He was constantly working and embodied the ideal of the Japanese organization man for whom life is job, tobacco, liquor. He had a family but I never met them. I note, too, that power was never an issue in these relationships. It was taken for granted. The master was the master and had the final word.

    I offer these remarks not to reject the version of mentorship I see emerging in Maryalice’s post, but instead as what I take to be a properly anthropological gesture, observing that mentoring takes many forms and that memorable mentors may not always conform to our theories of what mentoring should be. A study of cultural variation in mentoring would be a superb anthropological project.

    Finally, as much as I would like to take credit for the image of scholars as travelers criss-crossing a plane, the image was Stanley Cavell’s and citations of it should refer to his Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism.

  4. Critical knowledge is founded on an understanding that “truth” is partial and perspectival. In other words, the knowledge we produce may or may not (and perhaps more often does not) reproduce the status quo or what my students and I have talked about as “received wisdom” (that we didn’t have any input in creating and that often doesn’t match our own experiences).

    Whether you helped find it out or not has nothing to do with its truth, nor does whether or not it matches your experiences. A lot of people believe in homeopathy because it matches their view of what treatment should be and because they feel involved in the process of finding the “right” treatment – but homeopathic remedies are still humbug. The problem with “democratising knowledge” is that truth is not a democracy.

    I’m out of step with so-called “critical theory”, of course. It’s about as humbug as homeopathy. I’m especially perturbed when I see phrases like “ontological vocation” (from a Freire quote in your earlier post on the topic, Mary Alice). It’s gibberish. It’s literally meaningless. “Ontology” is not a verbal condiment. You can’t just sprinkle it about your sentences for extra flavour. It has a meaning, and its meaning is, “the study of the things that exist”. Saying “ontological vocation” is nonsense. And the problem with the mentoring relationship you advocate is that I can see no way to tell a student that that usage is utterly idiotic (which it is). If academia went in that direction, I can only see such deepities and meaningless phrases becoming more and more common. It’s a depressing notion.

  5. The framework you outline for a public anthropology or sociology does share some aspects of Freire and critical pedagogy, whether working with students (mentoring) in the classroom or in research such as the Take a Stand paper. These are well established collaborative approaches that have the potential to “transform ourselves” as anthropologists, but these are approaches that face serious challenges, even hostility to democratic knowledge production from institutionalized ways of knowledge production and methods in academia. I think some posts on experience of these tensions would be useful? As DWP points out, it is very possible to listen and rethink power without every touching racism, sexism, etc. We see this all the time – the discourse on multiculturalism in universities still subjugates popular knowledge production, texts, traditions, customs, values, political identities, etc., to subcultural status (Chicano studies literature on Chican@ art has covered this issue well), or limits them to minor practices in research (I refer to the often “cute” photostory type projects, that can be a medium or space for expression, but do not move towards shifting power relations, public dialogue, etc.).

    In this sense, I can’t give anthropology a pass or privileged position in terms of recognizing power structures in academia, somehow better able to address these problems. One could argue that much of anthropology remains an inhospitable place for cultural production of the sort Freire and other critical educators practice.

    Al West, your complete dismissal of the idea of “ontological vocation” as gibberish, without stating an attempt to understand Freire’s use of the term in the context of critical pedagogy is a tone very close to what public anthropology is attempting to deal with. Freire discusses this term in various places, and there’s some good literature out there on the idea of the ontological vocation towards freedom. Check them out, then by all means dismiss them with, but with some epistemological presence!

  6. Mastaliu,

    I knew roughly what he meant – I assumed he meant “ontological” in the humbug sense, the continental sense, where it means the study of “being”. That is not the real meaning of the word “ontology”. The real meaning dates back at least to Aristotle, and unlike the continental meaning, is a worthwhile thing. Onta means, “the things that exist” or “the things that have being”; it doesn’t mean “being” in the sense meant by continentals. It refers to questions like, “are holes physical things?” and “does my computer have properties that don’t reduce to the particles that constitute it?”

    “Ontology” certainly doesn’t refer to making prescriptive pronouncements on the basis of silly assumptions. I think Freire assumes that people have a natural purpose or some natural essence that means that we ought to do certain things. Free ourselves somehow, perhaps? Well, either way, that’s not what ontology is. That’s more like medieval moral philosophy than anything else The transformation of the word “ontology” into the vague, pseudo-academic “study of ‘being'”, where being approximately means “consciousness”, is a recent and unwarranted phenomenon, presumably designed to give clout to dumb ideas that need Greek words to sound good, and where sounding good is the point.

    I looked online for a greater clarification of what Freire meant, and found a Freire lexicon. Here’s the definition:

    an ontological vocation is the call which is addressed to humans to achieve certain goals in virtue of what we essentially are. To fail on this level is to fail at being human.

    Laughable.

    What absurd pseudo-metaphysics this is. The unwarranted blurring of is and ought, the appalling, poorly-thought-out assumption behind “what [humans] essentially are”, the pseudo-profundity of it… Essentialism! Christ. It’s amazing to me that instead of thinking, this is some of the worst philosophy in the world, some academics consider it to be serious and interesting.

    Here’s the kicker. Saying “what we essentially are” is really bad ontology.

    Also, your use of “epistemological” is the salt to ontology’s pepper. As it were.

  7. Al, with all due respect, Freire’s “ontological vocation” is no more humbug than “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.- Neither is a description, a model-of, in the scientific sense. Both are models-for, statements of aspiration, to be judged in terms of the goals toward which they point us. Both assert that there are potentials inherent in humanity, whose realization should be purpose that human beings should all strive to achieve, for others as well as ourselves. Humbug is applying to aspirational rhetoric judgmental criteria taken from a view of scientific method that is, itself, debatable.

  8. Neither is a description, a model-of, in the scientific sense.

    Except that of course they are. They’re not very good models at all, but they’re still an attempt to justify an ethical position on the basis of a description of what people are like. Freire appears to have believed in what he said; it wasn’t simply rhetoric. He believed that people ought to progress towards liberation on the basis that people have a certain essence. That was the source of his claim. The totality of the argument was that people are like this, and therefore should do this.

    I’m all for human rights (of course), but the reason isn’t because humans are endowed by a creator with innate rights. It is untenable to believe in either an essence to humanity or a creator of it. There’s nothing wrong with backing an ethical argument on nothing, but instead Freire makes a series of mistakes (perhaps due to his religious beliefs?) in attempting to bolster his ethics on his view of a human essence.

    And if it is just rhetoric, by the way, then it’s pseudo-intellectual garbage using esoteric Greek words as a figleaf. I don’t know which is worse.

    Humbug is applying to aspirational rhetoric judgmental criteria taken from a view of scientific method that is, itself, debatable.

    But my point is, if it’s just “aspirational rhetoric”, then why use the word ontology? Clearly, Freire is trying to derive ethics from metaphysics – that’s the whole point. It’s not humbug at all to criticise the metaphysics on which the argument is based. He’s not saying, “this ‘ontological’ stuff is just rhetoric; what matters is the ethics.” He’s saying that people are essentially a certain way and therefore should perform certain actions in light of that. That’s bad philosophy, it relies on a bad ontological assumption, and saying that it’s rhetoric isn’t enough to justify it – especially since Freire appears to believe in his own bad argument.

    Anyway, I wouldn’t have a problem with it if the word “ontological” were left out and the argument became, simply, “be excellent to each other”.

  9. Al, based on your general tone, I am surprised to learn you are anti-essentialist about humans, indeed that you take it for granted. Do you also reject the notion of human nature? If so, what do you think sciences of humanity study? What is their object ?If not, how do you differentiate between human nature and human essence substantively? Also, why do you think these are not ontological questions (ie studies of the things that exist)? They seem to me to be…

  10. Also, why do you think these are not ontological questions (ie studies of the things that exist)? They seem to me to be…

    They are indeed ontological questions, but that’s not what Freire is saying. He’s assuming humans have an essence and then going from there. Ontology doesn’t seem to interest him, but making ontological assumptions does. They aren’t the same thing.

    Yes, I take anti-essentialism for granted. Unless you can show that all humans have an identical genome or similar set of identical attributes, and that this set of attributes came about in one instance, decisively separating humans from other animals (including their direct antecedents, ie, their parents), it must be assumed that there is no essence to humanity. The only people I know who truly believe otherwise are strongly religious people whose religions demand that they see humans as ultimately and utterly different from other organisms. I think Freire falls in this camp, although it could simply be from Marxism (pre-Darwinian, of course) that he got this set of ideas.

    But that’s a metaphysical position. The same could be said of bullet ants, and I think myrmecologists still have an object of study – just not a metaphysical object of study (obviously). I believe that the things we call humans have a lot in common. Of course they do! These commonalities come either directly or indirectly from their genetic inheritance. They’re clearly variable; people have different colour eyes and hair, different stature, different behavioural tendencies (towards, say, autism or psychopathy), and so on. They have different experiences and different brains, and different attributes. In general, though, humans are fairly similar to one another due to the small size of the species and the close inter-relations between them, and I’m fine with calling these commonalities “human nature”. You might not feel the same.

    The kind of questions you just asked are only asked by people who have conflated metaphysics and anthropology, I think. There’s no need to do that. They’re also the kinds of questions that only continentals ask; they’re mystifyingly silly if you come from a scientific or analytic perspective. Of course you can be an anti-essentialist and still believe in an abstraction that could be called “human nature”. All it means is that instead of taking statements about “human nature” as the whole truth, we see the picture as a little more complicated and subject to a set of other influences. I’d say a lot of the hostility towards people like Steven Pinker is based on the idea that they’re making metaphysical claims, instead of more down-to-earth claims about how the variety of organisms we call “humans” work in general terms.

    For a good book on humans and ontology, you could do worse than Trenton Merricks’ Objects and Persons.

  11. Ontology doesn’t seem to interest him, but making ontological assumptions does. They aren’t the same thing.

    Al, doesn’t it seem a bit peculiar, if you accept that “ontology” in the sense that you mean is not Freire’s interest, to criticize him for not using the term in the way that you do? Are we not, as anthropologists, forever encountering people who use language in ways that we do not at first understand then taking the time to work out how they are using it and to what end, reserving judgment until we have a clear idea of what is at stake for them? I have, for example, just read an article about “frustrated magnetism,” a physical phenomenon displayed within a certain temperature range by Helium-three. Should I get all upset because “frustrated” properly speaking describes human emotions instead of the behavior of helium atoms within a range of temperatures of interest to physicists—or should I assume that the use of the term is intelligible in a way unusual to me in a different context from the one in which I usually encounter it, and try to decipher its implications in that context?

    You may, of course, be prepared to assert that human beings do not share something that makes it imperative for them all to be treated equally under the law or for purposes of education designed to provide equal opportunity (outcomes being dependent on talent and effort as well as the opportunity itself). You could believe that some people are categorically different and to be despised or treated differently on that account. There is ample precedent for these assumptions in human history. To assert that these assumptions are consistent with a non-essentialist view of human nature is, of course, a stretch.

  12. It is partly for the reasons you outlined that we don’t derive ought from is. It is true that there is no essence to humankind, and there don’t seem to be any genuine (non-religious) arguments in favour of the idea. I’d say that it’s not inconsistent at all with the idea of despising or murdering others, but it certainly doesn’t compel that action, and consider the alternative: Freire says that those who don’t fulfil an “ontological vocation” fail at being human. Could that not also be taken as a reason to despise or kill those who fail? They aren’t, after all, human, at least not successfully. Of course, that would be a very silly thing to believe. It isn’t inconsistent with the notion, but there’s no way, and no reason, to derive the behaviour from the concept. Just so with non-essentialism. So it’s troubling when someone considered philosophically astute (as Freire mistakenly is) produces such bad, is/ought blurring argumentation.

    I’m not arguing against a particular form of education, by the way, and I have no problem with backing the desire for equality on nothing more than liking people. It’s not metaphysics, though, and people like Freire are pretending that it is.

    As for the argument regarding the meanings of words: I’m not pushing for some Confucian rectification of vocabulary. It’s just that some words receive more pointless stretching and distension than others, and “ontology” is one of those words. It’s especially strange given that it’s a piece of philosophical vocabulary used only by philosophers. It has a pretty precise meaning. Its incorrect use by a philosopher may be taken as either ignorance of its meaning or obscurantism. Neither is good.

    The “frustrated” in frustrated magnetism is a metaphorical usage, whereas Freire is implying that people ought to do certain things on the basis of a non-metaphorical ontological claim. His use of the word isn’t metaphorical. It’s also really bad writing. Freire could just have said “vocation” (and explained it accordingly, if he liked) instead of “ontological vocation”, and the meaning would be just the same. “Ontological” in that context is a superfluous, esoteric word, used poorly, and I think that deserves criticism.

  13. @Al West:

    “…nor does whether or not it matches your experiences.”

    You’re saying that truth has nothing to do with experience?

    Re: ontological vocations and such: First off, I agree that Freire’s use of the term “ontological vocation” is not all that clear. I also agree that the word “ontology” is often used in some very vague and confusing ways by certain academics. It happens, but I don’t lose too much sleep over it.

    That said, I think this intense focus on this one term is pretty tangential if not completely off point. If this term was really the crux of the argument here, then maybe. But it was one term mentioned within a larger argument (in a quote), and it was by no means a really central term for the overall point. I understand you have your philosophical and theoretical pet peeves and all, but I truly don’t see the point of this major digression. Also, your argument that there is only one real, true meaning of the word ontology strikes me as a bit, well, hollow. As if words and concepts that date back to ancient Greek philosophers do not acquire new meanings and uses over the ensuing centuries.

    Anyway, here is how the term in question was actually used in the earlier post:

    If men and women are searchers and their ontological vocation is humanization, sooner or later they may perceive the contradiction in which banking education seeks to maintain them, and then engage themselves in the struggle for their liberation (p. 56).

    The point, as I understand it, was to highlight an argument against the “banking” approach to education, in which students are just passive recipients of knowledge. I agree that putting the word “ontological” makes this sentence a lot less clear. In fact, I think it would be just fine without it. But outside of that, I got his point well enough in the context of the larger argument of the post: If some sort of humanization is the point of education, then the banking model has certain inherent contradictions and problems. Now, how about arguing for or against that point?

  14. @Gradstud:

    “I think what might be more productive to think through is the value that is placed on the mentoring of faculty at elite theory-oriented programs and the reproduction of not simply the academy, but the academy in the image of 15 or 20 departments.”

    That’s a pretty interesting point about mentoring…it’s not just taking place at the student/teacher level but is a process that continues on and on. Also, your point about the reproduction of the academy in the image of 15 or 20 elite programs brings up a lot of issues about things like power and hierarchy within the academy. I mean, what program/departments are the ones who are really driving the “image” of US anthropology? What about anthropology in the UK? Latin America? There are always going to be more powerful players, leaders, and what not. But your comment got me thinking about the different versions of “anthropology” that are continually produced through mentoring, teaching, hiring practices, etc in various places (such as the anthropology of a local community college vs the anthropology of Harvard).

  15. Ryan,

    My overall point is that Freire was really bad at philosophy, and used well-defined terms in either an ignorant or obscurantist manner, or both, and that regardless of the merits of his philosophy of education, his attempt to tie it to spurious metaphysics shouldn’t be treated as reasonable. The notion of the essence and potential of humankind also appears to have been an important point to Freire, a point around which much of his philosophy pivots, and it turning out to be bad philosophy should have repercussions for our receptivity to his ideas.

    I also agree that the word “ontology” is often used in some very vague and confusing ways by certain academics.

    Not just vague and confusing, but ignorant, stupid, and obfuscatory. The misuse of this word should not be defended; it has a very simple definition, one that makes sense, isn’t ambiguous, and can’t be used as an academic flavour-enhancer. Saying that words change is trivially true, but precisely-defined, artificial pieces of philosophical terminology aren’t like words in ordinary usage. It’s not like it could acquire new meanings through its use in ordinary conversation, because it isn’t used in ordinary conversation. That’s not where we get new uses of it from. No, we get them from people either deliberately or ignorantly using it improperly. I don’t think that should be condoned.

    I also think that proper understanding of ontological issues is important. The question of whether there is an essence to humanity is quite an important thing to resolve, and there are lots of other important ontological questions, like whether social structure is an independently existing thing, that concern anthropologists. So bad usage of the word “ontology” is not only ignorant/obscuring, but it’s also destructive when it comes to talking about the real ontological questions that concern us.

    You’re saying that truth has nothing to do with experience?

    People who believe in homeopathic remedies have plenty of anecdotal evidence and plenty of claims of validity based on their experiences of homeopathy, but they are mistaken about the medicinal value of homeopathy nonetheless. In other words, it is possible for your experiences to be mistaken and to lead to incorrect conclusions, so your intuitions about a claim based on your quotidian experience are not as worthwhile as the data from an experiment (say), and this has repercussions for whether we consider democratised learning beneficial. I’m doubtful of whether it is on that basis, and I don’t think the alternative is the “banking” view. I don’t know any teachers who endorse such a position.

  16. Al,

    “My overall point is that Freire was really bad at philosophy…”

    Ok. I am no expert on Paulo Freire. Have you read a lot of his work?

    “The notion of the essence and potential of humankind also appears to have been an important point to Freire, a point around which much of his philosophy pivots, and it turning out to be bad philosophy…”

    Yes, I read your arguments about essentialism. But you also wrote this above:

    In general, though, humans are fairly similar to one another due to the small size of the species and the close inter-relations between them, and I’m fine with calling these commonalities “human nature”.

    The elementary definition of “essence” is ‘the basic, real, invariable nature of a thing.’ In philosophy it means the ‘inward nature’ or ‘true substance’ of something. So you think it’s reasonable to talk about ‘human nature’ on the one hand, but when someone like Friere talks about the ‘essence’ of humankind this is “bad philosophy”? How so? Why does one get your approval and not the other?

    “Saying that words change is trivially true, but precisely-defined, artificial pieces of philosophical terminology aren’t like words in ordinary usage.”

    Sure they are. Why would they be any different? They are bits of language that are passed around through various means of communication, among particular social groups. Words, terms, and concepts that have been around for generations often take on subtle new meanings, depending on how they are used. It doesn’t matter if they were precisely defined by someone 20 or 2,000 years ago.

    “It’s not like it could acquire new meanings through its use in ordinary conversation, because it isn’t used in ordinary conversation.”

    So meanings can *only* change in ‘ordinary conversations’? That’s an interesting stipulation.

    “That’s not where we get new uses of it from. No, we get them from people either deliberately or ignorantly using it improperly. I don’t think that should be condoned.”

    Jeez, now you’re starting to sound like a prescriptive linguist. I don’t know, Al. People aren’t always going to employ concepts and terms exactly the way that you and Aristotle hoped. So it goes.

    “I also think that proper understanding of ontological issues is important. The question of whether there is an essence to humanity is quite an important thing to resolve…”

    Sure, ontological issues matter. As I already mentioned above you have stated you think there is such a thing as ‘human nature,’ but you are fiercely against the idea that there is an ‘essence to humanity.’ I don’t think that the former view really squares with the latter.

    “In other words, it is possible for your experiences to be mistaken and to lead to incorrect conclusions, so your intuitions about a claim based on your quotidian experience are not as worthwhile as the data from an experiment (say)…”

    That’s a seriously flimsy argument. Yes, experience and perception MAY lead to mistaken conclusions. Of course. At the same time, so can scientific experiments. You act is if scientific data is directly, unquestionably linked with truth, which is a pretty spurious claim. The truth value of experience (or an experiment) all depends. Your argument that quotidian experiences are automatically not as worthwhile as data from experiments is just strange. Doesn’t it depend on the experience/experiment in question? Are you saying that people who have extended experience-based knowledge about their local environment (for example) actually know nothing compared to some ecologist who comes in and does a few controlled soil samples? And you don’t think that scientific experiments can ever be wrong?

  17. So you think it’s reasonable to talk about ‘human nature’ on the one hand, but when someone like Friere talks about the ‘essence’ of humankind this is “bad philosophy”? How so? Why does one get your approval and not the other?

    No, an “essence” in philosophy – in ontology – is the requisite something that a thing must have in order to count as that thing. There aren’t any essences, in reality, beyond the level of the elements; there’s no essence to a table (tables don’t have to have legs, or a flat surface, etc), and there is no essence to humanity. I’m sure you’ve come across the term “family resemblance”, or others like “polythetic classification”. These are ways of talking about things that don’t require us to rely on essences. Humankind does not have an essence; that would require that it to have an inviolable core of features that all humans have, which not having disqualifies the thing from being considered a human, amongst other things. So there’s a very real difference between commonalities and essences.

    I’m quite comfortable with the statement, “humans have two eyes”. It’s basically true, and very usefully so, but it’s not metaphysically true; it doesn’t apply inviolably, and if you said, “all humans have two eyes” then either that’s false, or you’re saying that people who have one eye or no eyes don’t count as being human. I believe it is likewise possible to talk about human mental faculties, things usually called “human nature”. These are not inviolable. I think most people cannot draw a city from memory after a short helicopter ride over it, and this has a lot of implications for how we understand human memory, but there are exceptions to this (incredibly!). That doesn’t mean that I’m forced to consider those exceptions non-human.

    An “essence” would mean that the distinction between thing and not-thing is absolute and clear-cut. With any biological organism, that is untenable, including humans.

    I had hoped that this distinction was already clearly made in my comment.

    You act is if scientific data is directly, unquestionably linked with truth, which is a pretty spurious claim.

    Not at all. It is open to question. It’s not on the same level as anecdotal evidence about the efficacy of homeopathy, however, and a finding not squaring with your experience doesn’t mean that the finding is wrong. Some ideas are wrong, and people have lots of reasons for holding wrong ideas. There are methods for finding out whether things are right or wrong, and scientific experiments are better methods than intuitive speculation or the sum of your inexpert experience.

  18. Al, I have no idea of your age. But when I read you, I hear a younger self, my own, after graduating with a B.A. in Philosophy of Science from Michigan State University in 1966. I had acquired a perspective defined by sharply drawn distinctions between fact and value, mind and body, reason and emotion, testable proposition and obscurantist nonsense. I could point to a history that, putting aside the pre-Socratics and everyone thinking outside a place I called ancient Greece, begins with Plato’s dialogues, in which Socrates is forever pestering people about the proper meaning of abstract nouns—the assumption being that through reasoned dialogue, reasonable men could agree on what that proper meaning was. Later I would learn that the Royal Society was founded by men of radically different religious and political views who agreed to confine their discussions to terms on which they could agree because they where defined in terms of measurements performed in ways they all could, at least in principle, replicate. And we know, of course, that this was a hugely productive move, resulting in the science whose products have redefined our world.

    But let’s go back to see what has happened to those confident distinctions, fact and value, etc., that seemed to my younger self to define reality itself. I saw socratic dialogue turned into what I came to label the George E. Moore game, a simple, algorithmic process by which any argument whatsoever can be destroyed. Your opponent utters a sentence X. Choose from it one or more words and say, “I don’t understand that.” They will utter more sentences. Repeat until they give up and smugly conclude “Gotcha.” I learned that while the conventions of positivist science are, indeed, a very powerful tool, they have the side effect (I first saw it documented in Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World) of dividing the world into a small zone where science works really well and a much larger space in which most of human experience gets written off as epiphenomenal. Later, I would see a more refined view of the same observation in the work of General Systems theorists, who observed that the science zone was itself bifurcated into the part where simple mechanical explanations work and the part where statistical generalizations (in effect gas laws instead of simple machines) work—still leaving most of the world a muddle in which human beings cope largely through narrative (myth making, storytelling, metaphor, trope, that sort of thing). I would also learn from Austin’s How to do Things with Words that there are intelligible uses of language not covered by the simplistic contrast of testable proposition versus emotional nonsense. I would observe the wreckage of the the grand dream of a universal language in which only truth is spoken, a dream shared by Leibniz and the early Wittgenstein. I would come to earn my living as a copywriter, a sophist whose craft, like that of the poet, resides in reshaping the meanings of words by using them in unexpected ways, and a translator, whose cardinal sin is to assume that because the text seems nonsensical the author is an idiot (the more likely reason for the difficulty being the translator’s ignorance of the language or context in question). I would come to see the wisdom of Mikhail Bakhtin’s observation that all cultural understanding is inherently dialogical, since both parties to the exchange have their own blind spots that only others can see.

    So, while I do not deny the value of scientific conventions, of people agreeing on how to specify exactly what it is that they are talking about, in which case terms like “frustrated magnetism” take on a specific clarity, I find it absurd when a scholar brought up in one tradition abuses statements made in a context defined by an entirely different tradition on the grounds that a term is used in a way that departs from his own preconceptions. I would take a lot more seriously a discussion that began with, for example, “Freire says ‘ontological vocation.’ Here the topic is ‘vocation’ and ‘ontological’ used as an adjective, presumably to distinguish ontological from other vocations. What is he talking about?” The discussion might then go on to consider that Freire writes in a context where ‘vocation’ has a strongly religious flavor, a calling, not a routine task. To call a vocation ‘ontological’ is to strengthen that flavor, asserting that the calling is given in the very nature of what it is to be human. It would explore the institutional and other contexts in which a claim of this sort is seen as deeply meaningful. It might, at the end of the day, come round to consideration of all sorts of reasons why learning as a vocation may not be for everyone, differences in talent, for example, or society’s continuing need for people who do the “stupid” work, repetitive tasks that someone has to do until the robots take them over. Assertions that begin with “We know what X means, and this is nonsense” short-circuit the process and, I suggest, do little to advance the in the conversation.

  19. Assertions that begin with “We know what X means, and this is nonsense” short-circuit the process and, I suggest, do little to advance the in the conversation.

    You’ll be glad to note that I thought about Freire’s meaning before posting it, and had considered the possibility that he meant something by it while concluding that it was nonsense.

    But I would add to your list, and suggest that we apply a few of Grice’s maxims to Freire’s words. You’re being far too charitable; if someone cannot write, or doesn’t write what they mean, or uses established words in a ridiculous manner, then your charitable approach to what they might mean is obstructive and not a good idea. Freire used a phrase that is, on the surface, nonsense, to express an idea that is untenable and based on the attempt to forge a link between is and ought. That’s bad philosophy right there. It’s bad thinking, and it’s bad writing.

    Moreover, I’d add that my objection to Freire’s phrase is not limited to the analysis of its nonsensical surface meaning.

    I view science, by the way, as being nothing more than rational inquiry on the basis of empirical observations. That would include the observation that technology is not an unbridled good, or that knowing small things doesn’t necessarily allow one to understand big things, except in an abstract sense. There’s really no distinction between “fact” and “scientific fact”, I’d say.

    I had acquired a perspective defined by sharply drawn distinctions between fact and value, mind and body, reason and emotion, testable proposition and obscurantist nonsense.

    You believed in a sharply drawn distinction between mind and body? And you believed in a universal Leibnizian language? That’s a little odd.

    Old trope, this – the black-and-white distinctions of youth fading with age. Well, I don’t see the world in black and white. When I demand clarity from a thinker, it’s because I want to know what they mean, and because I want to know that what I think they mean is what they mean. It’s not because of my belief in a rigid universal language. Freire’s language is dense, unreadable, ugly, full of superfluous phrases and shibboleths, and the whole edifice disguises a surprising lack of sense or genuine sophistication of thought. I object to that.

  20. Freire’s language is dense, unreadable, ugly, full of superfluous phrases and shibboleths, and the whole edifice disguises a surprising lack of sense or genuine sophistication of thought. I object to that.

    You could be right. I haven’t read enough Freire to have grounds for personal judgment. But doesn’t this leave open the question why Freire is popular and even inspirational to a substantial number of people. Do we simply write them off as ignorant and uncritical? What are they seeing in Freire that you don’t? The one thing that we can be fairly sure of is that it isn’t a body of scientific claims for which empirical tests are available, expressed in language used in ways familiar to us. To insist that it must be, or we won’t listen—Is that good anthropology?

  21. A better written rant along the lines that Freire may have been thinking of. Terry Eagleton, writing in The Guardian,

    Rousseau ranks among the great educational theorists of the modern era, even if he was the last man to put in charge of a classroom. Young adults, he thought, should be allowed to develop their capabilities in their distinctive way. They should also delight in doing so as an end in itself. In the higher education systems of today’s world, this outlandish idea is almost dead on its feet. It is nearly as alien as the notion that the purpose of education is to serve the empire. Universities are no longer educational in any sense of the word that Rousseau would have recognised. Instead, they have become unabashed instruments of capital. Confronted with this squalid betrayal, one imagines he would have felt sick and oppressed. As, indeed, he usually did.

  22. Hey Al,

    “No, an “essence” in philosophy – in ontology – is the requisite something that a thing must have in order to count as that thing. There aren’t any essences, in reality, beyond the level of the elements…”

    Look, let me make myself clear: I understand the fact that you are making your argument based upon particular definitions, from a particular philosophical camp/perspective. I get it. As someone else here said though, that’s pretty clearly not where Freire is coming from. Either you’re willing to consider his ideas, or you’re not. If his use of “ontological vocation” is just too much for you to handle and you can’t possibly proceed, then that’s that, no?

  23. As someone else here said though, that’s pretty clearly not where Freire is coming from.

    Actually, that is exactly where he is coming from. The word “essence” in his philosophy is precisely the same meaning as generally in philosophy. That really is what he means: that humanity has a metaphysical essence, and it is this essence that creates the imperative for people to be humanised and liberated.

    So essence and human nature are not to be considered the same. He’s coming from a different tradition, but that’s not the same as having completely different meanings for his words. When he talks about vocations predicated on what humans essentially are, he’s being quite clear about what he means, I think. He really does mean a metaphysical essence to humankind in the usual sense.

    What are they seeing in Freire that you don’t?

    Precisely what we have discovered to be the root of the problem: pseudo-profundity, inspirational phrasing, a down-with-The-Man attitude, and so on. Those things are a draw to many people. Deepak Chopra is popular for those reasons, as is Scientology, as is Jacques Lacan. And the appeal to others means nothing when the point of contention is the philosophy itself. Scientology is very appealing to many people, but that wouldn’t stop me from criticising its fundamental mistaken beliefs. Part of the reason Scientology appeals to people is because most people don’t have the tools to recognise that it’s wrong, not because of some brilliance on its part. It may be “bad anthropology” to criticise Scientology for truth, but it’s still a good idea to do so. Likewise with Freire.

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