Learning and Metaphysics

What have we learned? How do we know we have?


Now making my third pass at the philosophy 12 course, I have approached this year’s unit on Metaphysics as an opportunity to crystalize the course methods as an expression of the values underpinning it. I’ve learned in the past two years that to embrace a constructivist view of epistemology presents the idea of course design as a confrontation with the paradox at the heart of institutional learning: that schools ought provide learning experiences which students ‘own’ and direct with increasing autonomy and agency as they move through school.

But I’ve also learned that this is no straightforward thing.

Emergence presents a rigorous test:

“…if educators wish to encourage the emergence of meaning in the classroom, then the meanings that emerge in classrooms cannot and should not be pre-determined before the ‘event’ of their emergence.”

Osberg and Biesta

On one hand, we must consider the traditional obligations of school: to evaluate and assess its own performance in properly equipping young people with the skills, proficiencies and base knowledges deemed of value to society. But we must also reckon with the contradiction to emergence that is involved in then deciding beforehand what those skills, proficiencies and base knowledges are to be in the first place.

Notably, this contradiction is addressed in part by the critical praxis presented by Paulo Freire, who says that

“…the program content of the problem-posing method – dialogical par excellence – is constituted and organized by the students’ view of the world, where their own generative themes are found. The content thus constantly expands and renews itself. The task of the dialogical teacher in an interdisciplinary team working on the thematic universe revealed by their investigation is to “re-present” that universe to the people from whom she or he received it – and “re-present” is not as a lecture, but as a problem.”

The necessity to pursue an emergent view of knowledge becomes especially important in our present times in multicultural Canada (and in the broader sense, in the course’s online sphere). Osberg and Biesta write that

“In contemporary multicultural societies, the difficulty with education as planned enculturation lies in the question of who decides what or whose culture should be promoted through education. The problem of ‘educational enculturation’ is therefore of considerable concern to theorists grappling with the issues raised by multiculturalism.

“If we hold that meaning is emergent, and we insist on a strict interpretation of emergence (i.e. what emerges is more than the sum of its parts and therefore not predictable from the ‘ground’ it emerges from) then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerge in the classroom becomes problematic. In other words the notion of emergent meaning is incompatible with the aims of education, traditionally conceived.”

And so we must conceive of education differently, perhaps no place moreso than in a class like Philosophy 12 during a unit on Metaphysics, which in a certain sense must be approached as a cultivation and aggregation of diverse subjectivities. While it is apparent in the breadth of the course material, such a focus lends itself admirably to the pursuit of metaphysics.

So in one arc of the class’ discourse, Angela begs the question of endless subjectivity in her post, Whoa, Slow Down

“One fixed answer that is true to everything and everyone is way too easy, but some people can’t seem to accept that there is no answer. At the same time, we also tend to deny that every answer is different for everyone. Why is it that we just can’t accept that?”

While Liam retraces Descartes footsteps:

“…perhaps all of ‘reality’ is simply our minds composing things for us to see, smell, taste, hear, and touch, even though they don’t exist. Perhaps nothing exists, but how could that be? We are here, I am typing this, aren’t I? If I am not, and I do not exist, and nothing exists, then what is allowing me to experience things?”

This search for meaning is arising across a few other posts this week as well, with ventures into solipsism, animal consciousness, and the almighty void of nothingness itself. These questions, as with those posed by Avery with respect to the existence of numbers “Five fingers are material objects and so are five sheep, but does five itself exist materially in the same manner?” – are those surrounding the various subjectivities at the heart of metaphysics: “What is…” and “What is it like…”  And so we find ourselves this week asking ourselves whether what we have gained in knowledge and experience during our study thus far “exists materially in the same manner.”

And if it does, how might we understand its existence? What is it, in other words? And what is it like?

Last year, our encounter with metaphysics was guided by Osberg and Biesta’s suggestion of the “learning object,” who contend that:

“for the process of knowledge production to occur it is necessary to assume that the meaning of a particular ‘knowledge object’ exists in a stable form such that the ‘knowledge object’ can be used like a ‘building block’ in the production of new abstract knowledge objects. This idea, however, is precisely what an emergentist epistemology denies. Because the meaning of any new knowledge ‘emerges’ would be highly specific to the complex system from which is emerged, it follows that no ‘knowledge object’ can retain its meaning in a different situation.”

The creation of such ‘objects of learning’ provides a worthwhile otherwise in the pursuit of an education which lives up to our multicultural ideals, as their construction demands that learners confront the dual questions which drive societal reinvention and human progress, where we ask ourselves, Who am I? and Who are we? Building on the ideas of Michel Foucault, who defined Enlightenment as “a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them,” school should aspire to such a notion of learning.

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