We are living through bewildering times where the conduct of education is concerned. There are deep problems that stem from many origins – principally from a changing society whose future shape we cannot foresee and for which it is difficult to prepare a new generation. My topic, the language of education, may seem remote from the bewildering problems that rapid and turbulent change in our society have produced. But I shall try to show before I am done that it is not really so, that it is not so much scholarly fiddling while Rome burns to try to find a key to this crisis in the language of education. For at the heart of any social change one often finds fundamental changes in regard to our conceptions of knowledge and thought and learning, changes whose fulfillment is impeded and distorted by the way in which we talk about the world and think about it in the coin of that talk. My hope is that we may uncover some vexing issues of immediate and practical concern.
I shall begin with a premise that is already familiar: that the medium of exchange in which education is conducted – language – can never be neutral, that it imposes a point of view not only about the world to which it refers but toward the use of mind in respect of this world. Language necessarily imposes a perspective in which things are viewed and a stance toward what we view. It is not just, in the shopworn phrase, that the medium is the message. The message itself may create the reality that the message embodies and predispose those who hear it to think about it in a particular mode. If I had to choose a motto for what I have to say, it would be that one from Francis Bacon, used by Vygotsky, proclaiming that neither mind alone nor hand alone can accomplish much without the aids and tools that perfect them. And principal among those aids and tools are language and the canons of its use.
Most of our encounters with the world are not, as we have seen, direct encounters. Even our direct experiences, so called, are assigned for interpretation to ideas about cause and consequence, and the world that emerges for us is a conceptual world. When we are puzzled about what we encounter, we renegotiate its meaning in a manner that is concordant with what those around us believe.
If this is the basis for our understanding of the physical and biological worlds, how milch truer it is of the social world in which we live. For, to sound another familiar theme, the “realities” of the society and of social life are themselves most often products of linguistic use as represented in such speech acts as promising, abjuring, legitimizing, christening, and so on. Once one takes the view that a culture itself comprises an ambiguous text that is constantly in need of interpretation by those who participate in it, then the constitutive role of language in creating social reality becomes a topic of practical concern.
So if one asks the question, where is the meaning of social concepts – in the world, in the meaner’s head, or in interpersonal negotiation – one is compelled to answer that it is the last of these. Meaning is what we can agree upon or at least accept as a working basis for seeking agreement about the concept at hand. If one is arguing about social “realities” like democracy or equity or even gross national product, the reality is not the thing, not in the head, but in the act of arguing and negotiating about the meaning of such concepts. Social realities are not bricks that we trip over or bruise ourselves on when we kick at them, but the meanings that we achieve by the sharing of human cognitions.
Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds.
As our readers read, as they begin to construct a virtual text of their own, it is as if they were embarking on a journey without maps — and yet, they possess a stock of maps that might give hints, and besides, they know a lot about journeys and about mapmaking. First impressions of the new terrain are, of course, based on older journeys already taken. In time, the new journey becomes a thing in itself, however much its initial shape was borrowed from the past. The virtual text becomes a story of its own, its very strangeness only a contrast with the reader’s sense of the ordinary. The fictional landscape, finally, must be given a “reality” of its own — the ontological step. It is then that the reader asks that crucial interpretive question, “What’s it all about?” But what “it” is, of course, is not the actual text — however great its literary power — but the text that the reader has constructed under its sway. And that is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his own. I believe that the writer’s greatest gift to a reader is to help him become a writer. If I have, then, made much of the contingent and subjunctive not so much in storytelling as in story comprehending, it is because the narrative mode leads to conclusions not about certainties in an aboriginal world, but about the varying perspectives that can be constructed to make experience comprehensible.
Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds.
Reality is not a fixed entity. It is a contingent interlocking of moving events. And events do not just happen to us. We are an integral part of every event. We enter into the shape of events, even as we long for an absolute in which to rest. It may be just this longing for an absolute in which our concepts might not have to be responsible for our percepts, and so indirectly our reality, that explains the hostility of our ordinary intellect to these shadowy modes of mind.
Our inherited representation, our world view, is a language-made affair. It varies from culture to culture. Edward Sapir, the linguist, called this idea of ours that we adjust to reality without the use of language an illusion. He claimed that the “real world” is to a large extent built up on the language habits of the group.
None of us exercises our logical, social thinking as a blank slate, or as a photographic plate, seeing what is “actually there.” We focus on the world through an esthetic prism from which we can never be free except by exchanging prisms. There is no pure looking with a naked, innocent eye. Even our most critical, analytical, scientific, or “detached” looking is a verification search, sifting through possibilities for a synthesis that will strengthen the hypotheses that generate the search.
Our world view is a cultural pattern that shapes our mind from birth. It happens to us as fate. We speak of a child becoming “reality-adjusted” as he responds and becomes a cooperating strand in the social web. We are shaped by this web; it determines the way we think, the way we see what we see. It is our pattern of representation and our response sustains the pattern.
Yet any world view is arbitrary to an indeterminable extent. This arbitrariness is difficult to recognize since our world to view is determined by our world view. To consider our world view arbitrary and flexible automatically places our world of reality in the same questionable position. And yet we are always changing this world view. We represent such changes as discoveries of absolutes in order to protect outselves from our arbitrary status, and to avoid the implication that human thinking is a creative process. We deny that disciplines of mind synthetically create; we insist we are but discovering “nature’s truths.” We possess an open-ended potential at considerable variance with contemporary nihilisms, but we must recognize and accept the dynamic interplay of representation-response if we are not to be acted on rather than fully acting.
It has been claimed that our minds screen out far more than we accept, else we would live in a world of chaos. Our screening process may be essential, but it is also arbitrary and changeable. We pick and choose, ignore or magnify, illuminate or dampen, expand upon or obscure, affirm or deny, as our inheritance, adopted discipline, or passionate pursuit dictate. At root is an esthetic response, and we invest our esthetic responses with sacred overtones.
Most people respond automatically to their given circle of representation, and strengthen it by their unconscious allegiance. Since their cultural circle is made of many conflicting drives for their allegiance, their lives are fragmented and ambiguous.
This centering of mind fills a person with power and conviction. It creates mathematicians, saints, or Nazis with equal and impartial ease.
We look on archetypal world views, those held by “primitive” tribes, and consider them archaic “survival” mechanisms. We have been taught that the real “out there” has been seen only dimly before, but with a progressively more realistic, aware, civilized eye, culminating in our viewpoint. (Alien world views can thus be exploited or even removed as threats to our true one, lending a religious sanctification to our culture destructions.)
Levi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, challenges our smug chauvinisms. He claims that archaic thought patterns were highly disciplined, intellectual structures, designed to give the world coherence, shape, and meaning. This is, in fact, just what all world views do. Primitive man “sacralized” his intellectual structure no more than we do ours. Neither system is any more true than the other. Ours is more esthetic-ally desirable to us, but is bought at the same price all selective systems are, the price of those possibilities sacrificed to keep a limited structure intact. The difference between Einstein’s relative universe and the Dream-Time cosmology of the Australian aborigine is not a matter of truth or falsehood, realism or illusion, progression or regression, intelligence or stupidity, as the naive realists have claimed. It is a matter of esthetic choice. Each system produces results unobtainable to the other; each is closed and exclusive.
Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg.