Nothing could be more awkward than the relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger and the frisson of that tale hangs, inevitably, over this book, with a powerful supporting counterpoint played by Gabi Baramki, Vice President of Birzeit University in Palestine. Events of great importance and people in those events are linked, willing and admittedly able to be marshalled to Nixon’s argument. Nixon declares, “my starting point was the failure of universities…” (loc 2948) and asserts that:
Higher education is currently constrained by systems of assessment and accountability that place an undue emphasis on learning outcomes that are specified as predetermined targets …
In Interpretive Pedagogies for Higher Education: Arendt, Berger, Said, Nussbaum and Their Legacies, Nixon enters a debate that is rehearsed widely (Maskell and Robinson 2001; Whitehead 1950; Kernohan 2013) and recalls Newman’s (1852) Idea of a University, and more recently supported by Gumport and Pusser’s (1995) study of “bureaucratic accretion” in California higher education or Gornitzka and Larsen’s (2004) analysis of administrative career growth and structure in Norwegian Universities. The anti-academic takes different forms in different generations. Ours is the predatory neoliberal and managerial global corporation. There is a perceived threat from forces with, according to Maskell and Robinson (2001), “a conception of higher education which is not only not that of the university, but is actively hostile to the university.” This “university” is characterised by Pirsig (1974) as:
… that great cultural heritage of rational thought … brought down to us through the centuries … which is regenerated … by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of [academics] … nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself. (Pirsig 1974)
That is a big ask. Reason itself. The Owl of Minerva caged by hegemonic polity or barbarian hoards. The heart is gone. The “real university” is under threat or in decline (Merrow 2005).
Nixon (2012) concludes:
We cannot, that is, afford a higher education system that is unequal in its allocation of resources and talent and that manifestly fails – at the point of entry and exit – the mass of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. (loc 3156)
Well, of course not. I should point out here that there is already a framework of some sort, a hierarchy of social order, a relationship (equality), movement through time and space (entry and exit), therefore a number of entities, points and position. I suggest, as with Pepper (1996) that frameworks are inevitable.
Much of what I find in Interpretivism, or Hermeneutics, as a method, I can line up with. It is human centred, always questioning. The proponents are admirably well-read and skillfully articulate in many languages. But arguments fall back on exemplary, flawed but great individuals from a grand picaresque, not so much as even a “tradition”, let alone a position: like a myth of the physical sciences, the independent observer position is untenable. George Steiner, Umberto Eco, even Alice Miller could be pitched in with Arendt, Berger, Said and Nussbaum. I endorse Nixon’s view of universities as extended metaphorical as well as local and concrete “spaces of dissensus and difference, openness and opportunity” (loc 2955). Learning and teaching (Nixon calls it “pedagogy”) is practice and “Insofar as it is practice it is social… Insofar as it is social it is interconnective in its process and [echoing Bhabha 2004] it is cosmopolitan in its outreach” (loc 2995). The cognitive dissonance we must assume Arendt and Heidegger, or Alice Miller and her son (Blohm 2015) endured would have been torture; our hearts can go out to one side or another.
I hope I am forgiven, for unpicking one small part of the argument. I see value in explicitly taking on critical discourse, creatively appropriating theory. Hermeneutics resists structure. Each moment is its own context seemingly disconnected or at least unpredictable from any other moment. Nixon says:”Our ontology as creatures of a particular time determines our hermeneutics” (2012 loc 2403) or, to rephrase: our understanding of the world around us is conditioned – maybe even determined – by the world around us. Strip back the elaborated lexical code and the assertion could be taken as a tautology. He then rephrases the assertion eleven or twelve times, concluding, as if there has been an argument, that “Learning is lifelong not by choice but of necessity.” Therefore, he suggests, we need to rely on acquiring position in any moment through “connoisseurship”. The words for the moment: “judgement”, “taste”, “discrimination”, are the words “we” (note the co-opting “we”, you and I dear reader, we are on the same side, aren’t we? Can you feel the arm-twisting, dear boy/girl?), yes, “we associate with interpretation.”
Well, I do. We all do. But we also have frameworks. And this is the isthmus between Arendt’s land and Heidegger’s. Without a position, the banality of good matches and maybe, if we are lucky in our respective moments, bests the banality of evil. Is this all that we can aspire to? To the extent that the interpretivist can avoid closure (keeping Schroedinger’s cat in the box) she can go on, like Socrates in perplexity to continue to think, to interpret but not to be pinned down to a positioned: unidentified.
There are hagiographies in philosophy, models of the life lived and spoken well particularly in hard times. Modelling requires perspective. And what I find the hermeneutic tradition fails to provide is a position from which to take a perspective. Theory is rejected as pillar and prop impeding thinking. Only comparisons may be distinguished.
Methodologically, for me, frameworks and thousand-mile questions are useful (Roberts 2015). How long can we hang suspended in thought before coalescing it in some action? Are our acts to be inconsistent, even random? Metaphorically it is useful to think of learning at times as particular (chunks, modules, outcomes) and at times like a wave or a continuum: the life-course. As particle you can model, measure and represent: build a grid or a cage to keep it in. And, it is useful to do this: to have frameworks and simplify them as much as possible. But they are no more “true” one from each other than any one might be to a “whole”. As continuum there are an infinite number of points between any two points. Put another way, a hypothesis to which this might lead is: evaluations focussed on objectivity may make it less likely for the evaluated (institution/course, etc) to achieve inclusivity. Which should then lead to a radical, engaged, participatory and active pedagogic framework (Barnettt 1997, Brookfield 1995), and the possibility of intercultural communication (Scollon and Scollon 2001), even while recognising the framework as a myth (Popper 1996).
In the end, Nixon returns to a discussion of pedagogy. The discussion is introduced with an example of a student from China, Xiang Li, who experiences a number of transformational moments in her learning journey. These transformational moments are not set out explicitly as pedagogy. The details of pedagogic practice play very little into the discussion, which is concerned mostly with matters of intercultural communication. In fact, Nixon deploys a very particular understanding of “pedagogy” as “…in part, the social glue whereby society coheres around particular norms” (loc 3001):
Pedagogy inflects two ways: towards consensus and towards dissensus. As consensus, it is centrally concerned with how dissensus is comprehended and integrated into a comprehensive and shared mode of understanding; as dissensus it is centrally concerned with resisting any such comprehensive and shared mode of understanding and with refusing foreclosure. (loc 3003)
Pedagogy, for Nixon, turns out to be more than a practice, it is a way of being in the world, which is illuminated, but not defined, by lives lived consciously in this dual inflection: not quite dialogic, not quite dialectic, resistant to closure.
In the end Nixon produces an explicit framework or even a theoretical model of interpretive pedagogy. This takes the form of a familiar paradigm with two axes (dissensus/consensus :: open/closed) setting out a four quadrant grid. He deploys this framework as a way of returning to a discussion of pedagogy. Nixon postulates a clockwise movement through the grid and numbers each quadrant sequentially. He builds, that is, a prop for thinking about pedagogy that, although arrayed in a grid, clearly has a value hierarchy overlaid onto it. “Open Dissensus”, quadrant four on the grid is where the most highly valued engagement takes place:
Here pedagogy struggles with the problem of how in a complex and interconnected world to acknowledge the conflicting demands of both dissensus (in respect of commitment to value) and consensus (in respect of commitment to action). (loc 3069)
But, what is the practice? Is it simply to question forever with no intended outcomes? I suggest that is only a part of it. Keep questioning, but celebrate frameworks, too. Do not deny them and then deploy them as a privilege. That, too, is a prop.
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