Complex Personhood

Because I am teaching a course on dystopian literature I am re-reading 1984 and Brave New World, while also rewatching Avery Gordon’s talk on The Utopian Margins, and re-reading the parts of Ghostly Matters that deal with Complex Personhood. Here’s an excerpt:

“It has always baffled me why those most interested in understanding and changing the barbaric domination that characterizes our modernity often–not always–withhold from the very people they are most concerned with the right to complex personhood. Complex personhood is the second dimension of the theoretical statement that life is complicated. Complex personhood means that all people (albeit in specific forms whose specificity is sometimes everything) remember and forget, are beset by contradiction, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others. Complex personhood means that people suffer graciously and selfishly too, get stuck in the symptoms of their troubles, and also transform themselves. Complex personhood means that those called ‘Other’ are never never that. Complex personhood means that the stories people tell about themselves, about their troubles, about their social worlds, and about their society’s problems are entangled and weave between what is immediately available as a story and what their imaginations are reaching toward. Complex personhood means that people get tired and some are just plain lazy. Complex personhood means that groups of people will act together, that they will vehemently disagree with and sometimes harm each other, and that they will do both at the same time and expect the rest of us to figure it out for ourselves, intervening and withdrawing as the situation requires. Complex personhood means that even those who haunt our dominant institutions and their systems of value are haunted too by things they sometimes have names for and sometimes do not. At the very least, complex personhood is about conferring the respect on others that comes from presuming that life and people’s lives are simultaneously straightforward and full of enormously subtle meaning.”

Complex personhood might be the thing that Big Brother, your enemies, totalitarian regimes, institutions might be most afraid of, and which they are working tirelessly to suppress. To accept and make space for another person’s complex personhood can be challenging as an individual, and in systems, be they software, constitutions, laws, governments, etc. it can be even more challenging, since there will almost always be someone who doesn’t have a neat space in the grid, and everyone is an exception to someone or something somewhere.

2000 Index Cards, and Learning Languages

When I acquired 2000 index cards, my friends asked what they were for. Lots of things, but here I am using them for watercolored mnemonics for French phrases. Having conceded that Finnish is unmasterable, not only because of its grammatical complexity but because an English speaker in Helsinki never has a chance to speak it, I reconceived of myself not as a failed Finn, but as a potential European and decided I would master at least one European language. I was closer in French than Spanish so I’ve been working at it. Easy language, and solid literature too! To study languages I recommend two books, The Practice of Practice, which is about learning music, but is applicable to any learned skill, and Fluent Forever, which. It was from the latter book I derived this flash card method.

Another homeschooling parent told me her son learned his excellent, fluent Chinese by watching Chinese soap operas, and I was gratified to discover that you can watch most things on Netflix in French with French subtitles. I switched my movie viewing to French, my reading to French,  my podcasts to French, my dreams to French…

Ph.D program vs. Time-Life book

…I attended a political theory Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Something happened there. One day I was reading a Time-Life book about the painter Goya. I forget who the king was at the time, but he was one of the few enlightened kings of Spain. In the capital, there was a lot of crime. Men wore these big capes and hats, which made for a great disguise. The king was mad about all the crime, so he made that outfit illegal, but then there was a riot because me were so attached to the capes and hats. So the king repealed the law. He found a new adviser and said, Look, youve got to stop all this thieving. The new guy said, Don’t worry, Your Majesty, I got it covered. And the next day, he made the cape and hat the uniform of the executioner, who worked out in the open every day. People stopped wearing them just like that. Nobody wanted to be identified with the executioner. And I thought, I’ve learned more in reading this one stupid page in this Time-Life book about Goya than I have in my Ph.D. program. So I quit.

– Walter Mosley, interviewed in The Paris Review.

Lighting Their Fires

I just reread this review of Lighting Their Fires by Nat Torkington, which had this very valuable list of “lessons” for children (and their parents). It’s a child-rearing book, which I haven’t read, but that I’ve already benefited from. So:

The lessons for parents and kids:
* punctuality,
* use time valuably,
* care about and learn from the past,
* repeat and repeat the values,
* embrace an art and learn time management, focus, etc.
* put away distractions,
* develop a personal code of behaviour (he uses Kohlberg’s six levels of motivation)
* radio, models, board games, getting good at music and other arts, reading all build focus. TV and games do not.
* the importance of decisions and that they be good ones,
* to recognise that they are making decisions every day,
* spotting and discussing decisions in novels, plays, and movies,
* if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,
* actions have consequences, there are good outcomes and bad, strive for excellence, lose the sense of entitlement,
* consider your alternatives,
* in the arts, try for excellence not adequacy,
* allowances not tied to chores—chores are responsibility, and the reward is the job well done,
* identify substandard work and require it to be done to standard, otherwise there are no standards,
* be self-less,
* work with groups not individuals, so all can recognise and appreciate and celebrate the hard work of others,
* do the right thing for the right reasons,
* be able to do the right thing without acknowledgement or praise (humility),
* to be able to delay gratification.

Along the way, lots of great quotes. Over the library of Thebes: “Medicine for the Soul”. Mark Twain’s alleged line, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” Martin Luther King, Jr: “If it falls to your lot to sweep the streets, Sweep them like Michelangelo painted pictures, Like Shakespeare wrote poetry, Like Beethoven composed music.”

Storytelling, Narrative and the Utility of Knowledge

Why are we so intellectually dismissive towards narrative?” he asks. “Why are we inclined to treat it as rather a trashy, if entertaining, way of thinking about and talking about what we do with our minds? Storytelling performs the dual cultural functions of making the strange familiar and ourselves private and distinctive. If pupils are encouraged to think about the different outcomes that could have resulted from a set of circumstances, they are demonstrating usability of knowledge about a subject. Rather than just retaining knowledge and facts, they go beyond them to use their imaginations to think about other outcomes, as they don’t need the completion of a logical argument to understand a story. This helps them to think about facing the future, and it stimulates the teacher too.

– Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner died this week. He had lived well into his 90s and was working until the end.

Further Reading:
Actual Minds, Possible Worlds Bruner argues here that there is too much emphasis on the logical, rational and scientifically oriented parts of cognition, and too little on what he calls its “narrative” aspects, which are the source of all great storytelling, drama, myth and persuasion.



Acts of Meaning In which Bruner asks us to focus not on the mechanistic, computer-inspired way of looking at thinking, but give our focus to the rich, evocative, meaning-making aspects of our minds.

Youth sports are destructive to family life

Soccer KidsI was in a meeting the other day in which we went around the table and introduced ourselves to each other. We were meant to describe our personal, non-work lives, and some people named hobbies, or told about their recent vacations, but 60% or so, when asked what they did outside of work, said they drove their kids to their sports and soccer obligations, and were slaves to their children’s sports schedules.

I’ve found it’s nearly impossible to invite friends with traditionally schooled children to do things spontaneously on weekends– have a picnic or go hiking on a beautiful day, go out for dinner. “Sorry, Tommy’s got baseball” or “Can’t today, Melanie’s soccer practice” is the inevitable reply, Fortunately homeschooled kids seem to do a lot less organized sport and seem less invested in conforming with suburban social expectations. If you live in the suburbs, participation in team sports seems to be all the social activity on offer, for parents and siblings too.

What an astonishing loss of life. Is it worth it to lose all that time with family and friends? The losses are steep. In a post on Mom’s Team, a blog for “Sports Parents”, Jeannette Twomey lists the things her family has missed:

“Over the years, we saw one family activity after another bow its head to youth sports. Dinner at home, reading before bedtime, visits to grandma’s house, household chores, games in the backyard, picnics, weekend jaunts into the countryside, camping trips, school vacations – all casualties of the children’s sports schedule.”

The rest of the family generally bears the brunt of one kid’s involvement in sports. How much lost time together, how many things missed? And why value one kid’s time over the other kids’ time? It boggles the mind.

Generally team sports  are not lifelong sports. You don’t see 50 year old men playing soccer or hockey. Lifelong sports are things like skiing, tennis, dancing, yoga running–70 year olds are still doing these. And the whole family can do them together.

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Processes

I have been thinking about thinking, and found this useful taxonomy by Benjamin Bloom, who in 1956 devised a taxonomy to discriminate between levels of cognitive thinking. The article notes that although the original intention of the taxonomy was to facilitate communication between educators and psychologists in the area of test construction, research and curriculum development, it has been found to be useful in distinguishing areas of study and classroom activities based on the taxonomy.

Bloom’s Taxonomy consists of six levels:

Recall or recognition of specific information

Understanding of information given

Using methods, concepts, principles and theories in new situations

Breaking information down into its constituent elements

Putting together constituent elements or parts to form a whole requiring original, creative thinking.

Judging the value of ideas, materials, and methods by developing and applying standards and criteria

There’s a path from the lower-to-higher level thinking, knowledge to evaluation which can be led by teachers through the use questioning, discussion and tasks.

The article also notes that while students need to be exposed to experiences at all levels of the Taxonomy, opportunities to work at more advanced levels are vital for gifted students. Often their advanced knowledge and comprehension skills enable them to progress more rapidly to higher levels of thinking, such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

Teachers dislike creative children

Do teachers dislike creative children in spite of their assertions to the contrary? 96% of teachers say that daily classroom time should be dedicated to creative thinking. And yet they seem biased against the very children whose thinking is most creative. At school, creative children are punished rather than rewarded, and the system seems designed to extinguish creativity. In spite of all the lip service.

The characteristics that teachers value in the classroom are those associated with the lowest levels of creativity. Teachers want students to be responsible, reliable, dependable, clear-thinking, tolerant, understanding, peaceable, good-natured, moderate, steady, practical and logical. Creativity is not moderate or logical. It is associated with characteristics such as determined, independent and individualistic, people who make up the rules as she goes along, divergent rather than conformist ways of thinking. You can read some of the research in this article.


For good reason Ken Robinson’s talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? is the most viewed talk on the TED web site. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original,” he says, and rightness and wrongness, as anyone who has ever received a graded paper can attest, is the very backbone of education.

The gulf between rhetoric and reality isn’t really that surprising.  It’s nearly impossible for a teacher, outnumbered by his charges, to help the rebels and mavericks flourish in an environment requiring more supervision than vision. The system is set up for teachers to prefer the obedient.


Sesat School in Wired

homeschooling - the cooks

I’m happy that Jason Tanz, who has written before about the sharing economy, wrote an article about homeschooling for Wired Magazine: The Techies Who Are Hacking Education by Homeschooling Their Kids. It gets across the entrepreneurial and DIY nature of the self-taught, and how the future will require us to be more inventive, take responsibility for our own education and be more entrepreneurial in our lives, education and pursuits. We were also happy that our micro-school, Sesat School, was included in the article.

Most of my interview was not included in the article, and unfortunately the one quote that was included made it seem as if I were endorsing an exclusive, privileged education that readers should “feel free to roll [their] eyes” about. Nor am I anti-public school or anti-democratic. This was unfortunate.

My public school education included a love of poetry and classical music–I was not homeschooled, and in the article it is implied that my experience has something to do with homeschooling. It did not. I was speaking in the context of what was good about public school education, and how being different didn’t hurt, but helped me in life.

In the interview with Jason I had said that the “gifted children’s programs”, in which I had participated in public school, were elitist and that all children should be able to participate in them. In many ways it was a reaction against privilege that led me to homeschooling. One of the many reasons I started looking into homeschooling — or independent education, as it is better named — was that I was repelled by the line of limos outside the private schools in the morning.

I was especially happy about this paragraph:

Problems arise, the thinking goes, when kids are pushed into an educational model that treats everyone the same—gives them the same lessons and homework, sets the same expectations, and covers the same subjects. The solution, then, is to come up with exercises and activities that will help each kid flesh out the themes and subjects to which they are naturally drawn.

The best part of the New Jersey public schools “gifted program” was exactly that.

I am grateful that Jason wrote this article. It does a great service to homeschooling in general, and delineates its entrepreneurial and DIY ethos very well. I just don’t want to be the poster child for its “privilege”– the very thing I’m resisting.

Test-taking at school

David Guterson, a high school teacher, and a homeschooling father of four, questions the validity of standard test-taking in school, which is meant to measure the quantity and quality of a student’s learning during a certain period of time. He writes:

I point to the results of an informal experiment I have conducted five time in a ten-year teaching career. In this experiment I give a test on Friday, an ordinary objective test (true-false, matching, fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice) preceded by a Thursday review session and a week full of reminders that this test is on Friday, don’t forget to reread this or that, to study these notes, to review this handout, to get plenty of rest, to see me if there are questions; I am furthermore explicit all week long about both the form of the test and its subject matter. In short I prepare them to meet the test in the time-honored tradition of high-school teachers.

Friday evenings I take their completed tests home. Over the weekend I grade them. On Monday, with no prior warning of any sort, I give them the same test and ask them to take it again. Monday evening I grade those, staple them to the Friday exam, and hand both back to students.

None–no one–has ever received an equal or higher grade on the test administered on Monday. Most in fact, receive a considerably lower grade, missing, often, twice as many questions on Monday as they missed on Friday.

As I had suspected. 🙂 Now, testing the ability to take tests has some value. It’s some indication of the willingness of a person to study and prepare. It’s some measure of short term memory, though not, obviously, long term memory. Guterson’s point is that learning is a mysterious process, difficult, if not impossible, to measure. And yet homeschoolers repeatedly test higher on these tests than children attending traditional school.