Problem-posing Education

It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.

Eugene Ionesco

I am an educator both as vocation and avocation, although I do not have a formal education degree. And while I can deliver a strong 3-hour lecture with the best of them, I much prefer to leave behind the banking model of education — education in which students receive, memorize, and repeat the learned knowledge and wisdom of the instructor. I remember the frustration when, as a teen, I would share information or an idea with my dad that would go ignored until later when it was delivered by the expert on TV or the radio. Embarrassingly, I’m sure I did the same with my sons and indeed sometimes continue to do so with my wife, although I try not to because I truly do respect and value their insights. When I work with other youth, such as when leading the Twin City Bible Church mission trip to East St. Louis each summer, or when I was a scout leader, I try to be more a guide on the side channeling and infilling their knowledge and leadership rather than being the authority with all the knowledge and ideas to be meekly implemented by students. This is even more the case with my masters students, who had they instead entered the workforce would have been valued for their skills and knowledge gained through their bachelors program of study.

The guide-on-the-side teaching model has been well described by John Dewey in his book Experience and Education. For Dewey, experience serves both as the means and the goal of education. Our past experiences, combined with our learning purposes, can be brought together into a current learning experience. Not all experiences are the same, though, as only some truly work to progress our education as one step in lifelong learning. Further, this progressive education should be situated within community, be conducted by community, to achieve the goals of the community in what Chip Bruce and others have described as community inquiry. That is, it is a type of problem- and project-based education that is vitally situated within the experiences of the people in a community. Community-centered experiences serve as the means for progressive educational experiences in, by, and for the community.

One of the joys when we approach education as a teacher-student — someone who has certain responsibilities as a teacher but who also brings in the humble attitude of a learner seeking insights from student-teachers — is that our thinking is constantly challenged and richly expanded. And so it was this week as our Community Engagement class reviewed Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. While some were encountering this book directly for the first time, others of us were revisiting this classic work.

Personally, this most recent visit had me reflecting especially on Freire’s discussion of limit-situations, limit-acts, and generative themes. As conscious beings, we have the ability to separate ourselves from the world around us and also our own activities. In so doing, we can identify and act to overcome situations that keep us from being more human. That is, we can actively work to negate and overcome limit-situations through limit-acts. Thus, it is not the limit-situations which serve to bring about a sense of hopelessness, but rather our inability to move beyond seeing them as insurmountable barriers to instead recognize them as shackles that can be overcome.

Subsequently, as we nibbled around the edges of Pedagogy of the Oppressed in class discussion, one of the participants began to explore more deeply Freire’s alternative to the banking model of education — the problem-posing model.

In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.

Banking education treats students as objects of assistance; problem-posing education makes them critical thinkers. Banking education inhibits creativity and domesticates (although it cannot completely destroy) the intentionality of consciousness by isolating consciousness from the world, thereby denying people their ontological and historical vocation of becoming more fully human. Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality; thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation. [emphasis in original; pages 83 and 84 of the 2011 edition translated by Myra Bergman Ramos]

Freire’s description of problem-posing education is fully consistent with Dewey’s progressive education and Bruce’s community inquiry. But what the class discussion helped me to more fully appreciate is the importance of posing more critical questions if we are to not only address immediate local issues, but to also advance knowledge power. A few weeks back I posted regarding the impact goal of allying with citizens to affect social change, based on my reflections of Randy Stoecker’s writings regarding two forms of social change (for instance, in his recent paper “What If“).Digital Innovation Leadership Framework

This past week has me further refining my understanding of these ideas. I continue to believe that in affecting social change, citizens set about fostering community. But from this most recent reading and discussion on Freire, I now further understand this to be a work of transforming reality so as to liberate all people from limit-situations. These limit-situations serve to dehumanize us as they keep us from our vocation of being more fully human. These limit-situations exist because there are persons who are directly or indirectly served by these situations — the oppressors — while others who are being curbed by them — the oppressed. But both groups are dehumanized and less than fully human because of the limit-situation. The work of problem-posing education, then, is to specifically act and reflect within the knowledge power cycle in such a way so as to affect social change that works to liberate both the oppressed and the oppressor. To do otherwise would only risk the oppressed becoming the oppressor, thereby exchanging one form of being less than fully human with another form.

While not trivial, we can readily consider how to harness progressive, project- and problem-based education to address local issues. This is important work. But if we struggle further, we can hone and deepen our critical thinking through dialog such that we continually revise our awareness of limit-situations and participate in limit-act projects that speak into existence a new reality. As thus practiced, education is not an individual work, but a work done in community as we come to know through dialog our objective situation and also our awareness of that situation. We have a perception of our previous perception and a knowledge of our previous knowledge. And as we engage as co-investigators in action and reflection — praxis —  to transform and create material goods and social institutions, ideas, and concepts, we simultaneously create history and become historical-social beings within epochal units.

An epoch is characterized by a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values, and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites, striving towards plenitude [the condition of being full or complete]. The concrete representation of many of these ideas, values, concepts, and hopes, as well as the obstacles which impede the people’s full humanization, constitute the themes of that epoch. These themes imply others which are opposing or even antithetical; they also indicate tasks to be carried out and fulfilled. Thus, historical themes are never isolated, independently with their opposites. Nor can these themes be found anywhere except in the human-world relationships. The complex of interacting themes of an epoch constitutes its “thematic universe” (page 101)

The task of the dialogic 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 first received it — and “re-present” it not as a lecture, but as a problem. (page 109)

The epochal units of themes can occur at multiple levels simultaneously. For instance, at the broadest level we might consider the global theme of domination. At a more local level, we might consider racism as constructed individually and structurally within the United States. And at still a more local level, we might consider racial bias in Champaign schools as identified in cases presented by African Americans to the Office of Civil Rights in 1996. If we apprehend reality only as non-interacting fragments, it is impossible to truly understand reality. By using the methodology that Freire calls conscientization — learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality —  the dialogic teacher leads a co-investigation of themes that in turn generate new investigations. These generative themes begin to introduce the student-instructor to a critical form of thinking about their world. The challenge is to lead towards a comprehension of the total, interconnecting reality, for only then can we proceed towards isolation of separate elements for effective intervention.

This is my sixth time reading these concepts. But true to Freire’s description, as we complete a cycle of dialog that names our understanding of the world, we stand at the cusp of a new reality to be perceived. And thus in the intervening months between visits to Pedagogy of the Oppressed, my praxis has brought me to a new cusp of understanding of these words because of my dialog with various other authors, dialog with students, colleagues, and community, and intervening creative works.

Consequently, light bulbs went off as I looked at the Eugene Ionesco quote that hangs on a cabinet in my office: “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” My responsibility as a teacher is to create a learning environment that fosters community dialog along with a critical form of thinking. Then, as we engage in co-investigation, my responsibility is to help the team reflect on the thematic universe being revealed through our investigation in a way that generates additional enlightening questions. Along the way, problem-posing education concurrently works to “facilitate the discovery of the interaction among the parts of the disjoined whole”, leading towards even richer sets of questions initiating further enlightening investigation.

I wish I could say with full confidence I thoroughly understand Freire, or even what I have written above. I wonder if the best evaluation whether I am advancing in my understanding is with regard the types of problems posed by me and my students. Over time, do the questions leading to new investigations and interventions demonstrate an increasing comprehension of the total reality even if they are directed at an isolated element for co-investigation? Thus, my strongest evidence to the affirmative is this paragraph itself as I further reorient my evaluation from answers to questions, from the works created to the questions used to inspire and investigate those creative works. And as I deepen my practice of progressive education to practice problem-posing education.

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Managing Implicit Bias

The last year has seen increased attention given in the popular media to implicit or unconscious bias, for instance:

Bias is a valuable evolutionary trait that helps us in cases where we have little information and a quick response is needed. But no two situations are precisely the same, and bias can quickly become dysfunctional precisely because they expansively use historical information but minimally use information from the current context.

But to try to be unbiased throughout our daily experiences is as unrealistic as trying to go without our sense of heat. Both are an evolutionary sensation and response system. However, another an important part of being human is that we have a conscious ability to reflect on and temper unconscious thought in order to bring balance to our responses. Denying bias just drives it further into an unconscious-but-still-active mechanism influencing our behavior. Acknowledging and developing skills to manage bias allows us to be more intentional in our behaviors.

The pieces mentioned above highlight both the hardwired nature of bias and also the ability to develop skills to recognize and manage dysfunctional behavior based on our biases. For instance, act 2 of part 2 of the This American Life segments spotlight in part the Las Vegas police department that has been using implicit bias awareness training to decrease police shooting of black men. In reflecting on this segment, it strikes me that police departments around the nation provide regular, extensive firearm training, but very few provide implicit bias awareness training, even though bias can be even more dangerous given how our biases come into play in so many more contexts than does a firearm. Each resource above also highlights how we may consciously work to be colorblind, but unconsciously skin color remains a very influential physical feature influencing our actions. If you’re still unconvinced, take some of the Implicit Association Tests available from the Harvard Project Implicit site yourself.

The concept of implicit bias can be a helpful way both the reduce disabling guilt and also to increase a sense of responsibility to manage our biases. But implicit bias can also become a way to once again deflect awareness of, and responsibility for, institutionalized racism. We need to be willing to also probe ways in which governmental and non-governmental people in power and also our institutions of civil society — church, family, mass media, school, libraries — have constructed narratives around, and worked to expand, our biases in ways that ultimately privilege some at the expense of others.

I’ve written a number of posts regarding white privilege and race as a social construct. But for the past few weeks I’ve been reflecting on the value of using implicit bias as a starting point for talking about race. However, individual self-reflection on, and behavior management of, our biases is only useful as long as we’re willing to understand it as one part of a broader racial justice agenda. We need to additionally recognize how as a corporate body our communities and nation have created/reinforced a bias based on skin color, and then also created a powerful set of social structures to harness those biases to privilege whites over people of color. These privileges can then be leveraged to advance white wealth and power. While not everyone succeeds, or even attempts, to leverage privilege, it remains an undeniable part of being white. And our implicit biases combined with our social structures serve as a dynamic duo reifying white supremacy — a racism without racists as described in the CNN article. Dismantling our unjust systems of racism require work both the individual and systemic level. The same is true for our other “isms” such as those based on gender, class, functional diversity, sexual preference, etc.

We can’t live without bias. It is a hardwired part of us. Rather, we need to be willing to acknowledge our biases and develop skills to consciously override them if we are to increase our own abilities to behave in more just ways. From the Harvard Project Implicit Frequently Asked Questions Section regarding the question  “What can I do about an implicit bias preference that I don’t want?”

One solution is to seek experiences that could reverse or undo the patterns that created the unwanted preference. For example, you could choose to avoid watching television shows that promote negative stereotypes of women or minorities. You could read materials that opposes the implicit preference. You could interact with people or learn about people who counter your implicit stereotypes. You can work to remain alert to the existence of the unwanted implicit preference to make sure that it doesn’t influence your overt behavior. You can also try consciously planned actions that will compensate for your implicit preferences. For example, if you have an implicit preference for young people you can try to be friendlier toward elderly people. Research shows that implicit preferences are quite malleable so it is possible to manage and change them if you want to.

Personally, this means I’ve drastically reduced the number of TV shows and movies that I find acceptable to watch. Further, when I do watch something, I’ve worked aggressively to eliminate commercials, not only because they promote negative stereotypes but also artificially create needs that can only be satisfied through purchasing their products. This goes beyond video media, and we pay for a premium Pandora account and mostly listen to non-commercial radio to further avoid commercials. While having diverse friends is not sufficient to confront implicit bias, it can be a valuable component of a broader strategy. This is especially true when those friendships can, through hard and intentional work, develop a level of mutual trust that allows honest talk when we evidence biased thought and behaviors.

Finally, let me forward some questions I’ve found helpful to inform my personal work of self-reflection. While these were written to guide researchers in their engagement with study participants, I find it valuable in every aspect of both my vocation and avocation as I intersect with people different from me. These come from the paper “Race, Culture, and Researcher Positionality: Working through Dangers Seen, Unseen, and Unforeseen”; Author: H. Richard Milner IV
; Source: Educational Researcher, Vol. 36, No. 7 (Oct., 2007), pp. 388-400; Link:

Researching the Self

  • What is my racial and cultural heritage? How do I know?
  • In what ways do my racial and cultural backgrounds influence how I experience the world, what I emphasize in my research, and how I evaluate and interpret others and their 
experiences? How do I know?
  • How do I negotiate and balance my racial and cultural selves 
in society and in my research? How do I know?
  • What do I believe about race and culture in society and education, and how do I attend to my own convictions and beliefs about race and culture in my research? Why? How do I know?
  • What is the historical landscape of my racial and cultural 
identity and heritage? How do I know?
  • What are and have been the contextual nuances and realities 
that help shape my racial and cultural ways of knowing, both 
past and present? How do I know?
  • What racialized and cultural experiences have shaped my 
research decisions, practices, approaches, epistemologies, and agendas?

Researching the Self in Relation to Others

  • What are the cultural and racial heritage and the historical landscape of the participants in the study? How do I know?
  • In what ways do my research participants’ racial and cultural backgrounds influence how they experience the world? How do I know?
  • What do my participants believe about race and culture in society and education, and how do they and I attend to the tensions inherent in my and their convictions and beliefs about race and culture in the research process? Why? How do I know?
  • How do I negotiate and balance my own interests and research agendas with those of my research participants, which maybe inconsistent with or diverge from mine? How do I know?
  • What are and have been some social, political, historical, and contextual nuances and realities that have shaped my research participants’ racial and cultural ways or systems of knowing, both past and present? How consistent and inconsistent are these realities with mine? How do I know?

Shifting from Self to System

  • What is the contextual nature of race, racism, and culture in this study? In other words, what do race, racism, and culture mean in the community under study and in the broader community? How do I know?
  • What is known socially, institutionally, and historically about the community and people under study? In other words, what does the research literature reveal about the community and people under study? And in particular, what do people from the indigenous racial and cultural group write about the community and people under study?
  • Why? How do I know?
  • What systemic and organizational barriers and structures shape the community and people’s experiences, locally and more broadly? How do I know?
Posted in Race and Privilege, Social Justice | Leave a comment

From the individual to the social and back again

In my last post, I explored my recent considerations regarding different understandings of individualism. From a market neoliberal approach, society is built from individuals and nothing but individuals — we are the sum of the characteristics brought to society by individuals and nothing more. From a capability approach, we start with the individual as the most ethical way to assure equity and justice in development work. But unlike the ontological individualism view of neoliberalism, the ethical individualism which the capability approach practices allows for the possibility of emergent properties when individuals exist together in society — the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Why might we need to look beyond just the individual when working to foster community through development work? A few years back I was struggling a bit with high cholesterol, and especially the LDL or bad cholesterol. This in spite of an active lifestyle, healthy diet, and high HDL or good cholesterol. I also was experiencing some mild depression and fatigue. Fortunately, rather than treating these symptoms as separate illnesses, I had a general practitioner that excelled at diagnostics. Probing further, he found out I also was increasingly sensitive to cold temperatures and had some unexplained weight gain. After some lab work, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Recognizing that my many individual body parts were part of a greater whole, my doctor dug to find the root cause affecting different parts of my body in different ways, rather than treating the ailments of each different body part as a separate problem.

Our development work fostering community may often include a focus on the individual because of concerns of equity and justice. Resources, including educational and biological, differ from person to person. An example used in connection to the capability approach to distinguish resources, capabilities, functioinings (those things we value being and doing), and utility is that of the bicycle. From the Deneulin and Shahani edited introduction to capability approach:

A bicycle provides a good example of how these different concepts relate. A person may own or be able to use a bicycle (a resource). By riding the bicycle, the person moves around town and, we assume, values this mobility (a functioning). However, if the person is unable to ride the bicycle (because, perhaps, she has no sense of balance or is not permitted to ride), then having a bicycle would not in fact result in this functioning. In this case, the access to the resource coupled with the person’s own characteristics (balance, etc.), creates the capability for the person to move around town when she wishes. Furthermore, let us suppose that the person enjoys having this capability to leap upon a bicycle and pedal over to a friend’s house for lunch – thus having this capability contributes to happiness or utility.

We often start with the individual to assure equity and justice for all, something that can be obscured when we start with small or large groups of constituents. But individuals do not exist in isolation from other humans or from the environment.

Randy Stoecker’s recent writings has brought to my attention the concept of sociological imagination as first proposed by C. Wright Mills in his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination. When only one person is experiencing a problem, the cause may likely exist within the individual. But when many people experience similar problems, the problem is more likely social in nature. Last year I attended a conference reflecting on 20 years of addressing the digital divide. One presenter highlighted the shift from 1964 and President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty — a demonstration of a sociological imagination that the cause may be social as much as individual —  to that which occurred as part of the social welfare reforms of the Reagan and Clinton presidencies. In deed, if not in name, the Regan and Clinton reforms put more of the blame on the individuals and thus became a war on the poor as opposed to poverty.

CDC social-ecological model

The U.S. government has proposed a social-ecological model that explores “the complex interplay between individual, relationship, community, and societal factors” that may contribute to being the victim of, or to perpetuate, violence. The individual level looks at biological and personal history factors. The relationship level looks at how “a person’s closest social circle — peers, partners and family members — influences their behavior and contributes to their range of experience.” The community level “explores the settings, such as schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods, in which social relationships occur.” The societal level looks at broader societal factors such as social and cultural norms, and “the health, economic, educational and social policies that help to maintain economic or social inequalities between groups in society.” While the CDC has proposed this model specifically related to violence and violence prevention, I believe it might be a valuable starting point to generalize to other issues that step from individual, relational, community, and societal issues.

I’ve come across the concept of social ecology in a wide range of readings over the past few years. Rather than a single conceptual model, a variety of people have explored the ways multiple human-based social systems — where social is used expansively to include institutions, politics, economics, cultural norms, etc. — intersect with each other and with the more-than-human. As proposed by an early explorer of social ecology, Dave Taylor, issues are explored at multiple levels, including the “macro level, the micro level, and the meso level applied, for example, to individuals, small groups, organizations, neighborhoods and geographical regions.” Taylor further suggestions six underlying principles of social ecology:

  • Identify a phenomenon as a social problem
  • View the problem from multiple levels and methods of analysis
  • Utilize and apply diverse theoretical perspectives
  • Recognize human-environment interactions as dynamic and active processes
  • Consider the social, historical, cultural and institutional contexts of people-environment relations
  • Understand people’s lives in an everyday sense

Murray Bookchin further suggests:

What defines social ecology as social is its recognition of the often-overlooked fact that nearly all our present ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems. Conversely, our present ecological problems cannot be clearly understood, much less resolved, without resolutely dealing with problems within society. To make this point more concrete; economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today — apart, to be sure, from those that are produced by natural catastrophes.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from the Birmingham Jail in 1963:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

In his speech Beyond Vietnam, King expanded this further to recognize poverty in the ghettos of the U.S., the riots occurring there, the gross levels of money spent for the war in Vietnam, and the killing of innocent lives there were all connected in clear ways.

In his landmark work, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold’s concluding chapter, “A Land Ethic“, states:

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

Our current sermon series at Twin City Bible Church is about [re]building the church. We have been reminded that in most cases when the Bible says you, it means you all. Today’s sermon by Norman Hubbard on Nehemiah chapters 2 and 3 also put this community concept into the context of the work of God. I appreciate Allen Wakabayashi’s book Kingdom Come: How Jesus Wants to Change the World that points out a new kingdom of equity and justice is being built on earth. In Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice, and Peace, Perry Yoder further clarifies that the whole of the Bible leads towards a growing understanding of this deep concept of shalom, right relations with God, with others (including nature), and within ourselves. God’s wrath occurs almost always when systems of injustice are allowed to exist among his people, when gross inequities are allowed to exist and certain groups of people are oppressed. In his sermon today, Norm made current the exploration of Nehemiah’s working within God’s plan to step up and leave behind a comfortable life to go himself to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem to ask what we need to be stepping up to bring into existence as part of God’s new kingdom. But Norm also noted that chapter 3 is a description of all the people who contributed a small part. It wasn’t done as an individual work, but as a corporate work. We work with our neighbors and our community. In response to a statement that the greatest commandments are love God and love your neighbor, Jesus is asked “Who is my neighbor?” This is when Jesus shares the parable of the good Samaritan. In this case, the neighbor was a stranger of a different religion, and indeed two religions that often left people on non-speaking terms.

As I reflect on these and many other parts of my Christian faith tradition, I am coming to realize that today’s framing economic and political philosophy within the U.S., market neoliberalism with its core belief in ontological individualism — that all of society can be explained and built by looking always and only at individuals — is diametrically opposed to that faith. I do not think it a coincidence that since the 1980’s great political will has been bent on bringing about a neoliberal government within our country and in parallel we have become a nation of immense inequality and increasing oppressions. Not the blatant oppressions of oppressive regimes which we spend great sums of money to defeat, but the subtle oppressions that divide and conquer, and which bring about the existence of things like the new Jim Crow.

The whole of the Christian faith is based on us being one body with right relations with God and our neighbor who may indeed be our enemy. It allows for ethical individualism. It is in opposition to ontological individualism. And I strongly believe it therefore must stand in strong opposition to neoliberalism. We can work to treat our many social symptoms is separate social ills, or we can work to identify the root. And I believe the root today is neoliberalism and ontological individualism.

For me community is a utopian ideal that we actively work towards today, but that is something that won’t be complete yet for some time to come. It is a state of equity and justice within a broader social ecology sense. We work at an individual level to assure equity, but we do so recognizing we are a “network of inescapable mutuality”. It isn’t particularly a place in which everyone agrees or in which everyone is best friends forever. Indeed, conflict and difference are often starting points for understanding an issue more deeply if we can learn to dialog effectively across difference. It is difficult for me to conceive how to truly do this when it requires we overcome limits imposed on us by language, culture, history, and conceptual understanding. But I know from both an intellectual and spiritual level that my calling is to work directly within this negotiated space between individual and community so as to bring about shalom in which every person has the agency and capability to achieve all that they value being and doing within a greater sense of human and more-than-human as a single social ecology working towards the common good.

Posted in Reflections, Social Justice | Leave a comment

Distinguishing Individualism — the Capability Approach and Fostering Community

I would categorize both my professional and personal vocation as fostering community. As with any such development work, this brings with it value judgements of what should be improved so as to foster community. I’m increasingly finding, however, that our country’s myopic focus on economic growth as measured by the gross domestic product is counter to what I value with regard to fostering community. As Robert F. Kennedy stated in a speech delivered to the Commonwealth Club January 4, 1968:

The Gross National Product of the United States is the largest in the world, but that GNP, if we should judge our nation by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising and ambulances to clear the highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails that break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder and chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead and armoured cars that fight riots in our streets. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Market Neoliberalism vs. Capability Approach

I’ve been exploring the Human Development and Capability Approach as originally developed by economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nusbaum as an interesting alternative to market neoliberalism. Market neoliberalism is an economic model that seeks market freedom, defined as freedom from interference. It puts growth and economic wellbeing as the primary objective of development policy. Education, infrastructure, and the health of people and communities are seen as investments for maximizing economic growth. Government policy leads towards happiness and the good life to the extent that they invest in programs that increase economic growth while minimizing interference of the market.

By contrast, the capability approach focuses on how a range of intersecting resources, one of which is financial resources, can serve as a means to support our agency — the ability to pursue goals — and capability — the freedom to enjoy those goals, those things which we value being and doing. Freedom in this case is then defined not only in the negative such as freedom from interference by exclusionary forces such as agism, sexism, and racism, but also in the positive, having the resources and agency to do or be that which a person states that they value. Education, infrastructure, and health have intrinsic value in their own right as they are things which people value. Government development policy is guided by concerns of negative and positive freedoms focused on equity and justice.

Both models, though, focus on the individual. Can either serve as a framework for fostering community?

Different Meanings of Individualism

Individual vs. community has been an issue I’ve struggled with for some time. It can be said that both my education and research focus as much and more on individuals as they do on community. So for instance, I give a grade to each student and not a single grade to the whole class. Does this mean I work to foster individuals rather than community? Is it possible for this to be a both/and rather than an either/or proposition?

On page 35 of An Introduction to the Human Development and Capability Approach, the question of individual vs. community is helpfully explored. In doing so, they distinguish between three uses of the term individualism, where capability approach draws from the first and neoliberalism draws from the second:

  • Ethical individualism ‘postulates that individuals, and only individuals, are the ultimate units of moral concern… This, of course, does not imply that we should not evaluate social structures and societal properties, but ethical individualism implies that these structures and institutions will be evaluated in virtue of the causal importance that they have for individual well-being.’
  • Ontological individualism holds that ‘society is built up from only individuals and nothing (but) individuals, and hence is nothing more than the sum of individuals and their properties.’
  • Explanatory or methodological individualism presumes ‘that all social phenomena can be explained in terms of individuals and their properties.’

If we are then to have equity and justice as an outcome of our development work fostering community, we need to start with the individual because each individual brings with them different mixes of social, material, natural, geographic, human, psychological, information, and cultural resources as well different social structures which aid or constrain agency. As such, each individual will need different levels of development assistance if we are to ethically help them to advance their agency and capabilities so as to achieve that which they value being and doing. Such a starting point does not necessarily preclude an additional recognition that we are an interdependent collective and so must consider the emergent characteristics and values beyond those of the individuals that comprise the collective.

Ultimately, then, I find the capability approach a useful alternative to displace the highly problematic market neoliberalism as I seek to foster community. Neoliberalism begins and ends with the individual. Consider the trajectory of U.S. and increasingly global development policy since the 1980s, and we note that policies of equity and justice and programs with intrinsic value to people are being displaced by policies that minimize interference on individuals and markets — and primarily interference on those individuals and markets with the most power. Capability approach starts with the individual because ethically it is the only way to assure justice to each person.

However, I do not find the capability approach a sufficient alternative in that it cannot inform how we move from the individual to the community, although it doesn’t preclude such a move as does neoliberalism. For that, I draw on Freire and popular education. I’d love to hear from others both on their thoughts regarding neoliberalism vs. capability approach, and also on other models that may be used to inform the move from individual to community.

To Learn More About the Capability Approach

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Our Alienation from Ourselves

The world cannot be a problem to anyone who sees that ultimately Christ, the world, his brother and his own inmost ground are made one and the same in grace and redemptive love. If all the current talk about the world helps people to discover this, then it is fine. But if it produces nothing but a whole new divisive gamut of obligatory positions and “contemporary answers” we might as well forget it. The world itself is no problem, but we are a problem to ourselves because we are alienated from ourselves, and this alienation is due precisely to an inveterate habit of division by which we break reality into pieces and then wonder why, after we have manipulated the pieces until they fall apart, we find ourselves out of touch with life, with reality, with the world and most of all with ourselves.

Thomas Merton
“Is the World a Problem?” in Commonweal (1966)

I subscribe to “The Daily Asterisk”, a daily thought emailed out by the folks of Culture is Not an Option . I highly recommend joining this service — the quotes are quite thought provoking, and I’ve ended up reading two books from which they have quoted. Indeed, I’d love to join with someone in a regular discussion of some of these quotes.

This one today especially caught my attention and stands in stark contrast to one I read recently:

Since technology grows exponentially, not in a linear way, we will see dramatic improvements in our way of life in just a few years. Though it took us 4,000 years to get from the abacus to the iPad, in 20 years we will have something as far ahead of the iPad as it is ahead of the abacus. This means that soon we will be able to solve all problems that are fundamentally technical. These problems include disease, poverty, hunger, energy, and scarcity.

Byron Reese, Tech Entrepreneur
National Geographic Magazine, January, 2015

I reject the idea our core problems such as disease, poverty, hunger, energy, and scarcity are fundamentally technically. Rather, I stand with Thomas Merton that our problems arise because of our own alienation from ourselves, and because of our continued attempts to break reality into pieces believing we can then manipulate those pieces to create a new reality that can be bent to our will. The more I read of different religions and indigenous knowledges, the more I learn of wisdom that calls for a different way, a way that insists we recognize our singular wholeness with all that is around us. The world itself is no problem.

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Educational Performance: It’s about inequity and poverty

Much is made about our failing schools and the need for educational reform. Too often this takes the form of dismantling public education to instead champion private forms of education, or fighting teachers unions, or calling for more standards and testing. I’m part of a group, CTRL-Shift, and we’ve been meeting weekly to debate the issues and to coordinate different in-field actions working towards a better approach. Kenwood elementary in Champaign has been leading development of an alternate way, and results are indicating we’re on to something quite exciting that is building off a rich tradition of progressive and popular education applied to 21st century digital skills, as seen in a recent U4 Innovate video.

Today one of my CTRL-Shift colleagues, George Reese, sent me a video that does a nice job of putting some of the statistics used against U.S. public education into a new light.

My take away from the analysis they present is that what we’re really looking at is yet another symptom of the root cause — that the U.S. has the highest levels of poverty and inequity in the developed world. We don’t need school reform, we need reform of our social and economic policies and practices to address this root cause. (Here’s citations and resources that go with the video.)

A few years back I was starting to have unexpectedly high levels of bad cholesterol and some unexplained weight gain. I was also feeling unusually tired and was starting to fight a bit of depression. I had a great doctor who said before he started treating each of these factors with drugs or therapy, he wanted to first do a battery of tests. The results of those tests led him to identify hypothyroidism. Treating that one root cause with hormone replacement fixed a range of symptoms that would otherwise have been each treated separately.

Our country can treat a range of symptoms such as poor educational performance, particularly for a subset of our population, high rates of crime, and even inequity and poverty. Or we can begin to consider what root cause might be causing all these symptoms. Again, a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered in a speech called “Beyond Vietnam” April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York comes to mind:

We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

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The Impact: Citizens Affecting Social Change

Knowing the ultimate reason we are doing what we’re doing is so important, allowing us to work backwards to make sure we are maximizing limited resources but also helping to assure we are using processes consistent with the end goal. I often find it takes a lot of soul searching to distinguish interim hoped for outcomes from deeper impact goals. In my case, strong community remains my vision. But this utopian ideal itself is an ongoing process that never finishes even if it can be reached just as our personal health is something we must continue to maintain. So then, stepping back one level I think it is accurate to say I hope the impact of my body of work is the central, ongoing process of community building by supporting citizens to affect social change.Digital Innovation Leadership Framework

Both the professional and personal aspects of my life have me engaging with community to address a variety of local issues through libraries, schools, churches, community centers, etc. Some work is in collaboration with Fab Lab and Maker programming within these spaces. But throughout, I try to use approaches like community inquiry, demystifying technology, computational and design thinking, popular education, and the humanities (history, philosophy, social studies, etc.) to assure the programs and activities lead ultimately advances citizens affecting social change. By citizens, I mean all constituents associated with a community, where difference is seen as a resource we need to actively work to expand and leverage. In other words, we need to identify exclusionary social forces such as racism, agism, ablism, sexism, etc., and the economic and political structures that reinforce those social axes of exclusion, and work as allies to dismantle them.

For citizens to affect social change, we need to constantly work to build their knowledge power. (I highly recommend Randy Stoecker’s recent paper, “What If?“, as a resource to learn more about this concept.) Focusing on my special area of expertise as part of the Center for Digital Inclusion within the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, I’m continuing to explore the ways professionals within libraries, as the people’s university, and schools are especially well suited to play a lead role in the development and ongoing support of citizens’ effective information seeking behaviors. (Carol Kuhlthau’s paper on guided inquiry for 21st century school libraries is a great source for understanding this ideas further.) We may also play some role in helping citizens translate information to knowledge. Our spaces may also be sites where this knowledge is put into action as others take up the leadership role, although action often may need resources and facilities beyond what libraries and schools can provide. (Library Journal did a recent article on how library director Scott Bonner made sure the Ferguson Public Library was available when needed during the activities surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent grand jury verdict.) Ultimately, informed action leads to further discussion and reflection, building up citizen power over their situation, helping them to enter into new information-knowledge-action-power cycles on stronger footings.

Not much of this is new, but instead is a continued refinement of my ideas on community engagement and dialogue, forms of social change, and librarians as engagement leaders. I hope to receive your comments on how this framework is helpful, and how it might be further refined, to consider the impacts of our community engagement work.

Posted in Community Engagement, Social Justice | 1 Comment