general education

Open education and the Unenlightenment

64/365 Ignorance

Generally I don’t go in for a romantic view of the past, and a sense of displeasure with the present. We forget just how grim the past was for most people, for most of history. But lately, I’ve become disillusioned with what we might call “the Unenlightenment”. Now, the Enlightenment is not an unproblematic historical concept (it’s decidedly Euro-centric for a start), but as a general principle it saw a culture that sought to understand the world, through science and art. This desire for knowledge, the very belief that acquiring knowledge was a worthwhile pursuit, underpinned much of cultural development through to the 20th century. And although it started out as a privileged pursuit, the basic premise, which we can summarise as “knowing stuff is good”, went through all of society, as witnessed by the strong links between education and the trade union movements during the industrial revolution. And while the Enlightenment was a European flavour of this principle, there were similar strands before and after in many cultures. When people used to talk of “bettering themselves” they sometimes meant it in purely financial terms, but more often they meant in terms of gaining knowledge (and yes I appreciate it’s a loaded term, but it was one in common usage).

The Unenlightenment sees a reversal of this basic principle: wilful avoidance of knowledge. During the Brexit campaign we saw Michael Gove proudly declare that he didn’t listen to experts. Brexit may be the most complex political task currently underway anywhere in the world – I don’t begin to understand the legislative, trading, social, implications of realising it. Whatever your own view on the vote, it is surely bizarre that experts should be deliberately excluded by some from commenting on a task of such complexity. And with Donald Trump, we repeatedly see him, his team and supporters dismiss facts and experts. This is not incidental, it is core to his appeal. The Daily Show clip below captures this attitude: “Do I have proof? No. Do I have articles? No. But my mind is made up” one supporter declares proudly towards the end.

Trump and the Brexit campaign can be seen as the culmination of a much longer trend of anti-intellectualism however, particularly in the West. In a complex world, people don’t want to hear that there aren’t simple solutions, so the media has dismissed anyone who says otherwise. We can all find our favourite reasons for this I guess: globalisation, neo-liberalism, mass media, etc. That’s beyond the scope of this post. But it does seem that deliberately, and wilfully remaining ignorant is now seen as acceptable, and indeed desirable in a way that once was not the case. That’s my contention anyway, I’m happy to be corrected.

The question then is how does education, and particularly open education operate in this changed context? Education is often promoted as the removal of ignorance. But ignorance can often result from a lack of opportunity. This is something that can be addressed. Indeed my own institution was founded exactly for this purpose, to give educational opportunities to those who were previously excluded. But that is a very different context from when people have opportunity, but deliberately do not want to gain knowledge. You can’t force people to learn. When knowledge and expertise are seen as part of the problem, the elite, the conspiracy, then you are up against more than just opportunity and barriers to learning – it’s a kind of anti-learning.

In this culture, how does education proceed? Simply creating great OERs about climate change, racial history, evidence based approaches, feminism, evolution, or whatever is not enough. They will be avoided, or dismissed. But having those resources is useful I think should someone come to the stage where they want to learn, and having a variety of ways in is important (OER, MOOCs, local college, night classes, blended learning – not just a three year degree). And academics through social media, blogs etc can show that they don’t live in an ivory tower, they’re real people who do know what the “real world” looks like.

But that won’t be enough. And I don’t know what the answers are beyond this. Education needs to fight not only for its own relevance, but for the culture within which it is situated. Open education needs to ask this of itself though. The effects of the Enlightenment were felt for centuries, we have to hope the same isn’t true for the Unenlightenment.


  • Steve Bamlett

    Thanks for the stimulating post.

    I think though the attempt to equate contemporaneity with a cultural generalization like Unenlightenment is doomed to a kind of disguised prejudice.

    It presupposes some kind of transition between Enlightenment and Unenlightenment. When did Unelightenment occur or originate? As it stands the argument here is a bit like that of Matthew Arnold in ‘Culture and Anarchy’, which praised a ‘culture of ‘sweetness and light’ (which he equated with Oxford University) at danger from modernity – for him modernity was a queer combination of the capitalist ethos and the liberalization of education. The baton was taken up by F R Leavis (favouring Cambridge University) in the 1960s. Both praised an elite education at threat of dilution by ‘massification’.

    That is the problem, while the academy continues to represent a minority, then it will appear like an antagonist to those who experience none of its immediate benefits – including the leisure to think.

    People like Trump and the current Tory government with its insistence on the virtue of exclusiveness in the interests of excellence (the new ‘old’ grammar schools) trade on the a notion of equal access to an exclusive asset. The thinking which produced the Open University and the notion of ‘open access’ is literally impossible in this paradigm.

    Unfortunately, connectng the fear of danger to cultural integrity to the supposed existence of a mass who are stereotyped as having ‘opportunity, but deliberately .. not want(ing) to gain knowledge’. is to misunderstand the appeal of Trump. People who are forced into insecure human status (through housing shortage and the exclusiveness of creative employment and other mechanisms) naturally can be encouraged by demagogues to seeing ‘academics’ as the ‘irresponsible other’.

    But to blame them for that phenomenon seems wrong. In the midst of a period you call Enlightenment mass riots were held against pioneers of science and democracy like Priestley and Beddoes (Jay 2009). It did not encourage them to bemoan the fact that these masses were not taking up opportunities of ‘betterment’.

    I think you might be blaming the victim, instead of the villains here. Trump is not just a demagogue. He is the representative of an ideology of exclusion from the ‘you’re fired’ fingeer on USA Apprentice to the exclusive sole-ownership golf courses and mansions in Scotland. That he represents the ‘common touch’ is an effect of ideology based more on exclusion from real opportunity than a co-constructed ‘culture, whether we call it ‘Unelightenment’ or anything else.

    I feel like Owen Jones, all of a sudden!

    All the best


    Jay, M. (2009) ‘The Atmosphere of Heaven’ New Haven, Yale University Press

    • admin

      Thanks Steve, what an excellent comment. I was very worried about doing as you suggest and ‘blaming the victim” so I obviously didn’t do a very good job in avoiding that. The point I wanted to make was that the culture in which education is operating seems to have changed. There was a prevailing notion (which could be traced back to the enlightenment or maybe not) that knowledge was a good thing. And if you didn’t have it, (let’s face it, we are all of us ignorant in so many fields), then you at least recognised this. But Trump etc represent the triumph of a cultural shift that explicitly promotes ignorance, which has been created by many different forces, and which, as you say, many people are now the victim. A lack of knowledge in a subject is now seen as valid, if not superior, to an expert. And this is a very different world for education to operate in. I fully take your point about time and space to think, and that is one of the lack of opportunity aspects I raised. But that is very different from viewing knowledge as actually something to be avoided. Anyway, I apologise if my targeting was off, I agree with your sentiment about the ideology of exclusion (and that in itself is an interesting way to frame the challenge of open education)

  • mikecaulfield

    I don’t know if you’ve read Merchants of Doubt — if not you should. It shows how the tobacco companies used aging and bitter Manhattan Project physicists to inject not truth but “doubt” into the debate. The same people moved on to Global Warming, the Ozone Hole and Nuclear Winter.

    What it brings home to me, at least, was that knowledge had more standing when it was on the side of industry or war. Maybe also when it was on the side of white supremacy. When knowledge started to be a critique of the dominant status quo, the status quo initially suffered, but then fought back with a vengeance. And the mechanism that allowed them to do it was essentially assymetrical warfare — doubt. You have to prove your case, front to back, but I only have to poke one hole in it, and the news will call it a draw.

    We think of this as a decline of “critical thinking”, but really it’s not so much a decline of critical thinking as a parody of it — it’s sort of critical thinking taken to it’s logical extreme. We have embraced a national culture which believes that facts, knowledge, and expertise are not needed for critical thinking.

    People in open education should think carefully about what that means. I have hear otherwise smart people say things like “In the age of Google, facts are commodities — it’s critical thinking that we need to develop!”

    This is pernicious nonsense, which misunderstands critical thinking as something that can be separated from facts, as if we could learn to “run” apart from the muscles we need to trigger to do the running. And frankly our educational system aids and abets it, with the idea that “just-in-time” knowledge is as useful as facts and theories digested and connected by an expert over decades.

    To think, you have to know things, and it really really helps if you know things about the subject before the fact. .

    I’ll give one example. There was a whole uproar in America that Clinton SMASHED HER OLD BLACKBERRYS WITH A HAMMER and WIPED HER DRIVES WITH BLEACHBIT. What kind of mafia outfit is that?

    Except I work for the government, so before the fact I knew that all government devices and drives must be absolutely wiped to precise specifications, and if they can’t be they must be destroyed. So hitting the blackberry with a hammer was pretty normal to me. That’s what we do, and I knew that before the new information came in. My only thought is I would have also liked to see a digital wipe on the phone before it was smashed

    How does “Just-in-Time” knowledge work? Well, I Google “Smashing phones Clinton” and five links down I see “People who have nothing to hide don’t smash phones” and “CNN anchor stunned by Hillary phone destruction”. Great! I click on those if I hate Clinton. I read them and feel quite good.

    What if I don’t have that background? Well, a normal thing to do is to find someone who had the necessary background before they heard it, and ask how it struck them. It seems to me that this used to be something our media did — reach out to a forensic IT expert on TV and say “How does this strike you?”

    I’m rambling at this point, but there is an intersection here with the problems of “Just-in-Time Learning” that we haven’t grappled with fully. We need to start thinking about the downsides of JIT in a more rigorous way.

    • admin

      Thanks Mike. I think what you get at here was what I was really trying to think through. What is the role of education in this context, and this context is one with different rules to those we’ve been accustomed to.

  • dkernohan

    My fear is the difference between innocent stupidity and malicious stupidity. The former is a state to which we can all aspire, as the realisation of a misconception is the point at which the learning process begins.

    The latter is where it is preferable for certain people that other people do not begin the learning process, or when what has been learned is systematically undermined or ignored. As Steve says we need to be cautious in ensuring we are blaming the villans rather than the victims.

    Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” is a good metaphor here – true, it is about the perils of mass stupidity… but even within that the supposedly “stupid” people had the enlightened self interest to seek intelligence as the primary qualification for leadership. Meanwhile in the UK we voted to leave the EU.

    • admin

      Hi David, yes that’s a key distinction. We are all of us innocently stupid about so many things. Education knows what to do with this. It doesn’t know what to do if a prevailing cultural norm is malicious stupidity.

  • Jenni Hayman (@jennihayman)

    Thank you for your thoughtful reflection Dr. Weller. An interesting juxtaposition for me is that just last night I watched Michael Moore’s film “Where to Invade Next.” If you’re not familiar with it, it’s education themed (quite surprisingly). He focused on a number of countries in Europe (plus Iceland for fun), but the Finland excerpt may sound familiar. They have completely redeveloped their K-12 (and likely higher ed) systems to increase creativity, complex problem solving, joy, fun, and play. The little French children enjoying their four-course, nutritious, real food lunch was also an eye-opener. Not surprisingly Finnish students rank well in the world (according to OECD-PISA-take-their-testing-with-a-grain-of-salt rankings) in terms of educational achievement. The students seem to be a rather engaged group, learning and thoroughly enjoying it. It is possible for people to love learning, and it is happening. In countries that are not Finland, or Finland-esque in their approach to raising a successful group of young creative thinkers, it might appear that new generations are not interested in learning (or old generations). It’s because all of the fun and joy, motivation, and social experiences of learning have been standardized, corporatized, measured, oppressed, biased, adaptivized, and disparitized out of them.

    In spite of my tremendously awful U.S. primary and high school experience, I love learning. One of the reasons I love it is my community of practice. I follow and collaborate with educators, instructional designers, researchers, ed techs, OER and OEP advocates. This is my tribe. I have very little control over what other tribes do and represent, but if they received a similar early education experience to mine, I can’t say I blame them for their willful avoidance of learning. I also don’t know how, or if I can help them to change.

    Finally, it’s sorely tempting to remain uninformed in a time when there is an extremely thin line between being well-informed and maintaining one’s sanity (thank you Mr. Trump; the seemingly never ending murder-by-war nations we live in; the U.S. prison-as-slavery mandate; and climate change among other stark realities). In an uncharacteristically hopeful moment in this film I watched, Michael Moore reflected on his experience in Berlin when the wall was taken down. More or less he said, one moment there was wall, and in the next moment, “hammer, chisel, done.” People and attitudes can change. Keep doing what you do, and I’ll keep sharing it, you might be surprised what happens.

    • admin

      Hi Jenny, thanks for comment, I haven’t seen Moore’s doc, but have heard a bit about it. There probably is something in giving everyone a good experience of education so when they’re older they don’t view it with as much suspicion. And I really take your point about being tempted to remain uninformed, I feel that a lot.

    • admin

      Hi Jenni, thanks for your comment. I haven’t seen Moore’s doc, but I think there is something in what you say – if we give all young people a good, joyful experience of education early on, then they are more likely to view it with respect later.

  • tabeles

    i am wondering if this might say it all:

    Following the riots in South Africa on tuition and access as representative, it has been noted that one of the particular expectations of a college experience is access to the social and cultural capital that has been seen of the “elite” and income. When an Arizona university will make students who get a “C” in a composition course retake the experience because predictive analytics show that that level of achievement is indicative of a decreased chance of graduating, we may see an indicator.

    While there are arguments that faculty futures are tied to the extant model, the professorate is seemingly becoming the precariat as institutions as non-tenure-tracks are now in the majority as the administration finds low cost alternatives for delivering certification, perhaps anticipated by the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. Hmm, a doctorate of thinkology.

    • admin

      Hi, thanks for the comment. I saw that story, and I think you’re right, that kind of thing makes unis seem even more detached, and greedy. In a way they can’t complain then when people treat them with disdain.

  • francesbell

    Great post, great comments! Thanks all.
    OK, I don’t think you get to pose Enlightenment and Unenlightenment as a binary opposition πŸ™‚ The Enlightenment was a process that had noble goals and great achievements but as you and Mike have noted there are a few flaws in its context and conduct (race,class and gender for starters). So we can learn from it in trying to understand our current parlous situation and trying to help to make a difference to our futures.
    When I was doing a fedwiki happening hosted by Mike Caulfield I was involved in cooperative editing of a few fedwiki pages (with multiple versions) around the ideas in the book Women’s Ways of Knowing. The wikipedia page is a good place to start for 2 reasons. First it gives an overview of the ideas (which could be a useful lens for viewing the video you shared in the post) and second because perusal of the Talk and history of the page can give an insight into the clash of epistemologies between Wikipedia and Women’s Development Theory.
    How is that relevant to your post you might ask? On reflecting on the role of ‘ignorance’ in the regrettable Brexit result, I found that ‘ignorance’ was a poor stick with which to beat disaffected, often working class voters, and I suspect that there is a relation to Trump supporters in America. The video I shared in my reflective post shares views of Brexit voters from Hartlepool, close to where I (and I think you Martin) have lived at different times. Whilst I disagreed with much of what the voters in the video I shared said, I defy anyone to characterise the blonde woman as ‘ignorant’. How we the ‘enlightened’ love to mock the ‘unenlightened’, and I feel ashamed when I do. As I have explored in my post, I think that understanding Brexit (and Trump) requires us to think about disaffection, elites and the role of polls, traditional and social media in public opinion-forming.
    There is also a relevance to edtech I think where our sometimes uncritical consumption of media platforms parallels our uncritical consumption of the polls that feed social media.

    • admin

      Hi Frances, thanks for a great comment. There’s lots in there, so I’ll try to respond to it: re the Enlightenment, you are absolutely right. I kind of knew it was a problematic historical concept to just dump in, and we could get bogged down talking about that. But I think was too attracted by the Unenlightenment as a term to resist πŸ™‚ So, I’m glossing over lots, and taking enlightenment as a general principle of actively seeking knowledge and not just accepting the rule of church and monarchy, and then portraying the Unenlightenment as a reversal of that. It is too simplistic, but I think there is something there in a social attitude to knowledge. For instance, I don’t think Gove would have said that about experts a few years ago. He’s a shrewd politician so in saying it he knew it resonated with a common sentiment, and that is the challenge for education.
      Re ignorance and Brexit. I completely agree with you, and my apologies if I seemed to be portraying people who voted leave as necessarily ignorant. I totally understand why people in Sunderland (to use the standard example town) felt disenfranchised and voted that way. What I wanted to highlight was the manner in which conspiracy theory and contempt for experts became part of that campaign, and that represents a longer thread of anti-intellectualism perpetrated by the media (I feel).
      I think, on reflection, the Daily Show clip was a mistake – I felt it represented the anti-expert mindset but it also can be seen as sneering or laughing at people, which wasn’t what I intended.
      In short, I think I made a clumsy attempt at trying to get at something, but I think that something is still valid, which is along the lines of “education operates with an assumption of social values regarding learning and the pursuit of knowledge. It knows how to operate in this context. For a good proportion of society however, that assumption may no longer be valid, and it hasn’t asked itself what it needs to do to remain relevant.”
      And yes, I spent four years in Middlesbrough – it doesn’t take much to see how the Leave vote is a very valid response in that environment and how the London-obsessed focus seems completely at odds with your experience.
      Thanks for all the great links, I’ll dig into those now.

      • francesbell

        What I was trying to get at (probably badly) was that though people’s state of knowledge is related to education, and I want to see more and better education for more people, knowing is a multi-dimensional process rather than a snapshot, and its quality of contribution is not necessarily in direct proportion to level of education. The science of climate change, done well, rather than whims should definitely inform our decisions on what we do to address it. But the how of addressing climate change has to take account of politics, technology, history (earlier contribution to global warming of currently ‘cleaner’ nations), etc. in local and global contexts. That, I think, needs more than science and benefits from multiple ways of knowing and doing.

        • admin

          Thanks Frances – yes you put this very well. My criticism in this post was aimed at open education more than a head shaking at society, and I think the challenge you present here is one that I don’t think education asks of itself, ie what is there _beyond_ the science that we need to understand?

          • francesbell

            When I was teaching (Information Systems) to undergraduates and postgraduates, my key challenge was to get students naturally predisposed to technology_as_solution to think beyond that and critically. In order to really explore the contexts in which technology was created and implemented they need to ‘think differently’. So I guess I had over 20 years of experience of that. I have tried hard to bring that to edtech too – without much success πŸ™‚

  • edifiedlistener

    …Buffering… This post and the ensuing conversation give me pause. While I take a bit more time to process, allow me to at least say thank you for daring to open Pandora’s box and get us all.thinking about what’s inside, what’s gotten out and how we might respond, depending of course on who we are and how we may or may not feel impacted. Your post has done what good writing should do: spark conversation, engage the mind.

    • admin

      Thanks – I always like it when the comments are more intelligent than the post (which is admittedly a low bar). I think I expressed parts of this badly, but I feel there is a question open education needs to ask of itself somewhere in this.

  • Tanya Dorey-Elias

    Thanks for the great post and comments. And while I agree that there is an increasing “anti-intellectual” sentiment, I’m not sure that that should should be equated with a wilful avoidance of knowledge.

    As much as this has been the year of Brexit and Trump, it was also the year of Bernie Sanders. This discussion has now got me to wondering, what then do Trump and Sanders have in common? While their ideologies (intellectual ideals) seem completely opposed, they do both seem to be men of action, who have taken risks and failed and who have “learned by doing” as opposed by engaging in academic intellectual debates (as least in their public lives).

    If I were someone who believes that success is measured by accumulation of wealth (that is the American Dream, isn’t it?), then a guy who despite obvious weaknesses, achieved that wealth might be appealing. If I were someone who believes that success is measured by advancing social justice and standing up against the establishment, Bernie might be my guy. The point is that it is what they have done/ achieved, not what their intellectual agreements that are appealing.

    I am keenly aware that I’m an expert in nothing, but I like to think that I know enough to have both succeeded and failed at some things that matter. And from those failures I like to think I’ve learned something. As a non-expert, it seems to me that the Enlightenment was about embracing new ways of thinking about the world and, I’m guessing, adding to the more “hands on” approaches to learning that had previously been the norm, combining another layer of thought to what already existed.

    Fast forward to this week and a conversation in which I received the following responses (I consider both as positive). “I still appreciate your general thrust regarding involving and engaging practitioners on many levels in these conversations. I’m just not very sure yet about how to DO that.” and “Looks like they are also keen on pushing the agenda to extend … insights and applications to people at the actual coalface, as well.” When and how did academic research in applied disciplines get this disconnected from the real world?

    So I’m going to hope that no, we are not entering a “disillusionment,” we are simply entering a phase where there is a need to combine (or re-combine) another layer, a more applied practical layer, to intellectual activities.

    So how does open education proceed? In my mind, the path forward is to integrate theory and action, intellectual discussion and practical applied applications. Go beyond explaining why it *could* work and start proving that it can work. At least that is the hope that moves me to return to the “coal mine” day after day.

    • admin

      Hi Tanya, thanks for bringing some positivity to the debate! I think there is something in what you say, an onus on open education to demonstrate how it is relevant (not just in terms of employment). To make the case for learning, critical thought and relevance of universities/colleges in general.

  • Maha Bali

    I have been called “anti-intellectual” before so I will attempt to extrapolate from my experience in a way that might help us empathize with Trump supporters.
    My context: some white Western guy was mansplaining something like postcolonialism to me (I kid you not! And not only am I a British/American-educated Egyptian living in Egypt, but I take a postcolonial lens to lots of my research including my PhD) and then also using highly theoretical language to explain to me my own situation from his point of view using theories I did not feel applied to my context. When I pushed back against that and said those theories are developed by people different from me who don’t understand my context therefore I do not follow them, i follow my own concrete experience… And I explained that this was a critical-interpretivist worldview.. That person called me anti-intellectual

    Extrapolating this to Trump supporters. Imagine that from their viewpoint the discourse and approaches used to disseminate knowledge/opinion feels so alien or foreign to them that they dismiss it as inapplicable to their own concrete experiences.

    Now there is a difference of course between my little situation above and theirs. But we forget that while they have the privilege of whiteness in America, they have the disadvantages of class and this has sociohistorical impact on how they view their world. It’s not a matter of making knowledge available even if they read it. It’s about a transformation to how they view their world and themselves and it’s beyond just critical thinking and requires consciousness-raising a la critical pedagogy. With the humility that maybe we (the supposedly more educated/privileged) may not truly be seeing the world better or clearer than them. Are we willing to do that? (probably not..are we willing to listen openly and entertain the idea that we may be misunderstanding them too?)

    I say all this and smirk inside Because I don’t really believe it of Trump supporters. But then I abstract this idea and put some other group of “misunderstood” people (e.g. Muslims or POCs or immigrants) in that space and it makes total sense because I have been one of these and been misunderstood and been called anti-intellectual.


    • admin

      Hi Maha, thanks for your (very intellectual!) comment. Firstly, I’m scratching my head at how that guy could have concluded your were anti-intellectual (maybe he just meant “anti-me”). I do very much take your point, and others have raised similar ones about blaming the victim here. This is a result of me not expressing myself clearly I think. It wasn’t that Trump supporters are anti-intellectual that I was bemoaning, but rather that the Trump (and Brexit) campaigns are deliberately anti-intellectual, and promote ignorance of an issue as a virtue. The success of this strategy seems to reflect a change in social values for maybe 50% of the population. As you suggest, there are undoubtedly very valid reasons why this is so, a lot of to do with the impact of globalisation, disenfranchisement, etc. I was just making a more shallow point really, that ten years or so ago, this type of anti-expertise approach wouldn’t have been successful. That it now is tells us something about attitudes to learning. And I don’t think open education has really appreciated this.
      Maybe my distinction between Trump supporters and the Trump campaign is a false one though. I’m not sure I’ve got across what I wanted in this piece, so comments like yours are helping me think it through. Your point about consciousness raising is a good one, but how to do this in a context that views education with suspicion, as part of the conspiracy?

      • Steve Bamlett

        I couldn’t resist the quotation – because it, like the work of E P Thompson, that encapsulates some of the complex contradictions that arise in the distrust by the relatively powerless, and historically excluded, of the ‘intellectual’:

        ‘ Many people have to be persuaded that studying too is a job, and a very tiring one, with its own particular apprenticeship – … This is why many people think that the difficulty of study conceals some “trick” which handicaps them – … In the future, these questions may become extremely acute and it will be necessary to resist the tendency to render easy that which cannot become easy without being distorted. If our aim is to produce a new stratum of intellectuals, including those capable of the highest degree of specialization, from a social group which has not traditionally developed the appropriate attitudes, then we have unprecedented difficulties to overcome.’

        Antonio Gramsci ‘On Education’ from The Prison Notebooks. (written between 1929 & 1935)

        Written, that is in Mussolini’s jail – the latter a man of solutions not unlike those of Donald Trump.

        All the best


          • Steve Bamlett

            Hi Maha

            Sorry! I was rather lost in the problems of political representation raised by Gramsci and indulged in sharing a quotation I love but which I didn’t (perhaps can’t) necessarily apply.

            I think I was really responding to Martin’s statement that anti-intellectualism was new or just contemporary. Gramsci is, from prison, showing that building trust between progressive intellectuals and the dis-empowered was no easy matter, on either side.

            But I shouldn’t be writing so late – my brain aches! Forgive me.


  • CogDog

    Wow, do you know how to throw a comment party!

    Without defending them, I think there is a trap in painting “trump supporters” with one paintbrush. Plus you have the mixed in swirls of Hillary Haters.

    The irony is while we may consider them “ignorant” / “unenlightened” I would bet many of them consider themselves highly informed, they are not tuned into some mindray gizmo, but are consuming information from numerous sources that support their world view. And so “we” might be doing the same.

    But your point sits heavily; for all the virtues and values we place in our idealized education system, it very well may be in conflict with … a majority? If America elects Trump, what does it mean if that really represents the country’s viewpoint? (that said recognizing that Trump/Brexit as “winners” do not represent all of is, just the ones who are fervent enough to vote).

    Is there absolute Enlightenment? This is sure a lot more complex and important than piles of OERs.

    That;sp laying your “A” game blogging, Weller, stirring things up.

    • francesbell

      “And so β€œwe” might be doing the same.” That’s a great point, and congregating around sources that fit our worldview is not just our conscious and unconscious choice, it’s also shaped by algorithms . And the operation of those algorithms may be for the benefit of the SNS (Facebook algos pushing the ‘hot’ and media-rich posts to the forefront of our individual streams as part of their general advertising revenue services) and/or more specifically as political and activist groupings shape our consumption by their activism and paid services like promoted posts. I have always been mistrustful of trad media in political campaigns but social media could be more significant.

  • catherinecronin

    What a post and what a comment party, indeed! πŸ™‚ After a challenging week I found your post on Friday evening, Martin. Your open questions –and challenge to all of us in open education– touched a chord for me. Most of my thinking, research & teaching is in the overlapping spaces of higher education (what it is, what it could be), open education, and networked participatory culture. Understanding structural inequality and how power operates (including within our revered/flawed institutions) is so important to this work. Isn’t Unenlightenment, as you describe it, simply a way of Un-seeing inequality? A critical stance gives us a good starting point: how and why do people choose to participate in and make culture, and in what ways? And a critical approach to education (and open education) means that we ask of any action, practice or policy: in whose interest is this? who benefits and who is failed/marginalised?

    One productive ‘way in’ here is through the capabilities approach (e.g. Martha Nussbaum, focusing on what people are able to do and to be. Helen Beetham has drawn on this in her recent work on digital capabilities and digital wellbeing – a rich vein of work for us all.

    I’m not sure I’m making the connections as clearly as I could here – but in your spirit of ‘thinking out loud’, I simply want to share where your post & all of the wonderful comments/discussion sent my thinking πŸ™‚ We need to address inequality, but in a way that focuses on choice and freedom. We need to see and to listen more, and I’m grateful for the way this is happening here. Thanks all.

  • Kate Bowles

    I’m wondering about whether we overlook or underestimate the vernacular knowledge practices at the heart of public decision-making (Brexit, US elections, all the position-taking on immigration, refugees, welfare) because our own institutions have largely vacated this space where public life is haggled over, disputed, transformed.

    While we’re busy somewhere else with brands, rankings and citation, and while we’ve been building a whole business model based on removing knowledge from the public domain, other kinds of more accessible political know-how have filled a gap.

    But we made the gap. That’s the significant part of this that’s bothering me, as the 98th article about who’s who in the rankings tumbles down the laundry chute this week. Education as an ethical proposition didn’t cause this situation, but maybe education as a competitive business played a part.

    What we do now about the public culture we live in depends a bit on our capacity and willingness to change the business culture we work in. These two seem very entangled to me: chicken, egg.

  • Matt

    I have an uncle that has kind of become infamous (to the five or so people that read my tweets and blog posts) as being alt-right before alt-right was a thing. He kind of goes quiet for a while, but when he does speak up, you usually brace for impact. This week, a mutual cousin had posted a meme on Facebook about how both political parties are equally corrupt. I don’t fully agree with that, but didn’t respond either. My infamous uncle came out of hiding and had a long response to this meme about how my cousin was blindly listening to what the “media cartels” were telling her. His proof of why she was wrong consisted of quoting alt-right media word for word. The irony that he was accusing my cousin of being brainwashed by the media by quoting other media outlets was totally lost on him.

    This was just the most recent example of this same exchange that I have witnessed. I don’t know what terms or words are the best to describe this, but it comes down to people not being able to recognize their own sociocultural bias at any level, and then not being able to engage constructively with those that have a different sociocultural bias. People conflate their bias with truth, their echo chamber with the only true source of fact, and then engage others with that mindset. We could improve our world immensely if we could just change that issue, regardless of what stance people continue to take on any topic.

      • Matt

        Probably also an unhealthy amount of insecurity in their own beliefs, which can drive people to be extremely distrustful of any idea that might tear down their house of cards.

    • Steve Bamlett

      Hi Matt

      “People conflate their bias with truth, their echo chamber with the only true source of fact, and then engage others with that mindset.”

      Doesn’t that seem to suggest that the truth exists independent of any person who ‘perceives’ it. I think Western philosophy has struggled with that one for a rather long time and the answers tend to be quite divergent.

      What ho! Plato!

      All the best

        • gardnercampbell

          With apologies to Plato, divergence, and all: it’s a mistake, in my view, to hold up the straw inquiry of “does truth exist independently of the perceiver?” because that question has now acquired the status of “do you still beat vulnerable people in your house?” The conversation is over before it begins, because of the way the question is framed.

          I’d like to ask the question another way, which makes a realist epistemology less immediately ridiculous-sounding: is it possible to be wrong? is it possible to tell a lie? is it possible to be fair? If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” the dire consequences of that answer are more immediately apparent.

          There is a strong implicit connection to Martin’s initial post that I intend here, though I don’t have time to make it all explicit just now, and the level of smarts and expanse of hearts at this comment party may mean there’s no need to make it explicit.

          • Steve Bamlett

            the level of smarts
            and expanse of hearts

            Hi Gardner

            No position deserves to rest on bad poetry, whatever the pressure on time.

            Is this lightening the tone? If so, thanks! If there is a chance it is not and the attempt is heavy-handed irony, maybe no thanks!

            All the best


      • Matt

        People that see their bias as truth might also be those that believe that there is absolute truth. Metamodernism would say that there could be absolute truth out there, but we all experience a relative version of it.

        • Steve Bamlett

          Hi Matt

          I still can’t see your point here, Matt, but I’m happy to know more if you want to ‘enlighten’ (I admit that’s an urgent word at the moment).

          Terminology like ‘metamodernism’ presupposes a perception that is shaped and framed in some way (by some set of ontological propositions or foundational beliefs). If we admit a view that we label ‘metamodern’ we embrace some notion of relativism, compared to views framed according to different propositions.

          Your implicit definition of metamodernism is that the truth is out there but we can’t know it other than relatively. That is Platonism and Neo-Platonism, although often focused on the ‘divine’ rather than the ‘absolute’ or some kind of Kantian transcendentalism.

          I can’t see that such a perspective would allow any easy definition of bias since relative perceptions of otherwise unknowable truths are by their nature ‘biased’ to their perceiver’s internal and external environmental conditions.

          I would recognize a postmodern position that sought a situated truth – one of the ways that Marx sought to understand this, in querying Feuerbach, was to see situation-as-it-exists-now (and that moulds us) as malleable: ‘The philosophers have but interpreted the world. the point is to change it’.

          All the best

  • Yishay Mor (@yishaym)

    A comment party. Indeed. What a wonderful evening we had, with such good and witty friends. Sorry guys, the revolution will not be blogged.

    I’ve read through the conversation here with great pleasure, nodded at some old friends, marveled at the nuances of your reasoning. And has this made me a better man, helped me make the world a better place, help my friends in the US in their fight against Trump?

    We do education. And in the long run, that’s the most important job there is. Critical thinking (or lack of) is a long term issue, elections are short-term issues. Trump is not an education issue. He’s a media issue. Read Nick Kristof

    Trump is really no worse that Bush (either one of them). I don’t buy this global-warming of enlightenment sentiment. He’s just built for new media. Just like Obama was. Remember the supporter in that video? Where did she get her truth – school? Fox news? No. Twitter & Facebook. How many Trump supporters read this thread? Or the links to in on Twitter / Facebook?

    So it’s a filter bubble, amplifying latent frustrations and anger. Sounds just like Brexit, but that’s where the analogy should end. This is a very different game. I don’t know enough about American politics to say I understand what’s going on, but I see enough to say it’s dangerous to put Trump, Brexit and every other frustration we lefty intellectuals have in one bag.

    Thanks for a lovely party, have a good night, and keep on doing a good job tomorrow morning.

  • Gardner Campbell

    Steve – I don’t see a way to respond directly to your question, or challenge, so I’ll address it here. I wasn’t trying to lighten the tone, commit bad poetry, or trowel on irony. I meant the remark sincerely. I was trying to contribute to the discussion at what seemed to me to be an important juncture, but recognized I didn’t have time to make all the connections explicit, so the little rhyme was meant as a warm gesture of friendship, no matter what the epistemological differences might be.

    My position in this instance is articulated, broadly, in the first two paragraphs of my initial comment.

    • Steve Bamlett

      “With apologies to Plato, divergence, and all: it’s a mistake, in my view, to hold up the straw inquiry of β€œdoes truth exist independently of the perceiver?” because that question has now acquired the status of β€œdo you still beat vulnerable people in your house?” The conversation is over before it begins, because of the way the question is framed.”

      OK, Gardner – let’s take what you say on your chosen ground. You identify a ‘straw inquiry’, which normally means that a statement is begging the question. I raised the question in response to Matt’s:

      β€œPeople conflate their bias with truth, their echo chamber with the only true source of fact, and then engage others with that mindset.”

      This, applied ad hominen, identifies a ‘true source of fact’ and calls everything else ‘bias’. I think that inevitably raises the epistemological issues. Presumably, you are naming my characterisation of the problem in the term I used a ‘straw inquiry’. I see no hint of a warm gesture here.

      To sweeten it with a rhyme doesn’t warm me to the implied accusation.

      Of course, I am happy to give way on this. I hold no feelings of any kind to the supposed disputants.

      My view is that we drop it. I certainly shall not respond henceforth,

      All the best and quite explicit and unambiguous warm wishes


      • Gardner Campbell

        I don’t know how to respond to you. I have clearly nettled you. I did not mean to. As I look back on the comments, I see that you were raising epistemological questions but not supplying an answer. I took your, and Frances’s endorsement, as an inquiry that implied an answer already held. Even if I was right, that’s shaky ground for a civil discussion, and I apologize for not being more careful with my framing.

        Now to reply more fully to the post, realizing I may cause more of a mess than I already seem to have, but feeling I should at least try to get to some clarity, because I respect the conversation and the people in it.

        Martin wrote:

        “And with Donald Trump, we repeatedly see him, his team and supporters dismiss facts and experts. This is not incidental, it is core to his appeal. The Daily Show clip below captures this attitude: β€œDo I have proof? No. Do I have articles? No. But my mind is made up” one supporter declares proudly towards the end.”

        I agree that this dismissal of facts and experts is a problem.

        I certainly agree that the historical period in Western culture that’s called ‘The Enlightenment’ had many grievous flaws. But I also think that the idea that there are rational, evidence-based bases for belief beyond ‘that’s just what I think’ is a good idea, really an essential idea. Otherwise, how do we even talk about injustice, much less address it? Why even bother with fact-checking if all facts are merely, always, socially constructed?

        We wouldn’t agree that “Experts are just those people who try to pull the wool over other people’s eyes by speaking in jargon and claiming to be critical thinkers while remaining close-minded themselves,” but what epistemology would be able to refute that statement? Not one that fundamentally rejects the idea that knowledge and facts are always completely contingent on the knower and their context.

        Perhaps no such rejection was implied or intended. If not, my apologies for an unwarranted inference. Either way, my apologies for not making a better response. In my experience, the question of facts and knowledge is especially hard to raise and sometimes generates more heat than light, something I had hoped I could avoid with a gesture of friendship.

        • Gardner Campbell

          I can’t edit my comment, or I don’t know how, so I’ll have to correct myself here. I was right about my mess!

          In the first paragraph, fifth sentence, the word “your” should be followed by the word “comment.”

          In the paragraph beginning “We wouldn’t agree that,” I should have said, and meant to say, “Not one that fundamentally *relies* on the idea that knowledge and facts are always completely contingent on the knower and their context.”

          I’ll add:

          And if knowledge and facts are *not* always completely contingent on the knower and their context, then some kind of realist epistemology will have to be accepted somewhere along the line. And Martin’s original argument can be advanced.

        • francesbell

          Dear Gardner,
          My ‘endorsement’ was not intended to imply what you said:) I’m not offended because I think that some mutual misunderstanding in our valiant attempts to communicate is inevitable and good humour can help.
          IMHO a feminist perspective on this whole thread provides some interesting insights πŸ™‚

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