Readings in the Reflective Commons

This is the index page for the Readings component. Currently it includes pages on

• Plato • Seneca • Kant • Hegel • Nietzsche • Weber • and more •

I've been contemplating something like what I have in mind with the concept of a reading for some time, first as what I called a 5topic study, and more recently as a reading. With Utopic studies I envisaged a consortium a bit like the fast emerging Coursera, except one to exploit the "long-tail" of higher education, not its blockbuster courses to be delivered to thousands of students. In addition to the short description below, I circulated, too tentatively, a fuller proposal at Teachers College and Columbia early in February 2009. [ GoTo ]  I'm glad it did not catch on because I have come to think that a truly interesting initiative should be less formalized and separated more decisively from the metaphor of a course, especially the repertoire of existing courses. I planned a 5topic study on Athens as educator, but other things distracted me from giving it. Since then, I've though further and believe something more communitarian would be better, outlined in the section on >A Reading below. A Hegel reading may actually happen starting towards the end of 2012.

Utopic Studies

Utopic can usefully resurrect an obsolete meaning — "Having no known location; existing nowhere." Utopic studies are educational engagements that no one offers at any campus or civic hall — they happen no where. The world of thought and communication teems with Utopic exchanges, locked in someone's inner dialog — too late for the occasion, too forward, too speculative; repressed by shyness, fear, fatigue; exchanges that might take place, that perhaps should take place, but never do, for reasons good and bad.

In higher education, many worthy courses and interesting classes have no known location and exist nowhere, and are hence Utopic. On any particular campus, an inability to convene a sufficient, suitable audience makes many these possibilities Utopic. Often, too, the available forms of pedagogical interaction are inadequate, the term too short for the subject and the rhythm of interaction inimical to the appropriate intensity or level of concentration. Through Utopic studies, we seek to give these a place in higher education.

Observers of the Internet have begun to note the curious way the WorldWideWeb invigorates the long tail of culture and commerce. As transaction costs decline it becomes economic to exchange an astounding number of different things in surprisingly small quantities. This shift in the economics of interaction gives things Utopic, existing nowhere, their virtual place, a diffuse location online. Doing so can not only turn a profit; it can also invigorate the mind. StudyPlace invites all the professorial wall-flowers of the world to develop their Utopic studies, the challenging, interesting courses, seminars, and studios that the constraints of circumstance would not let them offer. By doing so, we will lengthen the wise tail of academic discourse.

Initial Plans for the First Series

In contemporary higher education, within the graduate study of education, students predominantly have professional interests. Few take up basic inquiry into the nature of education or study what does and does not actually educate, in a meaningful sense, under historical or current conditions. Educational inquiry suffers from a strong cultural presumption that education consists in teaching and learning, especially the teaching and learning that presumably takes place in institutions of formal instruction. Much educational research takes place, but it concentrates almost exclusively in two areas — either the psychological processes of teaching and learning through formal instruction or research relevant to policy formation, program development, and managerial practice with regard to instructional institutions. In this climate of interest, the study of formative education as it pervades human experience is largely Utopic: it does not happen in schools of education. Robbie McClintock has explored how and why the study of formative education in the graduate schools of education is weakly represented in Homeless in the House of Intellect and "On (Not) Defining Education."

With the First Series of 5topic Studies, we will seek to correct this deficiency. Developing the First Series will be a long-term effort with at least four substantial topics, one a Bildungsroman that will unfold over the next five years, and three extended inquiries into educational thought as it has developed in Western culture..

A Reading

In "Adventures in Horizontal Education," Travis Mushett opens up an interesting challenge, how to create alternative educational occasions for serious study that flourish outside of the normal academic structures—dynamic, non-hierarchical, and responsive to the interests of participants. Let's hypothesize that present times are opportune for organizing productive study in novel ways. In a material, logistical sense, open access to quality cultural resources has been broadening both extensively and rapidly. Technical constraints on thoughtful communication that have endured for centuries are fast giving way, examples of how material conditions, once solid, are becoming liquid, as Zygmunt Bauman has been pointing out. We can be quite sure the consequences for pedagogical practice and public communication will be substantial and significant, but no one knows what they will be. That is our opportunity—let's make Readings a response to that challenge, pursued in an experimental spirit.

One can try shaping an innovation in an indeterminate situation by attempting to do something that is very hard to do under the conditions hitherto prevailing. Within higher education as it currently functions, it is very, very difficult to configure groups for studying daunting works—ones that combine unusual scope, difficulty, and significance—and to do it in a non-hierarchical, generalist spirit while achieving high intellectual standards and expectations. Here is an initial set of guidelines that might serve to initiate and structure a reading, understanding that the group should repeatedly reflect on how well these steps are working and revise them through consensus as seems useful.

Virtually any text, and possibly other forms as well, could be the subject of a reading. But in its experimental phase, where people would be trying to do things that prove awkward of unsatisfying in traditional academic settings, readings should probably concentrate on "enduring" works of substantial scope and significant difficulty—works that tend to be encountered in general education in compressed, abbreviated form, often with superficial misunderstandings as a result.

We will use the phrase, "enduring work," to supplant the term, "classic," which projects narrowing biases and incoherent norms. A work endures because it embodies creative achievement within some cultural context with such fullness and intensity that no other work will supplant it as exemplary of that context. It endures, indicative of humane possibilities achieved in some other time and place. An enduring work stands as an invitation to serious study: if you are interested in some aspect of human experience, here is something to read and appreciate because it has yet to be supplanted as a work that fully embodies, or represents, the aspect of experience that interests you. In reality, a vast array of experience proves of interest to people, and for each aspect there are often several works with qualities that enable them to endure in the interest of later times. Such works are all candidates for a reading.

People can study enduring works in two related, but distinct modes. Specialists study a work to develop, explain, and assess its claims on present attention. Does the work merit status as an enduring work? Generalist study an enduring work taking that status as a given and they engage in an effort to extract what value and meaning the work can yield to them, its current general readers. The specialist asks, Should we bother? The generalist, What happens for and to me when I do bother? Let's pursue our emerging concept of readings as generalists—we can engage certain works as enduring ones, engaging them to explore the meaning and value we find in them for our own experience.

As an initial test of the idea, let's tentatively announce a reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit to commence in early October 2012, to continue on a regular weekly schedule into spring 2013 with a work load of about 6 to 8 hours per week. If you would be interested in participating, let us know through the "Leave a Reply" box to this page. If there seems to be sufficient interest, we will ask potential readers to join in setting up the framework later in the summer.