Tuesday, March 12, 2019

What does it mean to have achieved a learning objective?

[Introductory notice: this is one of the papers I wrote during my sociology master, which I suspect shines through in patches (e.g. the the first paragraph, and the frequent use of Calhoun et al 2012). Nevertheless, I reckon these words might be more useful in a published state, rather than merely collecting entropy on a hard drive somewhere. Enjoy.]

The learning objectives state that the student shall display an “in-depth knowledge of classic sociological theories, concepts, and topics”. This might seem a straightforward enough proposition at a glance – there is a verb and a noun, and the relationship between the two is possible to parse grammatically. Upon closer inspection, particularly through the lens of the theories put forth by the thinkers categorized under the rubric of ‘classic social theorists’, matters become ever so slightly more complex. As we shall see, “knowledge” is situated in the social context at a more general level, rather than in any particular individual. This makes the notion of an individual “displaying” knowledge somewhat disingenuous, since it masks the necessarily social dimension of being in the know. An individual is not possible outside of the social, just as the social is not possible without individuals. They are mutually constitutive, meaning that – as Sinatra did sing – you can’t have one without the other.

Kant (2012|1949), for instance, wrote of the difference between private and public reason. “Private” here refers to a situation wherein a particular person acts in a particular circumstance, such as when employed to perform some clerical or administrative function. In such a situation, there is no room for argument or reasoned disobedience – the taxes have to be collected, the legitimately given orders obeyed, the functions of state performed as written. Private reason is particular, situated. Public reason, on the other hand, addresses a more generalized audience (“the entire reading public” [p 51]), using all available arguments and evidence to make the best, most reasoned case possible. Public reason is not concerned with the specifics of how the arguments laid forth inconvenience or embarrass the powers that be – it merely seeks the truth for its own sake, based on the available and through logic sustainable lines of argument put forth in previous applications of public reason. Later on, Matthew Arnold (1864) would phrase public reason in terms of using “the best possible knowledge” (with the added probabilistic observation that the likelihood that we already possess this knowledge is low, and that we thus should be on perpetual lookout for it).

From this one distinction alone, the issue of displaying knowledge becomes a question of just what kind of reason is sought after. Are students asked to display an apt performance of private reason, thus showing that they are fit for this or that employment or some other particular niche contingency relevant to the university at hand? Or are the students asked to perform a more generally applicable form of reason, regardless of whether it is relevant to the private situation of anyone involved?

To be sure, learning objective number six states that students shall act in a critical and independent manner, which at a glance would suggest a preference for public reason. It is, however, possible to be critical and independent in the application of private reason as well – many a philosopher (Hegel, Heidegger, take your pick) have found themselves justifying what the state apparatus would have done anyway, albeit with less scripture to fall back on. Add to this the ever mounting pressure to self-regulate in all domains of life, rather than to merely conform to previously given decrees, and we are back to asking whether private or public reason is the order of the day.

From here, it might be fruitful to jump over to Benjamin (2012|1969) and the tendency of modern fascism to incorporate public reason into its private functioning. Or, in his terms, the tendency of fascism to reproduce any work of art in such quantities as to render its qualities irrelevant. No matter how egalitarian or progressive a work might have been upon creation, once it has been incorporated within the fascist aesthetic the work is subsumed to whatever teleology professed by the state. Not necessarily due to flawed efforts on the part of the artist, but due to how the mass production of art distorts and affects artworks: the endless repetition of a unified aesthetic reduces any particular element of it to merely a component, a replaceable part of an ideological machine. Whatever the conditions of an artwork’s production, its reproduction into a new context renders it moot. Context trumps content.

The challenge presented by Benjamin is to create works which nevertheless resist this reduction. While he does not go as far as Adorno & Horkheimer (2012|2002), who claim that the entirety of what is produced by the culture industry (which is to say, anything an ordinary person can reasonably expect to encounter by means of purchase) is a rigged game, Benjamin does acknowledge the difficulty of being genuine whilst also being widely distributed. A painting – existing in singular – invites viewers to partake of its particular aura and peculiar circumstance. A poster – existing in multitudes – invites a very different mode of engagement. The former has the potential to move viewers, while the latter is more prone to mobilize them. The aim is to foster appreciation of the few paintings that remain their own contexts, whilst not falling for the lure of producing too many posters whilst trying to make a living.

This is, I reckon, a more contemporary version of Kant’s distinction between private and public reason. There is no small irony in the fact that the mass-produced, ubiquitous forms of art that are available to everyone, and thus present in everyone’s private homes, while the manifestations of public reasoning have become rare and hard to come by. More so as universities are under pressure to become relevant to the job market – to subsume their commitment to public reasoning to private interests, in all senses of the word.

In all this, it becomes difficult for a student to know how to proceed in order to fulfil the learning objectives. On the one hand, an overt commitment to public reason is unlikely to be rejected on explicit or ideological grounds – these are, after all, the values enshrined into academia by virtue of hundreds of years of tradition and continual practice. On the other hand, there is – as Merton (2012|1949) pointed out – a need to distinguish between manifest and latent functions of social practices. The stated goals of an organization might not be the entire story of what this organization is actually doing, sociologically speaking, and merely identifying the manifest function in ideological terms does not provide the full picture of what needs to be learnt in order for the objectives to be deemed fulfilled. Merely knowing the official story means knowing nothing at all, which – Socrates notwithstanding – is not a comfortable situation to find oneself in[1].

Again we are confronted with the vagaries involved with the individual display of knowledge. There are, as it were, two kinds of knowledge in circulation, both of which have to be present in equal measure for the display to be valid. There is the obvious, explicit knowledge of what different authors wrote and how their ideas interact with each other. And then there is the implicit familiarity with the tradition of the discipline, the injokes, the informal sentiments, the recurring themes, and other ephemeral yet foundational aspects of a body of knowledge. Displaying one form of knowledge without the other would not pass muster; the display would be found lacking in either substance or soul.

Here, it is illuminating to view the educational process as a gradual initiation into a community, rather than as a series of tests to be undergone and passed. To be sure, undergoing the tests is still an integral part of the project, but their latent function is to ever so gradually become more socialized into the discipline and its customs. Being a sociologist – or indeed belonging to any academic discipline – is more akin to possessing an attitude or a worldview than anything else, and can not be reduced to knowing the contents of a discrete set of foundational texts. As rigorous and systematic as the evaluation criteria might wish to appear, a core part of determining whether an education has succeeded comes down to whether a student gets it or not. Or, to return to Benjamin: the quality sought is made plain in the difference between appreciating a painting and plastering a poster.

These are not qualities that exist as independent measurable variables which can be isolated and controlled for using ever so systematic metrics and procedures. Rather, they are constitutive of and inherent to the very situation the education takes place in. What is evaluated is not whether the student knows this or that, but whether they manage to comport themselves in such a manner that the conversation keeps flowing without interruption.[2] To invoke Bakhtin (1986), it is more important to be aware of genre (defined as a series of social expectations on frequently recurring situations) than to know exactly which year a particular author published their seminal work. A student gets more mileage out of gesturing towards a shared exhaustion from reading a particularly painstaking introduction, than they derive from paraphrasing it with unerring accuracy.

A pragmatic student would apply Mead (2012|1934) to this dynamic. Mead differentiates between the “I” and the “me”. The “I” is the stream of impressions, thoughts and emotions that occur in any given moment. The “me”, in contrast, is a gestalt self-image which takes into account all aspects of one’s place in a local and global social context. The “I” uses whatever information is retained in/of the “me” to orient itself and plan its upcoming course of actions. Our imaginary pragmatic student would shift the goal of the educational process from the I to the me – rather than seeing it as an individualistic trait that can be summoned or performed at any given moment, it is rather a characteristic of the social situation they happen to find themselves in upon nearing the completion of their education. Rather than hitting the books, they would seek out social gatherings in which to gain insight into the social processes at work within their field, and possibly wherein they could get recognition as belonging to the very same community. To pun: the important thing is not whether I know this or that, bur whether they know me.

The learning objectives, however, remain on the level of individual assessment. The student, singular, shall display their acumen through individual effort. The goals are framed in such a way that the knowledge is situated within the student, as so many crates in a warehouse, rather than as a more general proficiency to draw upon the collective fount of shared resources, references and reflections. There is an inherent contradiction between the praxis of performing academics and the stated learning objectives. The former heavily emphasizes surveying the collective state of the field, of surveying the literature and probing the limits of established disciplinary achievement. The latter collapses all of that into a single unit of performance, and applies a single value to it. The student either knows or does not know – a binary solution to a complex social dynamic.

This contradiction might seem a subtle point, but it manifests very directly in everyday educational situations. The most overt example is when a student asks whether some concept or theorist is going to be on the exam. From the point of view of being introduced to the discipline’s traditions and tools, this is the least interesting (and most parochial) question that could possibly exist – an entire history of knowledge is reduced to a single social situation in the near future. From the point of view of the student, who sees that the only thing they need to do is to perform the learning objectives, this is a rational inquiry which could provide useful information upon which to structure their efforts. If a theorist appears on the exam, then being able to reiterate the general outline of their thoughts is a demonstrably good thing; if said theorist is not on the exam, then focusing on the theorists that do appear is a more rational option. It is a far cry from engaging in public reason, but it achieves the learning objectives. Why appreciate a painting when plastering a poster does the job just fine?

Here, the reader might object that a student asking whether something appears on an exam or not is an indication that they lack the proper insight into what the point of higher learning is. Which is fair as far as it goes, but it does highlight that this very point ultimately boils down to whether or not the student gets it, in the manner discussed above. Too direct and explicit focus on the process of passing the educational obstacles and jumping through all the hoops draws attention away from the very goal to be achieved. Learning objectives and learning outcomes diverge, despite their grammatical similarity.

This is, of course, not a new observation. Quintilian (1987|95) noted that every educational situation is a unique context with its own dynamics, wherein the values and virtues to be inculcated have to be reaffirmed anew, lest the pupils learn something else. The reasons for learning something are as important as learning the thing in itself. Quintilian uses memorization of literary passages as an example of this dynamic. The desired outcome is not that the pupils can regurgitate the selected passage on command, but to show them that being able to access a wide range of literary sources will help guide them in their efforts at living a good life, where everyday occurrences are connected to greater themes and thus possible to analyze as parts of a whole, rather than as individual incidents. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the goal of a Quintilian education is to ever so gently point towards the greater picture.

Dewey (2005), in slightly more contemporary terms, made the same observation when he noted that pupils only ever learn what they are interested in, and that education is only as effective as it is capable of capturing this interest. An explanatory lecture on the finer points of algebra might be effective in conveying information pertaining to math, but it might also be a fine opportunity to practice falling asleep whilst sitting in a room with various degrees of directed noise. The latter is motivated by a very clear and directly applicable use value, while the former requires a higher degree of contextual introduction to come to pass. Both outcomes are equally likely, and both learners are equally motivated.

A way to rectify the situation would be to punish those who are not interested. Or, rather, those who fail to learn. This would introduce a very clear motivation to be interested in the topic at hand, and very concrete reasons to perform the tasks laid out. It would also, with equal clarity, reframe the situation as being about avoiding punishment, rather than as ultimately striving to reach some sort of more refined worldview with access to the tools of reason and rationality. At best, it would be an inefficient didactic methodology. At worst, it would be an attempt to force individuals to freely participate in public reasoning, a proposition quite contrary to what Kant envisioned.

The overarching project in de Beauvoir’s Second Sex (2011) is to underscore all the ways in which women – historically and at present – have been formally and informally barred from participating in public reason. By describing in detail every aspect of women’s lives – youth, menstruation, marriage, sex, rape, pregnancy, housework, prostitution – she also describes what makes women other when compared to men, the implicit default. These aspects are peculiar, particular and personal.  More specifically, they create a different starting point from which to engage the world, a different social and epistemic staging ground from which to launch any attempt at participation, be it in politics or public reason. There are men, the universal subject who tackles universal issues with the tools of rationality and reason, and there are women, who tackles the particular, emotional and utterly local. Men are constructed as universal, women are constructed as other.

The efforts of McDonald (2004) are indicative of this state of affairs. Her ambition to gather and introduce female social theorists is not motivated by trying to justify women’s peculiar or different contributions over the centuries. Rather, it is an attempt to draw attention to how these contributions follow the same developmental lines as male theorists, using the same tools and more often than not the same lines of arguments. There are not two differing historical tracks, male and female, which never interacted with each other as time passed. Rather, theorists from both genders engaged in lively and fruitful debate where the results were a better understanding of the contemporary social and political situation. To quote: “[t]he problem, after all, is not that the women founders of the social sciences failed to publish but that the scholarly world failed to recognize their work” (p 242).

McDonald (2004) notes that the omission of female theorists from the canon of social thinkers has had the unfortunate consequence that many contemporary social theorists have felt as if they started from scratch, and based their approaches to the social sciences on this premise. Rather than being able to draw upon the rich tradition of female authors discussing women’s issues – in the broadest possible use of the term – these efforts have been hampered by a lack of theoretical underpinning and a sense of methodological commitment to qualitative approaches. Given that all social theorists presented in the canonical works are men, women had to carve out a niche for themselves, theoretically as well as institutionally.

Needless to say, this redoubling of otherness, as described by de Beauvoir, has not done the study of women’s issues (or women’s studies) any favors. It has framed the feminist approach as somehow optional, something to do above and beyond the real work, an excursion into private reason only allowed once the appropriate work has been performed with regards to public reason. To put it in the bluntest possible terms, it creates a dichotomy which is nigh impossible to overcome: there are public intellectuals, and there are women.

Neither has it done any favors to individual women, who – to gain access to positions in academia, and thus the right to participate in the conversation – have had to read through an extensive amount of theory which only marginally concern a large portion of their lived experience. Which is not to say that this theory is irrelevant or inapplicable, but it introduces something of a delay to getting started with the actual work. There is a lot of universal theory to power through before being allowed to proceed with the particulars, where every step of the way has to be retraced to theories which do not take the lived experience of women into account[3]. The barrier to entry into public reason consists of a non-trivial amount of hoops, some more onerous than others.

Given this state of affairs, we could use Simmel’s (2012|1971) theory of group dynamics to predict that feminist scholars in different fields will have an easier time of collaborating with each other than would non-feminists. According to Simmel, one group functions more or less like any other group, despite their overt differences. Thus, performing the work necessary to maintain some particular function in one group creates a kinship with those who perform the same work in other groups, by virtue of a shared range of experiences and skills. Applied to feminist scholars, who (regardless of field) have had to struggle for the inclusion of actually existing women into the historical canon, there is bound to be a rich potential for interdisciplinary cooperation to draw upon in future efforts.

To return to the question of learning objectives, this places objectives 1 and 2 in a precarious position. On the one hand, women have been excluded from the canonical writs of the history of sociology to such an extent that the official history has become almost exclusively male; any effort to accurately describe the historiography of the field must take this social fact into account. On the other hand, efforts to include female authors are under way at present, and part of these efforts is the inclusion of these very same authors in new rewritings of the same history. The question then becomes whether to report on the history of sociology as written, or to give an account which includes actually existing social thinkers who have not yet been labelled as sociological. Both courses of action follow from the learning objectives as they stand.

Of course, contextual evidence suggest that the second approach is to be preferred (such as the inclusion of McDonald 2004 in the syllabus), but this bounces us straight back to informal knowledge guiding the process of adhering to formally stated goals. What is asked for is not knowledge of the history of sociology in general, but a very specific subset of a very specific categorization of history of sociology with a local emphasis. History is indeed, as Cannadine (2011) noted, a situated activity in the present.

An attentive reader will have noted the parallels between the global and the local, the state of the field and the state of the syllabus. Sociological theory is not a static thing that can either be known or not known; rather, it is a dynamic and ever changing ethos formed as much by tradition as by propositional statements made by individual theorists. Thus, evaluating whether a student knows sociological theory or not becomes a somewhat extracurricular activity. To be sure, knowing one’s Weber and Durkheim is important, but it is equally important to know them for the right reasons[4]. As Quintilian pointed out, merely going through the motions is insufficient; a successful education will have had the student approach the subject matter in an appropriate manner, the manner being of greater import than the matter. The same applies to the teaching of sociological theory, mutatis mutandis.

This frame of reference is rather far removed from the contemporary tendency of envisioning education as a series of boxes to tick off, where the educational aims have been achieved in full once each and every aspect has been individually fulfilled. I reckon that Merton’s distinction between manifest and latent functions is very much at play in this tendency. We can not take the learning objectives at their words – that would be akin to analyzing rain dances only with regards to their efficacy at making it rain. There are far more interesting social processes at work, and it is very fortunate that we as sociologists are uniquely positioned to analyze these processes using the traditional tools of our trade. They only need to be applied appropriately.

[1] The same goes for reading syllabi. As Wahlström (2015) points out, these documents are situated in a political, institutional, ideological and sometimes didactical context, where the specific content is determined by a number of competing forces vying for influence. And, I might add, merely reading the syllabi, words on a page, does not translate into knowing what transpires in classrooms or seminars.
[2] Bourdieu (1990) describes this process, and points out that students from middle and upper class backgrounds have an advantage over their fellow students from working class backgrounds. Where the former carry a habitus suitable for performing academics (albeit still with a need to be socialized into a particular discipline), the latter have to pull double duty of both reading the required literature and relearning their way of being in the social world. They have to learn to be middle class as well as mastering the subject matter, as it were.
[3] Being behind Rawl’s veil of ignorance takes on a substantially different quality should you happen to be pregnant.
[4] Weber wrote extensively on 19th century economics, and Durkheim famously made reference to phrenology as a legitimate scientific method. Building an argument on these two historically accurate propositions is not likely to garner favor in the contemporary sociological community, however; it would be an inappropriate approach.


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