Education has always been Posthuman

Mechanics of the Brain 1926 from Norm Friesen on Vimeo.

Education has always been Posthuman

The question of the “posthuman” has recently been gaining currency in discussions of educational philosophy and theory. It refers to the suspension of the “human” as a category that has (allegedly) underwritten education as a process of “becoming [fully] human.” This category of the “human” has been suspended or put into question through a focus on the ongoing blurring of boundaries separating humans, animals and technology in science and philosophy, and the ways that the animal and technical has traditionally been constructed as an “other” in educational discourse. In the context of European traditions of education as Bildung and Apprentisage, it is not difficult to argue that education, as Helen Pedersen says, is indeed a kind of enforcement of “compulsory humanity:”

Western pedagogy is firmly rooted in a ‘humanist’ tradition, where the human subject is considered both the instrument and the end product of education. Second, the church and the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose conventional interpretations include a distinct human-animal boundary, have historically had a strong grip on the school and the formal education system…(Pedersen, 2010)

But claims of this kind miss an important point. In the case of the human-animal relation, they miss the enormous contribution of comparative psychology of Pavlov (see video, above) and Thorndike that is based on the systematic transgression of human-animal differentiation. As the video, above, makes clear (through means both gross and refined), education has, in some contexts, always –or at least long—been posthuman. Much less than being an exception, the dissolution of the “human” underwrites and interpenetrates the field of educational psychology. In the inaugural edition of Educational Psychology no less, E.L. Thorndike declares that “Psychology is the science of the intellects, characters and behavior of animals including man” (1910, 5). Assuming that a normative and exclusive conception of the human underpins education also misses the enormous contribution of cognitive science and cognitivist variants on constructivism. In this case, it is not so much the , again the student is seen as part machine. Recent applications of theories of self-regulated learning, as only one example, locate the student (and teacher) endogenously in a kind of self-adapting network of analysis, reporting, performance and feedback:

Data generated as learners use [specialized networked software] …can be analyzed, aggregated within and across episodes and learners, and reported back to all parties engaged in school reform with a very short delay. In the same way as my stock portfolio can be updated every 20 min[utes], learners, teachers, and researchers can have data upon which to make on-the-spot adaptations. (Winne, 2006, 14)

Equally ambitious visions are associated with developments in neurology in connection with education. In these cases, it is not the human but the neural structures and patterns of the brain that are the proper object of education. Any of these visions are profoundly posthuman. They would see a by-passing or short-circuiting of localized, social and human processes of formation and acculturation. Education is cast as a process of fine tuning neural relationships or optimizing systemic performance rather than as a shaping and realization of individual, human potential.

The discussion of the ambivalence of the posthuman in education is a great opportunity to understand the way that education has always (or at least long) been conceptualized in posthuman terms. Now sometimes critiqued for his assumption that “people were as easy to study as stones and toads” (Berliner, p.20) Thorndike can be seen as a posthumanist pioneer. Looking at his and others’ contribution to the long and influential posthuman tradition in education may allow us to study with new clarity what has in many ways been an untheorized mainstay in education discourse to the present day.

(hat tip to Shannon Lowe)

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