Ph.D. student at UBC and author of Foucault and Educational Ethics, Bruce Moghtader M.A., discusses learning philosophy with children, the complexities of morality in education, and how the best educators always allow room for conversation and connection in the classroom.
Your most recent book is called Foucault and Educational Ethics. Want to start by first describing who Foucault was, and then describe why he is important in your view.
Foucault is a French philosopher and usually, you encounter his works in politics and philosophy. He was majorly influenced by [Friedrich] Nietzsche. He had been categorized as a post-modern, although he never accepted that title. He was given a post-structuralist label as well, but he didn't really take that either. In one of my favorite interviews he does in regards to the labels he was given he replied, "I'm not a philosopher, I'm not an intellectual, I'm a teacher". That was quite moving for me and perhaps is why I believe he's important in education too.
We live in a culture that idealizes people too often, so I must note that Foucault is not perfect; he has made mistakes which you notice when you look deeper into his work, but he is gracious enough to acknowledge them, and he continuously goes back to fix his work.
In the 1950s he wrote Madness and Civilization, which had applications for how we now understand psychology and psychiatric, and then in the 1970s he focused on the conditions of prisons in France, which were abhorrent. In the late 1970s he begins working on Iranian Revolution, and from that point on there is a transition in his work both as a philosopher and as a teacher in reconstructing how we view politics.
So I think he is important both as a philosopher and as a teacher. If we take people at their own word and not the labels others give them then he said he is a teacher so I take his words for it, he has been a teacher to me.
What led you to write about educational ethics? Can you also describe what that term means to you and how it applies to readers?
That's a really good question because we see ethics of education as really connected to morality. Education is also very connected to religion in its history; universities came about as places where religious people gathered to do work on themselves, and they expanded that to the community. Looking back at about 1500 years ago that's how universities functioned, so there were deep moral values in education, higher education, and lower education. It was the university's responsibility to help young people become good persons and citizens.
Even before Christianity, there were teachings to train the young to become masters of themselves, rather than be mastered by others, so universities existed to encourage autonomy from the beginning. Modernity and modern education have brought us to believe that education simply gives you tools to get a job. While yes it often does, it also does so much more than that. I think it creates political, spiritually-able people to live their lives. It's not just a boxed institution that is designed to mass-produce taxpayers even though it is often compared to factories. I don't think that comparison works because people who go to university often come out of it pretty radicalized. They're not beings just put in place to do work and get it done; humans are always much more than what we say they are.
That is what makes education so important, because, in order to educate people, things become complicated. Different factors come in like policies, politics, history, religion, personal experiences etc. The way that we care for each other in society as people is so important to the way that we care for our young. I also believe that the way young people care for their elders is a gesture of education too. It is connected to a set of networks, to social norms both intellectual and spiritual, and it's connected to values we value.
It was written in one of your biographies that you once studied "how some people's theories make others' reality". Do you want to explain this a bit further?
The question of theory is very important in education, just as it is very important in politics. Theory is simply a philosophy that we adopt, it's the lens that we wear to see and explain the world around us. Theories play with the limits with which we think about life. Theory works on imagination and reality. I take Foucault to be a good example of a thinker who pushes imagination by questioning present reality not just theorizing but also exposing certain verdicts. He sees the bigger picture by reviewing our history: how we make history and how history makes us. I believe that everyone has useful theories, everybody sees the world, and everybody has a lens, and every lens enables working on the history they choose to tell. People's theories are not perfect, but their experiences will provide them with a better ongoing understanding.
The question for me is within the point of education how we create ourselves. Henry Giroux is well known for his thinking on how education has been subjected by politics. Yes, education has always been subjected to certain economical and political reasons, but there's more than that. I think education has the possibility to turn this backward on politics and create "agents" who can change it. Politicians now often teach us how we should live and the more I look at it they take their lessons often from economics. I think education has the possibility to teach politicians about change, compassion and care.
In the case of theory, everyone has the ability to think, and to me, that was one of Foucault's lessons: what does it take for people to think for themselves. His books don't tell us, "Go do that." They're not manuals like we have from IKEA to help us put a table together because we can't do that for humans, unfortunately it's harder than that. Educational [texts] are often written in a way like we're putting a manual together for people that are complicated and complex - perhaps we are diverse as beings who share culture, and social upbringing and have diverse personal experiences. So I'm interested in the ways we could see complexity not only in philosophers but in ourselves. If theories are subject to change, then how best can we work on ourselves. I'm interested in understanding how we can recreate a different world considering the limitation we have now, but that starts often by ongoing self-examination.
Often one can read a book or a hear a philosophy, and if powerful enough, it can shape how they view the world. For example, those who read The Secret and began to think that others don't have what they want in life simply because they aren't manifesting it, can have terrible consequences on how we view others. If you consistently view your environment through only a certain lens, you risk closing out any debate on that theory. So how do you educate people beyond their beliefs, and rather, help them to become more open to new perspectives?
I think as you said, there is danger in simply adopting things as you see them and believe them to be true. Viewing everything as yet another example of what's bad or what's good to only confirm our beliefs is dangerous. Basing things on one view and making assumptions has a danger to it. A good theorist is a good scientist because they have a way of seeing the world that is subject to change. Foucault demonstrated that throughout his life; his earlier works were criticized as having a reduced notion of subjectity in what we have created of ourselves. Then his later works were empowering to a certain degree because they look at the technologies that we apply to ourselves. (The word technologies here is not necessarily computer technology but refers to how we enact and exercise our being) Theory is not everything. It surely is not an advise for somebody else’ understanding. We have to live it; in this sense philosophy is an exercise; just in the same way if we go to the gym, if we are concerned with our diet, well those are all connected to our philosophies about how we must live. There are not two worlds one that we philosophize about and one we live in.
The issue of theory is connected to this aesthetic way of living life. So one of Foucault's quotes is, "Why could a lamp or a painting be a piece of art but not humans life". We always go outwardly to seek art but we forget we are already artists working on ourselves. I think this is the issue of education theory because every artist provokes thinking; it also ruptures thinking. It changes your thinking. To see one’s life as an artwork is not to become narcissistic. It has a reverse effect. It involves admitting that one needs to work on oneself.
He believed we can look at a lamp or a painting as a piece of art but not a person? It seems that posthumously we do look at people as art. A lot of people consider Kurt Cobain, or David Bowie most certainly as pieces of art. Prince posthumously was the embodiment of art to millions. Why do you think that is?
I think there is truth to the fact that in our history we weren't so concerned with [individuals like] Kanye West or Kim Kardashian. Our examples outside of ourselves had this ethical weight to them. Not that I'm saying Kanye isn't a good example of someone who is ethical, he might be, and I don't know. Historically, we choose our examples more carefully and unfortunately I think they are tied to corporations, power, and money. The way they carry themselves is a product itself. They are out there not simply as a piece of art, because there is always another cost connected to why that person is putting themselves out there in the fashion that they do.
I guess rather than a current celebrity we could look at ones that have existed in our history, so Mark Twain let's say. To some people as a person, he is seen as an art himself. He is put on a pedestal, because since he is not alive today, we can't go and ask him questions whether his life was a work of art. I think as soon as an artist dies, Twain, for example, we realize that there was a character behind the books that he wrote. The same as with Foucault, there was quite a solid character in the background working on itself. That character is educational from my perspective because they set examples of a way of living that we can study.
Now, everybody does that when you look further. If I knew you closely Tracy I would come to know you as a person that I would eventually learn something from. I'm learning from you just by this interaction, but if I never pay attention to people this way, then I see education as just rooted in an institution, marks, grades, tuition fees and tests. If I see every interaction with each person as an education, I'm broadening my own scope of what I perceive as education. This then goes back to why it's not another person's theory about how education should be, it's your own theory about what education should be, because it shouldn't be someone else telling you how you should live.
It almost seems as though the best educators, or the best authors, tend to be the ones that say, "My previous work was flawed". They'll be the first to revisit old theories and admit if they're wrong. Just as you saw in Foucault, I think this is important because it takes away the oligarch aspect of educators.
Yes, it takes courage to do this. It takes courage to show that you are also learning. I think Foucault's transformation show humility that people don't know everything or they know some aspects of something but there are always other dimensions. We look at education as this product that you become when you complete it: you have a degree so you're good to go; or you are a professor so you are in a position of power in relation to knowledge. So when you pick a major figure like Foucault and notice that he is correcting himself as he goes along, that's a great thing. He's a "self-correcting subject" as he would call it. Then there is something to learn from.
You've also stated that you wanted to "re-orient education to create enthusiastic leaders, rather than resistant, passive recipients". I really like this quote, want to expand on it for me?
Well, I got really interested in philosophy for children when I was at UBC, and then The Vancouver Institute of Philosophy for Children. We were involved with work being done in Europe and across North America since Matthew Lipman started a project called Philosophy for Children. It's widely an exercise connected to critical thinking, which I do appreciate. But being suspicious and Foucaultian I even question what is agreed upon as "critical thinking". So it's not to say there should be an end to education, but to have some enthusiasm with the person that is learning, thinking and feeling with others well it should have that otherwise why would we call it an educational program?
The other side of it is, while it's their own activity we still don't let children speak. We don't let adults speak when we teach them things either. It's usually just: come, get the notes, go read it, here are the books, go read them, write the exams, produce something, everybody claps, you did good, you go to the next class. When conversations come up, I think in that sense philosophy becomes engaged with reality. It is an activity that brings one down to earth, which children can do so well, to teach us think differently. You don't have to have a background in philosophy to have ideas. Ideas come from experiencing the world and children have rich experiences in my view with fewer filters.
It engages you with life again because everybody who speaks, talks based on their experiences. Those experiences, no matter how young you are, can generate very deep ideas, and those ideas can stay with us from the beginning. So there are no real answers, to a certain level. There are angles of seeing things. And if we value that from early age (which we should), this would be good ethics to have. To take worldviews as equal from a 5 year old based on their experiences, and a 70 year old based on their experiences, would create enthusiastic [learners]. Rather than say that one is more valuable than the other because they read more books, we could bring things down to earth and tell everyone they too can contribute. Yes certainly, the 5 year old is not writing a book, but that child is encountering the world in a very rich way, that unfortunately we demean. We too often tell them to be quiet, sit back, and listen.
Which is unfortunate because children think in a way that epitomizes 'mindfulness' which is now being hailed by neuroscientists as having the ability to rewire the brain against stress. To your point earlier on typical teaching as not giving participants a chance to speak, I gave a talk at SFU with a wonderful woman named Sâkihitowin Awâsis, who said, "I find it really challenging to stand up here talking at you guys. All I want to do is decolonize this classroom, place us all in a circle, and listen to you as well", which was beautiful because everyone learns much better through conversation.
That is beautiful. That really should be the point of it. Most teachers that we had were not easy, sometimes they are the hardest teachers and I certainly had those, but the most heartfelt teachers engage you in different ways based on your own experience. Again, thinking about education, it's not a model that you just put people through; really it's not. Testing students everyday, or putting students in front of computers just to show evidence that they can learn that way too, is the wrong direction to be going in. Sure everything teaches but what is the ethics. Human interactions carry a quality in experience that cannot be measured. Life lessons are also experienced through other people, and by being engaged with the world, nature specifically.
Yes there is value in technology. To know how to type or write, even to be able to access the information, but as beings who are alive there's a need to connect with the world not just click on a screen. Children connect when they get the opportunity to talk, to not be judged or corrected every second for expressing their thoughts. They show this curiosity about the world wonderfully. As adults who come in the form of knowers, we are too used to shutting creativity down. I think Dr. Seuss is great, because if you are talking about philosophy, you should talk about Dr. Seuss in education. He deals so well with curiosity and wonder, and those are the aims.
To your point on online education, there are also a lot of online counselling efforts to combat depression. But if you look at what happens in the brain, depression and isolation are analogous. Spending your days isolated from human connection--voice, touch, eye contact--in front of a computer is not conducive to health. There's too much value in being with others.
Yes, in philosophy they call this issue epistemology, which is a mouthful but expresses there is no knowledge independent from beings. Epistemology which is a question of knowledge is important, but there is no question of knowledge if the being who perceives the world is confined by certain walls, trapped to certain screens or to certain points of view, because when they come out into the real world and they feel their body, or they feel how they are breathing air, or seeing trees or mountains, their direct experience cannot be narrowed down to an experience that they have through screens.
I watch movies and some can make me cry or laugh; I love that it connects me with something to be experienced, but if that was the limit of our being then we would always see the world through a lens that has been created by somebody else. We are becoming spectators slowly if that is the case. And that certain someone else is the one holding the camera and might not be covering everything. Google perhaps has all the articles we could imagine, but it does not contain all the old books. You've got to find a book that is old, brown, and smelly because again there is a different feeling that comes from experiencing that book. It is a different source of sensory knowledge that modern technological science hasn't figured out, that is living knowledge irreducible to data.
Any last comments about your book? Perhaps on who you hope will discover your book: how, as you mentioned, it's not just for educators or academics, but rather, could be read by anyone?
Yes it was written for everyone to read. I hope anyone will be able to take something away from it, even if just one page speaks to someone, I'll be happy with that. We have this thing about meaning: when we read a text that is confusing, especially with someone like Foucault, philosophers are all known for their abstract ideas. But they don't work with meaning as if this meaning should apply to everyone's life the way they intended. They think people should take something they can deconstruct, reconstruct, and work into their own life. Being educated by the French writing and reading style, I try to do the same thing in the book: to write it in a way that's accessible. So perhaps people could take more away from it—actually this value of taking 'more' from the author is dangerous. I hope they take little away from it, and they do so much more with it.
I also want to thank William Pinar, Jennifer Vadeboncoeur, Barbara Weber and also Colin Koopman—who read the last draft—and the Palgrave editors who made the process pleasant.
Well that's a wonderful note to end on, thank you for speaking with me Bruce. I looking forward to reading your book!