“Belief more than ever, we just invented something absolutely breathtaking. Beliefs, in order to function to operate, have to be first person beliefs. We can literally believe through others. You know you know the formula of parents, we are atheists but not to disappoint our children we pretend to believe. You know, the Santa Claus story . You ask a parent do you believe in Santa Claus? Are you stupid? Of course not. I buy the presents, but I pretend it for my children. You ask the children. Do you believe? They say, no. We pretended not to disappoint our parents. What is my point here? You have a belief which is nobody’s belief, nobody believes it in the first person. Yet it fully functions as social belief. Here you did a mega contribution. By ‘you’ I mean the United States. You here in Hollywood. Your greatest contribution to 20th century world culture I would claim, I’m sorry my old joke, is canned laughter. Are you aware what a strange phenomenon this is? You return in the evening home, you open up stupid show like Friends or Cheers, and you are too tired to laugh. You just look. And the TV set laughs for you! It works, at least with me. Afterwards I feel relieved as if I was laughing! So much about primitive people! We have traditional examples of this, the Buddhist prayer where you write the prayer you put it there and turn the wheel. You can think about pornography or whatever, but in reality you are praying. We are same! This is canned laughter. And I claim that beliefs function in a strictly homologous way. What we need is not belief in the first person. We need to believe that there is someone who believes; even if that someone is purely hypothetical. An example; Roberto Benigni’s film, I don’t like it, ‘La vita e bella’ or ‘Life is beautiful’. You know the story father and son are taken to Auschwitz. Father, in order to protect son from the trauma, tells him a bullshit story. That this is not really prison it is just a big competition site where you we can leave whenever we want. But if you remain to the end there will be a big price and so on and so on. What would have been a way to make it a much better and desperate film? That the father were to discover at the very end, when he is to be shot, that the son knew all the time. He just he pretended to believe his father so as to protect him. This would be the proper Christian reversal as it were. The actual movie is not strong enough. ” Slavoj Zizek
I have been focused on how the situation affects our behaviour beyond our intentions and dispositions as I continue to widen my understanding of using the web for education.
In my teaching I have been exploring the ways in which we can train our attention beyond the habitual – how to access what Francisco Varela called the Blind spot of cognitive science,
“I maintain that there is an irreducible core to the quality of experience that needs to be explored with a method. In other words, the problem is not that we don’t know enough about the brain or about biology, the problem is that we don’t know enough about experience… We have had a blind spot in the West for that kind of methodical approach, which I would now describe as a more straightforward phenomenological method. … Everybody thinks they know about experience, I claim we don’t.” Francisco Varela
I met Francisco at Schumacher College in the UK a year before his death. We talked as we walked by the river near the college and our conversations are imprinted in my mind to this day. He was a wise man, a buddhist, an academic, but most of all a warm and kind man who one could speak to easily.
After many years, I am coming back full circle to his work. It is helping me bring a secular way to describe to a wider audience what I live each day in my buddhist practice. As I help students find resources for their final papers, I come across a website with a list of publications by David Levy – the author of Mindful Tech.
I respect David’s work and his book was a joy to read, but the publication page gave us access to so much more. I was lost in it for some time…not just for my students, but for my own learning.
The contemplative construction of reality is a new theoretical framework for me. It is to be contrasted with the idea of the social construction of reality – used far too often to push an agenda of forced connection in education via the internet. It has given me a framework within which to position my current work in online insight dialogue and the use of contemplative pedagogies in online education.
What follows are reflections on how my own thinking has been challenged by what I have been reading and how these reflections are re-shaping my view of life online for both personal and educational purposes.
Open education tends to put much emphasis on digital literacy (or literacies) development as a way to benefit from internet use. Some authors boldly state that: “Digital literacy skills are essential for today’s citizens. These skills are expected for everyday personal use, learning and effective performance at work.” JISC defines digital literacies as, “the capabilities which fit someone for living, learning and working in a digital society” and The Oxford English dictionary defines a capability as the ‘power or ability to do something’. Digital Literacy research locates ‘success’ within individual self improvement, as seen by the use of terms like skill and capabilities. The estimated size of the US self-improvement market was $9.62 billion in 2014 (source: MarketDataEnterprises); and yet, some suggest, with little evidence of success when success is defined as effective functioning in a given situation rather than people accessing the self-improvement market.
Whilst open education practitioners have spent, and continue to spend, time defining and re-defining the kind of skill or capability the individual may need to learn to be effective in digital engagement, little attention is paid to psychological findings that clearly show capabilities, and other internal dispositions of the individual such as personality traits, are a very weak predictor of behaviour. Many studies since the publication of ‘Studies in the nature of deceit’ in 1928 show that a better predictor of how we act in the world is the situation we are in and its characteristics.
People do learn, but what we know or believe in is not the only factor that determines how we behave in a situation.
This post offers a counterpoint to the mainstream idea of self-improvement as a road to effective action by reviewing a classic psychology study on the role of situational factors in the way we act. It concludes that given the results of these studies and many that both followed it and preceded it, open education would do well to look beyond self improvement as a road for addressing shortcomings and learn to ask more often: What are the characteristics of an online situation likely to lead to effective action?