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Are we building a new grand narrative, or are grand narratives things of the past?

by on October 16, 2011

Cross-posting from MixedRealities – trying to connect the dots between various online courses:

At our latest live session of Howard Rheingold’s course Introduction to Cooperation Theory we discussed about narratives in the US and Europe about competition and cooperation. A European participant suggested that the narrative in the US is about competition, while in Europe cooperation is a more common theme. The American Howard Rheingold expressed doubts about this opposition: the US and Europe are big places with huge internal differences, and where different narratives co-exist.

We also discussed the Occupy Wall Street movement and how it spreads worldwide. There is a sentiment that the world leaders fail in addressing the problems and opportunities caused by worldwide disruptive forces (related to technology, globalization, changing preferences etc). My first question is whether we can reasonably expect that world leaders constitute a platform or world government for worldwide cooperation tackling the ecological, social and financial problems.

I’d like to refer to what Elinor Ostrom describes as polycentric governance of complex economic systems. Maybe the definition of the problems, the study of possible solutions and the implementation of those solutions have to take place at different levels. In the European Union we have a lot of experience with “polycentric governance”: there is not one obvious center (the European Commission is rather different from the federal administration in the US), and we try to allocate tasks and decisions to appropriate levels of governance. However, confronted with world financial markets, it seems this model has at least one important shortcoming: when optimal decisions should be taken on the top-level, the decision-making process is very slow.

Narratives

We also discussed the importance of narratives supporting cooperation. It was claimed that president Obama fails in delivering a mobilizing grand narrative, contrary to FDR (or president Reagan – whether one agrees with the narrative or not, at least there was a big narrative about markets, deregulation etc). My second question relates to this issue of “grand narratives”: is it a coincidence that leaders worldwide fail to provide a convincing grand narrative (do they even try)? Or is this a structural phenomenon, that the era of grand narratives is behind us? After the demise of communism, of social democracy (debt crisis) and of free market ideology (inequality, rogue banking and housing industries… ), what is left to believe in? It seems people distrust even the structure itself of a “grand narrative” – as postmodernism demonstrates, grand narratives can easily be deconstructed, and this not only on an academic level, just look at the news to see how shaky the certainties of the big ideologies have become.

So the third question is whether the cooperation studies (in biology, sociology, anthropology, economics, pedagogy, learning theories etc) could lead to a new grand narrative. If so, would this new narrative fall apart just like the older stories, or can we construct the cooperation narrative in such a way that it would be a fundamentally different kind of narrative, more flexible, adaptable, convincing and relevant than other narratives? Do we need such a narrative, and if so, what are criteria to judge it?

The thinking of such a new grand narrative has its own history of course, with people such as Vannevar Bush, Norbert Wiener, J. C. R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson among the Philosophers of our Daily Disruptive Digital Revolution (have a look at this site of the Digital Awakening course).

Education

Last week we discussed Ted Nelson in Digital Awakening, and one of the texts which provoked the most emotional reactions was No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks (in Computer Lib / Dream Machines). In this text from 1974 Nelson is highly critical of the education system:

Some premises relevant to teaching
1. The human mind is born free, yet everywhere it is in chains. The educational system serves mainly to destroy for most people, in
varying degrees, intelligence, curiosity, enthusiasm, and intellectual initiative and self-confidence. We are born with these. They are gone
or severely diminished when we leave school.
2. Everything is interesting, until ruined for us. Nothing in the universe is intrinsically uninteresting. Schooling systematically ruins
things for us, wiping out these interests; the last thing to be ruined determines your profession.
3. There are no “subjects.” The division of the universe into “subjects” for teaching is a matter of tradition and administrative
convenience.
4. There is no natural or necessary order of learning. Teaching sequences are arbitrary, explanatory hierarchies philosophically spurious.
“Prerequisites” are a fiction spawned by the division of the world into “subjects;” and maintained by not providing summaries,
introductions or orientational materials except to those arriving through a certain door.
5. Anyone retaining his natural mental facilities can learn anything practically on his own, given encouragement and resources.
6. Most teachers mean well, but they are so concerned with promoting their images, attitudes and style of order that very little else can
be communicated in the time remaining, and almost none of it attractively.

Is Connectivism, as practiced for instance in the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 more than a practical answer to contemporary challenges for the educational system? Could it also be part of an emerging new grand narrative, together with related components from network theory and cooperation theories? Learner Weblog gives some insights in the discussion about the practical and theoretical merits of connectivism.  In the embedded presentation Frances Bell claims that connectivism has far more impact as a practice than as a theory. Then again, we should reflect on what “a theory” is, and whether our notion of “theory” is changing, just as maybe our notion of “narrative” is being transformed.

Roland Legrand

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