Again, I find very little time to blog as the focus becomes on turning my classroom around, but I feel like I should get some sort of update together. Since it’s been so long, this post won’t have an organizing theme, just different little snippets, probably in no particular order.
Internal and external reasons:
Today I was in a session in which we talked about “suspending judgment” about students in our classrooms, and taking charge to overcome certain negative paradigms that exist in the classroom. One thing I find myself constantly disagreeing with in sessions is the assumption that all kids want to learn. I feel like holding to that dogma simply exchanges one set of unhelpful assessment for another, and that a good teacher recognize that not all students will actually have that motivation set or respond to “rational choice.” This discussions got me thinking about Bernard Williams’ essay “Internal and external reasons.”
Here’s the Stanford Encyclopedia summary of what I was thinking about:
Very roughly, then, the basic idea of Williams’ internal reasons thesis is that we cannot have genuine reasons to act that have no connection whatever with anything that we care about. This thesis presents a challenge to certain natural and traditional ways of thinking about ethics. When we tell someone that he should not rob bank-vaults or murder bank-clerks, we usually understand ourselves to be telling him that he has reason not to rob bank-vaults or murder bank-clerks. If the internal reasons thesis is true, then the bank-robber can prove that he has no such reason simply by showing that he doesn’t care about anything that is achieved by abstaining from bank-robbing. So we seem to reach the disturbing conclusion that morality’s rules are like the rules of some sport or parlour-game—they apply only to those who choose to join in by obeying them.
One easy way out of this is to distinguish between moral demands and moral reasons. If all reasons to act are internal reasons, then it certainly seems that the bank-robber has no reason not to rob banks. It doesn’t follow that the bank-robber is not subject to a moral demand not to rob banks. If (as we naturally assume) there is no opting out of obeying the rules of morality, then everyone will be subject to that moral demand, including the bank-robber. In that case, however, this moral demand will not be grounded on a reason that applies universally—to everyone, and hence even to the bank-robber. At most it will be grounded in the reasons that some of us have, to want there to be no bank-robbing, and in the thought that it would be nice if people like the bank-robber were to give more general recognition to the presence of that sort of reason in others—were, indeed, to add it to their own repertoire of reasons.
If we take this way out, then the moral demand not to rob banks will turn out to be grounded not on universally-applicable moral reasons, but on something more like Humean empathy. Williams himself thinks that this is, in general, a much better way to ground moral demands than the appeal to reasons (“Having sympathetic concern for others is a necessary condition of being in the world of morality”, 1972: 26; cp. 1981: 122, 1985 Ch.2). In this he stands outside the venerable tradition of rationalism in ethics, which insists that if moral demands cannot be founded on moral reasons, then there is something fundamentally suspect about morality itself. It is this tradition that is threatened by the internal reasons thesis.”
Basically, I feel like instead of assuming that if presented with enough reasons and rational motivations, our students will automatically become better learners, we should be focusing more on creating a “conversion experience” for our students. What I mean by that is that our students should be presented with a demand of sorts, that they produce excellent work, and that this demand should be presented in a way that is compelling enough on its own that one does not need to assume that every kid is there to learn. I firmly believe that to assume that every kid in my class wants to learn is to write over their own agency and remove the ability for them to rebel against us and to have other motivations than the ones we assume for them. By focusing on “conversion experiences,” I hope that I can respect my students’ agency (aka not making assumptions about their motivations and reasoning) while engaging them to partner with me towards a common goal that isn’t based on condescending incentives.
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