postheadericon Is value-free knowledge such a bad thing?

I get what Parker Palmer means when he argues we in education need to “uproot the myth of value-free knowledge.” Palmer argues cold, calculated, emotionally divorced students become cold, calculated, emotionally divorced graduates, emotionally divorced citizens, professionals, etc., and he argues this is not a good thing. Vulcans, Spock, logic over emotion, “needs of the many,” all that. Not taking into consideration the effects of knowledge, or the seeking of knowledge, on society, on humans, on others, carries with it the potential to marginalize humanity, to head down a pretty dark road, he argues. Palmer invokes Hitler and Nazi scientists – then again, what Internet argument doesn’t, eventually? Godwin’s Law – as an, or THE, example of objective, cold, detached researchers, educated individuals whose educations should have influenced them to take a stand against, or at least not willingly participate in, unethical (to say the least) scientific and medical experiments on humans tantamount to torture and summary execution. Education, and the responsibility to understand, well, the responsibility that comes with, again, well, responsibility, should have prevented that particular ethical supernova from collapsing in on itself into a black hole.

Essentially his point boils down to this: “If higher education is to serve humane purposes, we who educate must insist that knowing is not enough, that we are not fully human until we recognize what we know and take responsibility for it.”

Responsibility.

Accountability.

Hard sells….

Good luck cutting through this one, people. Skim and comment, probably for the best. Sort of have the focus of a late-nite, caffeine-deprived grad student, straddling a saddle-bred pineapple, waving a bourbon bottle and shouting maddeningly into the midnight November rain. Somehow that made sense in my head, and I refuse to delete it.

As a journalist, as a social science researcher, as a seeker of knowledge, I am conditioned for objectivity, or, at least, to present the facade of objectivity, in my work. Objectivity and emotional detachment – points Palmer decries. Attaching personal values to a story or piece of research negatively perceived, those in the field argue personal bias taints, skews, misrepresents, does all kinds of undesirable things to study results and findings, or interviews and story sourcing, whether the ultimate results be a news story or feature, or a piece of social science research on violent rhetoric and hate speech spewed through a wireless microphone into the virtual world of a massive multiplayer online first-person shooter aimed at denigrating another player perceived to be from a different ethnic, cultural, educational, or religious background. Objectivity is an ideal, an ideal many like to claim, and an ideal that many who claim it fail horribly, inexorably. The reality is we are emotional, value-laden individuals, and complete, sociopathic emotional exorcism on the Nazi medical and scientific level is kind of a rare thing. Palmer’s got a point, but he’s using extreme examples to make it.

Following the Nazi example, Palmer delves into the medical field, arguing doctors frequently practice on the line, or blur the line, between ethical practice and Hippocratic violation.  He points to a case study where a patient, a healthy male that donated part of his liver to his ailing brother, died as a result of poor post-op care. The report commissioned on the death placed blame on an overburdened system and, according to Palmer, did not point fingers or place blame on any responsible party. The report on the organ donor’s death was just as impersonal and detached as the post-op care that killed him.

After a brief explanation of “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” Palmer argues large, complex corporations and organizations are increasingly dispassionate toward people and unresponsive to external social pressure. He also argues for educational professionals that do not embody this dispassionate, unresponsive attitude.

While this is certainly a valid argument, it is also an ideal. While using education responsibly and being emotionally, socially aware of those we affect through our actions as educated professionals is contextually important, being aware of everybody’s emotional needs at any given time in any given context and acting upon that awareness at all given times and contexts is unrealistic, debilitating, impractical. This goes back to an earlier argument put forth in a previous reading (I do not remember which, exactly) on the state of education and inclusive learning, and the notion that teachers, educators, need be acutely aware of each student’s individual needs at all times and cater each lesson to those needs in order to facilitate learning. In the case of the underexperienced, overworked, undersupervised medical resident responsible for the death of the organ donor, the ideal that may have prevented the organ donor’s death may be the hiring of more medical residents with overlapping schedules, aware of each patient’s individual needs and given the time and resources to care for those needs, and enough experienced supervisors aware of each resident’s strengths and weaknesses to provide the care and attention they need as well. While I do agree this is ideal, especially in the medical field, it is, at times, unpredictable, unobtainable. One can never accurately predict when an ICU or ER or inpatient roster will be flush or lean, or when a trained medical resident will become overwhelmed and unable to adequately perform the duties required by the job. People get hurt, people get sick, hospitals fill up, and not always at the most conveniently scheduled times. Perhaps in this, Palmer and I agree – if the system is not adequate to perform the function for which it was created, it needs to be altered, reworked, or even scrapped. But whatever system that replaces the inadequate system must be able to function “on the real,” and not just on the ideal. Perhaps my own opinion and perspective is itself systemic of the problem Palmer addresses – I am indeed a product of American public education and was, as I discussed in the above paragraph on idyllic objectivity. Perhaps this recognition of my own systemic limitation may allow an awareness of emotionally responsible education to take place when I am in the classroom, either as teacher or student. I guess we’ll see.

6 Responses to “Is value-free knowledge such a bad thing?”

  • Betsy Haugh:

    What stood out to me most from within Palmer’s writing was the argument detailed in your first paragraph – “Palmer argues cold, calculated, emotionally divorced students become cold, calculated, emotionally divorced graduates, emotionally divorced citizens, professionals, etc., and he argues this is not a good thing.” This reminds me of something I heard in the sports context (of course) where a coach said something along the lines of “hard to coach players become hard to train employees” and stresses the importance of discipline from an early age. I really enjoy some of the arguments you made here based on Palmer’s work.

  • Krystalyn Morton:

    You made several good arguments with regards to Palmer’s work here in your post, but I resonated the most with the last one that you made regarding recognizing that we are a product of the system that we are often criticizing. Throughout this semester we have talked about how we would like to create innovative environments in our own classrooms to generate a new idea of education. However, I admit that I have fallen victim and taken the “easy” way out with regards to teaching by simply giving a lecture and not considering how I can create a more interactive, fluid classroom environment. Therefore, I think that they key is not only acknowledging that we are a product of the system, but also acknowledging when we fall back on “tried and true” habits of education. Once we address that, we can better understand how to not into these old ways and really generate a new approach to education.

  • Turner Swartz:

    The one thing that has been great about this class – is that Dr. Nelson has utilized some of the different teaching techniques on us, while we are taking this course. So while we go through this process of learning and exploring pedagogy, Dr. Nelson is also utilizing these same techniques on us at the same time – and I think proving that they work. This class is by far the most interactive and discussion based course I have ever had. It certainly isn’t a class you would fall asleep in, unlike some other classes I have taken! And while I do think some of these techniques may not be capable of fully implementing them in all classes, I do think every class can utilize them to at least a degree, enough to break up the everyday, drawn-out lectures, we all remember dragging ourselves to.

  • Oh…I could type a lot about this, but I’ll try to save something for class. First of all, thanks very much for not deleting the opening rant, especially the phrase “saddle-bred pineapple.”
    What is that?!?!?!?
    Seriously, I think there’s lots of room for reflection and re-evaluation between your (Aaron’s) pointed lament about the futility of idealism (because you’ll never get there) and Krystalyn’s very self-aware and pragmatic assessment of the challenges of adjusting the framework when one is a product of and working within the system.
    On the social science / objectivity issue: Yes, of course you strive for objectivity. You triangulate, develop deep samples, try to account for bias, deploy all of the tools in the kit that are designed to make what we do “scientific.” But objectivity is just as illusory as the ideal is. “Science” inevitably reflects and exercises the perspectives (qualitative, interpretive, humanistic, personal…..pick an adjective any adjective….) of the PEOPLE practicing it. We don’t use science we make it. And it shows. Thank goodness.
    I hear your concern, but can’t embrace the despair — and honestly, (not to be agist about this) you are too young to despair! Self awareness, humility, compassion, expertise and commitment — it’s all we’ve got, but it’s a lot. The 21st century needs you — emotions and all.

  • kspooner:

    I agree with parts of what you said about Palmer and his “ideal” educational system. I think it is one thing to point out the problems and make suggestions about what to do, but it a whole different thing to put those suggestions into action. However, personally, I think the best point you make is about making the system “function on the real.” There are plenty of ideal and wishful thinking that people want in their work or lives, but it isn’t always realistic. Solutions have to be practical and applicable to what is available. You have to work within the resources available to you. You can suggest how to be more aware or more inclusive in the classroom, but you can’t be everything to everybody. Sometimes what you think is the correct response to help someone, but it won’t be. We have to be aware of the balance between what the reality of the situation is and what the ideal situation would be in order to work within the confines of the resources we have available to achieve it. We don’t have unlimited resources in the workforce or educational environment, but most of all we don’t have it within ourselves. Yet, we do have the ability to embrace the reality of our situations and be creative with working to achieve best case outcome for ourselves and others.

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