“A Multiplicity of Dialogues” is a thought-provoking article from the Ikeda Center in regard to the explosive flurry of interactions within such online groups as the Badass Teachers Association. I have spent the past week engaging with the BATs with an odd mixture of joy and dismay. On the one hand, it is a long time coming that such bold, open and honest discussions occur between educators. On the other hand, there is much spouting of opinions, venting of frustrations and often an unwillingness to go deeper. On this latter point, however, I wonder if it isn’t an unwillingness so much as not-knowing-how to deepen and expand conversations?
In this article, Jim Garrison, Professor of Philosophy of Education at Virginia Tech University, and Larry Hickman, Director, Center for Dewey Studies, and Professor of Philosophy, Southern Illinois University Carbondale spoke with students about the role of dialogue in terms of identity and the greater self. As is the focus of the Ikeda Center, both professors centered their comments on the work of Daisaku Ikeda, observing that he:
articulates an important perspective by insisting that “in striving to discover the greater self, the genuine Buddhist approach is not to try to suppress or wipe out the lesser self, but to control and direct it so as to help lift civilization to better, higher levels.” …Buddhism, Dr. Garrison added, also teaches through the doctrine of dependent co-arising that no self or phenomenon exists independent of other selves and phenomena. Thus, the movement toward a greater self must always occur in relationship. Dialogue, he said, is a form of relationship that is especially fruitful in fostering the greater self.
This is heady stuff, and I encourage a full reading. What I found particularly pertinent to teachers’ online discussions was this passage, in reference to the ideas of John Dewey (1859-1952):
Dewey insisted that we must understand our identities not just as individuals but also as members of what he called “publics,” i.e., groups that form around shared concerns. According to Hickman, Dewey believed that for these publics to thrive and contribute to society they must first develop “a clear sense of what internally the group is about.” Second they must develop “a clear idea of how that public relates to other publics.” The possible combinations of negotiations and dialogues in this framework are nearly limitless.
Clearly, groups such as BATs, Teachers Letters to Obama, and many others are such “publics”. How much progress or effectiveness such a public has, I think, depends on the dominant perceptions of the group members. Some are clearly coming to these online forums to vent. Others are genuine activists who want change in public education. In the case of BATs I see a real tug-o-war between these two streams, but genuine, transformative dialogue? I am not so sure yet. Oddly, I have seen individuals very vocally drop out of the BATs group, ironically complaining that there is too much complaining, among other things. I have felt this same frustration, but I am sticking around to see where things go. The bigger question is, can online forums such as BATs become genuinely dialogic, as Paulo Freire would have termed it, or are they by their very nature doomed to be nothing more than pressure valves for the disgruntled? A potential answer, or beginning of an answer, can be found in the latter part of the article:
To provide some more context, Professor Garrison took a few moments to talk about popular misperceptions about dialogue. First of all, we need to acknowledge that there are some situations in which dialogue is not appropriate or helpful. Resonating with Dr. Hickman’s remarks on the tasks of publics, Garrison noted that dialogue across groups, especially when power differentials are present, are often counterproductive until after dialogues have first occurred within given “affinity groups” as a means of strengthening identity and self-conception.
It may be premature to think that a Facebook forum can make real change in a social context, but perhaps building “affinity”, as messy a process as it is, will be the start. I am keeping my eyes and mind open.