MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVII No. 3
January / February 2015
Articles; Faculty Demographics; Inclusion and Diversity Report; Black Lives Matter; Court Case; New Leadership
A Magical, Almost Perfect, Season
The Current East Campus Plan
Still Needs More Grad Student Housing
Why MIT Faculty Should Sign the Petition
to Divest from Fossil Fuels
Advising the Tyrant of Syracuse
Notes on the Recommendations on the Future of MIT Education
Comments on My Acceptance of the
MIT Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award
Reyaksyon m apre mwen te resevwa pri
“Lidèchip Martin Luther King Jr.” nan MIT
nan dat 4 fevriye 2015
Helping Freshmen Prepare for Their First Summer Internship or Research Experience
Teaching this spring? You should know . . .
MIT Faculty and Students 1865 – 2015
Printable Version

Advising the Tyrant of Syracuse*
Notes on the Recommendations on the Future
of MIT Education

Mark Goulthorpe, Gregory Ulmer

In the November/December issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter, two related articles appeared: “The Future of MIT Education," by Sarma/Wilcox/Ruiz, and "Issues Considering the Future of MIT Education," by an Editorial Subcommittee, Choucri/Flowers/King. These both reflect on the Recommendations of the Task Force on the Future of MIT Education by Sarma/Wilcox/Ruiz from summer 2014. Each article suggests that educational methods at MIT (and elsewhere) should evolve to offer more effective learning in line with emerging patterns of social and technical change, and as such, each text tacitly offers a theory of method(s) for new education.

Tacitly, since neither article offers a cogent position (contrast/target), nor a framing (theory/analogy) as to why such changes might be needed now, or effective post-now. [These elements, captured in the acronym CATTt – contrast, analogy, target, theory, tale – seem to occur in all effective historic calls for new education, from Plato’s Phaedrus to Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto: their prospective manner does not escape the need for structure.] The Recommendations then seemingly defer to the establishment of an Initiative for Innovation in Education as a forum for thinking through future education. But even this merits considerable reflection if it is to be prescient and effective, since it would be historically novel to do this intra muros. [Plato established his Academy extra-muros; Socrates was expelled and executed extra-muros; empirical Renaissance science, considered heretic, was established in café’s via private funding, even the later Royal Societies being separate “protectorates” outside accepted schooling; and the C20th avant-garde emerged in bohemian Montmartre and Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire to counter established cultural institutions: the norm in each case being experimentation extra-muros.]

Both articles also seem largely directed to scientific education, perhaps without meaning to be exclusive; but this also seems at odds with MIT’s thoughtful balance of science and humanities, as well as to current social and intellectual changes; so these notes offer a humanities’ framing of issues and a prompt for further debate.

The Recommendations refer back to prior changes in pedagogy at MIT as sanction, each occasioned by shifts in the technical context: MIT’s industrial-era founding as a hands-on technical research institute, its re-focusing post WWII to re-orient its technical specialism to embrace the humanities, and again in 1996 to respond to the influence of digital media. The current Recommendations focus particularly on online learning, implicitly suggesting that current change is motivated by a similar shift in technical apparatus. To invoke "apparatus" is to situate the Recommendations within the history of socio-technical evolution: “apparatus” seems a better term than “technology” as it implies (French) Apparatus Theory that considers the full social/intellectual/ideological dimension of any technical system: an alternative to technological determinism. The invention of literacy in Classical Greece included not only alphabetic writing, but the institution of the school (Plato's Academy, later Aristotle’s Lyceum, in which were created the practices of alphanumeric reason); and within the larger culture the formation of a new identity habitus of individual selfhood and the democratic state. In other words, the “apparatus” of literacy was a fully social condition, engaging all the dimensions of a civilization (intellection, personal identity, socio-political structure).

Alphabetic writing emerged within an oral apparatus, with people organized in tribes, constructed individually as spiritual beings, and with reality and atë (fate) managed by invocation of gods. Literacy introduced a different metaphysics: Plato's Phaedrus, the first theory of method for (new) education, introduced the practice of dialectic – analysis and synthesis – breaking down the phenomenal world into elementary (recordable) word/concept units that could be rationally re-ordered. The Greek information explosion produced by writing (they transcribed the entire oral tradition, beginning with Homer's epics) divided complex reality into discrete areas of “topical” knowledge. Philosophy was the first discipline, created to engage with a material account of reality: Plato/Socrates/ Aristotle invented all aspects of a literate ontology, inventio and memoria being techniques for applied textual knowledge. [Inventio used “commonplace books” to copy citations, students arranging them topically for ease of reference; memoria was then a technique of information retrieval, using a familiar scene or route and assigning elements of inventio to it, such that a rational discourse could be constructed in what was still an oral agora or law court. These educational methods remained intact until the advent of the printing press when “the book” became less sanctified, and living memory was relieved of its burden by ready access to a vast new repertory of available information – the book before the lesson, as it were.]

Descartes and Bacon re-aligned this ontology to suit print media, giving birth to modern science and empiricism, and ushering in not only new education but new individual and socio-political identity (secular education, autonomous thinking, the nation state) - the apparatus of the print era. [Luther’s Bible, printed in vulgate, allowed access to the scriptures by everyman, and together with novels such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Dante’s Inferno, written in Spanish and Italian, respectively, so the federated Papacy was profoundly challenged in ideological, social, and political registers.]

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MIT (and the university in general) is the heir of 2500 years of literate intellection, modified to suit mechanical reproduction, but now arriving at the limit-point of literacy as we engage electracy and the apparatus of digital media. Alphanumeric schooling perfected analysis that disassembled reality into a logical order; but it was unable to accomplish synthesis, which is the implicit challenge of the emerging paradigm. The structure of discrete disciplines is virtually helpless when confronting the complexity of the world as networked “ecology” (to use the metaphor of the Task Force). An education for the future must address the second dimension of dialectic – synthesis – to invent a unified field of learning native to an electrate apparatus in the full sense of the term (technology, institutions, identity – individual and collective). Electracy is not another name for "media literacy," any more than literacy is another name for "alphabetic orality."

The challenge posed by apparatus history to any education reform is that the ground of our familiar world is undergoing mutation: not only technology, but also school, science, personhood, political institutions: all transform. If considering how to adapt learning to a digital apparatus does not produce discomfort, then the conditions of change have not been fully grasped.

Electracy dates from the beginning of the industrial period, including all the registers of the era of "revolutions" – technological, political, and representational. Apparatus theory allows us to frame what is at stake by tracking the profound influence of each media invention: orality, concerned with right/wrong (religion), eventually put speaking into writing, opening the way for rational problem-solving and science; literacy, concerned with true/false (science), invented logic, and recently put this into computing, opening the way for (conjecturally) an entirely new cognitive/social paradigm. Digital computing mutates literacy as alphabetic writing mutated orality, and leads to the implication: native electracy is beyond science, if not beyond school. Polytheistic religion adapted to literacy, resulting in the monotheistic religions of the book; science is adapting to electracy in producing schools of the computer, but risks becoming the Church of Science, antagonistic to an ontology native to electracy.

It is important to keep in mind that while apparatus shift is inevitable, the inventions themselves are not determined. It is possible but not inevitable that school be superseded by the entertainment corporation as the primary institution of learning and (even) credentialing in electracy. Electracy does not replace orality and literacy, but supplements them in opening a new dimension of human development. Electracy does not entail a different science, but a different civilization that includes science and religion in a transformed worldview. The challenge and opportunity is to imagine the learning/education most adequate to the social/political apparatus of electracy.

Gregory Bateson, describing a new “ecology of mind" based on meta-patterns, encapsulated the past two millennia in a pair of terms, covering the two apparati: sacrament and entropy. Electracy introduces a third term, enjoyment, in the sense of "usufruct," the right to usage, having in mind collective well-being, a right to enjoyment of one's full capabilities as a human being. "Enjoyment" in apparatus theory assumes that the dimension of reality made accessible to education by digital media is human embodiment (libidinal energy). Human desire in the previous apparati was suppressed, sublimated, or suspended, but conditions for its full multi-sensorial engagement are now actualizing.

The digital apparatus addresses this opportunity by enabling a new integrative relationship among human capabilities, first suggested by Kant in his promotion of aesthetic judgment as mediator between scientific reason and moral freedom at the start of the industrial era, extended by Freud in his articulation of the Unconscious as the dimension of the unknown now open for inquiry. The Unconscious is nothing mystical, but a convenient label for everything that still resisted the best efforts of the entire apparatus of literacy (school, science, reason). The addition of heuretic (inventive) discovery to hermeneutic (analytic) verification in the curriculum of disciplines proposed by electracy in practice is a shift from understanding theses to undergoing theopraxesis (thinking/doing/making). The interdependence of Kant's three critiques and the central role of aesthetic judgment in a mass-media society, is directly relevant to imagining theopraxesis: the synthesis that electracy adds to literate dialectic, in other words, begins in the practices of the learner. This holism of intellectual virtues includes the generalization of “design” to all areas of education and society, constituting the "writing" of electracy. The alignment of features shared by digital imaging with logics of creativity constitutes a point of departure for a reconfiguration of education as the interface relating mind-body with culture and nature.

We suggest that a framing of the issues of educational change in orality, literacy, and electracy (per apparatus theory) would be a productive way to frame an Initiative for Innovation in Education at MIT (even its naming). Beyond an analytical framing, electrate pedagogy might (already) be explored inventively.

*Plato travelled to Syracuse with the hope of introducing rational justice to the philosophically-minded tyrant Dionysius, but fled fearing for his life and with his friend
Dion banished for conspiracy.

Editor's Note: For a more extended essay on this subject, please visit:

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