Taking on discipline

A three part struggle. First, see what they want you to see — consciously cultivate an awareness of the object of the discipline. Second, consider the future of the discipline — what is the outcome of gaining this habituation? Here one sidesteps or circumvents the traditional model of becoming aware of oneself as disciplined in the course of the process. That is the traditional luminal state (quasi-self-awareness) of the child’s transition into adulthood. As adults, we have a different stance toward discipline (even though the majority of students may be still children in this limited sense, no matter their age) that undertakes its education process with  maturity (cf Mannheim). Third, as an adult taking on discipline, there is a personal element of adjusting and adjudicating responsibilities. Discipline cannot disrupt the very things it is meaningful for, and as a job, discipline is fundamentally a way of surviving and supporting a family. In addition, disciplines have proper codes of ethics and are situated in larger contexts of societies. As an adult, these aspects are what is meaningful in taking on discipline with respect to the relationship between individual and society.

The difficulties of remaining a responsible, self-aware person during discipline are manifold. First, one, as self aware, is not convinced of the naturalistic interpretation of skill given by examiners and culture (cf in particular the classic example of regression toward the mean given in statistics courses where students’ scores on midterms are indicators of a constant intelligence factor that determines scores for the finals but only imperfectly). From the perspective of the discipline, it fails to understand why some students fail, because the inner workings of their minds are closed to the non-empathic observer (and also to the closed system of the discipline’s technical discourse). That is, since most examiners are unaware of their discipline as such, they are also not empathic, leading to a naturalizing of ability to learn into the individual. (This is mitigated by awareness of class differences, etc. but as such is mainly an elaboration of the training system as opposed to direct empathy.)

The adult, then, is not bound by a false naturalism and therefore exerts pressure on the training system to accomodate his/her distinctive needs. Usually, if successful, this results in an elaboration of as just discussed. However, as an outsider to the interpretive system of understanding and explaining disciplinary achievement, he/she must maintain a sense of calm and security against the pressure of otherwise peers, as well as accept what will often be a temporary loss of status during the training period, because there is a taboo against identifying oneself as habituating publicly and therefore socially instead of privately therefore “naturalistically.” Also, I know my experience is to consistently confuse awareness with competence, so that I often am shocked how poorly I do at first in a class even though I exceed the norm by the end.

Second, the unaware “nature” of the discipline prevents explicit discussion of larger meanings, on many levels. One struggles to discuss the relation of one class to another except tangentially, lamost as a digression. One struggles to relate the class to other disciplines with different norms. And it is almost impossible to speak of higher meanings for society, professions, and personal life (eg what is it like to use this in a biostatistics job?) So many burning, important questions go unanswered, poorly answered, merely intimated, or dismissed with prejudice. This displacement of inquiry and emotion requires considerable work on the part of the individual to maintain the sense of calm enjoyment and meaningful directedness mentioned above.

Finally, there is an alienation of the adult from the discipline as he considers its futrue and excellences but is unable to discuss them in an inquiring way. Effectively, this stifles innovation and represses people’s emotions to the discipline’s detriment. The origin of this repression is a conflation of the acquisition of skill with the coming to awareness of adulthood. Traditionally, one becomes self aware at the same time as one is legitimated with power to change the discipline, eg as a student graduates and becomes a faculty member. Thus traditionally the “children” are excluded from adult problems in a way with some degree of legitimacy and practicality from the perspective of the “adults.” However, what happens in addition is the exclusion of all other adults who have the capacity for larger questions of excellence and meaning for society but less than complete habituation into the skills of the discipline. This is essentially the “meritocratic” exclusion of democracy from disciplinary power, or, in other words, the basic political problem for holding disciplines (including non-academic professions) to account for society at large. As long as completing the training is the only legitimate, recognized origin of “adulthood,” we cannot have public discourse.

Returning the the experience of taking on a discipline, then, there needs to be two separate discourses engaged in the process. One is the discourse of acquiring skill and the ability to concretely represent the technical aspects of the discipline. The other is a discourse oriented towards inquiry about the meaning of the technical skills (and even the discourse of acquisition). Here one is not disciplining students normatively, although there remains a sense of degrees of achievement. The difference is that each student must be treated as legitimately organizing meanings together in a way distinctive of his/her experience. What structures this meaning-discourse is the actual limits and nature of the technical skills in the discipline, ie there are indeed recurring connections and problems between subfields or between the discipline and other disciplines, other industries, or society. This stability of structural connections lends inquiry an organization that means each individual is not by necessity radically new or unlocated (ie incommensurable with others). In fact, inquiry into meaning often (implicitly or explicitly) takes the form of historical investigation, doubling as the coming to understand and orient towards the desires and goals of the people (as well as outside forces and events) that have created or worked on the technical structure in the past. In a sense, this is the functionalist evaluation of the fit between reality and social structure (again, Mannheim). The irony of course, is that often such evaluations do not in fact require deep technical knowledge, because the scale of the inquiry is so broad that most details are irrelevant due to the scope of history and future under debate that render those details mere fluctuations in the discipline. But the idea that technical experts might then be at the service of non-technical “adults” is anathema to the traditional model of adulthood.

Similarly, it is also often possible to inquire into the meaning of a discipline-piece without having mastered its local technical language and practice. In fact, understanding the meaning of intention of a technical practice is one of the fastest and most powerful ways to learn it. The absence of meaning-discourse then is a great loss to the discipline, under the caveat that one can properly engage with the levels of sophistication that students (and faculty) traverse during inquiry.

Fundamentally, one is distinguishing between discipline, which coerces students forward, and inquiry, which takes the personally-felt problems of the student as a launching point for authentic understanding. Just as raising a child requires the discipline of the naughty spot for timeouts, one cannot dispense with discipline. Moreover, just as one is always limited by the necessities of life, one must always be more disciplined to “survive” then our interest in inquiry would like to admit. More importantly, though, discipline and inquiry correspond to different kinds of work. From the perspective of discipline, inquiry appears non-technical, and in some sense this is accurate. Depending on the scope of the inquiry, the details may be irrelevant to the picture being reworked, recomposed, taken apart and used as a collage, etc. Indeed, inquiry about the meaning of a discipline does not produce the standard work products of the discipline. However, the communication of a new perspective/collage is of vital importance for the disciplines continuance.

So it is a mistake to think that all scientists (for example) do inquiry as such. They may only sometimes be aware of frustration and “stuckness” that resolves itself one day. In this way, they are merely disciplined. That is, everyone, as a person, is capable of inquiry and carries it out regularly, but we need to distinguish the different modes of awareness with which they do it. The relatively unaware mode I just mentioned is a disciplinary mode, produced from the coercion of habituation from the outside without a complete, authentic awareness of the purposes and goals the work is serving. Inquiry proper, however, is peculiarly human in being general to all subjects and methods, and is not disciplinary per se but exists in a higher mode of awareness. Full fledged inquiry carried out in a disciplinary context attempts to reorient some technical practice and normative values to a different meaning or purpose than they originally served. This reorientation may simply be for the individual using them, who never thought about them that way before, or for a larger community in such a way that the new orientation is implemented into the disciplinary normalization of education.

Thus the taking on of a discipline with awareness is the acceptance and commitment to a certain direction of purpose and achievement, with its concomitant sacrifices, limitations, and benefits. To be disciplined with awareness is fundamentally to acquire the skills necessary in a context of inquiry, so that each aspect of the education is intentionally examined and reflected upon in the light of the whole and its larger environment. What is gained from this approach is an increased sense of meaningfulness for the individual’s life and work, as well as a better capacity for the discipline to remain connected with the reality of its own problems and its environment. What is lost is a certain speed and efficiency. It will not be the case that inquiry ever replaces discipline or vice versa some day, but in a day and age where huge infrastructures of disciplines, from professions to natural sciences, are the dominant power structures governing human life, it would be nice if we could make it easier to undertake discipline with more self awareness.


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