Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
9Jul/131

MOOCs, Sufi Devotion, and the Ethics of “Presence”

ArendtEducation

The recent ascendance of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, has generated considerable enthusiasm among college faculty members and administrators. But it has also created a great deal of anxiety, as Nathan Heller notes in his recent article “Laptop U,” which appeared in the May 20 edition of The New Yorker. Among their other concerns—the elevation of star professors at the expense of other faculty, the difficulty of evaluating student learning, the elimination of large numbers of academic jobs—skeptics fear that MOOCs will diminish if not eliminate in-class discussion. For academics like Harvard professor Peter Burgard,

“College education in general is sitting in a classroom with students, and preferably with few enough students that you can have real interaction, and really digging into and exploring a knotty topic—a difficult image, a fascinating text, whatever. That’s what’s exciting. There’s a chemistry to it that simply cannot be replicated online.”

I sympathize with these sentiments, and I worry about the impact of MOOCs on the teaching and learning that occur in the most stimulating college classrooms. And yet I also feel that MOOC detractors have not stated their objections with the necessary precision. What specific work does in-class discussion do? And what in particular is lost if it is not a central element of education? The critics of large-scale online courses rarely provide cogent answers to these questions.

mooc

The current debate would profit, I think, from a wider frame of reference, one that might throw into relief some of the premises that animate the skeptics’ position. One far-flung but potentially illuminating starting point occurred to me as I was reading Brian Silverstein’s book Islam and Modernity in Turkey (2011), which examines one Istanbul-based branch of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. Like other adherents of Sufism, Naqshbandis rely on a series of devotional techniques to cultivate their habits and sensibilities as observant Muslims. Since the emergence of the order in the fourteenth century, these techniques have been grounded in the practice and reasoning of the Islamic tradition. In the past two decades, however, they have also come to be articulated with mass media technologies in telling ways.

One of the most important means of cultivating Islamic devotion for Turkish Naqshbandis is the sohbet, which Silverstein translates as “companionship-in-conversation.” The sohbet is typically structured around the oral reading and explication of hadith (accounts of the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) by a sheikh, a mature master who acts as a model and guide for the order’s rank-and-file disciples. The content of the sheikh’s discourse—that is, the hadith he recites and the interpretation he provides—certainly furthers the spiritual knowledge of the devotees who attend him. But this aspect of the sohbet is ultimately less significant than the social relationships that are formed during the skeikh’s address. For many Naqshbandis, the sohbet is first and foremost a means of creating the companionships that help to form the dispositions, emotions, and habits of pious Muslim selves.

In Silverstein’s analysis, the sohbet is embedded in both the Islamic and broadly Aristotelian traditions. On the one hand, Naqshbandis trace the sohbet to the exemplary practices of the Prophet Muhammad, who also sought to impart his teachings through companionship and conversation with his disciples. In the process, Naqshbandis attribute particular authority to the oral—as opposed to written or scriptural—transmission of ethical instruction, a stance that accords with the centrality of spoken revelation and recitation in Islam more generally. For these and other reasons, Naqshbandis do not regard their devotion as opposed to Sunni Muslim orthodoxy, a point that distinguishes them from some other Sufi orders (not to mention romantic Western accounts of Sufi mysticism).

On the other hand, Naqshbandis follow classical Greek thinkers, including Aristotle, in conceiving and pursuing the sohbet as a mode of ethical action. Rather than merely conveying a set of ideas or beliefs, the sohbet is a “spiritual exercise” that forms and molds practitioners’ sensibilities in line with a particular vision of the virtuous life. When viewed in this light, communal conversations with a sheikh provide one key means for disciples to work on themselves, to train their emotions and desires, so that they might become more pious in the eyes of God. Yet individual devotees do not pursue such self-cultivation in isolation. Instead, the sohbet harnesses social relations so that the sheikh and his disciples, in and through their companionship, come to influence one another’s dispositions in edifying ways. The sohbet thereby constitutes, to use Silverstein’s apt phrase, a “discipline of presence.” It is a project of concerted ethical self-formation that relies heavily on oral, face-to-face interaction.

Significantly, this mode of devotion has been transformed as Naqshbandis have engaged more intensively with mass media technologies. In particular, the branch of the order studied by Silverstein launched its own radio station in 1994. In addition to other kinds of programming, it regularly broadcast live and pre-recorded sohbets of several prominent sheikhs. At least in the station’s early years, these sohbets drew sizable audiences. Many of the order’s adherents eventually came to perceive, however, that the radio sohbets lacked the compelling intimacy and force of their face-to-face counterparts. Although listeners appreciated the fact that the sohbets were now more widely accessible, many nevertheless lamented that disciples were no longer in the oral, face-to-face presence of the sheikh or, for that matter, a community of fellow devotees. Moreover, many of them came to regard the radio sohbets less as a spiritual exercise and more as a “service” (hizmet) that injected Islamic informational content into a wider public sphere.

In short, mass media transmission had substantially altered the social relations and contexts that had been central to the sohbet’s status as a discipline of presence. Many Naqshbandis came to question radio sohbets’ ability to mold their sensibilities as Muslims, and they worried about the effects that this transformation of sheiks’ authority, and the order’s sociability, would have on its members’ ethical conduct.

There are, to be sure, several obvious differences we could highlight between Naqshbandi devotion and American higher education. Perhaps above all, Naqshbandis are engaged in practices that we commonly define as “religious,” while American professors and students are participating in a process that we widely regard as “secular” and “liberal.” And yet we can also observe important parallels between the two groups’ activities and the concerns that at least some of their members express about mass mediation. In particular, some members of both groups attribute particular importance to the face-to-face discourse that occurs between a figure of spiritual or intellectual authority and her or his attendees. Some members of both groups also feel that the quality of their devotional or educational practice is lessened when it is channeled into mass media formats that diminish the role of face-to-face discourse.

sufti

This comparison has important implications for MOOC skeptics and, perhaps, for all of us who participate in American higher education. In particular, it suggests that college instruction is not only or even primarily a process of conveying information (ideas, concepts, arguments, frameworks, theories, etc.) from teachers to students. Rather, it is a mode of ethical self-formation like the sohbet, one that does not merely form “educated” habits and sensibilities, but one works best through particular modes of oral, face-to-face intercourse. In other words, it too is a discipline of presence.

If that is the case, then there is reason to be concerned about the proliferation of large-scale online education. It threatens to undercut the very social relations and modes of discourse through which educated sensibilities, at least in favorable circumstances, have been cultivated in the past. But this line of argument then makes it incumbent on MOOC skeptics to outline their vision of the virtuous life, to specify the ethical aims that in their estimation guide (or should guide) American higher education. In the end, then, it is not enough for the critics of MOOCs to praise the “chemistry” of in-class discussion. They must also clarify the philosophical, even “spiritual” project for which such chemistry is to be mobilized.

-Jeff Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
25Jan/130

Labor of Love

China has embraced the idea of a Western college education in a big way.  As the NY Times reported recently, the country is making a $250 billion-a-year investment designed to give millions of young Chinese citizens a college education. “Just as the United States helped build a white-collar middle class in the late 1940s and early 1950s by using the G.I. Bill to help educate millions of World War II veterans, the Chinese government is using large subsidies to educate tens of millions of young people as they move from farms to cities.”

But for most of these newly minted college graduates, jobs are scarce. One reason is that these graduates often have few marketable skills and they refuse to take the jobs that actually exist. What China needs are people to work in factories. But for college graduates, factory work has little or even no allure.

Forbes Conrad for the New York Times

Consider the case of Wang Zengsong.

Wang Zengsong is desperate for a steady job. He has been unemployed for most of the three years since he graduated from a community college here after growing up on a rice farm. Mr. Wang, 25, has worked only several months at a time in low-paying jobs, once as a shopping mall guard, another time as a restaurant waiter and most recently as an office building security guard.

But he will not consider applying for a full-time factory job because Mr. Wang, as a college graduate, thinks that is beneath him. Instead, he searches every day for an office job, which would initially pay as little as a third of factory wages.

“I have never and will never consider a factory job — what’s the point of sitting there hour after hour, doing repetitive work?” he asked.

This story is actually not unique to China. In the United States too, we here repeatedly that small businesses are unable to expand because they cannot find qualified workers. The usual reprise is that high school graduates don’t have the skills. Rarely asked is why college graduates don’t apply? I assume the reason is the same as in China. College graduates see production work as beneath them.

Plenty of college graduates, many with debt, are interning for free or working odd jobs that pay little; yet they do not even consider learning a skill and taking a job that would require them to build something. Just like their comrades in China, these young people identify as knowledge workers, not as fabricators. For them, a job making things is seen as a step down. Something that is beneath them.

Disdain for manual labor combined with respect for cognitive work is the theme of Matthew B. Crawford’s book Shop Craft as Soul Craft, based on his article by the same name that appeared in 2006 in The New Atlantis. Crawford’s writing is rich and his thinking profound. But boiled down, I took three main points from his book and article.

First, there is a meaningful and thoughtful component to manual labor. To make something is not thoughtless, but requires both skill and intelligence. This is true if you are building a table, where you must think about the shape, functionality, and aesthetics of a table. But even in factory work, there is the challenge of figuring out how to do something better. And in the modern factory, labor demands technical skill, problem solving, and creativity.  Whether you are building a house or making a battery, making things requires thought. What is more, it is good for the soul. Here is how Crawford writes about the soul benefits of craft:

Hobbyists will tell you that making one’s own furniture is hard to justify economically. And yet they persist. Shared memories attach to the material souvenirs of our lives, and producing them is a kind of communion, with others and with the future. Finding myself at loose ends one summer in Berkeley, I built a mahogany coffee table on which I spared no expense of effort. At that time I had no immediate prospect of becoming a father, yet I imagined a child who would form indelible impressions of this table and know that it was his father’s work. I imagined the table fading into the background of a future life, the defects in its execution as well as inevitable stains and scars becoming a surface textured enough that memory and sentiment might cling to it, in unnoticed accretions. More fundamentally, the durable objects of use produced by men “give rise to the familiarity of the world, its customs and habits of intercourse between men and things as well as between men and men,” as Hannah Arendt says. “The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.”

Arendt values those who make things, especially things that last, because lasting objects give permanence to our world. And such workers who make things are above all thinkers in her understanding. Work is the process of transfiguring the idea of something into a real and reliable object.

But even laborers who make consumable goods are, for Arendt, doing deeply human activity. To be human has been, for time immemorial, also to labor, to produce the goods one needs to live. A life without labor is impoverished and “the blessing of labor is that effort and gratification follow each other as closely as producing and consuming the means of subsistence.”  Granted, in repetitive factory labor these blessings may seem obscure, but then again, Dilbert has taught us much about the supposed blessings of office work as well.

Second, Crawford tells the story of how schools in the U.S. have done away with shop classes, home economics, and auto-repair, all classes I and many others took in junior high and high school. In the pursuit of college preparation, education has ceased to value the blessings of labor and work.

Third, Crawford argues that in a global economy it will be work with out hands and not just work with our brains that pays well. When legal analysis can be outsourced or replaced by robots as easily as phone operators, the one kind of job that will remain necessary for humans is repair work, fixing things, and building things. Such work requires the combination of mental and physical dexterity that machines will unlikely reach for a very long time. Thus, Crawford argues that by emptying our schools of training in handwork, we are not only intellectually impoverishing our students, but also failing to train them for the kinds of jobs that will actually exist in the future.

Many of my students might now agree. I have former students who have written excellent senior theses on Emerson and Heidegger now working on Organic farms or learning the trade of gourmet cheese production. Others are making specialty furniture. One is even making a new custom-built conference table for the Hannah Arendt Center here at Bard. These students love what they do and are making good livings doing it. They are enriching the world with meaningful objects and memories that they are producing, things they can share as gifts and sell with pride.

Many of the best jobs out there now are in the specialty craft areas. These jobs require thought and creativity, but also experience with craftsmanship and labor. Crawford does not argue against training people well in the liberal arts, but he does raise important questions about our valuation of intellectual over manual labor. We here in the U.S. as well as our friends in China should pay attention. Perhaps we need to rethink our intellectual aversion to production. Maybe we should even begin again to teach crafts and skills in school.

Crawford will be speaking at the next Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Educated Citizen” on Oct. 3-4, at Bard College. We invite you to join us. Until then, I commend to you his book or at least his essay; Shop Craft as Soul Craft is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".