An important thought, attributed to one of my favorite philosophers, Stanley Cavell.

Language, to Cavell, is ambiguous not because it is imperfect, awaiting precise definition, but because we do not all see in the same way; it is a reflection of our basic predicament as distinct human beings. Thus, we must dare to mean what we say, take responsibility for all the meanings our words might be taken to have—even if those meanings go beyond what we understand as our intentions—because in our unintentional (though perhaps meaningful) slips, and the misapprehensions, mistakes, and insights of those with whom we speak, we bring together not just words but worldviews.

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Comment by Keith Hart on February 18, 2013 at 8:13am

Well, John, that second example is, for me, perfect. I call it teaching for knowledge and teaching for belief. I don't want a student to become like me, but rather to help her/him become what only s/he can be. On occasion this makes language seem like ships passing in the night, but we are rescued by belief -- by belief and intuition, reinforced by gesture, "the vibes", smell and a host of non-linguistic signals. I think only primitive moderns would put so much trust in language (which divides us) and that human evolution depends on understanding the rest a whole lot better (since they express our shared humanity more reliably). Common sense, as my hero of Koenigsberg put it.

Comment by John McCreery on February 18, 2013 at 5:27am

Keith, my pleasure. That example you offer, 

Uneducated people there have never learned that it takes decades to acquire precise mastery of a (national) language. They freely become intelligible in a number of them, depending on their migrations, and mix them at will.

awakens in me another related thought from Cavell. In Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism, he contrasts two views of knowledge and teaching, labeled for the sake of convenience Platonic and Emersonian. In the Platonic view, the acquisition of knowledge is like climbing a mountain. There may be different paths to the top, but they all converge at the same peak, and those seen as closer to the peak claim the authority to tell those behind them what they must do to reach a higher position. In the Emersonian view, learners are like pioneers traversing a broad plain en route to different places. When their paths intersect they may exchange what they have learned. From this perspective teachers can only offer themselves as models, demonstrating through what they say and do what they see themselves as having learned. They claim no authority to tell those who follow them what they must do. 

Whether it is even conceivable to imagine primary or secondary schools run along Emersonian lines is, of course, a good question. But certainly our on-line conversations can proceed in no other way, since those offended at being spoken down to or even spoken at can simply go away.

Comment by Keith Hart on February 17, 2013 at 6:38pm

Thanks for bringing up language in this way, John. I would not emphasize the same point, but I do believe the underlying argument is similar to mine. The miracle of human communication is that we believe communication is possible, despite the fact that we each speak a private idiolect. It takes enormous good will to believe that what I said or wrote enters your mind as almost the same content that I transmitted. Working in Africa showed me another view of language. Uneducated people there have never learned that it takes decades to acquire precise mastery of a (national) language. They freely become intelligible in a number of them, depending on their migrations, and mix them at will. I have a feeling that Stanley Cavell was talking about people like himself (and us). The OAC would benefit from a less restrictive attitude to language competence.

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