Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Rhizo Classroom: The Flow of Ethics

I made some rather large claims in my last post about ethics being at the heart of the rhizome, woven into the very fabric of reality, which implies that ethics is woven into everything that happens within education. I think my last post was a bit too vague, so I want to elaborate in this post. I lean very heavily here on my understanding of Edgar Morin's argument in his book On Complexity (2008).

I start with Morin's idea about the autonomy of complex, living entities, such as humans. According to Morin, all living entities, certainly humans, are open systems that exchange energy, matter, information, and organization with their eco-systems and within themselves. These exchanges bind us to and make us dependent upon our ecosystems at the same time as they distinguish us from our ecosystems. Humans channel these flows of matter, energy, information, and organization from their environment, through themselves, and back out into their environment, usually after some transformative, internal processes. These exchanges work across all scales that we are aware of: from the unfolding of our DNA to our roles in society, history, and the world. As open systems, we are simultaneously integral parts of the environment and distinguishable entities in our own rights. We are complex entities emerging in a complex environment, overcoming entropy through the constant exchanges with and flows through our ecosystems.

The degree to which we manage these exchanges—the degree to which we open and close ourselves to flows of energy, matter, information, and organization—determines our relative autonomy. We can resist and disengage from exchanges that threaten harm, and we can seek and engage with exchanges that promise benefits. I think all open systems can to some degree manage their exchanges, but certainly humans have this ability, this obligation. We can decide much about what we will take in and what we won't, and the growing complexity of our cultures and technologies have only expanded the range of exchanges that we can and must manage.

For me, this is easily illustrated. For instance, like most animals, we humans have a skin that manages many exchanges between ourselves and our ecosystems. Those exchanges—say between our skins and sunlight—can be of ultimate importance. Too little or too much sunlight, and we suffer, even die. Just enough sunlight, and we flourish as an autonomous entity absolutely dependent upon sunlight. We learn to make choices about our exposure to sunlight, and those choices enrich our lives or destroy it. Our autonomy is measured by our capacity to make choices about how much sunlight we are willing to expose our skin to.

Add the human technologies of clothing and of complex social groups to this skin/sun exchange, and our choices governing the amount of skin we expose to sunlight become much richer and more nuanced, more complex. How much skin we choose to expose or to cover also defines our autonomy, which does not depend on whether we show a lot of skin or show little; rather, autonomy depends on our capacity to decide how much to show. The person who chooses to be naked and the person who choses to be fully clothed are both expressing their autonomy within the context of some social group, some ecosystem. The person who is forced to be naked or fully clothed has lost their autonomy. Our ability to make choices helps define autonomy and, to my mind, entangles us in ethics. Almost always.

As we humans begin life, all our choices are made for us by caretakers. If not, we usually don't survive, which points to the absolute necessity of making choices about which matter, energy, information, and organization flows we engage and which we avoid. Parents insure that appropriate food enters our mouths and inappropriate things do not. Most of us then spend much of the rest of our lives learning what things to ingest and what things to avoid. Of course, some of us never learn completely, which too often leads to unhappiness, disruption, and even death.

The management of the flow of food is obvious, but we also must learn to manage the flows of information and organization that we ingest, process, and feedback into the ecosystem. We must learn a language, and then learn what to say and what not to say and when and where. We must learn up and down, inside and out, near and far, then, now, and tomorrow. We must learn fact, truth, and lie. We have many choices to make, and these choices all carry ethical considerations because they all perturb both our internal and environmental states and processes. Our choices promote or degrade to some degree our own well-being and the well-being of the environments that sustain us. These perturbations are unavoidable; therefore, we should be aware of the effects of our choices and seek to promote the wellbeing of ourselves and our environments.

For me, then, complexity science renders explicit the situation of humans as complex, open systems: we must engage in some flows of energy, matter, information, and organization, and we should learn to manage our engagements to the degree that we can. Making choices about what flows to engage and how to perturb our environments and our internal states always carries an ethical dimension. In their essays in Mason's Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education (2008), Kuhn and Morrison seem to want to limit complexity theory to the mechanics of matter, energy, information, and organization flows. I see no reason to limit complexity theory this way, though I understand that most scientists may do so under the delusion that ethics has no place in science. This is one of the main errors in modern thought that Morin addresses, a condition he calls "blind knowledge". Paul Cilliers, who also appears in Mason's book, also seems to have no problem including ethical considerations in his complexity theories, and his thought will appear in my exploration of how complexity science—or more broadly, complexity thought—helps frame a complex ethics.

So what does this have to do with education? When we frame education rhizomatically, as a complex, open system, we see that formal education is one thread in our process for learning how to manage the flows of matter, energy, information, and organization through our environments and ourselves. Of course, we—especially in higher ed—tend to focus on the flows of information that we present to students for engagement, but a little closer scrutiny reveals that we are always involved with all flows at all scales. When I'm in a classroom with my students, I exchange air and germs with them, smells, sounds, light, temperature, organization in the arrangement of the classroom and the lesson, social structures, poems, stories, plays, beliefs, and infinitely more. And because the class is a rhizome, all nodes across all scales are connected to all other nodes, just as Deleuze and Guattari tell us. Thus, we are confronted with more choices than we can be aware, far more choices than we can make, yet we are called to make them. Our situation as a complex, open system absolutely demands it. Not making choices is still making them. Not being conscious of our choices is still making them. The flows of information, matter, energy, and organization are incessant and demanding. We have no choice but to choose, even if we choose death. As I am beginning to see it, no concept of education is more entangled with ethics than complexity education.

So if there are more choices than we can make, then how do we make them? Another post.