A decade of "enactive" research

Are we medicating a disorder or treating boyhood as a disease? asks a Globe & Mail headline in another of an on-going series on raising and educating children who have penises.

Implicit in these stories is the belief that boys are fundamentally different than girls - reflecting what the authors call "the biological bias of Mother Nature" - just as, I would assume, the authors would say men and women are different. You know, equally useful, but different. With different needs. Good at different things. See the world in different ways.

It's not that long ago that a Saint Thomas University (Fredericton) professor got national press for a study that said boys learn and approach learning differently than girls, and so needed different kinds of literacy supports. We generated two summer's worth of evidence that contradicted this (one example): after providing a safe, supportive, easy-to-access environment for learning, we found that roughly as many boys engaged in pre-literacy and literacy learning as girls, and they were just as successful. But nobody wrote about us in the Globe & Mail.


My assumption is that our evidence wasn't supportive of what people wanted to hear. It didn't confirm the overtly sexist - and deliberately school-blaming - story that the powers that be were most interested in at the moment.

That puts us in good company. Few people paid much attention to evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould's warnings against this kind of sexism and bad science in "Cardboard Darwinism," An Urchin In The Storm or the more recent critique by Deborah Cameron, Oxford professor of Language and Communication studies, in The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?. None of this research was affirming of already held assumptions.

More about that in a moment.

In other news, The New York Times has run a story about how it is once again acceptable to say poor people are poor because they embrace a culture of poverty, a way of thinking and living that keeps them poor. Reference is made to graffiti and garbage in the streets. (I don't know how it is where you live, but in Saint John we have graffiti and untended garbage in both our wealthier and our poorer neighbourhoods. The difference is that city employees, including the police, are tasked with removing these from the wealthier areas only. A culture of entitlement?)

The Times has also run stories on how the gap between America's rich and poor is greater than it has been since the 1930s, on the on-going fraud and illegal activities of major banks, and on the revolving door policy that allows senior employees to move back and forth between posts in government and jobs in the finance industry. But these kinds of stories are apt to upset Americans and prod them toward curbing the power of the rich. Hence the need for a different narrative, an affirming narrative - one that says poor people are poor because they're different than us.

Over in Germany, in a speech on why a multicultural approach doesn't work, the German chancellor has said, "We feel tied to Christian values. Those who don't accept them don't have a place here" (Link).

Maybe she means well, and isn't just trying to prop up support in a failing economy by attacking people who look and pray like foreigners. (Her opponents on the right are saying even worse things.) But I can't help note that in three weeks' time we'll be marking Remembrance Day and recalling the millions who died fighting over claims of racial and cultural superiority in a war started by Germany. We do a good job remembering our soldiers in the abstract. We do less well at remembering what the fighting was about.

Up in Ontario, at the Spotlight on Learning conference they are talking about "decision-based evidence making" - a play on evidence based decision making.

Elsewhere (see The International Adult Literacy Survey: What Does It Really Measure? ), Barton and Hamilton call this enactive research:

We would describe the IALS research as enactive research, meaning that it is designed to rationalise and support policy decisions that have already been made outside of the research arena.
Our Storytent and Bookwagon research isn't very enactive. Hence, the ease with which it was swept aside by the press releases of a university vice-president and a city councilman who swooped in for a few months to save the families with whom we were working. Social capital always trumps science.

Neither are the stories I guardedly tell in this blog enactive. They fit badly with the current ideology - a marxist concept that says the visible superstructure of a society (religion, schooling, entertainment, public political debates, news stories, historical accounts) will always be adjusted by the powerful to justify or keep hidden the substructure of a society (creation of wealth, distribution of power, mechanisms of oppression).

This doesn't surprise or particularly discourage me - it's the sort of thing a grumpy old post-marxist type expects - though I am saddened to watch people I care about bang their head against concealed walls.

So I'm glad they're rethinking the role and nature of research at the conference in Ontario. I'm hopeful that they're looking beyond literacy as a neo-liberal economic prop, and re-visioning it as social change or personal empowerment.

But I also hope they get past thinking of "decision-based evidence making" as something government has done to them. I hope they talk about the points during the past ten years when we did this to ourselves - albeit in an understandable effort to garner respect, attention and private-sector funding. The times when we paid attention to advice like this:

Instead of answering with, "No, actually, our stakeholders are families and citizens, and our partnership needs to be with those government ministries charged with ensuring their well-being."

The things I've talked about here are not all of the same weight. Me being dissed in my own city is nothing like the specter of rising popular anger in Germany directed against people with a middle eastern ancestry. But they are of a piece; of the same fabric.

No discussion of boys or women or immigrants or poor folk can progress far unless we distinguish how people or groups of people are from how they come to act as a result of the way others treat them and the way they see themselves. Sexism, racism, classism (blaming the poor for their own oppression) and the maltreatment of children: these are enemies we've let inside the gate. Like smallpox and TB, they are enemies we ought to have been done with by now.

You know, the first half of the 20th century was really, really bad. We don't want to go back there.

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