A Jeanne Site
California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: September 18, 1999
Faculty on the Site.
The Gifts of Hierarchy and Our Comfort with Labelling
The Cost of Hierarchy and Our Rage with Labelling
How to Measure Learning
The Final Evaluation of Course Learning
Some of the gifts of hierarchy are certainty, mercy, and forgiveness. Those require someone from above to grant us these qualities. Because the hierarchy invokes a certain irreversible quality associated with the power of the authority to decide, and consequently, to privilege, certainty and mercy require a certain passivity on our part to accept the power of sovereignty over us. I would not include forgiveness, since we have more control in our own forgiveness, though forgiveness would apply if what we seek is forgiveness of some Other.
The analysis that Anderson did of the Story of O suggests that O was trying to escape the existential angst of individual responsibility in suffering the abuse heaped upon her, in the hope that some abusive act would so demean her that her captors would no longer require her consent to the abuse. Such an attempt to avoid choice is what the existentialists described as man's angoisse. This is one plausible explanation for the non-aggressiveness of the abused, sometimes resulting in the "battered wife syndrome."
I would like to draw a parallel here to any abuse engendered by the arrogance of hierarchy, and I would like to point out that we train for passivity. The whole of behaviorism is based on the assumption that man is passive, that if you wait long enough man, like the pigeon, will do something in the direction you want, and you can reinforce that step, and man will eventually be "conditioned." Our psychology books rarely speak of the rat that refuses to run the maze. We rarely hear mention of the famous white-footed mice. If one assumes the philosophical position that man has will and is respnsible for his/her choices, then, like O, man cannot escape angoisse by consenting to that point of abasement at which consent no longer matters, and it is someone else's fault.
Nonetheless, rewards are seductive and omnipresent. And that is part of why Alfie Kohn speaks of rewards as punishment. To condition anyone to accept a reward in response to any performance is to attempt control, to remove choice, to falsely replace angoisse with control. Sartre, Gordon, would say that is not possible. You cannot escape the ultimate essential accounting of your actions. And so O's project failed dismally.
But this is the same with our authentication of a student's competence. The student, as well as the teacher, must accept the angoisse of authentication, not because we demand it, not because our standards dictate it, but because that is the nature of accepting responsibility for who and what we are, and in the academy, for the narrative of our learning identity. To refuse to accept that responsibility is not to evade it. In the end, such a project must fail.
I am particularly distressed that so many of our good students are so unaccustomed to openly discussing the quality of their work that when I write glowing recommendations for them, they sit and purr, and thank me! No, no, no. Those recommendations come from my apperceptive mass, from the midst of hundreds of students per semester, and from what I could recall of our shared experience. They have a different life space. From that perspective they should be able to, and should demand, politely, but firmly, to include the incidents and situations that mattered to them, that formed the narrative of their learning identity. One student, one, this year came with her own ideas of what her competencies were. And they did not fit in a one-to-one correspondence with those I had catalogued. But that was a statement for an application, and they know they are to write those. An accounting of their own education they have not learned to take part in.
Assessment and authentication of competence, and documentation of the narrative of learning identity are life-long self-images. We must teach our students to resume both respect and responsibility, for we cannot aid them in the evasion of that responsibility. I remain enough of an existentialist to believe that ultimately such evasion of angoisse is impossible.
With our certainty that we can trust the authentication of our competence by an Other with the hierarchical authority to judge, we grant "disciplinary" authority over us. (See Covaleskie on disciplinary power.) Such power, unlike sovereign power, which is recognized as having the potential for injustice and arbitrariness, is subtle and gives the overt and false appearance of being neutral and objective.Thus when the label does not fit, when we are uncomfortable with what the label imposes, we are restive, frustrated, and lash out at what is an uncomfortable situation. That is one of the costs at vesting disciplinary power in a non-learning auto-poietic system.
Someone labelled a C student from the first moment the instructor lays eyes on that student, or from the student's first utterance, may well be someone whose validity claim in never heard in good faith. Cost of a system in which hierarchy is allowed to become elitist and to privilege its subjectivity. That which would be judged patently unfair in a grounded system, is seen as acceptable within the hierarchy because the hierarchy is not a reflexive system, often allows "bullying," even as part of its training you in toughening you up to deal with the vicissitudes of the real world, (See Duncan Kennedy) and the ethics become relative depending on where you are in the hierarchy, rather than depending on the validity of the claim made.
Mercy, which we seek for having violated the rules of the institution, which are placed by the hierarchy, guarded by the hierarchy, and judged by that same hierarchy, is a quality for which an affirmative defense must be asserted. That is, the system doesn't offer mercy, the errant one mus