A Dream of Reason- VI: Part 2 On Instruction (1973)

     On Instruction (1973)

1. Opening

1.1. Instruction and Education


            This essay belongs to the sociology-psychology of education.[1] Yet the term “education” rarely appears in it. Why?

Sociology-psychology is a species of theoretical reason. Theoretical reason cannot take consensus qua consensus as its measure and standard.

It would assault sociological-psychological reason to follow standard professional practice and identify education as that which occurs in schools and schools as places in which education occurs.

We cannot begin by identifying that which is conventionally labeled “education” as education. We shall refer to it as “instruction.” Hopefully, this distinction is dialogically sensitive to but not dominated by “common language.” The sentences “There are things in which an educated person would not wish to be instructed” and “There are modes of instruction that do not educate” are along the natural grain of English usage.

Education is, whatever else it also is, a species of instruction.

Schools are officially given over to instruction. Yet, as Howard Becker emphasizes, instruction also occurs in other contexts (e.g., master-apprentice relationships “on the job”).


Institutionalized patterns influence yet do not completely control contemporary American instruction. Some people mechanically live out these patterns. Others struggle against them. Still others hear – however faintly – “a different drummer”…. Every reconstruction bears the mark of that from which it proceeds and against which it struggles.

1.2. Phenomenal Focus

This essay focuses on “undergraduate” instruction, yet moves up and down. Elementary instruction is common property.The 2.Machine/Animal Dichotomy[2]

2.1. Opening

In orders of life with a complex division of labor, especially in industrial orders, the drive for impersonal rationality is shadowed by repressed, therefore unexamined and unreasonable, subjectivity.   We designate this dynamic constellation “the machine/animal dichotomy.”

One contemporary manifestation of this dichotomy is the tendency to treat “law and order” and “anarchy” as the only political alternatives: “law and order” is oppressive hierarchical control misinterpreted as mature adult interaction, anarchy is spontaneous co creation misinterpreted as infinite ferocity.

The process through which the machine/animal dichotomy operates in instruction includes “instruction as rejection,” “the mass production of stereotyped awareness” and “the triumph of estranged subjectivity.”

   2.2. Instruction as Rejection[3]

A basic organizing American pattern is of functions, interchangeable replaceable parts and mass production: the machine aspect of the machine/animal dichotomy.

It is an aspect of “the machine” that the young are treated “in terms of” their families’ rank in class, status and power hierarchies. Our instructional system is a terribly intimate “language.”[4] Each crack in the wall, each broken window is a rejecting word.

Rejection programmed by institutionalized framing contexts is modified by egalitarian public rhetoric and the ambiguous openness of the “one-on-one” (yet the one-on-one is degraded by unequal power, as in the welfare system’s dreaded “face-to-face”).

Systems of unequal power endlessly replicate victimizer and victim. Yet love of the powerless for the powerless endures.

Any perspective that does not side with the desire of the poor and oppressed for security is cruel. Yet an existence limited to competitive struggle for scarce unquestionably accepted, manipulated “goods” excludes dialogue and reconstruction.

2.3. The Mass Production of Stereotyped Awareness

2.31. Opening

            The core problem of the machine is to organize external forces to shape raw material efficiently into conformity with pre-established models…. In instruction for the machine students are the raw material.

Most raw material is passive: it does not contain immanent/natural patterns. The problem of motivation arises in instruction when students are conceived as possessing “minds of their own.”

  • In Orders of Life with a Continuous Mediating Intergenerational Identity



In so far as discontinuities exist the issue of motivation will arise. In so far as discontinuities are within an overriding continuity of intergenerational identity, motivation is addressed through a rhetoric grounded in adult society. Instruction assists a passionately desired transition between two roles in a basically stable world: it is, whatever else it also is, initiation.

2.322 (Sideline)


Often (aside from being an adult) the instructor is not who the child will become. Let us assume that the instructor and the instructed are from different social strata.

An instructor of higher status than the normal adult rank of those s/he instructs may appear as emblem and representative of sacred forces, with the power to open or close paths to social – even cosmic – mobility: so a Medieval, Mayan or Egyptian priest might have appeared to a peasant’s child.

An instructor of lower status than those instructed may be conceived as an agent of parents and/or other high status individuals, thus as borrowing their authority. Moreover, if what is taught appears inherently valuable and/or useful (e.g., military skills in a warrior society) lower status might be helpful: a novice might be more willing to show clumsiness and ignorance to a skilled “inferior” than to one of equal or higher rank.

2.33. In Orders of Life Without a Continuous Intergenerational Identity

When continuity of identity breaks, motivation appears as an institutionalized dilemma requiring specialized professional expertise. [“The fifties” obsession with motivation was an (unrecognized) sign that “the end of ideology” was actually “the calm before the storm.”] Extreme discontinuity opens potentialities for terminal dissolution, for rigidity, and for fertile openness. First through the sophists and then again and again alternative patterns of instruction arise.

2.4. Some Contemporary Patterns of Alternative (a.k.a., “counter cultural”) Instruction: The Triumph of Estranged Subjectivity


            The personal, in its inwardness, unique existence, autonomous activity and potentiality for critical reflection threatens all “mechanical” order. Totalitarianism overtly struggles to eliminate the personal. American society, more subtly, would restrict personality to an estranged subjectivity that is cut off from ethical principle, I-Thou connection, co-creation and self-knowledge (i.e., it would identify personality with subjectivity and subjectivity with the animal aspect of the machine/ animal dichotomy).

Most experiments in alternative instruction attempt to actualize this distorted version of the personal.



            Estranged subjectivity thrust upon its own resources becomes progressively isolated. Reintegration is desperately desired. Yet in extreme discontinuity the old identities are no longer there to receive one.

There is tremendous pressure in undergraduate instruction to substitute the engineering of consent for the struggle towards progressively reasonable grounds for assent or dissent.

Instructors who are viewed as strong and whole can powerfully influence the worldview of their students. Their implicit and explicit statements that the world is essentially coherent and stable can “paper over” intimations of the fragility of the given, thus block potentialities for change.

A cadre of such instructors, of various colors, of both sexes, from diverse fields, can through force of personality maintain surface normalcy. They cannot, however, halt the changes outside the school which are the ultimate source of tension within the school.

The young live in the self-protective fantasies of their instructors.


            In so far as those instructed are an important “reference group” for faculty identity, “counter-cultural” instructors can “play off” faculty uncertainties.

There are also students who can “vote the popularity proxies” of both groups.

In so far as students can choose their own courses popularity can effect enrollment…. Everything else being equal, the greater the course enrollment the more secure the jobs of instructors and the greater the potentiality for departmental growth.

None of this is intended to impugn the integrity of such counter-cultural instructors. They are, after all, members of the same society as their students and (often quite young themselves) subject to many of the same influences.


            There is a further stage in the working out of “counter-cultural instruction” in which instructors authentically strive to speak for, from and within “youth culture.”

The explicit organizing principle alters: a distorted conception of “relevance” replaces the engineering of consent. – The interests of those instructed prior to an instructional experience are accepted as the appropriate criteria for evaluating the potentiality of that experience.

One is unlikely to reach out if unaware that there is anything to reach towards…

Conformity to the status quo is disguised by a rhetoric of freedom and liberation.

3.Dialogical Relevance

            We live within the breakdown of this order of life. Breakdown opens potentialities for exploration beyond given institutionalized themes. The patterns of counter-cultural instruction outlined above appear in situations rich with authentically humanistic potentialities.

An appropriate organizing notion would help liberate potentialities for humanistic instruction inherent in the present scene: we propose “dialogical relevance.”

Dialogical relevance opens translation of personal and group problems into disciplines and disciplines into inwardness.[5] In the natural course of events the more profoundly one enters such syntheses (always keeping in mind human limitations) the greater the scope of one’s humane sensitivity, the more developed one’s potentialities for creativity, and the more complex and accurate one’s vision of the present. 

Exert from A Dream of Reason by Avron Soyer, Continue Reading A Dream of Reason VI. Part 3 Plague Notes


[1] It is also relevant to the sociology-psychology of reason, of personal-interpersonal pathology and of motivation, and to methodology.

[2] Our notion of “the machine/animal dichotomy” is influenced by the work of Lewis Mumford and Herbert Marcuse.

[3] These notes are influenced by the work of James Baldwin.

[4] The notion of a language of “gesture” and “scene” enters this essay through the work of the anthropologist John Roberts and through the symbolic interactionist tradition of Howard Becker, Erving Goffman and Everett C. Hughes.

[5] (1996) The orientation outlined in this essay does not side with required courses against electives, (extreme standardization does not adequately respect and engage the dialogue of unique, group and species themes). Moreover it resists incorporation in the ongoing debate centered on the anti-intellectual banal slogan “political correctness” (Berman).

The slogan “political correctness” raises the important problem of the appropriate relationship between politics and education. Yet it poses this issue one sidedly…as though there is no political pressure on education from the government, from administration, from conservative and reactionary faculty and students, but only from feminists and their allies.

From the perspective of sociology-psychology this important issue should be considered fairly in its full implications. The following questions are relevant: What is education? What are the personal-interpersonal processes of and preconditions for education? What is intended by “academic freedom”? To whom, under what conditions, and in what settings is academic freedom intended to apply? Were the “original intentions” reasonable? Do they require translation into present discourse? What are the potentialities, responsibilities and limitations of “the disciplinary”? What is the relationship of education and of politics to human potentialities for freedom, reason, creativity, I-Thou sensitivity and self-knowledge?


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