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A Taoist Perspective on the Academy's Ivory Tower

Today I was reading an academic article.  It started the way such a reading often does, with a classroom assignment.  The other pathways in which I find myself reading an academic piece is either its connection to my life's work on human change tied in with environment & education, or if I am confronted by a question and when I look inside for the answer my worldview casually shrugs its shoulders back at me saying "huh?" In this case it was an assignment, and not too related to my work.  Yet even still in its own highly indirect path it does relate, if only to demonstrate the types of thinking in which I routinely try to escape.

            When I have a question, and before reading or looking outside for an answer, my first response is to look inward to find the answer. For me, searching myself for answers rather than outside sources is a form of intellectual liberation, freedom from restrictive and limiting cultures, and common modes of thinking that feel like lesser versions of truth. I expressed my liberation recently, and to my surprise someone acknowledged it. They then posed a wonderful question to me "How do we help others to achieve what you have found?" I was shocked by this.  It felt good. I felt seen. Sure, I am liberated, yet someone acknowledged my liberation. I felt both more and less liberated as a result. More liberated because receiving a validation on anything increases one’s own confidence. Certainly, the validation reinforced my confidence in this circumstance. Less liberated because the truth of a liberated educator is to be in shackled by duty. Specifically anyone who experiences liberation has a profound obligation to support others whom are in need of liberation. It truly is a wonderful question, and bears repeating. How do we facilitate a liberatory education? Herein lies some interesting concepts, and challenging notions. Let us not take the easy way out and dismiss it as simple. It is not simple, at least not with the hegemonies of our world as they are. Maybe our kin will look to this as simple - but my gut tells me that even this is a bad thing to wish for, and perhaps a trap. Mostly because the road to liberation, I suspect, is not paved in gold, or yellow bricks. I suspect the road to liberation is not paved at all. My path to liberation has been one of struggle, challenge, failure, nearly overdrawn resilience, occasional depression, and resurgence. How did this gift of a question emerge? I will be transparent regarding my response to the academic article that pre-empted this question. 

            The article is titled "Countering Coloniality in Educational Research: From Ownership to Answerability" by Leigh Patel. For the record I'll open by saying I found the article excruciating to read. The amount of jargon tugged at me and drew me down. While I knew the meaning of the words, the concepts being presented were so simple, that the jargon served no purpose.  It merely overcomplicated the message. Any value the jargon delivered, in my opinion, was substantially outweighed by the understandability the jargon robbed from its reader. I'd even go so far as to say that the author herself was so lost and tied up in her own jargon she failed to properly deliver on her objective target. In some respects, the reading felt like a YouTube Ad of a scammer. To quote the song lyrics of Martin Gore, "To tell you everything while saying nothing."(Gore, 1989) It felt like this fictional vignette of a YouTube Ad:

"In a minute I'm going to tell you about this thing that is going to blow your mind, its super important, and 100's of people agree. Here are some of the people I've helped.  They said, 'before I learned about this I was lost, but now I’m found'. Before we go deeper, and I reveal my three step technique I need you to know why this is important. The reason why that is important is because of you. You are the reason it’s important and if you keep watching then I'll reveal why I can help you realize why you are so important".

I have said everything while saying nothing. To make a metaphor, I consider academic jargon to be both LOCK AND KEY preventing messages from travelling. As the communications cannot flow through locked passages, they cannot be the source of a liberatory message.  Yet a liberatory message is, seemingly, what the author is seeking to deliver.

            By the second page of the reading, I was already emotionally exhausted, and I had another 18 pages to go.  By page 5 I had reached a level of irrational skepticism and anger towards the author. The source of the anger was not inaccuracy of what she was saying, but rather how she was saying it, and the fact that she was saying it at all. I recall feeling exasperated at the concept of "taking a pause", as an academic construct.  This concept "taking a pause" is brought up and cited against two different authors, one in 2014, and the other in 2010.  I thought to myself, am I supposed to go read these authors papers on taking a pause? Was "take a pause" invented in 2010? In my close annotated reading of the article the margins are littered with post-it notes saying things like, "WTF seriously? Are we citing people over the idea of pause?  I mean what type of pause is this?  Spaghetti with marinara?"  I found myself satirically lashing out at the absurdity that a paper such as this is even publishable.  To me academic literature needs to offer some form of knowledge contribution.  "I paused" isn't a contribution to science. While the concept, "I paused", can and absolutely could be a contribution to a liberatory education, the mode of delivery fails to evoke pause from its readers. There is no structure of how pauses may be evoked from either others or oneself. In its function as lifting up "take a pause", it has sped right by. The paper has failed.

            I pause, inspired by millennia of sage, taking mindful moments. I look inward. I engage empathy to see the meaning the author seeks to share. I see the goal she wants. I see a goal of Indigenous liberation, Truth & Reconciliation amped up to a level that she and Indigenous people across Canada can be proud of. If we take this as the goal of her article, we can ask has she accomplished her purpose? I would answer that question as "no."

            Let me unpack my feeling further, against what I would hypothesize is the primary goal of her paper. She seeks to differentiate the words "decolonial" and "anticolonial". Part of her strategy is to problematize the word "decolonial."  Another part is to uplift "anticolonial". I feel that this approach was destined for failure in two ways before she even began.


Failure Mode One: language is a shared trust.

            As linguistic communicators, logic demands we must have similar experiences of words. To be clear our interpretation of the meaning of words need not be exact, yet they must be similar enough that when I say something you can understand my meaning. You engaged with my words, inflected with tone, performed with body language, edited with italics, bolded or underlined for emphasis, and combined into phrases. The end result, if I have communicated successfully, can be represented mathematically.  What I sent = What you received. This paper seeks to pry apart the meanings of decolonial and anticolonial, to me this seems silly. The meanings are so close, we must question will people agree to the proposed meanings? Logic suggests that few will differentiate the meaning or accept the differentiation. Certainly, people could experience these words with different meanings. Yet will this happen? Certainly not, and most definitely not if this paper is our guide. She fails to properly pry apart their meanings with me as the audience. I am an educational academic, a very active ally to the cause she is striving to support, and I quite frankly don't much feel or care about the difference that she has been seeking to evoke. Now I realize that my mind, as a sample size is exceedingly small and accordingly insignificant. I am n=1, otherwise known as a sample size of 1, and that as a massive limitation to my statement. Yet, what if I am not only n=1? Using empathy, my core skill, I can go on an empathy walk.  The simplest way to describe the empathy walk is the idea of "walk a mile in someone else's shoes".  For each empathy walk I go on, I put Vince to rest and am someone else. Each empathy walk, if the walk has any accuracy whatsoever, may serve as a step up in the n-value (the sample size). Since an empathy walk will not and cannot replace a person, the number it adds to n is less than 1. On the flip side, an empathy walk is certainly better than not doing an empathy walk, so an empathy walk is definitely greater than adding 0.  Let's say the accuracy of my empathy is .5.  Then for each empathy walk I do, the so-called sample size goes up from 1 to 1.5 to 2.0 to 2.5 and so on and so forth. Here is the thing, I can empathy walk quite quickly through the minds of those who cannot understand the jargon, fail to have access to the article, have never used google scholar, lack adequate reading level, or find the idea of differentiating decolonial and anti-colonial to be trite.  When I empathy walk, I find responses like, "I don't get it", "huh?", "uggh", and "what is that supposed to mean". Very quickly I find my n-value soaring to much higher figures than I could ever collect in a laboratory study. Do I need a laboratory study to know that "the common person" is annoyed by ideas that are written from an ivory tower? No, I don't need a study for that. That is a waste of time. This article is a waste of time. If language is a shared trust of meaning, splitting words into different meanings requires the agreement of the receiving audience. The author does not, and in my assessment of the situation, cannot receive the agreement of the audience to do so.


Failure Mode Two: recreating the problem by chasing a dream.

            Why not chase a dream?  Isn't that what we are supposed to do? To chase a dream is a phrase of self-imposed challenge us to make the world a better place for ourselves and others. That sounds great. Yet by problematizing the word decolonial, the author creates an ostracizing and invalidating force that counters those whose lives have been committed to decolonizing.  Certainly, some good has come from their decolonial efforts, yes?  Has there been weaknesses and problems around decolonial efforts?  Of that I have no doubt. Deep empowerment of the Indigenous population in Canada, would topple vast swaths of Canadian Hegemony. Any efforts working in opposition to the flows of hegemony will unavoidably face extreme difficulty. Interestingly, the author may even be right that decolonial processes are suboptimal modes for decolonizing or empowering Indigenous peoples. Whether right or wrong, it matters not. Moving a goal post from decolonial to anticolonial without addressing root causes for decolonial failures merely recreate the problem. I have seen this happen in the environmental space. There was a time it was called global warming, then the conversation shifted to "climate change". People accepted the change in terminology, yet the increased accuracy did nothing to address the unimaginable power of the fossil fuel industry. Climate change, as a term, is wrought with political connotation.  To utter the words climate change is to make a political statement in which one must choose a side, fact or fiction. I could propose that we change "climate change" to "livability ecological transformation down" or "LET down." This does absolutely nothing to counter the unimaginable power of propaganda, lobbying, and financial flows being enforced by fossil fuel companies on governments of every nation. If fossil fuel money is not addressed, climate change will continue to occur until we are all baking in yearly heat waves.

            Let us assume that Patel is 100% right, and 100% successful. We switch from decolonial to anticolonial. We evolve several new modes of engagement. The root causes for the failure of decolonialism remains unaddressed. The hegemony turns to rejecting anticolonialism, just as it rejected decolonialism. What's the next step?  Why, the failure of Anticolonialism of course. Only now we've wasted another 20 years. So, what I am saying is that this paper is a red herring. It calls attention to itself. It humbly guides a generation, and gently directs attention, saying "Lets try something new, how about this?" Yet the author is seeking systems transformation.  Where is her review of the science and evidence on how systems change?


Example of a seriously irritating sentence:

                  "True to any writing and thinking, as my own reading, understanding, and praxis around anticoloniality continues in relation to the context of educational research, I will certainly continue to pause and change my mind (A. Smith 2010)" (Patel, 2014)

            Here we see Patel write/quote a list.  "True to any" are the first words of the sentence already we are like, "uh-oh where is this headed?" Lets, start with the first three words. "True to any". "True" is a difficult thing to convey and "any" is akin to words like "always" and "never". With a buildup of "True to any" whatever comes next must be some universal truth. I imagine a sentence I might say that starts with these three words.  'True to any ... human held to the Earth by gravity, we can understand the concept what goes up must come down'."  As a sentence this works. It is true insofar as any human capable of reading this article, really must understand gravity. Failure to understand gravity, well, such a person probably wouldn't live long enough to develop the ability to read this essay. Yet, a universal truth is not what follows the grand lead in. What does follow is one the most absurd lists I've ever seen. Let’s explore just how absurd it is:


1) Writing. That's a big category. What writing? Whose writing? Why are they writing and what are they writing about?

2) Thinking. I mean wow, what do I even say to that.  Let’s just drop it in a list. It is so insane of a sentence I'm struck speechless.)

3) Reading. Same as writing.  That is a big category. What are we reading?  Movie scripts of marvel movies for anticoloniality?  I mean where are we going here?

4) Understanding.  How is this different than thinking.  What are we understanding?

5) Praxis around anticoloniality. Uggh, here comes the praxis word. Someone said to me recently, "academics don't make the change, they just tie the ideas up with nice bows".  This doesn't feel like nice bows. This feels like playing cats cradle with silly string.  It’s just a mess.

6) "I will certainly continue to pause and change my mind." I mean okay great.  Am I reading your twitter, oh that's right, I'm not because Twitter is a rotten addictive hell hole now called X.  Different name, continually escalating depravity.

            If we are trying to deliver an idea to an audience, then let’s deliver the idea. I find the idea of education scholars who fail to facilitate growth in audiences to be mentally exhausting. To return to metaphor, it is like a can opener I purchased in 2015. It failed to open a single can. Why does it exist? If I am an educational scholar, and I lack the ability to facilitate growth, then why am I here? Perhaps this comes through as cold and harsh. I have substantial tolerance for failure. I fail all the time. Failure has been my greatest teacher. I suspect that I have failed just as many or more times as the author whom I am criticizing. I seek to learn from my failures. So, when I say that this article is a failure, I am not calling its author a failure. My hope would be that the author learned from the publishing of this article, and become stronger, more competent, and more capable.

            If we wish for an article on the art of pausing. That could be worthy of reading. It could be penned by a consortium of sages; Ramana Maharishi and the Dalai Llama. It could factor in how to pause and wrest oneself away from the starving addictive claws of social media. Is an academic's initial discovery of the millennia long practice of mindfulness worthy of publication? No. It’s quite clear.  That is not publication worthy. Imagining the words of the Tao, I hear a laugh that says, "silly essayist, and silly academic peer review system, so young, so naive, you have this in common".

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