On the Destructive Power of Measureable Learning Objectives (#poem #NaPoWriMo)

pointing-devilDay 8 of NaPoWriMo asks us to write poetry using the jargon of our professions (or someone else’s profession). As a philosophy instructor, my only learning objective was to destroy the smug and self-satisfied confidence my students had in their own knowledge. Petty of me, I know.

Your destruction is both
Achievable and measurable
Because I’ve developed my
Learning objectives with care.

Eliot showed you fear
In a handful of dust,
But I will sow panic and
Confusion with only a question.

I will dash your gods
Against the rocks.
I will make you doubt
Your very existence.

Darkness will envelop you.
Your sure footing will erode
Into blind, directionless
Stumbling in a cavernous abyss
As your world dissolves in disillusion.

Eons of random events brought
Us to this moment and this
Particular arrangement of cosmic
Dust and energy, but only now
You realize you’ve lost your way.

I am the dark demon raising the spectre
Of wasted life, of a mind unmoored.
Your breakdown is the final
Documented learning objective.

Your own failed attempt at a
Meaningful life is the ultimate
Outcome-based assessment,
Yielding data for the ravenous
Sisyphean minions to chew
And regurgitate for eternity.

The limits of client autonomy in psychotherapy

In the movie, Analyze This, a psychiatrist has to deal with treating a criminal whose anxiety interferes with his ability to do his job, which includes killing people. The movie is a preposterous and rather horrifying scenario, but it doesn’t challenge accepted ethical guidelines on client autonomy—clients do not have a right to request treatment to enable them to harm others. Such demands are well outside of the scope of client autonomy.

While no one (all right, so I can’t promise there is not some sick exception out there) thinks clients should have unlimited autonomy, maximizing autonomy has been particular focus of bioethics since its inception in the 1970s. This, combined with movements in psychotherapy and feminism to empower both clients generally and women in particular, gives way to some perplexing situations. This is particularly true, to my mind, in cases of so-called “internalized oppression.”

In the 1980s, feminist philosopher Dale Spender rejected the idea of singular truths as being too oppressive, claiming instead, “Only within a multidimensional framework is it possible for the analysis and explanation of everyone to avoid the pitfalls of being rejected, of being classified as wrong.” Spender was specifically advocating a multidimensional view of reality as a way of empowering women.

Similarly, collaborative therapy intends to empower clients by rejecting preconceived notions of truth and meaning, or even of therapeutic goals. In her 1997 book, Conversation, Language, and Abilities, Harlene Anderson writes, “A therapist is not a detective who discovers the truth, or what is true or truer, false or falser.” She goes on to say, “A therapist does not control the conversation, for instance, by setting its agenda or moving it in a particular direction of content or outcome. The goal is not to take charge or intervene.”

So, what is to be done with a client who embraces and fails to question a system that is oppressive, hierarchical, and one-dimensional? If a client has embraced a system that devalues the worth of the client, it would seem honorable and right for the therapist to guide the client to question a system that is degrading and demoralizing, rather than helping the client explore ways to function more effectively within that system. Of course, a therapist may simply open a conversation and hope the client with find liberation on his or her own, but this is a disingenuous respect for multiple truths.

Commenting on the goals of multidimensional feminism, Jean Grismshaw said, “The fact that one group has power over and exploits another, cannot be reduced to anyone’s belief that this is so; nor does the fact that someone does not understand their own experience in terms of oppression or exploitation necessarily mean that they are not oppressed or exploited.”

A belief in moral progress entails a conviction that some truths are better than others. We must believe that changing what we believe can make the world better. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, the philosopher who has become enlightened will not want to return to improve the affairs of men, but it is a duty to do so. If those who are in chains do not realize they are in chains, those who are free must help them.

William James, who I believe is one of the greatest psychological theorists of all time, also rejected the certainty of truth, but he noted that when we give up certainty, we “do not thereby give up the quest for truth itself. We still pin our faith on its existence, and still believe that we gain an ever better position towards it by systematically continuing to roll up our experiences and think.” James also believed in progress—epistemic progress and social progress. A commitment to truth does not demand that we discount the knowledge or experience of others, but it does demand that we constantly seek what is better in our lives.

While we may not pass judgment on someone who does not share our values, the values we hold most deeply must remain important to us. If our own values mean nothing to us, our lives have no meaning. The postmodern therapist has values and wants others to share them; otherwise there is no point in seeking healing. If we don’t seek more valuable lives, there is no point in living.

Some basic ideas regarding knowledge

This is information for students and may be less than entertaining, provocative or illuminating for others. The following are some ideas related to knowledge and how philosophers regard knowledge:

Realism–This is a belief that there is a “real world” outside of our minds that has features corresponding to certain facts that are not dependent on our language, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, or prejudices.

Anti-Realism–While it may seem that this would claim there is no such world as described by the realist, the anti-realist claims that whatever world exists outside of our language, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, or prejudices, whether it exists or not, cannot be known.

Verificationism–Some feel that we should attempt to improve our knowledge by verifying what is true and what is not true. Verificationism typically involves testing our knowledge against our experience through observation, mathematical analysis, or, in some cases, our emotional responses to things (this last one is quite controversial and will be discussed later if I get around to it). While the attempt to verify knowledge seems an attempt to discover the “real world,” one may claim that any form of verificationism is a form of anti-realism, given that verification relies on our perceptions, observations, language, and beliefs to be practiced.

Relativism–Relativists believe that our beliefs and knowledge claims are formed by our individual or cultural experiences and that there is no unifying conception of reality shared by all humans. In its crudest form, relativism claims that no claim to knowledge is superior to another. If someone from one culture believes that disease is caused by angry gods and someone from another culture claims disease is caused by viruses and bacteria, then it is a kind of arrogance, or worse, cultural imperialism to claim that one view is better than another. A more nuanced view would claim that cultural perceptions form our descriptions of things and those descriptions form our thoughts, given that thoughts are expressed through language.

Skepticism–Skepticism is a view that it is impossible to know what is real or not real outside of our own minds. Skepticism manifests itself in a variety of ways. The skeptic may approach life with a great deal of humility, recognizing that claims to truth are ephemeral and fleeting. The skeptic may be committed to verifying truth claims with the understanding that any truth claim may be modified. Or, the skeptic may decided to focus on the only thing any individual can truly claim to know, the contents of one’s own experience. This last approach leads directly to something called phenomenology, which is not the subject of this blog.

As for myself, I attempt to approach life from a standpoint of skeptical humility. I think that beliefs should be based on the best available evidence, but I also believe that modifications to such beliefs are always possible and, indeed, necessary. With hard work and attention, we can improve our lives by discovering beliefs that enhance our lived experience rather than impeding it.