Planting Landmines

The ever-thoughtful Carl Dyke graciously provided me with this expression as a way to talk about edubloggers might call “lifelong learning.” Part of teaching is about exposing students to some notions which may have radical effects later on in their lives. This is especially true for us in social sciences as some of the things we discuss not only go against the grain of some well-ingrained notions but also connect with very intimate ideas people may hold.

I think the example we were using was the construction of ideas about Nation-States/Countries, Citizenship, and Democracy. Lots of people (and, clearly, most of our students) assume that the ideas we have about States and governance are continuous and even equivalent with those held by any group at any point of history. Simply put, national identity is taken as a “natural” idea. Which makes it hard for some people to discuss such issues in a historical perspective. This is one reason I enjoyed Appiah’s “Golden Nugget” idea so much (not to mention that his talk was quite entertaining). It’s a way to put the very notion of “Civilization” in perspective (without using an evolutionary model). Carl also provided me with references to Eugen Weber and to the Taviani Brothers’ Padre Padrone. We could even use scene 3 of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (video). All of these things are, in my mind, landmines. Actually, “mind landmines” or, erm, “landminds.” (Should I get a trademark?)

Of course, literature on nationalism (Benedict Anderson, Terence Ranger, Eric Hobsbawm, etc.) can also be used. Personally, I tend to like work on similar subjects by ethnographers like Regina Bendix and Kelly Askew.

Those “landminds” are only triggered when people start really looking into issues lying underneath society and politics. But when they explode, these landminds can be quite transformative. As per the deadly effects of the explosives from which they’re inspired, these landminds destroy some apparently strong intellectual models.

So, although I see landmines as a major problem, I do see part of my work as “planting landminds.”

Much less positive than the usual “planting the seeds of knowledge” metaphors, but also much more powerful.

4 thoughts on “Planting Landmines”

  1. Thanks, AE! It’s interesting to think about the conditions that enable learning, not in the sense of amassing knowledge or mastering techniques but precisely in this transformative sense you point to. These are ‘conversion’ experiences, and as such are most likely to happen when some aspect of the original worldview or intellectual model catastrophically fails.

    Sometimes we can get this to happen by showing students things so far outside the capacity of their worldview to process that they’re thrown into productive confusion. That has to be managed very carefully, however, because the danger of defensive backlash is strong. In my view, although the image is an ‘explosive’ one it’s probably more gentle to plant the landminds and let life itself uncover them in due course.

  2. Re: the historical contingency of nation and the constructivity of theory, you might find this review of a couple books in economic sociology of significant interest. The second, Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity looks especially good.

  3. @Carl Thanks for the comments and the link!
    I’m still thinking about all those issues so the stimulation reached fairly deep.
    The explosive part is relevant in that I still feel ambivalent about being the cause for some people’s worldviews to be “destroyed.” In some cases, this destruction is generative, in simplified-deconstructionist fashion. But there are occasions in which I can’t help but understand reluctance, on the part of people who don’t want my stinkin’ landminds planted in them. A fertile terrain isn’t always so easy to find.
    As for the historical contingency of nation, I just heard an interesting comment about it in the context of technological revolutions. In a talk about institutions and collaboration, Clay Shirky made some brief comments about the Peace of Westphalia as the end of a chaotic period through the Christian schism and changes in Catholic domination.
    The connection provokes more thoughts in me for a fairly simple reason: I sincerely think that we are at the onset of a major cultural revolution.
    One thing I emphasize in my head is that it’s not the technology itself which changed, but the way technology is embedded in society. When Berners-Lee invited the WWW in 1991, the Internet had been in existence for a while. Yet, it took until 1994 or so until the ‘Net really became impactful. There might have been some technological hurdles preventing massive adoption at that point but, from what I remember, the major changes were in people’s attitude toward technology. In fact, I would say that a lot of people remained oblivious to the transformative potentials afforded the Internet for a number of years (until we had the short-lived “Bubble and Bust” period).
    People who talk about these issues tend to take McLuhan’s work at face-value, even though the Canadian dude was known to make fallacious statements. I think we can now gain much more insight into the social changes which are happening.
    One major category for current changes is Globalization. The term refers to different things in different circles, but the overall dimension is well-understood. And many people are, again, McLuhan-obsessed. Yet there’s a lot to be said about the move from industrial nations to post-industrial post-national societies. And while it’s a very imprecise parallel, I tend to agree with Shirky that there are similarities between this revolution and some periods of European history. If only because we tend to think in Kuhn’s terms instead of Foucault’s.

    BTW, I’ll eventually have some naïve questions for the historian in you. I have my own answers but I’m guessing yours can be quite useful. And they’re broad questions that students probably ask all the time. Such as: How is it that there was Democracy during Antiquity yet “The World” became Feudal during the “Middle Ages?” How is it that European societies so readily became Christian at the fall of the Western Roman Empire? Why do people in Europe and North America keep thinking that ancestry and nationality are so directly related? When did national identity supplant other group identities?
    You know, that kind of thing. I’m sure the Eugen Weber’s PBS series has great answers about these but I found it a bit too difficult to watch (for both technological and philosophical reasons).

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