[Air-l] Dreyfus on embodiment and education

Charles Ess cmess at lib.drury.edu
Wed Mar 13 14:07:51 PST 2002

Colleagues (with apologies to air folk who also subscribe to HUMANIST)

As I work through Hubert Dreyfus' _On the Internet_ (Routledge, 2001), I'm
much impressed with his development of a phenomenological analysis of
learning (moving from novice through competence to expert, mastery, and
practical wisdom - Aristotle's _phronesis_), as this learning is tied to
embodiment (especially as characterized through the work of Merleau-Ponty).

I commend Dreyfus' book to aoir folk - especially those interested in issues
of embodiment, distance education, factors at work in online community, and
what it might mean to be a good teacher.

One, his taxonomy of learning - originally developed as part of his
important critiques of the claims of Artificial Intelligence in the last
century (amazing that we can say that...) - strikes me as sound and
instructive.  This taxonomy is of interest in good measure as it depends on
an analysis and evocation of embodiment that I find rich and helpful -
indeed, at times poetic.  Here let me only cite his summary as a way of
suggesting what his analysis portrays:

Šour sense of the reality of things and people and our ability to interact
effectively with them depend on the way our body works silently in the /
background.  Its ability to get a grip on things provides our sense of the
reality of what we are doing and are ready to do; this, in turn, gives us a
sense both of our power and of our vulnerability to the risky reality of the
physical world.  Furthermore, the body¹s ability to zero in on what is
significant, and then preserve that understanding in our background
awareness, enables us to perceive more and more refined situations and
respond more and more skillfully; its sensitivity to mood opens up our
shared social situation and makes people and things matter to us; and its
tendency to respond positively to direct engagement with other bodies
underlies our sense of trust and so sustains our interpersonal world.  All
this our body does so effortlessly, pervasively, and successfully that it is
hardly noticed.  That is why it is so easy to think that in cyberspace we
could get along without it, and why it would, in fact, be impossible to do
so. (71f.) 

Two, Dreyfus' taxonomy is important because of what it implies concerning
the strengths and limits of distance education and telepresence as currently
implemented. Briefly, on Dreyfus' showing, distance education - because it
does not engage the embodied human being in important ways - is not likely
to help distance learners move beyond the level of competence (the third of
seven levels).  Whatever one's views regarding the value and efficacy of
distance learning, Dreyfus' analysis seems to me to require careful
attention and discussion - especially if we as teachers aspire to helping
our students move to the levels of mastery, expertise, and practical wisdom.
Finally, whatever one's interest in issues of embodiment vis-a-vis distance
learning, Dreyfus' analysis of what goes on in the classroom of a good
teacher (blessed with good students) - along with analogous situations in
developing musical ability, interning with a physician, learning to play
football (!), learning to risk and trust as a human being, etc. - provides
one of the more sensitive and insightful accounts of what I think we (if I
may speak so presumptively) attempt to do as teachers.  His descriptions
have helped articulate for me that domain of tacit knowledge that is
otherwise so difficult to make explicit and bring to the foreground for
reflection - and I believe my teaching will improve as I consider some of
his points regarding what we "do" in a classroom that we can't do, for
example, through distance learning or telepresence.

I hope this tidbit encourages your interest!  Comments and suggestions


Charles Ess
Director, Interdisciplinary Studies Center
Drury University
900 N. Benton Ave.                          Voice: 417-873-7230
Springfield, MO  65802  USA            FAX: 417-873-7435
Home page:  http://www.drury.edu/ess/ess.html
Co-chair, CATaC 2002: http://www.it.murdoch.edu.au/~sudweeks/catac02/
"...to be non-violent, we must not wish for anything on this earth which the
meanest and lowest of human beings cannot have." -- Gandhi

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