Grounded, Experiential Teaching about Violence
Russel Lawrence Barsh and Chantelle Marlor
Barsh is Associate Professor of Native American Studies, University of Lethbridge and an HFG Grantee. Marlor is a graduate student in sociology at the University of British Columbia.
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Recognizing Subjectivity | As long as we are human and possess feelings, we react subjectively to the people and social processes we study. Whether or not we are conscious of our subjectivity, or acknowledge its influence on our work, it is inherent in our psychology as social beings. We participate subjectively and emotionally in every interview and experiment, even if we make our observations through a one-way mirror.

We also respond subjectively and emotionally to non-human animals and purely physical phenomena. Physical chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi argued that all knowledge is personal and necessarily reflects our humanness and human-centered scales of value:

If we decided to examine the universe objectively in the sense of paying equal attention to portions of equal mass, this would result in a lifelong preoccupation with interstellar dust, relieved only at brief intervals by a survey of incandescent masses of hydrogen—not in a thousand million lifetimes would the turn come to give man even a second's notice. It goes without saying that no one—scientists included—looks at the universe this way, whatever lip-service is given to "objectivity" (Polanyi 1958: 3).

Anthropologists have embraced Polanyi's conclusion that experience exists only within particular cultural and interpersonal contexts, adopting "dialogical" methods in which the data consist of conversations between the anthropologist and her subjects, and it is recognized that the interviewer is chiefly learning about herself. In their studies of non-human social behavior, by comparison, Bernd Heinrich, Michael Fox, and Frans de Waal have drawn consciously and creatively on their subjectivity as a source of testable hypotheses: if particular chimpanzees seem to be behaving generously or unselfishly, for example, can we use this possibility to construct better experiments or more explanatory models of chimpanzee society?

Reading and talking about issues such as violence elicits feelings in students, and triggers recall of their own experiences—some of them unpleasant. Repressed memories influence our thinking and behavior even if we are completely unaware of them, or make vigorous efforts to disregard them, as considerable bodies of research on war psychiatry and the social psychology of negative stereotypes have shown. Pretending to be objective and banishing the expression of personal feelings from the classroom cannot remove the effects of unvoiced feelings and memories on students' understanding of the curriculum. We believe that it is better to identify and address students' subjectivity and the attendant attitudes and biases regarding the contents of the course.

There are ethical as well as analytical hazards in theorizing about "them" before we understand something about "us." Persistently studying social behavior in the context of others attributes societal "problems" to them. It assigns blame to them, and arrogates to ourselves the wisdom and authority to judge, correct, or punish their behavior without a candid examination of our own conduct and responsibilities. This is particularly true in the case of violence studies. Courses should not imply that others are the victims and the perpetrators of violence, exonerating everyone in the classroom and the academy. In our view, learning to blame and pity others without developing critical self-awareness may be good training for a privileged and powerful elite, but it is not good science.

Experience and Comprehension | Building on students' personal experiences with violence is not only a strategy for teaching them to recognize and address their own subjectivity. It also contributes to their comprehension of the subject matter and their ability to apply their classroom insights to concrete situations in their daily lives. Since the 1960s, a growing number of educators have endorsed "experiential" pedagogy, which helps students connect theories with action, from the primary to university levels (reviewed by Gruber and Richard 1990).

Experiential learning is not new. Everyone has learned experientially, and there are many things that we cannot learn by other means. No one has ever learned to ride a bicycle or pitch a baseball from a book. These skills are learned and improved through repeated action, and by finding ways of adapting one's body to get the desired results. Indeed, Zen Buddhists argue that motor skills are best learned and performed by suspending conscious thinking altogether (the principle of No-Mind). Thinking and the use of words are distractions from the complex and subtle interrelationships of the eyes, hands, and muscles.

Everyday experiential learning is not limited to motor skills. A child entering a room filled with unfamiliar adults has already learned to be a good social scientist. She has developed the ability to identify tolerant, emotionally responsive individuals and to avoid potentially hostile ones. She has begun generalizing from her daily observations of adult behavior to construct predictive social-psychological models. As she grows older, her experiential horizons will widen to include formal education, the mass media, and membership in a variety of groups. Her models will be culturally influenced, and will merge somewhat with the models and beliefs of the people with whom she interacts.

In the 1920s, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget concluded that children are not passive receptacles of information but active explorers who generate and test hypotheses about reality based on their experiences. As children master more complex tasks, they utilize their experience to construct more powerful models. George Kelly and Lawrence Kohlberg subsequently extended Piaget's theory of cognitive development to the child's modeling of social and psychological as well as physical phenomena. Everyday social interaction is guided by the ability to engage in "mindreading," a skill developed through experience and model-building (Whiten 1991).

Children everywhere appear to reorganize their conceptions of moral and social order in paradigmatic leaps as they grow older, and each child's empirical observations—her experience—triggers her discovery of new ways of understanding the world. This explanation of individual cognitive development parallels Thomas Kuhn's theory of the history of Western science. Kuhn suggested that "revolutions" in scientists' shared basic conceptions of reality do not simply arise from the accumulation of increasingly precise data, but are triggered by scientists' sudden realization that they have been overlooking important types of data. Scientists' efforts to reconcile old theories with new types of information can result in a complete reconfiguration of their worldview (or in Kuhn's terminology, their paradigm).

Linking Theory, Perception, and Action | We are all scientists, in the sense that we try to understand and predict the events around us (Kelly 1963). We explore the world through our senses, actions, and thoughts, and periodically develop, revise, and replace personal theories that attempt to explain how the world works. Our understanding of a phenomenon is "real" when our personal theory enables us to make reliable predictions based upon our sensory perceptions (Duckworth 1987). The theories we are taught at school do not cultivate "real" understanding, however. We can recite them, and even may be able to apply them to problems posed by instructors or in textbooks, but we do not spontaneously utilize them in relevant contexts outside the classroom.

As an example of this problem, Eleanor Duckworth tells the story of a colleague's graduate course on teaching mathematics. While learning how to demonstrate some of the principles of geometry using a geoboard (a pegboard with an array of nails on which shapes can be created and manipulated using elastic bands), one teacher "discovered" that the area of a triangle is one-half the length of its base times its height, regardless of its angles. She had been taught the familiar formula for calculating the area of a triangle years earlier, but it became "real" understanding, rather than simply recitation, only when she had learned it for herself through action.

Most of our students have already taken introductory courses in social sciences. They are hard pressed to produce examples of social dominance or aggression in their own lives, however, despite the fact that they live in a racially divided community and attend a relatively authoritarian institution! They have learned to recite any number of social science theories, but do not yet recognize the application of those theories to their everyday experience and personal choices. A mind filled with theories about the nature of racism and domination can simultaneously hold racist beliefs and violent motivations. Learning abstract ideas does not change behavior. If the goal of violence studies is to reduce violence, students' feelings must be aroused through social interaction with each other and with other victims and perpetrators of violence.

Direct, emotional contact with others, sometimes described as empathic knowing (Cell 1984), has generally been acknowledged as the most effective way to teach interpersonal skills in the health and mental health fields (Burnard 1996). There is also a growing body of experimental evidence that experiential or empathic classroom activities reduce aggressive behavior and increase cooperation among children (see, for example, Roberts and Strayer 1996).

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