“Getting it wrong from the beginning”

Theodor Adorno

I’ve been reading Kieran Egan’s text on education, Getting it Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget (Yale University Press, 2002).  What a great, thought provoking book.  It describes in part the career and pedagogy of Herbert Spencer, who believed that a classical education was only “ornamental” and promoted instead a kind of utilitarian viewpoint, focused on the practical and on meeting the needs of the time.   I once worked in the same department Egan teaches in, at S.F.U. (I tutored E.S.L. graduate students, his position there had rather more leverage).   This book goes, for me, hand in hand with another life changing book, The Modern Practice of Adult Education: A Post-Modern Critique, by Derek Briton (State University of New York Press, 1996).  Briton’s thesis is that the whole post-secondary education system has been designed not to engender critical thinking but to replicate itself by unquestioningly repeating the same questions (focusing on secondary sources for verification) and the same research methods, to the same ends – a tenured professorship.  I got so excited about this book that I bought ten copies and gave them to people I cared about.   And I’ve been reading a very difficult philosopher, Theodor Adorno, who says things like, “Because thought has by now been perverted into the solving of assigned problems, even what is not assigned is processed like a problem,” and “An emancipated society, on the other hand, would not be a unitary state, but the realization of universality in the reconciliation of differences.”  I first became interested in Adorno because he described a visit to a home for people who were deaf, where they were taught sign language but, he lamented, had nothing to talk about given their circumscribed, institutionalized lives.   Adorno, says a friend who is much more learned than I in philosophy, is a philosopher’s philosopher – he’s better to read explanations of than to read him directly, or at least read the explanations before tackling him, I was told.

All of this is making me think of several conversations I am engaged in, about the field of supports for disability.   I believe we are on the verge of a shift that has to do with authentic interdependence, and community, and that the more people are paid to take on roles with people with disabilities, the more distancing it is for community.   The roles become the person.  The people with disabilities become subject to the roles, without agreement.   In an online conversation the other day a self advocate with an intellectual disability said to a staff person who referred to those he supports as “clients,” “please don’t call us clients – we are self-advocates and people with disabilities.”  The staff said, essentially, that he was a professional, he was trained and educated and had years of experience in this field, and that he believed that those he supported were indeed “clients” and was comfortable with the choice of word.   “I’ve thought about this a lot and they are clients.”  They are the recipients of his professional services.

The self advocate backed down and said that everyone had a right to their opinion.   Is this true?  Do you have the right to call me a faggot if I tell you I prefer a different term, or by virtue of refusing to respect my wishes about what I am named are you in fact bullying me?   Only an assumption that I was diminished, less than, would allow your language to trump my own.  And that your language was equally the vehicle of my diminishment would be a conversation…  but “client” is not, says the “professional,” a term of diminishment.   Really?

Adorno’s early work argued that the age of enlightenment led, not to enlightenment, but to “a pattern of blind domination, domination in a triple sense: the domination of nature by human beings, the domination of nature within human beings, and, in both of these forms of domination, the domination of some human beings by others” (Stanford).  Writing before, during and after the Nazis, Adorno started to think about different ways in which humans are commodified and made comparisons between popular culture and fascism, and given that the death camps created a “new categorical imperative” on the condition of un-freedom suggested that the demand on philosophy was a corollary that was perhaps impossible – a kind of vision of what might be / might have been (one writer says Adorno’s attempt is to describe a glimpse of what we’ve missed out on, on what we’ve missed out on out of a kind of fear of anything less than what appears to be rational and reasoned).

This all leads to a new book by Kelley Johnson and Jan Walmsley, with Marie Wolfe, People with Intellectual Disabilties: Towards a Good Life? in which the authors, pioneers of inclusive research methods (inclusive research trains people with disabilities as “research partners” who take on increasing responsibility for social and programmatic criticism, bringing them yet another step closer to designing and monitoring the kind of government they are part of the citizenry of).   This book makes an argument that “services” and the “service system” are based on the assumption that people with disabilities are unable to reason, and that this “centrality of reason” in western philosophy leads to a continuum of ideas at the far end of which is Peter Singer and his argument for eugenics given that babies with disabilities will grow into adults “without the capacity for conscious experience, reflection, planning or memory” and therefore will never be able to stop and reflect on what, indeed, is a “good life” (37).

If I think of some of my friends with disabilities who are so certain of what they value in life – their relationships, their sense of purpose, their ability and desire to assist others in gracious ways that ask for nothing in return, their steadiness in terms of wanting to think things through in careful ways to make contributing decisions as participatory leaders…  I know Singer is wrong.  And yet he’s at one end of a continuum – somewhere near the other end is the fellow who insists he’s a professional and that those he supports are clients.   Somewhere just the other side of him are some really nice people who want to “take care of” people with disabilities whether they like it or not.   In the Social Construction of Disability Mark Rapley deconstructs the language used by carers in their conversations with those they support to show that in every sentence they are saying, between the lines, “you are incapable, you need me, you can’t do this.”  It’s frightening.

But what might it be like to spend days with the “professional” fellow?  I can imagine what it’s like for someone with a disability to spend a day with Singer, and I imagine, and hope, that they’d reject him and leave.   But these others, more concerned to appear friendly and inclusive but demanding their due: “they say different things to make you think that they are part of it [self advocacy] and then they do something else. . . .  say they’re gonna go somewhere in the neighbourhood and go into an institution and they lock ’em up.  ‘We are going on an outing,’ and all of the sudden you are in a nursing home or off in an institution,” as self advocate Tia Nellis says.

We can look at the idea of “professional” as described by Wikipedia:

A professional is a person who is paid to undertake a specialised set of tasks and to complete them for a fee. The traditional professions were doctors, lawyers, clergymen, and commissioned military officers. Today, the term is applied to estate agents, surveyors , environmental scientists, forensic scientists, educators, and many more. The term is also used in sports to differentiate amateur players from those who are paid — hence “professional footballer” and “professional golfer”.

In some cultures, the term is used as shorthand to describe a particular social stratum of well educated, mostly salaried workers, who enjoy considerable work autonomy, a comfortable salary, and are commonly engaged in creative and intellectually challenging work.  Less technically, it may also refer to a person having impressive competence in a particular activity.

Because of the personal and confidential nature of many professional services and thus the necessity to place a great deal of trust in them, most professionals are subject to strict codes of conduct enshrining rigorous ethical and moral obligations.  (Wikipedia)

So is this really what that fellow does at work all day long?  In my experience the idea of  being a “professional” had mostly to do with various interactions where one was expected to do more, or know more, or be disempowered.   In a day program I used to work in where the stated objective was the facilitation of augmentative communication for people who could not speak, the staff were specifically trained and asserted that they were “professional.”   They spent whole days creating communication symbols that were never used and when I started there, they would have said this was partly because the supervisor made them do it.   But when that supervisor left, and a new one started, they insisted that she too, make them follow this schedule of creating communication symbols.   I used to stick bits of scotch tape on the backs on the symbols and when people would point to a symbol that said “take me for coffee” I would take them.   It made me very unpopular and, in the end, the staff most concerned with being a “professional” went to the supervisor’s supervisor and got himself promoted and the very next day wrote a new program policy that said we were not allowed to leave the building for “unauthorized educational purposes.”   Hmmm…

In other news, I’ve had a lovely time on this site 🙂

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