Content is people – exploring the myth of content

I tend to read (that is, listen to audiobooks) fairly indiscriminately in my spare time. I’m currently caught between reading fantasy novels with my son, re-reading the Iliad, two Sarah Vowell books and a pop-anthropology book called Sapiens. I know i’m not going to remember most of what i read in 12 minutes drives to and from the grocery store so i mostly like books that i can drop in and out of. I also like to be entertained by people’s ideas… regardless of whether they are ‘accurate’. Threaded through the wild and rollicking ride of conjecture, research and really snappy one liners that is Harari’s book Sapiens, are some very entertaining ideas. One of them is a particular view of how we are knitted together by our myths.

He sees myths as shared stories that we use to allow us to communicate and relate to large numbers of other humans. His argument, in part, is that the success of homo sapiens as a species is in our ability to create large scale fabrications that we can all believe in – money is a good example. Money doesn’t really ‘exist’ as a thing, it only works because we all believe it works. He makes the same argument for things like gods and corporations. They aren’t things in the world like you and I and my cat Clementine. They are shared delusions that we make real in order to cope with the complexity of our culture. All myth is, in a sense, a reification – treating an abstraction as if it were a real thing.

The thing in the container
The word ‘content’ is exactly this kind of abstraction. It’s a word that is used by almost every english speaking educator, but in many different ways.

  1. The ‘content’ of a course may be topic of the course – introductory chemistry.
  2. It may be the ‘materials’ (speaking of abstractions) like a laundry list of published articles
  3. It could be a textbook (grrr…)
  4. It may be the whole curriculum of a course – everything that happens
  5. … lots and lots of other things

And yet with all these varied ways of looking at the word, we use it to generally refer to ‘the things that are studied in that class’. They are ‘the things in the container’ of the course. But what does it mean for a course to have content? What does it mean for there to be things that are/should be in a container of first-year chemistry, or medical ethics or educational theory? These things change all the time. If you looked at the ‘content’ of courses from 50 years ago, or from another country, or even from one course to another we see a totally different things in the container.

So what dave? People teach different things. (i totally just said that in my head)

The so what here comes from our ability to choose between one ‘piece of content’ and another to include in our course. The ways in which those particular pieces of content become more popular is a weird social process. Einstein’s theories of special relavity made it to general acceptance because Max Planck supported them. They could be called ‘Universy roundy bouncy’ and be totally differently conceived if Max had found someone else first. But lets leave deep, i really don’t understand it, science aside for a moment. The laundry list of content that we read in any field is as much a matter of who popularized and named what concept at one time. It is the story that someone (or more likely, lots of someones), somewhere told. Whether it was then written down, and we forgot who wrote it, the fact remains…

We are actually just choosing the different stories that actual people have told to tell to someone else. We are choosing between people. Which is fine… it just means that the ‘content’ is actually people.

Content is people
I seem to think that this is profoundly important for learning. If we are journeying through the ideas that are made by different people, it doesn’t really matter where we start that journey. We start from the people we know, from the people we are familiar with… from a touchstone that grounds us in who we are. From there we grow out to the next piece we find and the next. The job of a teacher/instructor/guide/mentor is to continue that process of introduction as best we can manage. We may not know all the people that you might want to know, there may be two different people with the same story to share, but that’s not hugely important. We introduce you to a group of people who believe a certain way, who have a particular story to tell…

What is important is that you come to know enough of the stories of a particular field in order to be able to function in that field. As you continue to learn, you’ll acquire more stories, more ways of looking at things, more people to grow your own story with. This could the story of how you see the points of tension in your medical profession (things like prevention vs. medication), how you look at management, how you apply your own ethics to the way you vote or how you parent. As we become part of a community of knowing, our stories continue to grow. The community is always the curriculum.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

23 thoughts on “Content is people – exploring the myth of content”

  1. this is beautifully said – thanks. i actually woke up thinking about Joseph Campbell’s idea of a monomyth, wondering how that fits in with idea of rhizomatic processes… so now i’ll have to think about this too 🙂

  2. The best online teacher in higher education I ever had, had never taught and had no teacher training. He built a beautiful community in the clunkiest of text-only discussion forums. He was a childrens storyteller & writer. He used only words, but the way he used them wove us together. It was such a stand out example of low tech engagement demonstrating that tools a
    amplify the people behind them. Sometimes we think it’s the other way around. 😉

  3. @Aaron I grew up on Joseph Campbell…
    @venessa lol. yes. indeed.
    @Angela The same way we’ve been learning for millennia 🙂

    @Terry There’s a reason why i don’t quote Deleuze often. They were in a pre-existing conversation with 200 years of European philosophy. What he’s saying communicates something to me, but it’s addressed to a longstanding conversation where the minutia of his language are critical to being understood. Just like any other private language. The same experience, i’m sure, that people feel dropping into the middle of #rhizo. They were trying very, very hard to say that authority in our culture wasn’t what people thought it was.

    1. its a fair question. maybe. i really wanted to contribute the post… so i convinced myself that i could be part of the community too 🙂

  4. You know that when I said “hills and hollars” maybe I should have said a thousand hills and hollars .

  5. In science ‘content’ seems to be used to separate teaching staff from their potential to engage with the students. In humanities, whose history, whose stories, whose power is acknowledged and normalised are all highly political. In the UK Diane Reay argues that we are in an historical moment of the scholarisation of childhood – where particularly the working class then become blamed for their own lack of engagement, aspiration and success. ‘Content’ is definitely part of the problem here…

  6. As an aside, I continue to find it interesting that how we pronounce the word “content” plays a role in my thinking. It could be, the stuff we teach, as in content-area disciplines. Or it could be, I am content with the world, happy and joyful. Very different connotation, obviously, and yet, one would hope the first would slide into the second.
    Content, as in school and learning, is not a bad thing. We gather what we know and try to make sense of it as learners. As teachers, we often do narrow our expertise into some field of study or area of discipline, so that we can go deeper and bring that deeper knowledge to our students. And for ourselves.
    Where things go awry is when policy makers and large publishing companies start to dictate the terms of learning and force us into pigeon holes of content disciplines, as if the walls were solid instead of flexible.
    Yeah, I am not “content” with that.
    🙂
    Kevin

  7. I like the idea of myths, as long we we realise that’s what they are. A problem happens when we believe them (like the noble lie).

    D&G speak to me as well, as I’m used to reading that language. I think that somewhere they also make the point that if Hume (for example) had not come up with his theories, then somebody else would have made the same points.

  8. Discussions around content make me reflect on a collaborative research project I am involved in at the moment. One of the research aims is to find out about the types of knowledge that teacher educators draw on. It has made me think how we can give importance to some aspects of knowledge and minimise others according to our own values. I also agree that content is people as each group of trainee teachers becomes their own community and creates new knowledge .

  9. The way that ‘content’ is written should produce a spark of interest, that interest should then encourage development and learning, that then should produce more content and then more interest and the sentence goes on and on…..The piece that is missing here is the enthusiasm from both the teacher and the student and need to learn. Put this all together and this then enables you to ‘function in that field’ and ‘grow your own story’…..

  10. As I got to the end of your post, the word ‘bias’ came to mind. If content is people, then content is informed by our biases, and our biases are informed by the context in which experience our respective worlds. The word ‘bias’ has a negative connotation but it could also be construed as ‘values.’ As we pick through what we know, and what we want to share, we are making decisions about what we value, based on our biases (among other factors, perhaps).

    Also, I love that Terry above references Myles Horton! No one ever knows who he is when I mention him…

    1. @nancy exactly. And if we see content as ‘neutral’ as in, not attached to a particular person/perspective etc… then we start to think of it as ‘true’ rather than as just another part of the human experience of the world.

  11. Content may be a myth, but then so are people. At least mythical people, and they seem to be the ones who write most of the content we read.

    Concentrating on people – is good and bad. It gets us away from some stuff, and right slap bang into the middle of some other not so nice stuff. Scientific peer review, and indeed most scientific communities are corrupted by the short-cuts taken when assessing ideas – especially when they don’t understand those ideas. You mentioned Max Planck in this context. I think you were unfair on this mythical chap. he was judging an idea – not a person. Einstein was not a person of significance, his idea was.

    When human endeavor in the sphere of ideas, concentrates on people, and not abstractions, we can lose a great deal, and get into dangerous areas. People are important, the judgement of character and incentive is important. But so is process. So is structure, and so are the ideas. These constructs do fit into the “Community is the Curriculum” – but that is precisely because the community is not simply the people that make it up.

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