There is No Observation (Including Measurement) without Theory: The Stanley Fish View

As I have said before:

(B)ecause of a unified view of construct validity, theory (and hermeneutics) touches all aspects of validity and measurement.

One thing I meant by this is that you can’t do a good job of measuring practice or performance if you don’t understand how measures and practices are theoretically and empirically related, or as I said in my last post:

Any measure implies a theoretical rationale that links performance and measures and it can be tested validated and improved over time.

(Although the topic is faith not measurement) Stanley Fish supports the same type of idea and writes in his NY Times column:

. . . there is no such thing as “common observation” or simply reporting the facts. To be sure, there is observation and observation can indeed serve to support or challenge hypotheses. But the act of observing can itself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is) . . . because it is within (the hypothesis) that observation and reasoning occur.

I would use the word theory instead of hypothesis, which I reserve as a word for research questions in an experimental context, but otherwise the meaning is pretty much the same.

Fish goes on to explain an aspect of theory that explains why people do not like the challenges that are presented by theory and deep theoretical understanding.

While those hypotheses are powerfully shaping of what can be seen, they themselves cannot be seen as long as we are operating within them; and if they do become visible and available for noticing, it will be because other hypotheses have slipped into their place and are now shaping perception, as it were, behind the curtain.

I’m not saying it is easy, developing measures with deep understanding is difficult, but I believe the effort is well worth it when the result are better more relevant measures and better performance.

Thoughts on the “Last Professor” and instrumentality in education

Stanley Fish has again given us an interesting though in the NY time article The Last Professor.  It is a review of a book by the same name; written by his former student, Frank Donoghue.  The book is about a paradigm shift that is moving away from a traditional humanities education to a functionalists model that is taught by adjunct deliverers of information, not by teneured professors.  He traces the origins of this shift to such captions of industry as Andrew Carnegie and Richard Teller Crane late in the 19th Century.  

What is unstated in this discussion is a thorough understanding of changing conceptions of what constitutes a good education.  What is the proper purpose of learning, what is the proper subject matter and what is the proper pedagogy needed?  First, the humanities traditions were designed less for the idealized purpose of a non-instrumental celebration of the mind than they were to set apart an aristocracy of church and state.  As this aristocracy no longer exists (or at least is less obvious in its operation); so the purpose of education rightfully must shift.  Furthermore, I would look to someone other than Carnegie and Crane ( regardless of their influence and power) to understand what this shift might rightly look like.  So, let’s take each of these three questions.

What is the proper purpose of learning?

It is my belief (based on my study of Vygotsky, Dewey, Mead and others) that all learning is instrumental; that learning is for doing.  This is a broad view of doing.  In the humanities we learn to do things like think, communicate, synthesize our contexts with historical circumstances, and sometime we just learn how to be good students (whatever various people may consider that to be).  It can be expected that most people’s investment in higher education might be more narrowly instrumental (think engineering, biomedical or business).  Such an undertaking as gaining a degree demands a quick return on investment (if for no other reason than for loan repayment).

What is the proper subject matter needed today?

The humanities are as important for success as is an understanding of statistics and other mathematics.  But, it is still instrumental; learning for doing.  Tools like abilities in communication are needed throughout life, but it is not some esoteric idea of communication, it is communication as a mediational tool.  Many problems in communication occur not because people can not communicate, but they are not adept at adapting the skills they posses to the context and situation at hand.

What is the proper pedagogy needed?

The internet and social media are bringing down the walls of post-secondary institutions.  One result is that it is easier than ever to immerse students into the world.  It is now easier than ever to use new skills for mediation that is other than the satisfaction of teacher assignment; to use skills for various mediational purposes.


This does not address the tenure issue, but I’ll leave that for the next post.