Habit and Inhabitance: An Analysis of Experience in the Classroom

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  • Habit and Inhabitance: An Analysis of Experience in the ClassroomAuthor(s): James OstrowSource: Human Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2 (1987), pp. 213-224Published by: SpringerStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20008997 .Accessed: 25/06/2014 00:36

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  • Human Studies 10: 213-224 (1987) ? Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht

    - Printed in the Netherlands

    HABIT AND INHABITANCY AN ANALYSIS OF EXPERIENCE IN THE CLASSROOM*

    JAMES OSTROW

    Department of Behavioral Sciences, Bentley College, Waltham, MA 02254

    In this paper I focus on the phenomenon of environment on the level at

    which it is a lived context for human action and consciousness, but is not

    an object of consciousness, i.e., not a matter for attention and reflection.

    The focus of my considerations will be the pupil's prereflective familiarity with the school environment, which I take to be the experiential grounds for being disposed to the particular practices of the classroom, including those that teachers might view as 'learning activities'. In this way I hope to demonstrate the importance of the phenomenological exploration of

    prereflective experience for sociology, particularly that area of the sociol?

    ogy of knowledge that concerns itself with the problem of 'common sense'.

    I believe that a principal objective of phenomenological reflection in the

    social sciences is to explicate the prereflective sensibility of inhabiting an

    environment. Contemporary sociology is indebted to the efforts of Alfred

    Schutz, who conceived of the basis for socially shared knowledge in terms

    of the taken-for-grantedness of everyday life, and helped sensitize us to the

    unreflective, habitual qualities of human consciousness. Nevertheless, I be-.

    lieve the notion of taken-for-grantedness pulls us away from an apprecia? tion of the lived significance of the habitual. The concept does little more than identify habits of behavior and consciousness in their absence in re?

    flection. It indicates nothing about the presence of the dynamics of habit in prereflective experience.

    The insufficiency of the idea of 'taken-for-grantedness' for comprehend?

    ing the depth of individuals' familiarity with their environments relates di?

    rectly to the problem of understanding classroom experience. In his text,

    Life in Classrooms, Philip Jackson notes the typically min?scule amount of

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  • 214

    information about a school day that most pupils disclose to their parents.

    This is attributed to the confinement of the parents' interests to the 'spice

    of school life rather than its substance', and the corresponding confine?

    ment of what the pupil is typically aware of to a

    small number of signal events - 'I got 100 on my spelling test,' 'A new

    boy came and he sat next to me' - or recurring activities

    - 'We went

    to gym,' 'We had music' His spontaneous recall of detail is not much

    greater than that required to answer our conventional questions.

    (Jackson, 1968: 3-4)

    Jackson is arguing that because the school environment is so 'taken for

    granted' and 'routine' for pupils, they typically have no memory of what

    goes on there. This seems to me a gross oversimplification of the pupil's

    consciousness. It is more accurate to say that the pupil remembers a ple?

    thora of details of that day's events, and often with an intensity that satu?

    rates his anticipation of the next day. However, it is also true that all of this

    detail is not merely kept hidden by the pupil, but is to a degree unavailable

    to awareness when interacting with his parents. This is no contradiction:

    the practicality of the situations in which we find ourselves is at once an

    environmental enclosure and generator of how we are actively aware of

    past, present, and future circumstances. This means that, as both John

    Dewey and Maurice Merleau-Ponty demonstrate in their philosophies of

    prereflective experience, consciousness is never an arbitrary occurrence, but

    instead a possibility occasioned by our acquired habits of involvement. As

    our practical conditions change, we are necessarily habituated to an?

    ticipate, expect, and focus in different ways upon the world's events. Of

    course, these shifts in habitual perspective are explicable in terms of a varie?

    ty of social circumstances. When he is with his parents, the pupil is predis?

    posed to a context of familiarity, and literally inhabits a perspective that

    engenders possibilities of feeling, thought, and expression not typically

    open to interaction with the teacher, sibling or friend.

    Therefore, it seems a safe guess that what the pupil takes for granted

    about a school day fluctuates enormously, depending on where he is and

    whom he's with. The habitual conditions of reflection, and not the famil?

    iarity of the school environment as experienced, accounts for what will

    often appear to be its 'matter-of-factness'. This is enough to seriously ques?

    tion the adequacy of the notion of the 'taken-for-granted' in an account

    of the environment as lived. As suggested in my opening statement, to say

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  • 215

    that the qualities of the school environment are taken for granted is to make

    a statement about their absence in reflective awareness and communicative

    expression, not about the qualities themselves. In other words, with this

    concept we merely recognize the existence of the prereflective sense of in?

    habiting an environment. We do not describe it at this level, and we do not,

    if we persist on a level of recognition only, understand it.

    Indeed, speaking to the derogatory connotations of the notion of

    taken-for-grantedness (e.g., he 'takes her', or she 'takes him' for granted),

    by merely recognizing without seeking to grasp the dynamics of the prere?

    flective familiarity of environment, sociology takes the familiar for grant?

    ed. The best we can do is deduce the socialization of a subject in a posited

    process of 'internalized' rules, principles, values, or typifications. From a

    phenomenological viewpoint it is readily apparent that this is a superficial conception of the genesis of sensibility and custom: it is only in terms of the directly experienced dynamics of environmental conditions that their habitual embodiment is practically intelligible and theoretically compre? hensible.

    The dynamics of prereflective habit are a fundamental concern in the

    philosophies of Dewey and Merleau-Ponty. Nevertheless, this element of

    their writings has been given far less consideration in what has come to be

    known as 'phenomenological sociology' than Schutz's theory of taken for

    granted knowledge ('typifications'). Dewey's theory of 'habits of mind' and Merleau-Ponty's theory of the habitual body share the contention that

    habits are not merely taken for granted reactions or behaviors that tend to

    repeat themselves. Habit is a sense-enabling structure of experience, but is

    irreducible to determined or determinate behavioral or cognitive schemes.

    Through the habitually familiar and dynamically familiarizing qualities of prereflective experience, everyday life is a sustained involvement within

    which situations 'make sense'. Habits are the dispositions and capabilities that comprise such involvement, which is why Dewey emphasizes that the

    'grooves' worn by habit are not necessarily grooves of routine:

    By a seeming paradox, increased power of forming habits means in? creased susceptibility, sensitiveness, responsiveness. Thus, even if we think of habits as so many grooves, the power to acquire many and varied grooves denotes high sensitivity, explosiveness (Dewey, 1925: 281)

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  • 216

    Hence, feelings, beliefs, values, or perceptions are not reducible to 'typifi

    cations' that exist aside from and prior to the situations of present expe?

    rience. Believing, valuing, perceiving, thinking, and feeling are habitual

    sensitivities of experience through which we inhabit a world possessing be?

    lievable, valuable, perceivable, thinkable, and sentient qualities.

    To say that experience is habitual is not, therefore, to suggest that expe?

    rience occurs merely on the basis of, and thus regularly 'confirms' what we

    taken for grantedly know. Dewey and Merleau-Ponty both argue that hav?

    ing meaning is a prerequisite for knowing. When Schutz conceives of the

    habitual foundations of social reality as a 'stock' of taken for granted

    knowledge (Schutz, 1970; Schutz and Luckmann, 1974), he inverts the phe? nomenological relationship between having the qualities and intensities of the lived world and knowing its meanings. It follows that what Merleau

    Ponty calls the error of 'intellectualism' applies to Schutz's theory of social

    reality: it is interpreted as if it were habitually structured on the basis of

    positing objects of reflection, rather than as a structure of the sensibility

    and significance 'which we carry about inseparably with us before any

    objectification' (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 362). The meaningfulness of the world is reduced to what we are capable of knowing, whether explicitly (the

    form of knowledge that Schutz calls 'knowing about') or tacitly (the taken for granted knowledge that Schutz calls 'knowledge of acquaintance')

    (Schutz, 1964: 91 -105). Dewey and Merleau-Ponty agree that involvement

    in the world is grounded in what Schutz calls habitual 'sedimentations' of

    meaning, but they seek to locate habit at the level of experience at which

    we embody various forms of sensitivity to the world prior to its determina?

    tion into distinct objects of knowledge. Hence, where Schutz posits a realm

    of taken for granted 'schemes' existing independent and determinate of the

    meanings of situated experience, Dewey and Merleau-Ponty conceive of

    habit according to its Latin root habere, which means 'to have' or 'to hold',

    in order to explicate the pre-objective dialectic between being and becom?

    ing sensitive to the qualities of inhabiting an environment (Merleau-Ponty,

    1962: 174). Phenomenologically, the meaningfulness of present experience is an ac?

    tivity of habit, a 'tension' (Dewey, 1931: 184) between habitual grooves of

    sensitivity and world, through which self and environment are simulta?

    neously transformed. Merleau-Ponty asserts that 'habits express our power

    of dilating our being in the world' (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 143). The pheno?

    menological theory of habit is a theory of the structure of actual expe

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  • 217

    rience, not a process of deducing latent determination of experience.1 The

    remainder of my discussion takes its departure from Dewey's and Merleau

    Ponty's common insight that habits are operative in the formed and form?

    ing sensitivity of present experience.

    A phenomenological conception of habit suggests an explication of the

    socio-historical conditions of the school environment as a dynamic realm

    of possibilities open to the sensitivity of self-as-pupil. In the present dis?

    cussion I content myself with the analysis of one brief incident, a particle of the school day, that I hope offers some indication of the usefulness of

    phenomenological exploration of the prereflective habituality of an envi?

    ronment. The following example is from Jules Henry's chapter on school?

    ing in Culture Against Man.

    Boris had trouble reducing '12/16' to the lowest terms, and could only get as far as '6/8'. The teacher asked him quietly if that was as far as

    he could reduce it. She suggested he 'think'. Much heaving up and down and waving of hands by other children, all frantic to correct him.

    Boris pretty unhappy, probably mentally paralyzed. The teacher,

    quiet, patient, ignores the others and concentrates with look and voice on Boris. She says, 'Is there a bigger number than two you can divide

    into the two parts of the fraction?' After a minute or two, she becomes more urgent, but there is no response from Boris. She then turns to the

    class and says, 'Well, who can tell Boris what the number is?' A forest

    of hands appears, and the teacher calls Peggy. Peggy says that four

    may be divided into the numerator and the denominator. (Henry, 1963: 295-296)

    The scenario of pupils taking turns performing before the rest of the class

    is a 'typical' one - a regular occurrence in any conventional school setting.

    The objective social features of this circumstance -

    perhaps the most cen?

    tral of which is the fact that the teacher solicits pupils to be visibly produc? tive in her presence and also prescribes how they should do so

    - are all

    routine for pupils, and so rarely matters for reflection. Yet, apart from its

    'taken for granted' status in reflection, these conditions are quite vivid in

    experience -

    intense enough to occasion a variety of emotions, including

    unhappiness, yearning, or joy. The intrinsic quality of Boris' experience as one of 'failure', or Peggy's

    as 'success', presupposes their rootedness within particular contexts of ha?

    bitual sensitivity. Certainly, Boris must possess a particular disposition to

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  • 218

    ward the situation, and have a sense of its impediments, or there would be

    no basis for his unhappiness. With our 'cultural knowledge' of the class? room setting, Boris' unhappiness seems only natural: how else does one ex?

    per...

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