Sunday, June 10, 2007

Berthoff, "The Problem of Problem Solving"

Berthoff, Ann E. "The Problem of Problem Solving." CCC 22.3 (1971): 237-242.

In reply to Janice Lauer's "Heuristics and Composition," a brief essay and 200-item bibliography of research in psychology, Berthoff presents a polemical critique of "problem-solving" and of the singling out of psychological or political matters as relates to the teaching of writing: "every issue in public life has mutually defining psychological and political aspects, the exact relationship of which it is a primary and continuing intellectual task to discover" (237). Berthoff positions two figures, Lauer and Louis Kampf, each as the representative of a problematically extreme stance that tips too far toward psychology, on the one hand (in the case of Lauer), and too far toward political radicalism, on the other (in the case of Kampf and his eliminationist pleas). Berthoff focuses on "the psychological inadequacies and political dangers of problem-solving as a pedagogical concept" (237).

Berthoff says that she has sampled from Lauer's list and that she has grave concerns about the lack of "pedagogical grist": "Accepting [the guidance of the psychologists], we would be led from our English maze only to be abandoned among task definitions, communication frames, non-verbal processes and all other features of a strangely familiar landscape" (238). This disjuncture, Berthoff explains, has much in common with the differences that led the Dartmouth Conference to be a failure; in effect, the agendas of psychology (Lauer later comments that Berthoff treats psychology too singularly, too monolithically) tend to avoid, or at the very least downplay, politics. She draws on I.A. Richards' to explain her skepticism toward importing information theory, referring to his essays "So Much Nearer" (1968) and "Speculative Instruments" (1955), both of which offer "an important line of defense against the influence of psychologists and linguistic scientists outside of the field of their competence" (238). Berthoff rails against the "technicians" on Lauer's list, suggesting that such approaches to language "falsely [define] the forms of knowing" (238). Rather than relying on such expert-technicians from another field, "English teachers should dare to raise their own questions about the nature of learning and knowing and should dare, furthermore, to answer some of those questions which have been thought to lie in the province of the problem-solvers, that protectorate of educational psychology" (239).

Next, Berthoff notes that psychology of learning can be "politically dangerous unless it is conceived in the context of a sound sociology of knowledge" (239). Heuristics as problem-solving, then, risk falling in accordance with preparations for a bureaucratized society: "The concept of problem solving serves the belief that the school's function is to prepare citizens for life in a technological society" (239). In effect, problem-solving serves "commercial interests" (239). Alternative figures (Jane Addams at Hull House, Maria Motessori, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Paulo Freire) serve Berthoff's basic claim: cultural revolution is dependent upon literacy, and so literacy teachers must be wary of following the path of educational psychologists (e.g., those listed by Lauer) or those who, like Kampf, would argue the freshman writing curriculum as a politically oppressive instrument of the state that must be abolished. Berthoff ends by leaning on Freire's work with the idea of "problematizing the existential situation" (241) because naming (world-making via language) "wins knowledge that can liberate" (241). The act of naming is invested and re-invested in the act of knowing [tie: folksonomy/ taxonomy]. Before ending with a series of quotations, Berthoff invokes Coleridge's advice: "Know your knowledge" (241).

Although the direct relevance of this debate to "heuristics" (as I want to use it in the diss) is, as of yet, tentative, the Lauer-Berthoff disagreement does serve as a backdrop--as one current in the water under the bridge--to the surfacing of the Flower-Hayes process model that first started to circulate in 1977 with their College English essay, "Problem-Solving Strategies and the Writing Process" (CE 39.4, 449-461). Lauer and Berthoff weren't the only ones in the rising discipline of rhet-comp to discuss problem-solving, but the reappearance of the phrase in the title of the earliest* Flower-Hayes article seems significant. Does the Lauer-Berthoff argument predict the fall-out over the Flower-Hayes model more than a decade later? Whether it does or not, the debate over problem-solving resonates with many of the contemporary debates where models are mischaracterized as determinative, apolitical, neutral, and inherently at odds with maxims such as "Know your knowledge" (241). In fact, Berthoff's strong statements against "technicians," where she instead argues for teachers to "raise their own questions," could be framed as a call for legitimacy and for pluralism in model-making, where rather than inheriting models from the psychologist's wheelhouse, teachers have a hand in the creation of dynamic pedagogies.

* - ???

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