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Boundary work and the hospitable border, a review of Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries by Frank Furedi

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  • 1 Cambridge University, , UK
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Routledge2020202pp • £21.99 (paperback) • £19.79 (ebook) • ISBN: 9780367416829

The argument of Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries is clear: borders and boundaries perform multiple and valuable functions for the human person across different domains (including physical, symbolic and moral). For this reason, they ought not to be abandoned in favour of an inclusivity that can be detrimental to our personal and collective lives and development. While I find myself broadly in agreement with the premise of the argument, in what follows I would like to pay close attention to the idea of openness, which Furedi notes has become bound up with non-judgement or rather fear of being judgemental (p 29). Exploring this in the context of education, I will return to what Furedi recalls of Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind, whereby ‘openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power’ (Bloom, 1987: 38, in Furedi, 2020: 32). I will suggest that Furedi points to something important in his recognition of non-judgementalism in university settings, and I will briefly show how the absence of talk about failure is an indicator of this. I will then suggest that returning to openness as a virtue is key to the development of the intellectual life and to our capacity to judge – as such it is relevant not only to universities but to all aspects of life. For openness involves encounter over time with that which is other (other ideas, other values, other ways of thinking, other ways of being) and thereby involves a process of unmaking as well as making, since ‘the elaboration of a mutually agreed public consensus’ (Furedi, 2020: 19) will often confront or be in tension with individual beliefs. As such, I will draw out Furedi’s reference to Simmel and Heidegger, namely, that borders and boundaries are places of exchange and ‘presencing’ (p 10). Taking this forward, I will suggest that openness points towards the porosity of borders and boundaries since in practice they invite hospitality and unprejudiced (and yet curious) consideration.

‘The current endowment of the act of judgement with overwhelmingly negative qualities is premised on the view that this act discriminates, excludes, and in some cases harms those who are judged’ (Furedi, 2020: 20). This is a fact wrestled with in higher education; it is notable that within educational literature on assessment, reference to failure tends to be absent, or when it is mentioned is done so to the extent that students ‘fail’ to meet requirements. In this sense, much more attention is paid to ‘success’, what this looks like, and how it is best achieved. Correlatively, failure is often construed as the dark side of success, either to be avoided or, if experienced, ultimately integrated or transcended. Within this context, feedback is inextricably linked with judgement, a judgement that inevitably involves a scale measuring how far short of the goal I fall at the present moment. This in itself is not bad, for only in knowing my shortcomings can I improve. However, research suggests that the way in which this judgement is communicated must be considered carefully for a number of reasons. It can impede the feedback’s reception, especially when the feedback is couched in terms of judgements which ‘leave no room for response’ (Boud and Molloy, 2013: 5). It can feed into a ‘fixed mindset’ of a student (Dweck, 2002) and thereby perceptions of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977). It can limit the teacher, since being fearful of writing feedback that might be perceived as critical can lead to over-caution against implied judgemental language (see Boud and Molloy, 2013: 5) and/or to commentary that in trying to avoid this becomes ambiguous, vague and abstract (Nicol, 2010: 506).

However, judgement and failure are to be valued positively since they are integrally related to the cultivation of intellectual virtues (elsewhere called ‘attitudes’, see Dewey, 1933). To briefly explain: all intellectual virtues – such as open-mindedness, whole-heartedness and responsibility – share a common motivation towards love of epistemic goods (Baehr, 2013: 249) or knowledge (wherein one has ‘cognitive contact with reality’, see Zagzebski, 1996: 167). Love of knowledge is the foundation of intellectual enterprise. However, it is not enough in and of itself to ensure truth conduciveness: ‘If the human drive for knowledge naturally and inexorably led to success, there would be no need for intellectual virtues. But this motivation can be deficient or distorted in many ways, leading to intellectual vices’ (Zagzebski, 1996: 170). Intellectual virtues are therefore vital to the successful pursuit of knowledge, each with its own characteristic activity, such that a curious person ‘is quick to wonder and ask why-questions out of a desire to understand the world around her’. An open-minded person ‘is willing to consider alternative standpoints because he sees that doing so is helpful for arriving at an accurate grasp of those standpoints and of the matter at hand’. And an intellectually courageous person ‘is disposed to persist in beliefs or inquiries that she has reason to think will lead her to the truth despite the fact that doing so may put her in harm’s way’ (Baehr, 2013: 249, see also Zagzebski, 1996: 167).

What does this account of intellectual virtues contribute to our discussion? At a basic level, intellectual virtues so conceived contribute positively to an appreciation of the necessity of judgement and also of failure, each of which is bound up with openness. For one can see how openness ensures the integrity of the virtues, not only in terms of their truth conduciveness, that is, in how they relate to and manifest true beliefs, but in that openness is part and parcel of the virtues themselves, since they are processual, highlighting the fluid, tentative and ever partial nature of knowledge and its pursuit. For example, to be open-minded and to have intellectual humility means that I need to recognise and accept that my views must be responsive and subject to change when necessary. Likewise, the ability to recognise salient facts and reliable authority is not something that comes immediately and assuredly – it is worked towards and can change over time and in different contexts.

Framing discussion in this way points us back towards Furedi’s comment that ‘an act of judgment can be interpreted as a form of boundary work that assists people to understand where to draw a line’ (Furedi, 2020: 24). I agree with this, but in taking it forward want to suggest three things. One, we must not forget the ethical character of boundary work since it arises and is cultivated within moments of encounter and ought to entail a disposition of openness and attentive consideration. To this end, if we consider the kind of language that might speak towards the virtue of open-mindedness, which in the context of this response itself borders on openness, one might articulate the qualities of being unprejudiced (which does not imply non-judgement but equitable treatment), hospitable (to themes, facts, ideas, questions, voices), fully considerate of alternative possibilities, and curious. It is only by cultivating these qualities, and thereby the disposition of open-mindedness, that authentic boundary work can get underway, since it enables us to understand where to draw the line only through attentive engagement with the ideas, beliefs and values we encounter (and the individual and collective ways of being within which these are embedded). Two, given that open-mindedness entails exposure to that which is other, in the true spirit of hospitality which open-mindedness entails (and recognising the openness, and thereby provisionality, of knowledge), we must acknowledge within the process of boundary work the possibility of unknowing, that is, the undoing of what we hold to be true, and the consequent re-drawing of established boundaries as our view of the world is challenged. Three, and consequent on points one and two, in order for true exchange and engagement to take place, we need to construe borders not as fixed and impermeable but as dynamic and porous, since they are sites of hospitality and are constructed and reconstructed (just as we and our conversation partners are) over time and in conversation.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

  • Baehr, J. (2013) Educating for intellectual virtues: from theory to practice, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 47(2): 24862.

  • Bandura, A. (1977) Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioural change, Psychological Review, 84(2): 191215.

  • Bloom, A. (1987) The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, London: Penguin.

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  • Boud, D. and Molloy, E. (2013) Feedback in Higher and Professional Education: Understanding it and Doing it Well, London/New York: Routledge.

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  • Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process, Boston, MA: Heath.

  • Dweck, C. (2002) The development of ability conceptions, in A. Wigfield and J. Eccles (eds) Development of Achievement Motivation, New York: Academic Press, pp 5788.

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  • Furedi, F. (2020) Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries, Abingdon: Routledge.

  • Nicol, D.J. (2010) From monologue to dialogue: improving written feedback in mass higher education, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(5): 50117.

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  • Zagzebski, L. (1996) Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Baehr, J. (2013) Educating for intellectual virtues: from theory to practice, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 47(2): 24862.

  • Bandura, A. (1977) Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioural change, Psychological Review, 84(2): 191215.

  • Bloom, A. (1987) The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, London: Penguin.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Boud, D. and Molloy, E. (2013) Feedback in Higher and Professional Education: Understanding it and Doing it Well, London/New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process, Boston, MA: Heath.

  • Dweck, C. (2002) The development of ability conceptions, in A. Wigfield and J. Eccles (eds) Development of Achievement Motivation, New York: Academic Press, pp 5788.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Furedi, F. (2020) Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries, Abingdon: Routledge.

  • Nicol, D.J. (2010) From monologue to dialogue: improving written feedback in mass higher education, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(5): 50117.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zagzebski, L. (1996) Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1 Cambridge University, , UK

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