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Jay Lemke is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York. He has also been Professor in the PhD Programs in Science Education, Learning Technologies, and Literacy Language and Culture at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and most recently adjunct Professor in Communication at the University of California - San Diego and Senior Research Scientist in the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC). Professor Lemke's research investigates multimedia communication, learning, and emotion in the context of social and cultural change.

Entries in moral issues (2)

Moral Struggles Matter -- to Learning!

Even in fiction and games, we care about what’s right and wrong.

I’ve been trying to work out a puzzle lately: why do our feelings matter to how we make sense of the world around us? The answer, I think, lies in the contribution of feelings to the process of making evaluations and judgments. Not just about what is good or bad, but about what’s important or trivial, what’s surprising or ordinary, what to take seriously or just as a joke.

Last week at the International Congress of the Learning Sciences, where I was talking about the role feelings play in how science represents the world [see my next blog entry], I attended a session on learning through computer games. There’s no doubt that games play on our emotions; that feelings matter to what we do next in the game. But what hit me in this session was how deeply engaged we get when there are moral issues at stake, when we’re trying to figure out what’s right and wrong, and having problems deciding what’s right.

Many theories of learning imagine that all learning is like problem-solving, but then they mistakenly assume that problem-solving is or should be purely logical and rational. It never is; it never can be. Solving a problem always requires us to make choices and decisions along the way, about what is relevant, important, likely to succeed, etc. Take away our feelings about what to do next and we can’t do much of anything (that can, unfortunately, happen; read Antonio Damasio).

Likewise, most problem-solving involves the use of tools, especially information tools like books, notes, computers, or just counting on your fingers. And we always have feelings about those, too (my topic at the conference). Computer games put us in imaginary worlds full of problems to be solved and tools to solve them; they offer us adventures that rev up our feelings. And it turns out that what can draw us in most deeply is not the shooting or thinking, but puzzling about what is right and wrong when our choices matter to ourselves and other people.

Schools, on the other hand, seem scared to death of both feelings and moral issues as essential elements in learning. The main feeling reported by most students about most of their time in school is: boredom. The last thing the curriculum wants students to engage with, it seems, is issues of right and wrong. It’s all about knowledge and not about life. So most students learn little, forget most of that, and basically just don’t care. They feel that everything that matters is missing, and I think they’re right.

We learn when we have a need to know, when something really matters to us. It can be imaginary, but it has to feel important. Like being fair, like choosing between justice and forgiveness, like making the right decision when the wrong one will harm innocent creatures. No one can learn how to always make good choices, but we do learn passionately when we believe learning something can help us make a better choice here and now.

A century ago, and for a long time before that, the purpose of education was to build good moral character. When our society lost its consensus about what was morally right, education lost a critical link between learning and life. And schools lost a key principle for engaging students emotionally with learning.

We can’t teach students right and wrong. But we can engage them in deeply felt and learning-rich projects of trying to figure it out for themselves.

If we have the courage to try.

Images: Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice; Pilot of the Hiroshima bomber, years later; the Dalai Lama. People who faced and had to live with profound moral choices and their consequences, with no easy answers.

Popular Culture Supersedes Copyright Law

What are the limits of private ownership of popular culture?

The people own what the people love. When a character, a story, a fictional world becomes so popular that people want to make it their own, then it passes beyond the limits of private property and becomes the property of us all.

The world and characters of Harry Potter were created initially by JK Rowling, but in the years since, Harry’s fans have written and published online nearly 300,000 original stories of their own using these characters, places and themes, not to mention tens of thousands of works of fan art, music, video and multimedia. Rowling meanwhile has sold rights to Harry to a very small number of movie studios and game producers, toy makers and even a candy company. She has made a billion dollars, and the others have made even more. Copyright law has done its work, perhaps too well.

Of course she has the right to profit, substantially and globally, for having given us all the pleasures and the resources of the imagination that come from Harry and his world. But only up to the point at which her creations become the raw material of the public imagination, the point at which what was originally her own intellectual or cultural property becomes part of the common culture, folk culture, the people’s culture, our culture.

So also with Star Wars and Star Trek, or with The Lord of the Rings, and many other recent works, just as much as with Cinderella, Pinocchio, or Don Quixote. What matters to public vs. private ownership is not how long ago they were created, but how much they have become part of the common culture of our childhoods and the raw material of our grown-up fantasies. No one today can really “own” Harry or Hogwarts, Darth Vader or R2D2, any more than they can own Macbeth or the Emerald City.
Which means what, in practice? Only that the original creators, much less those to whom rights have been sold, cannot tell us what we can and cannot create, privately or publicly, but not-for-profit, using these building blocks of the human imagination. The copyright owners can continue to reap their profits, and control the commercial use of their creations for some reasonable time, but they must not be allowed to try to control or coerce the popular culture use of these creations.

We all know that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was corrupt. It was created solely for the benefit of the large media companies, and not in the public interest or even for the good of the writers and creators of new works. It was opposed by the nation’s public libraries, by the universities, and by every fair voice. Its sellout to corporate greed is a national scandal, and private persons have every moral right to ignore it.

As Harry ignored the Ministry’s decrees to try to take control of Hogwart’s.