Mimesis: The modern past

Mimesis is the process of imitating or copying. The Greek root of the word finds its way into English in the word ‘mimic’. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle regarded all creative endeavour as a process of mimesis. The role of the artist was to exaggerate features of what they were copying to create tragic, comic or ennobling effect (Aristotle 350 BCE).

See Aristotle on Mimesis.

Dimension 1: Pedagogy

In a mimetic pedagogy, the learner acquires received knowledge and demonstrates this acquisition by repetition. As a learning relationship, mimesis is a system of knowledge transmission and reproduction.

In mimetic pedagogy the teacher stands in an authoritarian relationship to the learner. In the ‘Rule of St Benedict’, the founder of Western Christian monasticism sets out the relationship between the teacher in the monastery (the Abbot or the Superior) and the monks who had entered the monastery to learn the ways of God. Behind the teacher stands a body of knowledge, canonical texts and institutional structures, which represent a source of authority. St Benedict’s Superior is subject to God’s authority, as expressed in The Holy Bible and transmitted to believers through the ecclesiastical hierarchy (St Benedict 530).

See St Benedict on the Teacher and the Taught.

Figure 8.2: Aristotle, 384–322 BCE

Committed knowledge frameworks of the kinds discussed in Chapter 7 are mostly taught through a pedagogy of mimesis, including, for instance, pedagogies grounded in religious truths. Sacred texts may be taken to speak literal truths; for instance, that God actually did create the world in seven days about six thousand years ago. Or they may be taken to speak of unbreakable rules of behaviour. To learn these truths, the faithful listen respectfully to the interpretation of a teacher-authority; in the person of the priest or the imam, for instance. They read the sacred texts diligently. They may also commit sections of the text to memory. The highest form of traditional Koranic learning is to be able to recite the whole of the sacred text by heart, from beginning to end and in the original Arabic.

See Inside Pakistan’s Madrasas.

Pedagogies of empirical truth, also discussed in Chapter 7, may be mimetic, too. Learners are required to commit facts to memory – historical facts, scientific facts, mathematical facts, language facts, and the like. Empiricism can, in its more authentic moments, require greater engagement than this, by expecting that learners do their own empirical or fact-finding work. But when a pedagogy of empiricism is mimetic, the focus is on students learning acquired facts, or facts that have already been discovered for them by people who must know better. Learners prove that they have acquired this empirical knowledge by presenting the correct facts to teachers through tests.

See Thayer, Learning about Bark.

Figure 8.3: St Benedict, 480–547

Pedagogies of rationalism (again, see Chapter 7), when they are mimetic in character, offer learners theories in the form of definitions and rules that must be learned. Learners can prove they have learned these theories by repeating the rule. Or they can show they are able to apply the rule in an example or by solving a problem that requires application of the rule to reach the correct answer. Rationalism may also at times require learners to formulate their own theories and infer underlying rules (a more authentic pedagogy) – but in its mimetic form, it is primarily a process of knowledge transmission. Pedagogies of canonical text teach learners what is great about the idealised texts of ‘high culture’ and official knowledge, as expressed by famous writers and thinkers.

See Confucius on Becoming a Learned Person.

Mimetic pedagogy is a kind of learning design that places most weight in the balance of agency upon the teacher and their authoritative knowledge sources. The learner stands in a relatively passive relationship of knowledge acquisition. Committed knowledge frameworks tend to foster relationships of learning that are mimetic.

See A Morning at the Dong-feng Kindergarten.

Some mimetic pedagogical practices include whole-class recitation, learning things off by heart, question-and-answer routines whereby the learner takes a stab at the ‘correct’ answer, and factually oriented, multiple-choice tests. The tendency of this kind of pedagogy is to regard students as uniformly lacking in the new knowledge presented in the curriculum, and uniformly willing and able to absorb the new knowledge being presented.

See Why Should They Look Behind Them?

However, mimetic pedagogy is never quite as it seems. Even in the most authoritarian of didactic pedagogies, the learner’s subjectivity and identity are not entirely extinguished. Learning only occurs when the learner connects. Even listening is an active process. Nor would any teacher, even a person like St Benedict, want learners to be, or believe that learners are, entirely passive, empty vessels. Even the strictest of religious teachers, surely, would want the faithful to internalise religious truths as their own knowledge. Mimesis is always conducive to internalising knowledge, but that is surely what any teacher would want. So, more than mimesis is what sometimes happens, though not reliably. This is because learners are never entirely passive. Readers and listeners never read and hear texts without bringing their own experience and interests to bear. Sometimes the reading or the hearing may not register. Or the stuff crammed into memory for a test may soon be forgotten. But at other times the reader or the listener does relate. And, for that matter, received texts and knowledges, no matter how insistent and dogmatic, are always open to some degree of reinterpretation by the receiver. Indeed, as Gunther Kress points out, all representation or sense making is transformative (Kress 2000).

Dimension 2: Curriculum

In curriculum, an epistemology of mimesis translates into the following view of knowledge. There are definite facts in the world. These are not directly accessible to learners in an educational setting. But they can be packaged into a digestible form, such as a textbook that covers the course. The textbook frames the reference point of learning, which is necessarily outside the classroom – the facts of science, the events and dates of history, the places of geography or the formulae of mathematics. The book tells of these things of the outside world in a distant and distancing kind of way, condensed into theories that sum up what humans know, such as the narrative of history or the discipline of science.

Behind the textbook stands the syllabus, the course to be covered as mandated by an external agency. In earlier modern times, syllabi were mainly focused on areas of content knowledge, their facts and their theories. More recently, a ‘curriculum standards’ approach has specified in general terms the learning outcomes expected in a particular area of curriculum and at a certain level.

The underlying message of mimetic curriculum is that the sources of definitive knowledge are external to the classroom. The learner acquires knowledge rather than makes knowledge. Not even the teacher is an expert. For much of the time, the teacher finds themself positioned as an interlocutor between the learners and the syllabus- making authority of the education system, or the content-knowledge authority of the textbook writer. As a consequence, the balance of agency favours the teacher and expert textbook writer over the learner in a strict knowledge hierarchy. Mimetic curriculum determines the shape of the discipline, as revealed through general outlines of received bodies of knowledge, and abstract generalisations or syntheses of content areas. It condenses learning into core subject areas that all students should learn as part of a ‘comprehensive’ or ‘general’ education. The assumption is that only experts possess the capacity to test and re-evaluate the theories and facts of disciplinary content, and that these bodies of knowledge remain fairly stable over long periods of time.

See Michael Apple on Ideology in Curriculum.

Some educationalists argue that mimesis is an inappropriate basis for education in contemporary times – times in which the balance of agency has changed in our civic, working and personal lives. However, the mimetic frame still seems to find a number of comfortable places in today’s world. One place is in the ‘back to the basics’ movement in education, which seeks to return to an earlier modernity when the rigour and standards of disciplined learning apparently ruled. It finds champions in fundamentalist religious revivals. It is perhaps easier to do – educational inputs that show directly measurable results in educational outputs. Sometimes even e-learning systems focus on ‘skill and drill’ of a mimetic variety. Mimetic pedagogy may also be the path of least resistance, given the expectations of parents who went to school some decades ago and the heritage institutional architectures of today’s schools.

One sign of a back-to-the-future revival of mimesis has been a renewed emphasis on high-stakes, standardised testing of basic skills and knowledge. This has prompted in some places a return to didactic curriculum, which jams in content knowledge to it the tests.

See A Japanese Cram School.

In literacy, for instance, the skill-and-drill regime starts with phonics. When they come to write in English, children encounter 44 sounds and the 26 letters that represent these sounds. These can be learned by rote – by repetition and association. However, literacy researcher James Gee questions just how intellectually challenging this is when, in the spaces of contemporary culture, children quickly master immensely more complex systems without direct instruction by a teacher or conscious efforts to memorise. Gee gives the example of the hundreds of configurations of Pokémon characters. The horizons of phonics are set so low and the results so easy to measure, he argues, that it’s not hard to show improved results, even among children who come from communities and cultures that historically have not achieved well at school. Then comes the ‘fourth-grade slump’, when the test results return to more disappointingly predictable, unequal form (Gee 2004).

The problem is that writing is not a transliteration of speech. It is a different mode with a significantly different grammar (Kalantzis and Cope 2012b). In the act of mimesis around sound-letter correspondences, the learners miss seeing the literacy forest for their focus on the phonic trees. Some kinds of learners seem to ‘get it’; others don’t. The more academic modes of written language make intuitive sense to some students but not others. Some learners relate to the distinctive forms of written language as a cultural move – being a scientist and writing like one, or being an author and writing like one – but others do not. Learning to write is about forming an identity. Some learners comfortably work their way into that identity and others do not, and the difference has a lot to do with social class and community background. In the long run, Gee argues, phonics fails to bridge the larger gaps, and thus fails learners who do not come from cultures of writing. Perhaps these learners may have been able to extend their repertoires into the mode of writing and its cultures if the starting point had been other modes, such as video or recorded speech. Perhaps they may have fared better if the entry points to literacy were more intellectually stimulating and motivating than sound–letter correspondences. Perhaps a pedagogy built on the multifarious subjectivities of learners might work better than drilling to distraction the ones who don’t immediately ‘get’ the culture of writing.

Mimetic teaching makes a neat inside/outside distinction, drawing a line between the formalism of learning within the classroom and the larger social purposes with which learning connects. We may, however, need to connect the inside and outside more closely, particularly for those learners who do not immediately ‘get’ the connections between the formalism of education and real-world applications of schooled knowledge. In order to be more effective, we may need to reduce the abstract formalism of the classroom and, in so doing, the distance between the culture of the classroom and the learners’ experiences in the lifeworld. We may need to bring the subjectivities of learners into closer engagement with the sites of education and its processes of pedagogy and curriculum. This, however, involves disruptions to the neatly defined institutional order of things. Teachers who have grown comfortable with the mimetic mode may find the change challenging.

Meanwhile, the public political rhetoric tells us that we are supposed to be creating learners for the knowledge economy (Peters, Marginson, and Murphy 2008). New workplaces place a premium on creativity and self-motivation. Contemporary citizenship devolves regulatory responsibility to self-governing communities and groups. And in the everyday lifeworld, the balance of agency has shifted towards users, customers and meaning makers. The ‘back-to-basics’ movement, however, wants to take us back to the formalism of academic disciplines and the rigours of mimesis. This, its critics argue, may be misreading what today’s society needs from education, and this even from the most conservative, systems-bolstering point of view. The prognosis of the back-to-basics people may, in short, be wrong.

However, if there’s some method in the apparent madness, it may also be that back-to-basics mimetic curriculum is education on the cheap in the era of neoliberalism (Apple 2006). An education system grounded in the simple procedures of mimesis may be all politicians and a majority of their electorate understand and want to pay for. Education that moves beyond the horizons of didactic, mass-production, uniform, easy-to-measure teaching is something some users will pay for, but they will have to send their children to more expensive schools. Only those who can afford it will be able to provide their children with any more than the basics. This is a bleak scenario indeed. A politically more constructive and creative strategy might be to take at their word the more innovation-seeking politicians and business people. Whenever we find them talking the rhetoric of the knowledge society, we should press them about what they mean and convince them that they should mean something that departs from our heritage practices of education (Wagner 2008).