13 January 2008

Doing Justice to Motivation

I remember the first time I was asked to read Plato's The Republic. The first chapter was all about the idea of Justice. The first character defines it as telling the truth and returning what you receive. The second argument comes down to helping your friends and harming your enemies. Another character weighs in with the idea that "might makes right," and still others argue and offer up more descriptions of Justice. (There's a nice summary of the conversation here, if you're so inclined.) As a teen and novice of philosophy, I struggled to answer the basic question posed by the professor in discussing this chapter: Whose argument is right? You see, as far as I was concerned, they all were on one level or another. As I read, I nodded in agreement each time a new definition was posed.

I have felt the same as I explore the realm of Motivation. To some, the most important factor is a student's self-concept of ability. To others, how intelligence is defined by the student weighs heaviest. For my research, I'm exploring how student goals serve as motivation. And my doctoral study chair has introduced me to yet another concept of it. I find myself drawn back into that same state as reading The Republic: everyone is right. Is that possible, however?

Certainly, I have decided that one is a best fit for me (Achievement Goal Theory), mainly because of its predominance in the research literature. At this point in my academic career, I would do well to follow the crowd and build my own understanding over time. But as I grow as an educational researcher, I will be looking for some version of the Grand Unification Theory for motivation.

All of these competing ideas remind of a quote from James Hilton's Lost Horizon. If you haven't read the story, a bunch of people are in a plane crash in the Himalayas and are rescued by people from Shangri-La: a timeless place. The western and Christian philosophies held by the survivors are at odds with the eastern traditions of their hosts, although the hosts don't seem to mind. One of the monks at the monastery eventually explains that "There are many facets to the same jewel." In other words, it is possible that each of them didn't really have different ideas; instead, they were all looking at the same idea through different perspectives. Maybe broader concepts---such as Justice and Motivation---are like that. We each have a lens to describe the idea, all the while thinking that it is the right one, but needing to acknowledge that we all have a bit of the same picture.


Hugh O'Donnell said...

SG, without a patronizing bone in my body, I have to say that's the best explication of the commonality/universality of "good ideas" that I've read in many a year, maybe ever.

Damn fine work.

The Science Goddess said...

Thank you! I have to say that I'm not sure I really captured all the things I was thinking about, but at least it's here to look at again later when I have more time and headspace to pick at it.