Buadrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation in a still from The Matrix, distributed by Warner Bros., 1999.
Part 2: Simulacra and Simulation
In his 1981 Simulacra and Simulation (print or PDF), the theorist Jean Baudrillard offers a critical framework for understanding how our concept of the world has changed over time, and this can be a useful starting point for thinking about how educational systems and structures are also changing. In this book, Baudrillard’s overall model derives from the production of goods, tracing the changes from small guild workshops to the most mechanized factories. While that may seem irrelevant for discussing trends in education, it actually points to a fascinating parallel: throughout history, we’ve constructed schools and shaped our ideas about learning to mirror the ways we produce objects. Many writers — most recently, Todd Rose in his fascinating The End of Average (digital and print) — have traced the ways that industrialism and factory culture changed the practice of teachers and the expectations for learners, but Baudrillard gives us a longer view and offers us an explanation for why we’ve made the changes we have.
Semioticians like Baudrillard study how we construct meaning through the creation of signs. When we connect meaning (semioticians call this the “signified”) to an object (the “signifier”), we create a “sign,” and signs dictate how we understand and interact with the world. For example, when most of us see a red octagon, we know it means “stop.” The red octagon is the signifier, and the meaning we associate with it, “stop,” is the signified. Yet there’s nothing inherent in red octagons (or even in either just the color red or just octagonal shapes) that would automatically make us think “stop” — at least if we hadn’t already been introduced to the notion of stop signs. Instead, at some point, somebody connected these physical characteristics to this meaning, and in so doing, made a sign — quite literally, in this case. The rest of us agreed (perhaps not overtly, but at least in our practice) to “read” such signs in this manner, and thus whenever we see a red octagon while we’re driving, we stop.
However, in Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard is thinking about more than just the creation of individual signs; he’s thinking about how we make meaning systematically — how we build whole superstructures of meaning. Baudrillard calls these systems of signification “simulations,” and he argues that we’ve experienced 4 major periods of simulation in history. Just as with individual signs, these symbolic superstructures have dictated how we interact with and understand the world around us — and they have much to offer as we consider where education is heading.
Here are the four phases of simulation Baudrillard describes. As you consider each of them, pay special attention to the changes he traces in the relationship between reality and its connection with symbolic meaning. And be forewarned: this gets pretty abstract and philosophical. Nonetheless, it’s critical to lay this foundation so we can build the rest of the articles in this series… Continue reading