Imagining Music Education in the “We-Mode”


February 2021

Published in Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 20 (1): 1–15 [pdf]

In this article, I explore the “we-mode,” a concept under investigation by social cognition researchers that emerged from John Searle’s concept of collective Intentionality. We-mode thinking captures the viewpoints of individuals engaged in social interactions and expands each individual’s potential for social understanding and action. This access to the knowledge and understandings of those with whom they collaborate creates shared knowledge and understandings that may lead to collective Intentionality or we-mode. The discussion begins with a look at how living and working in groups affects identity formation, using Paul Gilroy’s notion of planetary humanity as an example of we-mode thinking. As Searle explains, collective Intentionality emanates from the Background (similar to Bourdieu’s habitus), which thus allows for the possibility of collective Intentionality or we-mode thinking and action. The article concludes by querying the potential for developing we-mode thinking in music education within an anti-racism framework, followed by an introduction to the four articles published in this issue.

Keywords: collective intention, Background, Searle, we-mode, anti-racism, multicultural human subjectivity, music education

Human Social Organization

Human beings are, by their nature, social creatures. Long ago, humans understood that their chances of survival were much greater when they banded together in groups to hunt and to search for food sources or to defend the group’s members against threats. This is not a characteristic unique to humans; many life forms—for example, primates—live in groups to source food collectively and to provide security. Group living typically involves rules and regulations that sustain the group’s ability to live collectively. “It is hard to think of any animal for whom the regulation of social behaviour is not important” (Young 2008, 391). We may even observe social regulation in species without nervous systems (391).

Although over time, humans reduced the size of the groups within which they lived, moving from tribes to couples and families; “groupness” has continued to be a key feature of human life. Connecting with other humans is considered necessary for health (Young 2008, 391); popular wisdom holds that connecting with others is necessary for a “fulfilling” life. There are, of course, exceptions—people who prefer to live solitary lives, who avoid all but the most necessary contact with other humans—but even these individuals must occasionally interact with others.


Groups and Identities

This propensity for groupness, however, has led humanity to some problematic beliefs and behaviors: if an individual is not a member of a self-discerning group, that individual may, by default, be considered “the Other.” Likewise, entire groups may be considered Other, even if there has been no interaction between the groups to encourage a negative perception. While some groups have developed open and welcoming attitudes to persons who are not “members,” too often, groups view the Other with suspicion, or worse, act aggressively against Others. “There are no fixed outcomes when peoples come into contact with each other. In some cases, benign curiosity has led to peaceful accommodation, while in other cases, fear, hostility, and conflict have ensued” (Hirschman 2004, 388). Human fear and hostility have led to terrible situations and outcomes over the centuries.

In a constructivist understanding of social organization, this suspicion of the Other, based upon observed physical differences, developed into the concept of race about 400 years ago (Hirschman 2004); today, sociologists accept that race is a social construct and not biologically determined. Within the overall concept of race as socially constructed, categorizations and hierarchies have emerged—hierarchies imposed by those holding power—creating the “imagined communities” about which Benedict Anderson (1983) expoundedAlthough Anderson wrote specifically about nation-states as imagined communities, Paul Gilroy (2000) took the premise of imagined communities further; he argued that various media propelled the cultural products of imagined communities, such as “art, literature, music, language, history, contiguous territory,” creating the group consciousness from which forms of solidarity (group identities) emerge (Robotham 2005, 569). In the final pages of Against Race, Gilroy (2000) proposed the notion of “planetary humanity” as a way to move beyond racialized thinking. While his arguments throughout Against Race focus predominantly on a critique of nationalism and Black essentialism, his attempt to think about humanity without racialization has a broader application, which I address in this editorial as the we-mode.

Gilroy’s argument—that media and cultural products create identity group affiliation and thinking—has been critiqued from a variety of perspectives. One criticism of merit, which may be most appropriate for concepts of identity within music education, takes a converse viewpoint: Because humans live the experiences that influence the creation of art, literature, music, history, and other cultural artifacts of imagined communities, “the distinctive collective social experience is as real as the individual, if not more so” (Robotham 2005, 566). In other words, our experiences engaging with these cultural artifacts weave themselves into our lived reality. They become a part of a group’s identity—a way to express “who we are.” As an example, Robotham explains African American identity group formation:

It was precisely in the course of overcoming these harsh experiences of slavery that ethnic divisions brought over from Africa were reconfigured and a new African American identity emerged. This unification occurred despite the new ethnic and social divisions (based on color, region, occupation, and politics) that developed within the racial slave plantation society in the Americas. (Robotham 2005, 570)

Robotham speaks to the material realities of racialization: the categories of identities, whether imposed from above or emergent from within a group, have real-life effects on individuals’ abilities to access education, jobs, homes, healthcare, and more. While it is beyond the scope of this editorial to explore the thorny issues raised by constructivist views of nationalism and racial categorization that Gilroy and others have interrogated (see Robotham 2005 for an in-depth critique of Gilroy’s Against Race), Gilroy’s call for planetary humanity continues to have an appeal as an overarching anti-oppression construct. It may seem simplistic but entirely logical to ask why one cannot “dissolve these identities into a generally undifferentiated humanity by an act of intellectual will” (Robotham 2005, 565).

The concept of planetary humanity, however, stands on shaky ground within a constructivist view of identity. The call for human solidarity assumes it is possible to ignore imagined communities formed from racial and ethnic identities, nationalist or religious discourses, or other forms of identity grouping. Compounding this issue, a call for planetary humanity may simultaneously suggest a problematic erasure of identity (as in color-blind perspectives of race or discourses that include all women into a single category without recognition of their differences). In addition, it leaves unanswered a question that guides my writing of this essay: Does the way humans think about and view Others develop from the group entity to which they belong, or do such thoughts about Others emerge from individuals within the group, whose capacity for influence cause the suspicion to “take hold” with other group members? Does suspicion of the Other and its associated identity labeling emerge from the collective thinking of the group or from the thinking of individual, influential group members whose ideas are widely adopted? I ask these questions with the understanding that the effect may be identical regardless of which came first, like the proverbial chicken or egg question. However, my goal in this editorial is to investigate the we-mode as a manifestation of social cognition that may have possibilities, as well as pitfalls, for educators.


Tacit Influences

Robotham (2005) argued, “Locke, Montesquieu, Raynal, Kant, and Hegel are luminaries of bourgeois humanism… There is no tradition of ‘planetary humanism’ or cosmopolitanism without them” (577), but he also acknowledged that Kant and Hegel were in the vanguard of racism (577). Despite their creative thinking and ability to articulate ideas of influence, Kant and Hegel were themselves influenced by “something” that leeched (problematically) into their highly influential writings. Bourdieu (1977) identified this as habitus, the social processes behind culturally embedded, enduring patterns and beliefs.

John Searle (1995), recognizing the effects of habitus on both individual and group action, expounded on what he called the Background, wherein he articulated seven capacities by which the Background supports one’s ability to function in society, within an institution, or as a member of an identity group. Both Bourdieu and Searle recognized that “invisible rules” guide thought and behavior; people act without always being conscious of these rules and may not even be conscious that “the rules” exist. These rules are not written. They function tacitly as “understood” by influencing thought and behavior—what Searle calls collective Intentionality.

Searle uses intentionality in the traditional philosophical sense, meaning the power of minds and mental states to represent or stand for things, properties, and states of affairs. To say that an individual has intentionality is to say that they have mental representations, such as the mental representations invoked by the concept of money. We perceive a five-dollar bill to have value because we accept the concept of money. In Searle’s usage, Intentionality is an expanded concept (capitalized to indicate the comprehensive meaning) that includes

belief, fear, hope, desire, love, hate, aversion, liking, disliking, doubting, wondering whether, joy, elation, depression, anxiety, pride, remorse, sorrow, grief, guilt, rejoicing, irritation, puzzlement, acceptance, forgiveness, hostility, affection, expectation, anger, admiration, contempt, respect, indignation, intention, wishing, wanting, imagining, fantasy, shame, lust, disgust, animosity, terror, pleasure, abhorrence, aspiration, amusement, and disappointment. (Searle 1983, 4)

As Searle explains, a belief must be about something; likewise, a fear is a fear of something that may (or may not) occur, and other emotional states bear a relationship to something. One can be in an Intentional state without the object or state of the intention existing: e.g., “I can hope that it is raining even if it isn’t raining, and I can believe that the King of France is bald even if there is no such person as the King of France” (Searle 1983, 4).

With this understanding of Intentionality, I return to the Background. Searle (1995) posits that the Background influences thought and actions in the following ways:

  1. The Background enables the interpretation of language. Searle provided an example of how one interprets the (English) verb cut in the phrases “cut the cake” and “cut the grass.” Hearing those as requests or directives results in an action of cutting, but the imperative does not contain instructions for the requisite tool to use. English speakers instinctively know to use a knife for the cake and a lawnmower for the grass.
  2. The Background enables perceptual interpretation to take place. We see things and conceptualize them not only as things but also understand their use value: we recognize a chair as a place to sit, a knife as a utensil for cutting a cake, and so forth.
  3. The Background structures consciousness. No matter where one might be located on earth, we recognize the sky, the ground, or people’s houses (despite the differences in architecture among geographic regions). The Background helps us be conscious of our surroundings even when we are outside of a familiar context.
  4. Temporally extended sequences of experiences come to us with a narrative or dramatic shape, what Searle called “dramatic” categories. For example, people have expectations about categories of events in their lives, such as falling in love or getting married, expectations they might not otherwise have if they never heard or read about falling in love and getting married or saw examples of love or marriage on television, in movies, or had real-life examples from their relatives and friends.
  5. Each individual has a set of motivational dispositions that condition the structure of our experiences. A classical musician will probably experience the Vienna Staatsoper differently than someone who has no interest in opera but attends anyway. Our motivations for certain experiences influence how we perceive those experiences.
  6. The Background facilitates certain kinds of readiness. We know, for example, to expect the sounds of traffic and honking horns when we walk in a city. When we are walking in the countryside, however, the sound of a car horn or police siren may surprise, even cause distress, because it disrupts our readiness, our expectation, for that context.
  7. The Background disposes individuals to certain kinds of behavior. Interestingly, given that Searle wrote 25 years ago, one of his examples for this characteristic of Background reads: “I am disposed to stand at a certain distance from people when I talk to them and not at certain other distances” (Searle 1995, 136–7). Because of COVID-19, many of us feel awkward about conversations held at a social distance of 6 ft. or 2 meters, because the Background has taught us that conversation ought to take place in closer proximity. (Searle 1995, 132–37).

As the characteristics that Searle identified suggest, the Background has a tacit but profound effect on our thinking and behavior. It provides the context from which humans understand language, their actions, and the actions of others, but it operates invisibly. We are rarely conscious of its input on our thinking and behavior, yet the sum of our understanding of anything is at least partly determined by the Background in which we have lived. As Searle (1995) explains, “we evolve a set of dispositions that are sensitive to the rule structure” (145). This is why moving to a new country may pose unanticipated difficulties—the Background may differ vastly from that to which the individual was accustomed before relocating—and the tacit rules for social interaction may be simultaneously similar and completely different. (I recall that when I was in second grade, my family moved from New Jersey to Tennessee. I got in trouble with the teacher on my first day of school for being “disrespectful” because I failed to address her as “ma’am”—a term I had never heard in New Jersey.) It can take time to adjust to a new set of unspoken rules.

Given the influence of the Background on human social interaction, it follows that, within the culture at large, groups will, over time, develop their own tacit rules for interaction and behavior. This understanding brings me back to the question that bubbles under the surface of this essay: Where is the line between the thinking that guides an individual’s actions and the thinking that significantly influences that individual’s life experience as a member of a group that acts? Where is the line, if one exists, between individual thought and groupthink? And what, if anything, does this have to do with music education?


The We-mode

These questions relate to the notion of shared intentionality, an irreducibly collective mode that social cognition researchers sometimes refer to as the we-mode (Gallotti and Frith 2013) and which bears similarity to Searle’s (1990, 1995) concept of collective Intention. Gilroy’s planetary humanity may represent a form of we-mode thinking. We-mode thinking “captures the viewpoint of individuals engaged in social interactions and thus expands each individual’s potential for social understanding and action” (Gallotti and Frith 2013, 160). Within this perspective, individuals who act with shared intentionality appear to have access to more information about the behavior of their partners than they have as mere observers of group behavior: “In a disembodied social context … individuals engaged in real-time social interaction can attain a greater understanding of the goals of others and can use this evidence to ascribe higher-order mental states” (160).

Tension in the we-mode concept arises from the reality that groups comprise individuals who think and act as individuals. This tension has been the source of philosophical debates about concepts of shared intentionality for nearly three decades; these debates often invoke John Searle’s arguments about collective (or shared) intentionality to support or refute the concept. Searle posited:

Collective intentional behavior is a primitive phenomenon that cannot be analyzed as just the summation of individual intentional behavior; and collective intentions expressed in the form “we intend to do such-and-such” or “we are doing such-and-such” are also primitive phenomena and cannot be analyzed in terms of individual intentions. (Searle 1990, 401)

Searle argued that collective behavior is not analyzable in terms of individual behavior. We cannot reduce collective intention to the sum of individual intentions (Searle 1990, 402); he provided the symphony orchestra as an example of collective intention. While the overall musical experience of the listener results from the behavior of individual musicians in the orchestra, some common sense guides their actions, resulting in a musical collective Intention. It seems likely that most music educators have experienced this sense of common purpose when their ensemble “clicks” in a rehearsal or performance. On such occasions, educators and students act and think within the we-mode.

The central idea of the we-mode is that interacting individuals understand their contributions to the joint action of the group as contributions to something they pursue together, as a “we” (Gallotti and Frith 2013, 163). When individuals act together in groups, they have access to information about the Intentions, reasons, and emotions of their interacting partners that can open up possibilities for action unavailable to them as individuals or as casual observers. We learn from each other through our interactions, acquiring knowledge that affects both individual and collective Intentionality.

As Gallotti and Frith explain, engaging in interaction changes the way interacting individuals understand a problem because the contextual features (or Background, Searle 1990, 1995) of the interactive scene prime representations that are not available to isolated actors.

According to philosophers, if action is to count as truly joint action, it is not sufficient that individuals pursuing a collective goal each individually intend to contribute. Sociality is not just physical co-presence: it involves some actual or potential understanding of aspects of the interactive scene as shared by the participants in a joint action. (Gallotti and Frith 2013, 162)

In this statement, Gallotti and Frith draw upon Searle’s distinction between common intention and Intentionality. They posit that when a group of individuals thinking in the we-mode performs an action or set of actions, the social environment (operating as Background) adjusts the potential for social cognition. Thinking in the we-mode provides a broader understanding of the options available for action, thus providing potentially new or unique solutions for action.


Music Education and the We-Mode

While I anticipate that most music educators who read this editorial thought experiment have experienced something in their lives or teaching they may consider we-mode thinking or action, I suggest that the social cognition encapsulated in the concept of we-mode is something that we might consider cultivating more intentionally in music education. Within music teacher education, much of the focus is on the teacher’s actions as an individual—the nuts and bolts of how to teach notation, for example, or concerns about “classroom management” or “discipline” that boil down to how the teacher responds to individual student actions. Many instructors teach music education students the mechanics of how to teach without addressing the reasons why. When they are addressed, the reasons frequently reduce to instrumentality within today’s neoliberal mindset (e.g., preparing students for future employment).

Might it be possible to move teacher education beyond the required sequences of methods and vague concerns for building “community” in ensembles or classrooms? Might music educators encourage a type of we-mode thinking that recognizes and values difference without requiring that recognition to become an end unto itself? What would be necessary to cultivate a sense of common purpose that could enable true collective action, and might this common purpose enable more than a merely musical collective intention? I think again of Gilroy’s (2000) desire for planetary humanity. Although the concept is fraught with potential for identity erasure and color-blindness, the thought of humans being able to recognize each other without malice, without Othering, to work toward some common purpose, remains appealing. Might we learn together through music to appreciate human differences; might we learn to act collectively to eliminate the social injustices plaguing humanity today? How might we develop we-mode thinking that leads us to collective Intentionality regarding the health and repair of the environment? (Here, I use environment to refer both to the natural environment and to the fractured social environments with which we must cope.) The very nature of group music-making provides an entry-point to expanding our understanding of collective thought and action because making music constitutes we-mode within a bounded context. What might be necessary to develop we-mode approaches to our interactions with all humans?

I recognize this question may appear to imply an assumption that we-mode represents a universal good, and that is not my intent. As I write this editorial, my concerns for the we-mode echo a concept I first wrote about in my dissertation—multicultural human subjectivity (Bradley 2006a). I developed that concept within an anti-racism education framework, and my premise for the thesis proposed that music education within an anti-racist pedagogy influenced by the Canadian discourse of multiculturalism (part of the habitus or Background) positively affected the development of multicultural human subjectivity as a form of identity.

Despite that optimistic viewpoint, however, I acknowledged the tensions inherent in the concept of multicultural human subjectivity. Similarly, I acknowledge now the tensions inherent in the concept of we-mode. The potential for erasure of identity exists, and the possibility of color-blind racism (Bonilla-Silva 2003) also troubles the concept. For these reasons, any attempt to develop we-mode thinking in music education needs to emerge from a strong anti-racist foundation (see Bradley 2006b). But what I hope I have been able to make clear is that despite the risks, we-mode offers potentially strong benefits: it functions so that, as individuals, we gain access to more knowledge and better understanding of those with whom we interact, including their identities, their cultural knowledge, and the Backgrounds that influence their thoughts and actions.

Other tensions exist within the we-mode concept as well. If we always think and act in the we-mode, we may become unable to survive as individuals. (Think of bees, for example, who cannot survive without the hive.) And as I alluded at the beginning of this essay, group thinking and action have led to some disastrous outcomes across history, including the recent storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, by a like-minded mob. The collective action of the insurrectionists on that day emerged from an Intentionality partly dependent upon a belief that the U.S. election had been “stolen,” despite the dearth of evidence supporting that claim—an example of Searle’s (1983) postulation about Intentional states that can exist without a factual basis. In an earlier writing (Bradley 2009), I warned against the potential for fascism in efforts to cultivate multicultural human subjectivity. The recent events in Washington, D.C., suggest that my concerns in that article were not unfounded. Even so, I find myself drawn again to the we-mode concept, understood in the nuanced, complex meaning that Searle, Gallotti and Frith, and others have articulated. We have so much to learn from our fellow humans, and we have many problems—both social and environmental—that individual thought and action alone cannot rectify.

Like those philosophers who have debated the concept of collective intention, I continue to query where the line between collective intention and individual influence may lie. This question similarly looms in the music classroom: Does an ensemble learn to think and act together simply by rehearsing and performing together, or do they learn to think and act together because of a strong and influential teacher-conductor? Likewise, do individuals learn to think and behave as racists because of direct influences (other people), or is racism part of the Background, always operating and informing their behavior and thought? Critical race theorists subscribe to the latter belief, as evidenced in the understanding that racism is normal in (North American) society (e.g., Bonilla-Silva 2003; Delgado 1995; Ladson-Billings 1998, 2000; Ladson-Billings and Tate 2009) and “race is always already present in every social configuring of our lives” (Ladson-Billings 1998, 9). This conviction invokes the dilemma of how to change the Background to overcome racism, and to that end, I suggest the we-mode may offer possibilities.

Searle (1990) offered that “the notion, and hence the theory, of Intentionality together with a certain conception of the role of the Background can accommodate collective intentions and actions” (415, italics in original). This leaves the decision to us, as thinkers and educators, to determine if collective Intentionality—the we-mode—is a goal worth pursuing in music education and for society.


In This Issue of ACT

My thought experiment on the we-mode emerged as I pondered the four articles in this issue of Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education. What tacit influences may have been at play in the situations described by each of the authors? Although none of the articles specifically discusses collective intentions or we-mode, all dance around the edges of the concept. Each author explores a form of social interaction that, I suggest, might benefit from a greater sense of we-mode, of greater desire to learn from our interactions with others.

In “What if Freire Had Facebook? A Critical Interrogation of Social Media Woke Culture Among Privileged Voices in Music Education Discourse,” William Coppola explores social interactions on Facebook by querying how Paulo Freire may have viewed and reacted to the dialogic call-out culture, cancel culture, virtue signaling, and tone policing so frequently found within Facebook group platforms, arguing that these behaviors run counter to Freire’s “pursuit of shared humanity.”

Cara Bernard and Matthew Rotjan also look to Freire and Facebook, as well as academic conferences and professional development sessions in “It Depends:’ From Narration Sickness to Wide Awake Action in Music Education.” The authors ponder how well-intended instructional communications may fail to convey useful information to teachers striving to make meaningful changes in their teaching practices. Such dialogue, in their view, falls into the trap of what Freire called narration sickness. Their discussion suggests a potential for we-mode thinking that fails to materialize. The authors not only ask how potentially educative opportunities might develop into meaningful action (both individual and collective), but they also provide examples from current teachers who have put words into meaningful action for change.

Next, Hayley Janes offers a critical autoethnographic epistolary in “Cultural Humility in Music Teacher Education: A Virtuous Vice, A Vicious Virtue.” Cultural humility as a concept first emerged in the health sciences, and there has been some recent exploration of the concept within music education (see Conkling 2019, Dolloff 2020, Hess 2021). Janes’ interrogation of the concept in a creative literary format raises issues of how students in music education understand the complex concepts such as cultural humility presented throughout their studies. Readers might want to consider how her article suggests where our we-mode inclinations serve us well and where they fail to serve.

Closing out this issue, Andrea VanDeusen’s article, “Revealing Whiteness in Preservice Music Teacher Preparation” seems a natural companion to Janes’ exploration of cultural humility. VanDeusen looks at the ways Whiteness is culturally embedded into pre-service teacher education. Although the goal for her research was to “better facilitate field experiences for White preservice music teachers and . . . better prepare them to work successfully with students of color,” I see in VanDeusen’s writing (as with all the articles in this issue), a yearning for better understanding among humans, a desire to find ways that we might learn from each other to think and act together to accomplish common goals: to work against racism and other social injustices and to “expand individuals’ potential for social understanding and action” (Gallotti and Frith 2103, 160).

I sincerely hope that readers will enjoy reading this issue of ACT as much as I have enjoyed working with these authors.


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