Steven Zhao on Investigating the Nature of Radicalization of Fundamental Belief Structures and Implications for Education

December 10, 2020

Bio: Steven Zhao is currently a 3rd year PhD student studying and thinking about philosophy of education. Specifically, he is in the midst of thinking and writing about things like belief polarization, dialogical ethics, spirituality, Buddhist modernism, philosophy of mind, and ethics of communicative/educational technologies.

Congratulations on winning the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellowship award. How do you feel about winning such a prestigious award?

Initially, it was a combination of sudden shock and disbelief. As I have (fortunately) come to accept that perhaps the possibility of this good fortune is indeed fathomable, my only feeling since then has been that of an immense relief and gratitude. Relieved in having a bit more breathing room financially. Grateful in having the incredible opportunity to immerse myself in the ideas/projects solely propelled by a free curiosity. I am running on the continuous hope that the quality of the efforts and fruits of my work can adequately match the level of good fortune and opportunities this scholarship represents.

Please tell us something about yourself such as your academic background, hobbies, interests, etc.

How I arrived at SFU learning about and reflecting upon the philosophy of education is perhaps the result of some strange personal trajectories of useful perplexities. When I finished getting a degree in social work and obtained some experiences in social services, I became inspired to reflect on certain ethical issues of social injustice and ideological beliefs on more philosophical levels. This led me to pursue a master’s degree in order to address a perplexity of seemingly complex issues that I presumed could be illuminated through more interdisciplinary approaches. Fortunately, after my thesis, I could confidently declare that my perplexity had only been magnified to a degree that appropriately stimulated a lengthier and therefore, doctoral investigation. It is my hope that my doctoral work can reveal some firm and  important insights and that the clarity in perspectives continues to illuminate the limitations of its own scope as challengeable unknowns.

When I am not lost in the maze of some philosophical questions, I like to (instead) be lost in the improvisational moods of playing and making music. If I find myself without the immediate access to instruments, you will often find me playing with conversational partners, fluctuating between focussed discussions of some esoteric ideas/absurd imaginations and some exceedingly childish humour.

What are the implications of your research and who will benefit from this?

My research aims to investigate the nature of radicalization of fundamental belief structures (i.e. political and/or religious ideologies) on philosophical levels of analysis with educational implications. Specifically, I am interested in looking at the transformative and interpersonal processes of radicalization – that is, how individuals develop attitudes and enact behaviours that reflect radical (in contrast to whatever the status quo might be) political and/or religious beliefs through transformative learning as facilitated by one’s social relationships. By doing so, I can further unpack the specific mechanisms and situations at play that constitute certain “trigger points” of radicalization/de-radicalization as learning processes that are both individually and relationally driven.

I believe my research can further contribute to the educational discourse and practice in both preventative and interventional approaches in addressing radicalization. That is, if we can understand radicalization not only as the outcome of the indoctrinated mind and/or the pathological psychology of individuals but also as a mode of responding to the world interpersonally, preventative/interventional measures can avoid the dominant stigmatising narratives of “fixing the individual.” Instead, deeper understanding of interpersonal transformations can support educational measures in addressing the relational environments of the learner in concert with their individual “vulnerabilities.” This research can contribute to provide a deeper understanding regarding not only the nature of radicalization but also the fundamental pedagogical conditions with which moral/immoral dispositions are transformatively learned.

Can you tell us how you prepared your SSHRC proposal?

My preparation for the proposal was arguably made possible precisely because it was not necessarily done directly for the proposal itself. The unbounded intellectual freedom sustained by the encouragements of my supervisor (Dr. Heesoon Bai) enabled some academically justified obsessions that just so happened to stimulate some adequate grasps of certain issues/frameworks. By the time I actively decided to sit down and flesh out the proposal, I had already accrued some interesting perspectives and elaborated some ideas through a few publications from seemingly aimless but “productive” explorations. I am not sure how many hours I spent on the proposal itself, but I do know that I had dedicated a little more than a week to complete the entire proposal/application. The days of such work were essentially intensely concentrated and consisted of obsessive sessions of continuous research, writing, editing, and ensuring that they made some semblance of minimal sense in the eyes of my supervisor (thank god for her patience and unbending support!).

I have always jokingly acknowledged the detriments of my belated manners of working, particularly when the importance of endeavors such as this calls for anything but my laughable short-sightedness. However, some retrospective moments gave me the insight that the continuous intense concentration served a useful purpose of its own. That is, there was indeed a momentum of “being-in-the-zone” where I temporarily lived and breathed in the all-encompassing realm of the SSHRC proposal. It was perhaps a useful inescapable world that seemed to have compelled the intuited connections, ideas, and articulations into some (fortunately) coherent and clear whole of a proposal. I would definitely (maybe) not work like that again, but inescapable desperation certainly has its utility.

What suggestions would you like to give to students interested in applying for SSHRC fellowships?

One, look at previous examples of winning SSHRC proposals; focus on their sentence structures for types of language, length of sentences, and placement of premises/relevant information within paragraphs. Understand what it takes to articulate something in ways that balance depth and clarity, intellectual expertise and personable dedication. Two, focus not necessarily on preparing only for SSHRC  – at least not entirely. Instead, also examine what genuinely moves you towards curiosity and easy concentration intellectually and personally. Such things are the very forces that can propel you to develop incredible expertise, skill, and creativity. In other words, find your functional and adaptive obsessions; where the work you put in towards its greater understanding and application sustains its own momentum and therefore, ensures development. Skills and knowledge frameworks are simply more efficiently developed if their sources represent personal inclinations/intuitions that are already implicitly cultivated through one’s natural way of being in the world. Three, examine SSHRC website and find the ideal topic that represents the sufficient overlap between the current trends of issues and your personal obsession. Four, write and talk about your topic(s) continuously. The act of articulation is itself a fundamental aspect to thinking them through. Therefore, every word we put down on a page and utter in conversation is a potential step towards the greater refinement for clarity, validity, and depth for the application.

Thank you very much Steven. We wish you all the best for your future endeavors.