Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Neither higher nor education

The more years I teach, the more I wonder and worry about the fragmentation of knowledge at the undergraduate level.  To an overwhelming majority of college students, the undergraduate degree will mark the completion of formal schooling.  Very few will go on to graduate school, and even fewer will go on to do research in that fragment.

Yet, the system practically forces students to identify themselves with a fragment.  "I am a basketweaving major."  It then becomes hard for me to resist the urge to knock some sense into that young person; I want to tell them that the world does not need more basketweaving majors, but needs more educated people. I feel compelled to explain to them that focusing on basketweaving is not the same as getting educated and that it is a hindrance to education.

But ... I don't even attempt to make students think differently about this identification with their majors because it is not really their fault.  It is the damn faculty who created this fine mess and are actively cultivating it.

Philosophers have a great deal of experience with this mess, after going down the horrible path of creating their own "discipline":
“Real” or “serious” philosophers had to be identified, trained and credentialed. Disciplinary philosophy became the reigning standard for what would count as proper philosophy.
This was the act of purification that gave birth to the concept of philosophy most of us know today. As a result, and to a degree rarely acknowledged, the institutional imperative of the university has come to drive the theoretical agenda. If philosophy was going to have a secure place in the academy, it needed its own discrete domain, its own arcane language, its own standards of success and its own specialized concerns.
Faculty then needed students who would identify themselves as "philosophy majors."  It was, and is, the same story with every field of inquiry.  At the university where I teach, my esteemed colleagues have introduced so many new academic majors and minors that one would erroneously conclude that there is a great deal of knowledge being produced here--ha!

The irony is that we faculty love to talk about the Socratic approach, and about Socrates himself!
Before its migration to the university, philosophy had never had a central home. Philosophers could be found anywhere — serving as diplomats, living off pensions, grinding lenses, as well as within a university. Afterward, if they were “serious” thinkers, the expectation was that philosophers would inhabit the research university. Against the inclinations of Socrates, philosophers became experts like other disciplinary specialists. This occurred even as they taught their students the virtues of Socratic wisdom, which highlights the role of the philosopher as the non-expert, the questioner, the gadfly.
Well, I know what happens to "the non-expert, the questioner, the gadfly" ;)

So, where are we then at the end of it all?
Having become specialists, we have lost sight of the whole. The point of philosophy now is to be smart, not good. It has been the heart of our undoing.
While the essay was about philosophy, that bottom-line is equally applicable to everything that we do at the undergraduate level--we have lost sight of the whole.  If only students understood this, sooner than later!


Anne in Salem said...

Several years ago, I was talking to a friend about his son's inability to complete math problems correctly. The boy understood the process of, the idea behind, finding the solution but didn't want to be bothered with the pesky little details of using the actual numbers the teacher gave. The father was unfazed. He said, "I'd rather hire someone who can think. Crunching the numbers is easy; anyone can do that. It's the thinking that matters." The father is a civE from OSU.

The longer I work, the more I appreciate coworkers who think about what is needed rather than simply churn out "what we did the last time."

My daughter's course load: Politics of Development (of countries), Science and Culture (in the Honors College, the effect of each on the other) and calculus. Calculus is the easy one for her. The others are lots of reading, lots of discussion. The science and culture class has already sparked an interesting conversation between my daughter and my father (a Ivy League PhD chemE).

I'm surrounded by thinkers!

Sriram Khé said...

That's some strong credentials all around--Ivy PhD, OSU engineer, Honors College, ... and this blogger (hehehe)

Yes, thinking is something that ought to happen all the time. In a short essay that I authored a decade ago, I wrote about "a way of life": http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1178&context=nchcjournal

Ramesh said...

Yes, the super specialisation that happens far too early in formal education is an issue as you have so eloquently said.But perhaps given the explosion of knowledge and information, it is somewhat inevitable. It would simply be impossible to be a "generalist" with substantial enough knowledge and understanding in every field to be useful.

Your point about cultivating the ability to think, to seek, to analyse, etc is of course a powerful one. One that has been strongly supported by Anne. In her distinguished company of Ivy PhD, OSU engineer, Honors College, ... and this blogger , I am feeling completely out of place :)

Sriram Khé said...

It is not inevitable by any means. We need to stop engage in false advertisement that an undergrad degree in, say, chemistry is going to bring an awesome job and salary for the graduate compared to an undergrad in art history. For the very reason that you write: "the explosion of knowledge". A mere undergrad in chem is not going to be helpful--the explosion of knowledge means that it takes years of studying chem to be successful in that field. We therefore need to separate out the graduate school specialization from the undergraduate generalist broad education--which is what a rapidly shrinking minority, including me, refer to as "liberal education."

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