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!

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