Saturday, May 23, 2020

When is a discipline not a discipline?

Disruptions to business as usual, such as we have been experiencing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, inevitably raise questions regarding which activities or institutions are essential or important for a good or fulfilling life, and which may be happily dispensed with. Answers to such questions are often very personal, of course.

My focus here is on activities associated with education and research. A strong case can be made that – especially within the arts and humanities, but also within the social sciences – skepticusm about the possibility of objective knowledge has been taken to extremes and, in fact, weaponized to protect entrenched interests. In view of this, I thought it useful to articulate a firmly knowledge-based perspective on education and research.

I am always a bit uneasy talking about academic disciplines and discipline boundaries. For one thing, it feels a bit redundant. Disciplines are what they are, and practitioners and observers make their own judgments about where to draw boundaries and about the worth or value of particular fields. Nonetheless, judgments must be made. And their significance is all the greater in times of change, in times of crisis: in times like these, in fact, when the future is in the balance and business as usual is just no longer an option.

I see our educational and cultural infrastructure as having lost its legitimacy and being in desperate need of reshaping and radical reform. The early years of education are particularly crucial but universities find themselves having to do remedial work and teach basic skills. I won't go into detail. Most people know the situation and everyone has their own ideas about possible solutions.

What is clear is that much more needs to be done in the earlier years, both in terms of imparting practical skills and knowledge, and in terms of broader goals associated with education’s socializing – or civilizing – function. It is beyond dispute that the K-12 system in America and many equivalent systems elsewhere have been failing badly for years.

Universities are also struggling and the value of higher education is increasingly being called into question. College enrolments in America have declined by more than 10 percent over the last eight years. Last month NPR reported that the current crisis may be an existential one for many colleges. But what is being taught in many of these colleges may be part of the problem.

All intellectual disciplines – be they scientific or scholarly – can be seen as adding to a shared knowledge base and having knowledge as their reason for being. Many other possible raisons d'être for academic and intellectual disciplines could be given, of course. And are. My point is just that I don't find other justifications for classing activities as serious intellectual disciplines particularly convincing. The fields in question may well be intellectual, but where is the theoretical rigor, where is the discipline, if anything goes on the knowledge front? What is the point of theory if it is not a means of building or articulating or facilitating the acquisition of knowledge?

Of course, high levels of rigor and discipline are often in evidence in activities which involve various kinds of practical knowledge. Such activities may or may not be associated with a body of theory. To the extent that they are, they will depend on formal educational structures.

Explicit claims about the world always need to be assessed regarding their plausibility. This need not be – and normally isn't – done in a rigorous or systematic way. In day-to-day life and politics, all kinds of claims are made and assessed on the run within dynamic social contexts. I am not complaining about this.

What's more, in ordinary life the truth of a claim is often less important than its social function, its role in modifying behavior for example. Or think of politeness phenomena like white lies which are primarily designed to spare the feelings of others. Courtesy and truth don't go together well!

Within the strict confines of intellectual and technical disciplines, however, the truth or otherwise of the claims being made or assessed is (or should be) quite central. Unfortunately many academic disciplines – especially within the humanities – have lost sight of this simple and obvious fact and have become, wholly or in part, self-perpetuating talking shops, jargon-ridden and superfluous extensions of the jousting and jostling of ordinary social and professional life.

[This is a slightly edited and abridged version of a piece which first appeared at The Electric Agora.]