Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Our Empirical Education

I have had the privilege of studying at four different post-secondary institutions in Canada over the last 14 years. Two were private institutions, and two public. Redeemer University College (Ancaster, Ontario), a private liberal arts institution, is my undergraduate alma mater. From there I went to do do a Masters of History at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario) and a Masters of Philosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies (Toronto, Ontario), another private institution, which was closely associated with the Toronto School of Theology at the University of Toronto. I am presently finishing up a Doctorate in Religious Studies at McGill University (Montreal, Quebec).

I did not consciously set out to get where I am today. I made choices when I needed to make choices. I walked through doors that opened. In retrospect, none of the decisions along the way look very smart. My undergrad education was too expensive. My graduate education has been perpetuated by dismal economic prospects elsewhere. In the succession of moments, though, I cannot claim to have made any particularly grievous decisions. Nor do I have any obvious regrets. The privilege of pursuing higher education for as long as I have is a rare oppourtunity for a farm kid like myself. Just 40 or 50 years ago (and the remainder of human history) this would have been a near impossibility.

My path appears an entirely predictable set of steps through Canadian post-secondary institutions. The steps even make sense in geographical terms, starting out from the small town of Ancaster, down the 'mountain' into the larger city of Hamilton, then down the QEW to Toronto, and finally down the 401 to Montreal. The one thing that strikes me, looking back over the past number of years, is the fact that the public and private institutions are all cut from the same cloth. Individual professors and the content of the courses, especially at the private institutions, could be quite diverse--or quite homogeneous, depending on your point of reference. But the essential 'structure' of higher education, though, hardly varied at all. With the exception of the Institute for Christian Studies, which was delicately solely to the study of philosophy, the institutions of higher education are organized according to faculties, departments, and fields of study. Depending on the size of the institution in question, the faculties of the arts or the sciences, for example, are subdivided into departments of English, History, Philosophy, and Social Studies, or Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Environmental Studies. Within each of the departmental sub-divisions, individual professors special in their particular fields of study, say, 19th century English literature, late medieval nominalism, personal earning patterns in developed economies, the high energy creation of exotic particles, or the chemical composition of crystal formations, and so on. The world is divided neatly into tiny boxes, in which different professors plied their trade. These are regarded as essentially the same--as fields of study--despite superficial differences.

Why should this be the case? The structure of modern higher education is organized around the basic principle of empirical specialization. Today everyone in higher education is an empiricist--even, and especially, the vocal critics of empiricism, who must work in their particular fields of study, with their particular specializations. It is the water that an academic must swim in, without which the academic would be a proverbial fish out of water--which is to say, not in academia, but maybe engaged in some, much more practical, productive endeavour.

There is, of course, a certain inevitability to specialization. This is not to be denied, nor should it be entirely rejected. There are no Renaissance men, no polymaths these days, as there is simply too much for anyone person to learn. Even so, a healthy suspicion of specialization's excesses is not out of order.

Despite being cut from the same institutional cloth, there were genuine differences between the different institutions that I attended. These focused on their cultures--on what people made of empirical specialization.

The most sophisticated account was at Redeemer University College, where I was introduced with the philosophy of the Dutch Neo-Kantian (or Neo-Calvinist) Herman Dooyeweerd. A relatively unknown figure, Dooyeweerd divided the human world into 15 different modalities, which correspond to possible divisions between academic disciplines (mathematical, spatial, kinematic, physical, biological, psychological, logical, historical, lingual, social, economic, aesthetic, legal, ethical, and theological). He argued that every particular thing that a person might encounter in the world can be thought as 'participating' in different ways in each of the modalities: either in relation to the natural order or in relation to the human order. Something a mundane as a tree, for example, could be thought of as functioning in the five first natural modalities. Once human beings got their hands on it, bending it towards their own ends, the tree could also be thought of as functioning in the last ten modalities. The modalities, in this sense, might be thought of as the many different dimensions of a thing. Dooyeweerd's point, which I had drilled into my head, was to underscore the beautiful complexity of empirical reality, to take its objectivity seriously, and to guard against the cardinal sin of reductionism--of explaining everything else in terms of one of reality's discrete dimensions. Persons would inevitably end up specializing. But they would know what they were specializing in, and how it related to other specializations.

Redeemer wanted to give its students a properly liberal arts education. It proposed to achieve this both by requiring a broad sampling of courses and a conceptual framework within which to situate their particular fields of study. Different academic disciplines weren't studying different things; they were studying the same things in different ways. The public schools, McMaster and McGill, probably tried to accomplish something similar for their undergrad student. My impressions gleaned through conversations with undergrad students, though, was that public institutions encouraged a lot more specialization. They lacked a comprehensive account of how everything was supposed to fit together in a complex, coherent whole. This meant much more attention was paid to mastering particular details.

The fact was impressed upon me in my own work especially by just how 'research-oriented' was even the the study of history, philosophy, and theology in public institutions. One didn't just read texts to understand what other persons thought or did.. One 'excavated' them for meaning. One worked to extract some implication that lay just below the surface or between the lines on the page. In McMaster University's History Department, this impulse was played out in a dialectical relation between the creative use of 'progressive' concepts (gender, class, race, etc.) and close attention paid to the textual evidence. McGill University's Faculty of Religious Studies, by comparison, is more 'conservative' in its outlook in the specific sense that the emphasis is not placed on a certain set of concepts (what one proposes to read into/out of a text), but more generally on refining one's methodology (how one proposes to go about reading a texts). An emphasis on methodology discourages overtly 'creative' readings of the textual evidence, demanding instead that you engage with what is being said.

The Institute for Christian Studies was a bit of a different beast, again, owing to its very small size and narrower focus. The Institute was born from the same community of scholars as Redeemer, but ended up taking the Dutch Neo-Kantian (or Neo-Calvinist) tradition represented by Dooyeweerd in a more progressive direction. Its faculty was very deeply animated by ethical concerns, for criticizing oppressive regimes (intellectual, political, social), being open to new human possibilities. Its scholarship was similarly motivated to unlock interpretive potentials in texts. For example, the Institute was also convinced of the persuasiveness of Dooyeweerd's modal theory as an empirical description of human reality. But it tended not to be as confident, as had been the case at Redeemer, that human reality could be exhaustively described in empirical terms. Cutting the human world into ever smaller pieces, after all, can't be all that this life is about.

These are, of course, only my own impressions. I formed them in the particular situations to which I belonged. This is not to say that there is nothing in what I have said here, but to admit my judgments have always been partial. I can well understand, for example, that some persons from Redeemer or the Institute for Christian Studies might object to my characterization of what the school was about; or, as is more likely, my presentation of Dooyeweerd. What about his critique of Kant? or the 'supra-temporal' dimension of human life? or the religious Idea? or the specifically biblical ground-motive? All good questions, no doubt. All for insiders, though, who are intent on mastering the particular tradition of scholarship that Dooyeweerd represented--on fitting themselves into that particular box.

What compels us to reduce the entirely of human reality to a merely empirical description where everything has its own box? where every box has its own professional journal? and every journal have its small group of contributors scattered around the world? Where did this system of education come from in the first place?

The modern university has its institutional origins in medieval Bologna (1088). The subjects taught in the medieval university were ideally divided according to the classical disciplinary divisions between the Trivium and Quadrivium. The Trivium was modeled, in very generic terms, on the how persons processed information. It was divided between between grammar (input), logic (mental processing) and rhetoric (output). The Quadrivium divided up the objective world: arithmetic (or math), geometry (math in space), music (math in time), and astronomy (math in space and time).

The Trivium and Quadrivium, of course, could never hope to account for the many different sorts of knowledge that we today think of as legitimate. But it says something, I think, that a person can see themselves in its distinctions taking information in, thinking about the information, and conveying it to other people, or counting, doing basic physical measurements, listening to music, or looking up at the stars.

The same cannot be said of our empirical education, which arranges itself knowledge like books on a shelf--like so many little boxes. So how do we get from the classical ideal to today? The most obvious answer is the radically de-centering consequences of modern science, which says the human being is not at the center of the physical universe, so the human being has no business being at the center of our knowledge of the universe. Cutting the world into ever smaller boxes, in fact, has proved highly productive for natural scientific inquiry. The smaller the box, the more precise the answer. The more precise the answer, the better control we have over its application. The rest, of course, is in the histories: of the atom bomb, of the moon landing, of the Pill, of the Computer, of the Large Hadron Collider.

But is the human world--i.e. the liberal arts--to be divided along the same lines? How much sense does it make to decenter humanity from the humanities?

The contemporary push for empirical specialization has its origins in the late 19th century as the professoriate began to treat the study of their subject matter like a profession. They established new faculties in medicine in and natural sciences, which had the consequence of firming up distinctions between faculties in the university. They established professional journals dedicated to particular topics--still much too broad-ranging for our empirical tastes, but nonetheless specialized by the standards of the day. And they asked, much like Dooyeweerd would ask in the middle of the 20th century, how all these different subjects fit together in a single, consistent, complex, coherent whole. Their outlook was evolutionary, progressive, and hopeful. Humanity had a beastly past, but things were going to get better.

Some time in the late 60s and the early 70s, the generation that either been born during or immediately after World War II abandoned the grand synthetic visions of their parents and grandparents. The consequence has been an increasingly fragmented academic world. This had, in part, to do with an understandable loss of confidence in grand projects. It also had to do with simple numbers. In the United States, for example, the GI Bill (1944) meant that the number of doctorates awarded between 1953 and 1971 rose from 8000+ to 33750+. The average number of years covered in a history dissertation, specifically, fell from 75-100 years in 1900 to less than 30 years in 1975. The expansion of the academic industry meant that people were doing more and more that covered smaller and smaller tracts of space and time. Many more 'things' were being sought in those smaller tracts as well. Not just politics, but society, economics, psychology, etc. Philosophy and English departments got on board the radically empiricistic bandwagon by thinking about the nature of historical context, deconstructing abstract knowledge regimes, contemplating the impossibility of thinking the entire world in a single movement of thought.

As I said above, there is a certain inevitability to empirical specialization. It's value is not to be entirely discounted. On the other hand, too much specialization, particularly in the liberals arts, seems to misunderstand the nature of the subject matter.

The academic world seems sense it too. Big History is back in a big way. Not, of course, the big histories of Hegel and Marx. Big History has taken the nihilistic responses from Nietzsche and Foucault to heart, and itself founded on big science: grand evolutionary narratives in which humanity occupies just a small, but infinitely complex, fraction of the picture frame. Today's gods are funded by Bill Gates. They stride the length and breadth of our universe, from its origins 14 billion years ago across its 10s of billions of light-year it takes to get from one side to the other. They will fret about what it means for us to live in the Anthropocene, a radically new epoch in our planet's history, in which the human race is no longer subject to nature, but now participates, for better or worse, in its recreation. That a good place to start.

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