Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Just enough

I've heard many accounts of what and how students should learn in college, but today I heard a new one - new to me at least. What's to be learned is to know when you've learned enough to make a decision. Makes sense, I suppose, from a business school dean (which he was). As a pragmatist, I should agree with this - thinking, as Peirce taught us, is generated by a puzzlement and subsides as soon as the puzzlement abates - but there's something about this way of putting it which makes me think of "We need a commander in chief, not a professor of law."

The business school dean was proposing a new way of organizing knowledge, which was all about speed and relevance. Force (!) faculty to teach what they're working on, and the need to make their work intelligible to more than a small number of other experts will broaden their research and make it more relevant. And do everything you can to promote new interdisciplinary ventures; there are problems in every field whose solutions probably lie outside its received view of itself, and the sooner these problems are solved the better! The process is, he said, evolutionary - the more efforts at innovative connecting, the sooner we'll get to the answers, and to new questions. (This was the context in which he mentioned learning enough to act.

Now does what works for business or design (he was a designer before going the business track) work for more conventional academic concerns? I can see ways in which it does - you want students to be able to see when evidence adds up to an argument, etc. - but it still seems too populist. Aren't there problems worth pursuing which most people won't understand? Don't interdisciplinary projects rely on more conventional bodies of knowledge, maintained and elaborated by scholars solving problems specific to their disciplines? More fundamentally, isn't (as Stanley Fish insists) liberal arts incompatible with such bald notions of utility? A higher utility more like uselessness, whether you see it as preparation for a lifetime of problem-solving (including problems you and your teachers couldn't have anticipated), as part of a life well lived... or even as preparation for dealing with the problems you can't solve?

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