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Jun 2, 2004 12:43 pm

Academic Curricula: At War with Radical Thinking

A provocative article entitled"Colleges Must Reconstruct the Unity of Knowledge," written by Vartan Gregorian, appears in the June 5 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education. In this essay, Gregorian gives voice to problems of compartmentalization and fragmentation in the academy that I have long emphasized.

Gregorian is president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and a former president of Brown University and the New York Public Library. He writes:

Today's students fulfill general-education requirements, take specialized courses in their majors, and fill out their schedule with some electives, but while college catalogs euphemistically describe this as a" curriculum," it is rarely more than a collection of courses, devoid of planning, context, and coherence. In fact, mass higher education is heading toward what I call the Home Depot approach to education, where there is no differentiation between consumption and digestion, or between information and learning, and no guidance—or even questioning—about what it means to be an educated and cultured person. Colleges are becoming academic superstores, vast collections of courses, stacked up like sinks and lumber for do-it-yourselfers to try to assemble on their own into a meaningful whole.
The fundamental problem underlying the disjointed curriculum is the fragmentation of knowledge itself. Higher education has atomized knowledge by dividing it into disciplines, subdisciplines, and sub-subdisciplines—breaking it up into smaller and smaller unconnected fragments of academic specialization, even as the world looks to colleges for help in integrating and synthesizing the exponential increases in information brought about by technological advances. The trend has serious ramifications. Understanding the nature of knowledge, its unity, its varieties, its limitations, and its uses and abuses is necessary for the success of our democracy. ...
We must reform higher education to reconstruct the unity and value of knowledge. While that may sound esoteric, especially to some outside the academy, it is really just shorthand for saying that the complexity of the world requires us to have a better understanding of the relationships and connections between all fields that intersect and overlap—economics and sociology, law and psychology, business and history, physics and medicine, anthropology and political science.

Gregorian is particularly concerned about the tendency toward"simplistic solutions" for complex problems, because each problem is often constituted by a cluster of problems, and"none ... can be tackled using linear or sequential methods." He goes on:

Yet such systemic thinking has been slow to catch on, even though the pitfalls of specialization have long been acknowledged and discussed. One reason is that, although the process of both growth and fragmentation of knowledge has been under way since the 17th century, it has snowballed in the last century. The scope and the intensity of specialization are such that scholars and scientists have great difficulty in keeping up with the important yet overwhelming amount of scholarly literature related to their subspecialties, not to mention their general disciplines. The triumph of the"monograph" or"scientific investigation" over synthesis has fractured the commonwealth of learning and undermined our sense of commitment to general understanding and integration of knowledge.

None of this is meant to disparage specialization; but specialization without"synthesis and systemic thinking" is a prescription for disaster."Information—of all varieties, all levels of priority, and all without much context—is bombarding us from all directions all the time," Gregorian states. Indeed, those of us familiar with the liberal tradition have long appreciated F. A. Hayek's insight that the increasing complexity of society leads to an ever-increasing dispersal of information and knowledge; this knowledge is essentially dispersed, and reflected in the division and specialization of labor. But, as Gregorian insists,"the same information technologies that have been the driving force behind the explosion of information and its fragmentation also present us with profoundly integrative tools." We can see these tools at work in artificial intelligence, automated information-management systems, and electronic communications networks. Nevertheless, our computers will help us to integrate the data, but they are only as good as their human programmers. Gregorian quotes author and media critic Neil Postman:"The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework. It cannot tell us what questions are worth asking."

This is one of the important tasks of higher education, according to Gregorian. To not guide students toward synthesizing the disparate bits of knowledge is a colossal failure,"for history shows that humanity has a craving for wholeness." It's actually far more than a simple craving, however;"wholeness" or integration is a requirement of human cognition. And it is, in my view, a virtual requirement for radical social theorizing. More on that in a moment.

The lack of coherence and integration, claims Gregorian, leads some students to"esoteric ideas, cults, and extremist programs," which seem to provide the systematization that such students lack. This is rule not only by the collective, but also by the"expert," who becomes the leader. In a world of specialized knowledge, too many students defer to such"experts" and"abdicate judgment in favor of others' opinions. Unless we help our students acquire their own identity," Gregorian warns,"they will end up at the mercy of experts—or worse, at the mercy of charlatans posing as experts." Is it any wonder that some will be attracted to militant leaders, who adopt militant ideologies and theologies?

Gregorian urges educators to develop" coherence and integrity in our curricula," and the re-affirmation of a"liberal education ... to integrate learning and provide balance..." He urges multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary learning, where the"interconnectedness" of disciplines is stressed. He suggests the development of teacher training and"the joint appointment of faculty members to several departments." He emphasizes also the connections between"learning" and"doing"—between thought and action: the importance of field study; the integration of theory, application, and experience; the exploration of topics or problems"over a sustained period of time, using multiple approaches to explore and develop responses..."

In recognizing the division and specialization of labor and knowledge as central to the advancement of"the cause of civilization," Gregorian stresses"the creation of a balance between specialists and generalists." Such generalists,"trained in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences ... can help create a common discourse, a common vocabulary among the various disciplines." Ironically,"[s]ince our society respects specialists and suspects generalists," Gregorian cautions,"perhaps the way to solve the shortage of generalists is by creating a new specialty in synthesis and systems." Gregorian cites the words of noted philosopher and essayist José Ortega y Gasset:

The need to create sound synthesis and systemization of knowledge ... will call out a kind of scientific genius which hitherto has existed only as an aberration: the genius of integration. Of necessity, this means specialization, as all creative effort does, but this time, the [person] will be specializing in the construction of the whole.

Gregorian also reminds us of T.S. Eliot's comments on Dante's Inferno, where he suggests"that hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing." That is precisely the kind of hell that the modern curriculum is creating. In the end,

we need to understand where we were, where we are, and where we are going. The challenge for higher education, then, is not the choice between pure research and practical application but, rather, the integration and synthesis of compartmentalized knowledge. On our campuses, we must create an intellectual climate that encourages faculty members and students to make connections among seemingly disparate disciplines, discoveries, events, and trends—and to build bridges among them that benefit the understanding of us all.

What lessons can we draw from Gregorian's essay? Well, it's a lesson I've been teaching for more than twenty years and it is one that speaks to the essence of radical thinking.

It has long been said that to be radical is to grasp things by the root. And yet, those who are characterized as political radicals have been criticized by some for raising"serious questions about basic purpose and meaning in society," as political theorist Harlan Wilson puts it, that seem to lend themselves to"relatively simplistic and highly controlled" answers. For Wilson, those who attempt to go to the"root" assume there are roots and that it is possible to clearly identify"malignant" and"vicious" fundamentals that gloss over"interdependence and overlapping pluralities."

But an appreciation of social complexity must be fundamental to radical social theorizing. To be radical is not to offer canned solutions for context-less problems. It is the ability to examine the roots of social problems from different perspectives and on different levels of generality. It is the ability to situate each social problem within a larger system, across time. In seeking to change a society, we can never do one thing; we need to attack that society's problems across several dimensions. This"art of context-keeping," which is the essence of what I have called"dialectical thinking," is indispensable to radical analysis. As I write in Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism:

A new radicalism is first and foremost a new way of thinking. It demands that we explore the integrated principles, meaning, and promise of liberty. It demands that we ask, and answer, crucial questions about the context of liberty—those complex forces that generate, sustain, and nourish human freedom.

Some of my critics have argued that I've trivialized the nature of dialectics by identifying it with good, critical thinking. But Gregorian's article suggests that the modern curriculum militates against such"good, critical thinking," insofar as"good critical thinking" requires an awareness of context, of systematization and integration. When people are not trained to think systematically—worse: when they are trained to dis-integrate, to fragment, to atomize—they will not be apt to think of problems in their interconnections.

This has implications especially for a political process that institutionalizes ad hoc policy-making. Every piece of legislation is crafted by ad hoc considerations of pork-barreling privilege and interest-group pressure. It is as prevalent in the construction of foreign policy as it is in domestic policy. It is even etched into illusory dreams of"democratic nation-building," which focus on the external imposition of institutions or procedural rules without any appreciation of the complex personal and cultural forces that nourish and sustain them.

Let us be clear: The need for comprehensiveness in political thinking, just like the need for integration in the curriculum, is not a call for that equally illusory"synoptic" perspective that Hayek criticized as a vestige of rationalism. None of us stands like Archimedes from a synoptic vantage point to reconstruct the world in toto. All the more reason to investigate every problem from as many different perspectives and levels of generality as is humanly possible. That is the nature of radical thinking. Human survival depends on it.

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Andre Zantonavitch - 6/4/2004

This lengthy meditation on specialization and integration in today's Groves of Academe is essentially a clarion call by Gregorian and Sciabarra for more of the later. And it's hard to disagree with this -- enough already with this "deconstructionism" and "literary theory" crap of the past 40 years! Indeed, Chris's piece reminds me of Rand and her observation that humans intellectually and spiritually desperately need philosophy in their life because it gives them a comprehensive and integrated view of the universe and their existence -- and thus of how best to live. Personally, I agree with all of this.

The above monograph also provides an interesting gloss on Chris's specialty: his dialectic approach to truth-seeking, and guide to comprehensive, integrated, fully-contextual knowledge.

My own reading of history tells me that during the first Age Of Reason (especially from Socrates/Democritus to Epicurus/Zeno-the-Stoic) the ancient Greeks tended to regard all of knowledge as one (i.e. as "the word" or logos): they thought each piece led to and flowed into the next. Interestingly, they also regarded all virtues as essentially one -- as also leading and flowing into each other. Hence, anything which was "right" in their language [and ours] (anything true or virtuous) very quickly suggested and implied, and directed one toward, everything else which was "right" (factually correct or morally good).

Aristotle's whole university -- like his whole quietly stunning approach to knowledge -- was a marvel of integration and dialectic balance, in my judgment (Am I right here, folks?). The worlds's first Age of Reason was truly impressive.

So was the second. The Renaissance Man was almost by definition comprehensive and well-integrated in his approach to, and possession of, knowledge. He was well-rounded and fully-educated. Even more so was the Enlightenment liberal with his "encyclopedic" approach to knowledge and education. The aristocrats and well-educated elite of 1700s England, Holland, France, and America put today's over-specialized, out-of-context academics to shame. They even put today's fragmented over-Randized Objectivists and over-Austrianized libertarians to shame(!).
It seems clear to me that the world of the future will feature many rational philosophies and related, derivative rational cultures -- not just the one highly-familiar belief-system which was so fully developed by Ayn Rand. The world of the future will be led by many and diverse well-educated, well-integrated Western liberal thinkers -- not just or primarily Objectivists. It will very much resemble the highly mature and Reasonist societies of Greece in the 200s BC, Rome in the 00s BC, and Western Europe in the 1700s. These near-future folks will have a comprehensive, systematic, balanced, well-integrated, fully-contextual approach to education i.e. to gaining and using (rational) knowledge. The result will be an intensely-rational but diverse collection of educational approaches, individual life-styles, and collective world mini-cultures.