Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

The interplay of technocratic and quasi-religious language

Last month I made an exception to my general policy of hating NYT articles on higher education.  This month's exception is for Ross Douthat, whose comments on student protests happen to touch on an issue in how people in higher education talk about their work and mission.  It actually starts off rather unpromising, with a first paragraph that tries to summarize more than a century of change in higher education, and paints with a too-broad brush.  However, we'll temporarily set aside that Hofstadter's history of higher education is a fixation of this blog, and move to the next few paragraphs, which build toward something interesting:
At which point the student radicalism of the 1960s entered the picture. The radicals moved quickly to dismantle the vestiges of moral conservatism on campus — the in loco parentis rules that still governed undergraduate life, for instance. But their real mission was actually a kind of remoralization, a renewal of the university as a place of almost-religious purpose, where students would be educated about certain great truths and then sent forth to live them out. 
It was just that these truths were modern instead of ancient: The truths of the antiwar and civil rights movements, and later of feminism and environmentalism and LBGTQ activism and a long list of social justice causes. 
With time, the university ceded just enough ground to co-opt and tame these radicals. It adopted their buzzwords as a kind of post-religious moral vocabulary; it granted them the liberal arts as an ideological fiefdom (but not the sciences or the business school!); it used their vision of sexual liberation as a selling point for applicants looking for a John Belushi-esque good time. 
The result, by the time I arrived at college late in the 1990s, was a campus landscape where left-wing pieties dominated official discourse, but the university’s deeper spirit remained technocratic, careerist and basically amoral. And many students seemed content with that settlement.
(Emphasis added)

As I blogged about yesterday, I would take issue with his statement that radicals were granted the liberal arts as their own fiefdom.  Certainly they do not have unchecked control over the liberal arts.  However, I would agree that the radicals were granted a home within the wider realm of humanities and social sciences.  More interesting, though, is the contrast that Douthat identifies between a moral vocabulary and a deeper technocratic and amoral spirit.  What he describes is the flip side of what I observe in discussions of pedagogical philosophy.  The superficial language is amoral (in the sense of eschewing value judgments) and technocratic, focused entirely on measured learning gains and performance data, something that no scholar ought to dismiss.  Below the surface, though, are implicit value judgments (e.g. why do physics education researchers largely focus on "conceptual" understanding over calculation?) and heavy parcels of cultural baggage (why do people speak so excitedly of being "transformed"?).  People re-enact the Great Awakening in workshops, even while insisting that they are just following the data.

Perhaps the faculty are going through the same turmoil as the students.  The revival of student protests as a feature of campus political life shows a desire by students to grapple with moral questions (whether you, I, Douthat, or any other individual might agree with them is a separate issue for now) rather than give in to the technocratic spirit of institutions where business is often the largest major and STEM is the most-discussed family of majors.  Likewise, the faculty talk their game about "STEM!  STEM!  STEM!  STEM!" and technocratic approaches to learning, but there are clearly deeper moral, cultural, and psychological needs that are being met in pedagogy reform.

My own suspicion is that if we want a healthy, sustainable academy, rather than one where faculty lurch from fad to fad while students lurch back and forth between apathy and ill-informed protest, we need both a technocratic side and an open acknowledgement that Big Questions and cultural considerations matter.  We also need to read our history, lest we keep repeating it again and again.

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