Wednesday, October 27, 2004

An exchange on whether the liberal arts core should be deconstructed in the college curriculum (Part 1)

Note: this post focuses on the question whether the contention that curricular disciplines are cultural constructs means that the traditional distinctions between curricular courses and majors has no basis in fact. I cite Herman Dooyeweerd's work for the negative.

At Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, North Carolina, we have been undergoing an administration-imposed review of the liberal arts core curriculum that is being used as an opportunity to reduce the liberal arts core requirements by 20% across the board and by 25% within the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion. My personal view is that this is very bad for the future prospects of the liberal arts curriculum. Furthermore, it would mean that the presently existing core requirement of 3 hours in philosophy would be eliminated. Yet the administration has been complaining that the "outcome studies" of graduating seniors shows them lacking in critical reasoning. This would suggest, to me anyway, that they need more philosophy, not less. Furthermore, my own impression is that the administration's animating interest in this heavy-handed venture is because of pressure from the professional programs (Occupational Therapy, Nursing, etc.) to reduce the liberal arts core requirements to accommodate their top-heavy requirement-intensive majors. For example, nursing has something like an 80 credit-hour requirement for their majors, whereas philosophy has 30. Moreover, my impression is also that the administration is taking advantage of the voices of younger faculty members in a couple of ways. First, younger faculty are vulnerable to administrative influence because they are usually untentured and can be motivated by an interest in securing their positions by currying favor with the administration. Second, younger faculty in various liberal arts programs are sometimes enamoured of postmodern deconstructive sentiments and may think that any dismanteling of the liberal arts "canon" of core requirements will be amicable to their own agenda. I do not think that any of these reasons for supporting the suggested core revisions are good ones, and furthermore I think those who go along with these changes for the cited reasons may quite likely find themselves bitterly disappointed. My earlier discussions of the matter can be seen here:
One of my colleagues, opposed to the reduction in liberal arts courses but in favor of the loosening up of the core requirements to allow for what he called "inter-disciplinary" courses (especially seen as desirable from the deconstructionist vantage point), floated a counter proposal, which he defended as follows:

...the point behind my proposal is to query this strange thing 'science,' both as a method and as a rhetoric - & to ask [insist] that everybody treat their own discipline [another strange word] as a bundle of metaphors first - which somehow makes people nervous, to think about one's identity as having assumptions, & as being contingent. oops, did I say identity? I meant discipline.

I don't know what students gain from an incoherent & aimless perambulation of silos, which is what we have now. I know what faculty get from it... but not students.
I responded as follows:

I understand the point you offer by way of rationale for your proposal. I would say, in turn, that I think I understand what you and I and perhaps some other faculty would get out of querying "the strange thing called 'science'" and treating their own disciplines as a bundle of "metaphors." I even think I know what some graduate students or even some very bright senior honors students at LRC might gain from it. But I wonder what the vast majority of our students majoring in things like "Exercise Science," "Communications," or "Business" would gain from it.

I remember interviewing prospective honors students and looking over their portfolios, which included SAT scores. I saw one, wondering whether the 600 score was for the verbal and math, only to discover that it was the combined score (this was of a candidate interviewing for one of the school scholarships). It takes money to make money. But what do you do with students who come with nothing in the bank? I'm not sure one can lead a student very far into the query you envision without it seeming as aimless and incoherent as the "perambulation of silos" you perceive in the extant curriculum. Do we start with the infinitesimal calculus when dealing with students that haven't had arithmetic?

Questions about identity and classification such as you raise were also raised by Aristotle, not only in his classification of sciences into those concerned with thinking, knowing, and doing (theory, practice, and production), but in his analysis of categories (substance, relation, quantity, time, place, etc.) and analysis of substantial as opposed to accidental change in terms of form and matter, etc. Most of us haven't tackled Aristotle's most difficult notions, but he offers what seems to me the sort of questions one can profitably start with when dealing with students such as ours -- questions such as "What is a thing?" which is a question really as profound as it is mundane. It's the first question asked by the pre-Socratics, after all, as they contemplated the world about them: "What IS this stuff?" "Water?" "Air?" "Fire?" "Earth?" Come combination? What is a "thing"? Amidst the flux of endless change, is there anything which, while undergoing change,
remains in some sense the same? Etc., etc.

Elementary metaphysics before advanced deconstruction: otherwise what would there be to deconstruct?
hmmm ... an unconsidered, knee-jerk response is that I'm not sure I buy the disciplines as sui generis - historically, their assignment & development has been pretty arbitrary, market-driven, and as mundane as the history of the academy - I don't think that the lines between, say, literature and philosophy, or political science and sociology, have that much more than interest and taxonomy - and identity ["ism"] behind them: of course some fields are further away than others, and we can't make France part of Myanmar - but I am uncomfortable, and always have been, with taking as a substantive claim about the world the hugely contingent, habitual, and artificialish distribution of Things in the Thing that is The Academy. And the classificatory scheme is such a claim - it naturalizes and specifies - Foucault's "Order of things" - and as such constitutes a bar to thinking - and at least should be queried while the downloads (of disciplinary content) are going on.

I'm about Play - in all senses. My other colleague is about deconstruction. pshaw to that. "Boredom is the root of all evil," said old S.K. & I don't think serious ID stuff should begin till that 3rd tier I propose, a Jr-Sr sequence of people who, yes, have a disciplinary grounding. my Rhetoric sequence would have courses like Principles of Historical Interpretation - ways of knowing, approaches - thinking not about the substance, the soup-to-nuts-in-two-semesters, of a discipline, but the sort of questions it asks, its means of persuading, its approaches and assumptions - how do historians, as opposed to feelosofers, read, say, Henry IV? Students can take tools - metaphors - from their Core education - prisoners' dilemmas, dialectics, the uncertainty principle - rather than Tamerlane's sons, or the number of moles in... I dunno, 3 lb. of moronium sulfate - or a mole-hill; or that ATP has three phosphates; or to know the following 146 things for no other reason than habit and Blah -

... & we don't ground them now. we expose them superficially to everything, and are surprised when they don't retain it. Blah, there are only scripts there, mandatory & mantra-like, closely tailored for Blah, and suited more to us than to them. Read Sartre. Why? Because Feelosofers do. Learn Henry VII. Why? Because That's History. Blah.

... & if we are going to take as writ that students are dumb, and will always be so, and that dumb people first must be programmed correctly... wait. what is it we do for a living?
I've thought for a long time about the 'disciplines' business. It may be simplistic, but it has given me a sort of grid with which to analyze things. The source for it was Vol. I of Herman Dooyeweerd's A New Critique of Theoretical Thought: The Necessary Presuppositions of Philosophy (that's the formidable title of his first of four volumes)! The idea is that experience presents us with multiple dimensions or aspects, some of which we can see phenomenologically mental experiments in imaginative variation apparently are irreducible. Some modern theories are reductionist and try to reduce multiple dimensions to one, like Behaviorism, when it says that human behavior is exclusively the result of environmental conditioning, or the "masters of suspicion" when they say that politics and/or morality and/or education and/or religion are "only" a matter of power, economics, sexual self-interest, or whatever. Yet experiments in phenomenological variation suggest that such reductionisms are a bit simplistic, that experience is more complicated, that the moral is irreducible to the psychical (as in emotivism), etc., etc. and Blah (as you might say).

Dooyeweerd suggests that it's possible to distinguish 15 irreducible modalities of experience, which exhibit themselves in various "aspects" of things we experience. These includes aspects like the "religious," "moral," "aesthetic," "economic," "psychical," "lingual," "historial," "social," "jural," "biotic," "physical," "kinematic," and "mathematical." If you analyze a simple thing, like a wedding band, you can immediately see that it exhibits itself in a number of aspects that can analytically be sorted out. If used in a religious service, it presents a "religious" aspect. It symbolizes moral troth or fidelity. It cost something so exhibits an economic aspect. As a cultural artifact it exhibits an historical significance. Etc., etc.

The special sciences devotes themselves to various of these modalities of experience such as the physical, mathematical, chemical, etc. Various of the "human sciences" devote themselves to other aspects. Some "disciplines" are modality-specific, such as biology, which focuses explicitly just on the biotic. Others are not, such as English, which deals with a range of cross-modal dimensions, such as the grammatical-
lingual, aesthetic, historial, cultural, technical (skill in writing), etc. Or philosophy, which by its nature is not a special science but a general "discipline."

Tell me if you think this is silly.
... as to Dooeyeweerd's (you are so taking a piss with that name) I dunno how this list appears as irreducible - and I think reductionism is intrinsic to thinking as such [incipit Zarathustra] - whence this "experience" that presents aspects to us? Isn't it already constituted in a certain way, so that it sorts out "aspects" in a given number? How clear is our vision, and how do we measure that clarity, that aspects may exhibit themselves?
Thought you'd like that name. Imagine how HE felt, wearing it. You ask how clear our vision is, how we measure that clarity, such that aspects may exhibit themselves. These-- as well as the others preceding it-- are good questions, as you know; and as one who cut his teeth on the phenomenologists, I would simply say, "Well, let's take a look and see." Are there any alternatives, short of calling upon some unsupportable apriori schema? Of course experience is always already constituted in a certain way. Is there any other kind? How is that a problem? I don't see how reductionism should be intrinsic to thinking, unless you mean by reductionism "definition" or what Beidler calls "concept manipulation." But by reductionism I mean something else, something along the lines of saying that the ethically acceptable is nothing more than the socially accepted, or that moral judgments are nothing more than descriptions of our own emotive responses, or that the mind is nothing more than the brain, or that religion is nothing more than masked economic self-interest, or that happiness is nothing more than pleasure, etc. While one could find some willing to argue for these, I think there is plenty of data that would emerge from a discussion of our intersubjective experience that would show against these 'reductions.'

Take the last one-- that happiness is nothing but pleasure. If this were true, why can we easily imagine a situation in which we simultaneously experience pleasure and sorrow -- for example, nursing a brandy while watching a sunset, and at the same time grieving the death of a loved one? Or take any one of DooyeWEERD's 15 aspects and try reducing it to anything else through imaginative variation (or whatever means). Take the biotic (vital dimension), for example. Can biotic "life" be reduced to anything else? If so, to what? Is "life" a species of some other genus? In my experience, it seems to elude definability: it just IS. And the same with the others.
Numbers: difference: 1 is not 2 is not 6.73; specialization - to focus, to select one modality (methodology also, but modality works) results in a proliferation of ascribed differents between Numbers, and the accumulation of interest, identity, institution (and assonance) around that [centripetal] process of differentiation - further antidiscursive subdivision of Numbers - till we need to take Philosophy, or Biology as a foreign language... um... ok, that's what Everything 101 already is.
Well, yeah. Dooyeweerd shows how distinctions multiply as well. He points out that each aspect has analogical "anticipations" or "retrocipations" in other spheres (dimensions). Take the psychical modality of feeling, for instance. One can distinguish between different modalities of feeling: physical sensation, aesthetic feeling, moral feeling, religious feeling, lingual feeling (feeling for language), social feeling (with which you appear to be blessed in spades), etc. Likewise the kinematic modality of movement finds echoes in other modalities: physical movement, aesthetic movement, logical movement (from premise to conclusion), temporal, psychical (e-motions), historial, etc. But how would this either count against irreducibility? Does any of this suggest that all (or any) of these aspects are reducible to feeling or movement alone? If so, how? If not, how is reductionism unavoidable?
The historical only happens in the lingual, the psychic, and the social - kind of by definition (they're mostly dead). The lingual, in turn, happens as a chain of past speech, and its constraints and preferences frame the way the frame is. We observe a ring - in a Number of aspects - and do we really want to entrust the presentation of its aspectal whole by a series of people speaking Babel? Is that a core education, or is that an Englishman lost in India?
As to your first sentence, absolutely: but how could this be construed to suggest that the historial (or historical) is reducible to (or disappears in) the lingual, the psychic, the social, etc.? I'm not arguing that history doesn't deal with everything: it does. I am arguing that history deals with everything from the vantage point of the historial. Just as the gynecologist examining a woman at the clinic is supposed to take primarily a medical interest in examining her body (biotic sphere), even though the whole woman (psyche, soul, intellect, aesthetic tastes, religious beliefs, personal history, sexual preference) is there in the examining room.

The ring could symbolize the world, or life, or the totality of our experience, of course. In our ordinary pre-theoretical experience, the aspects that could otherwise be distinguished theoretically (as they are by our academic "disciplines"), remain implictly enmeshed, concrete, non-abstracted. On the whole, that is how we appear to experience persons, places, and things. But in theoretical reflection, it's possible to extract or abstract out a single dimension and to focus upon it. Isn't that precisely what chemistry does? or physics? or biology? or history? or linguistics? or ethics? or aesthetics? or law? or economics?
... to give them a grounding first? in what? how about we give them a mess, and let them decide...
I would argue that they already have the mess and lack the means to decide. Most individuals in my experience, before they go to college, haven't had much experience in abstractive reflection. Even quite a few professors, to infer from their discourse, haven't engaged in much. Ground them in what? Ground them in logic, math, physics, chemistry, biology, linguistics, psychology, sociology, history, economics, aesthetics, politics, ethics, religion -- and while you're at it, give them a constant diet of interdisciplinary philosophy, the whapping mother of all 'disciplines.' (Perhaps you and your colleague in English really just want to be philosophers!)