Monday, August 01, 2016

In Praise of Practice

Whether one is a technology utopian or a skeptic, everyone seems to agree that we are seeing some revolutionary technological breakthroughs and that these would change our lives inalterably (the disagreements, mostly, are about whether this would be good or bad). The focus of my work is to think what these changes mean for work and for education, and how educational innovations would be fit for this 'second machine age'. 

Fundamentally, I believe that we are entering a THIRD age of what we have come to call 'Higher Education'. And, by this, I mean the social functions related to creation and dissemination of knowledge necessary to define the relationship between the nature and us, and indeed, inbetween ourselves. I use the broad definition to stay outside various policy terms - college, universities, research and teaching institutions etc - and focus on the fundamental idea, that our relationships with nature and between ourselves is a knowledge process that requires continuous exploration and dissemination, and this is what Higher Education, in all its forms and functions, do.

Now, in terms of geneology of Higher Education (and I am taking an European perspective as this is the dominant model in modern Higher Education), we have been through two great ages of Scholasticism and Criticism. The first of these ages of Higher Education, I shall argue, was built around the creation of the broader worldview around Christian theology, mainly by incorporating classical thinkers such as Aristotle, mainly the work of Thomas Aquinas and others. The tradition of education built around this was about interpretation of texts, hermeneutics as it was called, through deep study and reflection. The second age, built around the Enlightenment tradition, came as a reaction to this, with the battle cry of 'dare to think' and to question everything, as Immanuel Kant would say it, and was built around Criticism. This is the tradition the Modern Research universities are based upon - at their heart, they are designed to be critical institutions powered by freedom of thought, free speech and secular faith. 

I generalise, but do so in order to focus the conversation on what may need changing in Higher Education. It is not about the form - from premises-based to online - or function - from preparing for ecclesiastical career to statecraft to life of a company man - of Higher Education, but its fundamental reason to be that needs to change. Whether or not we are destined for an age of Robot Overlords (or various dystopian scenarios), the expanding abilities of technologies are changing our relationships with nature and inbetween ourselves. The earlier imperatives of making nature work for us, alongwith some unintended consequences of Darwin's discoveries as the humankind came to think of itself as the winner of the species race and set upon to extract the rewards, are now being replaced by the urgent imperatives of care and preservation, as we fully recognise the shape of the apocalpyse and avoiding it becomes one, though not the only, of our priorities. And, indeed, relationships between ourselves have been transformed too, as we grew out of being in control of nature and to beings in control, at least partially, of our own fate - our initial triumphalism about rationality later tempered by our acknowledgement of fallability - and we are now grappling with all sorts of existential questions requiring new imagination and an attitude of 'care'. This is the broader question facing Higher Education, and I shall argue that the Critical Tradition may not have all the answers here.

One of the key failings of the Enlightenment project, as its critics were quick to point out (starting perhaps with Herder, Kant's pupil), that its audacity of ideas were performed on distant plain from human life and action. In this, the scholastic traditions of reflection subsumed the challenge of freeing knowledge: While we may have arrived at a point of questioning the texts, the critical tradition dismissed much of what we do and who we are as irrational and outlying phenomena. Today, we live in societies that distrust experts and scholarly knowledge for being other-worldly, for its disconnect with actual practice. After the triumph of philosophy, which Enlightenment indeed was, we have arrived at an age when 'philosophising' is derided as an useless, impractical activity, having no bearing with real life. And, this point is more relevant now than ever, as we seek to make the disciplines ever more obscure and ever more distant from real life, a kind of scholarly game to exclude the commoner and his practice from the higher plains of theory.

This is the fundamental change that needs to come to Higher Education, an invitation to practice. The THIRD age, I argue, will be the age of Practice, when the active life, one engaged with nature and other human beings, would take the centre-place of our enquiry and reflections. This is not, as I must emphasize, an argument for apprenticeships, internships, experiential learning and all that, as those methods exist and continue to exist in the broad context of Education. My argument is not about methods, but about the purpose: This is the equivalent of neroscientists arguing that our thinking is not just centralised in our brains, but rather distributed throughout our bodies, and the sensations and experiences of being human, rather than divine commandments and revealations, are the true beginnings of knowledge. 

This age of Practice is not a discontinuous development in education, but an evolutionary one. Just as the tradition of Criticism emerged from the dissatisfactions with Scholasticism, and yet, adapted its central values and methods - interpretation and reflection - to its own ends, the age of Practice, while changing the essential assumptions about origins and nature of knowledge, would perhaps utilise the tools of critical reflections, analysis and synthesis. But this would mean, just as the modern Research university was a break from the medieval forms, newer institutional forms, more distributed spatially and temporally, more assimilated with real world, more concerned with daily lives, and more equated with doing. This new education will help us to make sense of our cosmic and social existences, just as the technologies test and alter the natural boundaries and the social consensus built around industrial progress gives away to a new world of winners and losers of a different make-up. The schism that may invariably arise out of this may not be healed by the rational men in all their critical glory, but rather by the connections of our hands and emotions with natures and lives of our own and of others, and with values of care and belonging that came with it.

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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