Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Teaching Institutionally?

David Brooks (yeah, I read him a lot) wrote another interesting article, this one about a book by Hugh Heclo titled On Thinking Institutionally. Brooks uses the following quote as a foil:

A few years ago, a faculty committee at Harvard produced a report on the purpose of education. "The aim of a liberal education" the report declared, "is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves."

He then explains how "thinking institutionally" is preferable. It asks that people adopt the roles that are given to them within the institutions that they find themselves, and that they be faithful to their rules and obligations out of respect for those around you.

This made me think about some of the readings and discussions from the recently completed Kuiper seminar.

I am uncomfortable with the philosophy of teaching that the Harvard professor espouses. The "question everything" attitude is an academic mask that can be used to make cynicism look respectable. Academic work that is based on "unsettling, defamiliarizing, and disorienting" seems fundamentally destructive. It is easy to fall into the trap of teaching "critical thinking" as if it means tearing apart artifacts and taking them out of context, as if pulling apart someone's work into its smallest contemptible parts is the same as knowing it. This does a disservice to our colleagues, the material we study, and most importantly, it leaves our students empty.

Instead we should strive to embrace what Susan Felch has called a "hermeneutic of delight," in which we teach students to think carefully about an artifact by understanding it completely, approaching it charitably, and then finally searching for ways to improve it. The result is scholarship that is no less rigorous, and it is more complete. Most importantly it instills in students a sense of intellectual decorum that is often lost, and preserves wonder and hope. I suspect that this is what most good teachers do instinctively, though it does not seem to be the norm in the academy overall.

Back to Brooks' article: this "thinking institutionally" idea seems to be very compatible with a hermeneutic of delight. Instead of tearing apart conventions and institutions, we should always start by understanding how and why they were developed, how they are helpful, and only then, how they can be improved. I will try to teach public finance this way as we examine many different policies. It is easy to dismiss many policies as the result of this or that ideology which I reject, but that easily devolves into the cynicism that I would like to avoid.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Brooks on Economics

David Brooks' latest article for the New York Times is about economics and the recent crisis. I am very uncertain about his message, but I thought the last few lines were thought-provoking:

Right now political and economic confidence levels are running in opposite directions. Politically, we're in a season of optimism, but despite a trillion spent and a trillion more about to be, the economic spirit cowers. Mechanistic thinkers on the right and left pose as rigorous empiricists. But empiricism built on an inaccurate view of human nature is just a prison.