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.


Steven McMullen said...

Update: A parallel conversation on Facebook lead to the following helpful exchange:

Jeff Schooley:

"Can the hermeneutic of delight create enough space for the overturning of an artifact? Can one appreciate an artifact to a point where it becomes unappreciateable (to coin a word, I think)? If not, then can intellectual revolution take place?"

My Reply:

Good question. I think the answer is: yes, it should, or if it does not, we need to re-think. I think of it not as a limit to where your inquiry can go, but as an attitude and direction of inquiry. Revolution is still possible, but it is only appropriate if you fully understand the origin strengths of the order you want to overturn.

That said, you are right to point out that the pitfall of "thinking institutionally" is that, in the extreme, you are unable to avoid repeating the errors of the past and perpetuating current injustices.

Anonymous said...

The Harvard quote reaks of the same deceit as most of their stifling political correctness. They only tear apart good and pile the bad higher and higher without questioning the PC crud at all.