Wary About Wisdom

Cathy Davidson has been steadily working away at the problem of inequality within higher education and at how higher education contributes to inequality.

I admire the intensity of her focus and her willingness to consider radical rethinking of institutions of higher learning. However, I think she’s up against a much harder problem than even she credits in her latest arguments for the liberal arts as a “a start-up curriculum for resilient, responsible, ethical, committed global citizens.”

Davidson has argued for a long time, in concert with many other reformers in education, for abandoning the industrial infrastructure of modern educational institutions–the idea of taking standard inputs (matriculating students) and producing standard outputs (graduates) through a series of industrially-organized allocations of time and labor. Put students in a room at a set time, do a standardized type of work or dump a standard unit of information, send them away at a set time, test and measure, do quality assessment (aka grading), throw away the substandard. Repeat.

Instead, she often counters, we should be contributing to human flourishing. Education should happen for every student seeking it at its own time and pace. For one person, competency and mastery might bloom in an hour, for another in a week, another in a month: let the institution match its pace to that. Don’t chop up knowledge into manageable reductions, skills into atomized pieces. Don’t suppress what students are really thinking through because there isn’t time to listen, because the assembly line must continue to move along. Don’t turn degrees into Skinner boxes. And so on.

It’s a familiar critique, and I endorse much of it. In part because I can imagine the classrooms and institutions that would follow these critiques. To me, much of what Davidson asks for can be done, and if done will show a greater and more effective fidelity to what many educators (and the wider society) already regard as the purposes of education, whether that’s the cultivation of humanity or teaching how to add. I have no trouble, in other words, arguing for the wholly conventional value of a substantially reimagined academy in these terms.

However, in any educational project that emphasizes the cultivation of humanity, at least, there is a difficult moment lying in wait. It’s fairly easy to demonstrate that specialized knowledge or skills are not present in people who have not received relevant training or education. When we talk about wisdom or ethics, however, I think it’s equally easy to demonstrate that people who have had no educational experiences at all, or education that did not emphasize wisdom and ethics, nevertheless possess great wisdom or ethical insight.

Arguably, our current educational systems at the very least are neutral in their production of wisdom, ethical insight, emotional intelligence and common sense. (Unless you mean that last in the Gramscian sense.) Davidson might well say at this point, “Exactly! Which is why we need a change.”

I can see what a learner-driven classroom looks like, or how we might rethink failure and assessment. I don’t know that I can see what an education that produces ethics and wisdom looks like such that I would be confident that it would produce people who were consistently more wise and more ethical than anyone without that education would be.

What I unfortunately can see is that setting out to make someone ethical or wise through directed learning might actually be counterproductive. Because to do so requires a prior notion of what an ethical, wise outcome looks like and thus creates the almost unavoidable temptation to demand a performative loyalty to that outcome rather than an inner, intersubjective incorporation of it.

If we thought instead about ethics and wisdom as rising out of experience and time, then that might attractively lead back towards the general reform of education towards projects, towards making and doing. However, if that’s yet another argument for some form of constructivist learning, then beware fixed goals. A classroom built around processes and experiences is a classroom that has to accept dramatically contingent outcomes. If we embrace Davidson’s new definition of the liberal arts, paradoxically, we have to embrace that one of its outcomes might be citizens whose ethics and wisdom are nothing like what we imagined those words contained before we began our teaching. We might also find it’s one thing to live up to an expectation of knowledgeability and another altogether to live up to an expectation of wisdom.

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6 Responses to Wary About Wisdom

  1. David says:

    Might not the core processes of “education” generate wisdom and/or ethical insight in and of themselves, regardless of the content that they teach using these processes?

    I’m thinking of a talk I heard Lynn Hunt give many years ago, where she was arguing that the very mental practice of reading novels helped to produce conditions where people could imagine the notion of “human rights”. That is, that by reading a novel, one is brought into the psyche or worldview of another human being–at least partially–which then creates almost inevitably a certain realization of common humanity…. regardless of what the novel was actually about, the reader’s politics, etc.
    (I’m not doing her talk justice.)
    While people can be wise and ethical and have common sense without education (just as people can be empathic or humanistic or culturally relativistic without reading novels)
    don’t the processes of education (reading, thinking, encountering) have consequences on the building blocks of wisdom and ethics (deep reflection, self-awareness, anthropological comparison, etc.), even if it can’t guarantee a standard outcome?

  2. Tim, have you read Stanley Fish’s Save the World on Your Own Time?

    He makes a similar argument about the proper role of education (though with far more certainty and bluster than your characteristic thoughtfulness). I have to say I was quite dismayed at how much of it I agreed with.

  3. Rob,

    Speaking for myself, I have read that book and I, too, am bothered by the bluster and hyperconfidence (and posturing) that Fish engages in.

    That said, and like you, apparently, I agree with much of it. In large part, I agree with it because when I first read it, I had become disillusioned with a prior opinion I had had about teaching, which was that the goal of good college-level teaching was to “challenge young minds to question orthodoxies” (by which I meant, “compel them to see things the way I did”). I was wrong and had begun to recognize that fact and this book ratified my change of heart.

  4. Oh, I’m so so wary about our wisdom about ethics. Great blog post. I accept the caveats and squirmishness about ethics and morality. I could not agree more! It goes wrong a lot of the time. (And so does not making those our ideals, I hasten to add. To whit, the guiding principles of innovation (without equity) or disruption (without consideration for those disrupted).

    At the same time . . . to accept the status quo is implicitly to accept a lot of these same things that it is easy to critique since they are deeply embedded in our mission statements, our self-justifications when we are being criticized or cut, our arguments for our existence in the face of malicious or ideological or just broke requirements for cutbacks. But there is often an enormous disconnect between our ability to justify our lofty goals to others and the mechanisms of our majors and gen ed requirements and structures which often seem mostly to perpetuate our material or specific intellectual turf stakes, not our espoused mission.

    I just don’t understand why we wield ethics and moral judgment in everything else we do as academics, under the banner of critical thinking, or critical race studies, or critical gender studies, or just critique—but so often stop far short of reforming our own departmental and university curriculum to our own critique of the rest of society and the world. We seem to look everywhere but inward as we critique neoliberalism and simply pass on as legacies and unchangeable the structures designed at the height of Taylorism and, indeed, in collaboration with Taylor Himself. And too often we let feeling beleagured by external pressure obscure our own implication in internal perpetuation of values that our dedication to critique-in-the-world would otherwise make it easy to critique. The process of reinvisioning our own structure and remaking them is, to my mind, absolutely necessary. The fear we have at being able to move departments–especially when it means changing the priorities and prerogatives of long-tenured senior faculty who act as if they own areas of knowledge–is what I fight against.

    I’ll give you, happily, the word “ethics” if we also are systematic about our excluding it from all the realms where our power to reform is intellectual (critique with no institutional position to make a change) and not actual (critique with the responsibility and the means to enact a change).
    Just now · Edited · Like

  5. For anyone interested in what an envisioned future might look like, in one very specific locale–the CUNY system–here is an ongoing “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education” site for a new way of teaching the next generation of intellectual leaders, including professors. All our dozen students in the Graduate Center are currently teaching or running programs in the CUNY colleges–12 courses, 9 disciplines (chemistry to narrative, computer science to art history—inc a 55-person Greek and Latin Roots course at Hunter), 9 campuses, inc three community colleges. Our course was formed by our graduate students. Myself and my co-teacher (former CUNY interim Chancellor and legendary Graduate Center President Emeritus Bill Kelly) left the room as our student designed a four-unit course for us, and they make assignments, lead them, the students enact the ideas in their undergraduate classes, the undergrads respond on a tool we’ve built that allows them to communicate with one another, for the first time, across the CUNY campuses. Then we debrief. The four areas: assessment/formative feedback; student-led pedagogy; the life-realities and ethics of being a student today; and movement/sound/vision. Our collaborative project across all the courses and all the campuses is the CUNY Map of NYC–and we’ve released our first student research, the CUNY Sociodemographic Map of NY. You can follow this quite interest experiment in redesigning higher education from scratch here: http://futures.gc.cuny.edu/ It is definitely not an only way–since my first principle is each institution must “know itself” and design for its own student population, faculty, costs, mission, goals, but definitely take the initiative to re-design for the conditions of now, not the socioeconimic, intellectual, aesthetic, political, and technological conditions of 1900.

  6. Yakimi says:

    Does Cathy Davidson’s definition of responsible, ethical, committed global citizens include those who falsely accuse white athletes of gang raping black women?

    Perhaps so. Her resort to such glittering generalities is designed to obfuscate her ideological and political intentions by sealing them in the bubble wrap of banality. Those intentions are obvious, of course, roundly shared by all those employed in her academic empire of so-called studies and theories, imposed in the sixties by violent persuasion. Her repeated invocation of the word critical is standard radical dogwhistling. These people consider themselves participants in a movement. The purpose of any movement is not the realization of truth but the attainment of power.

    So when Davidson speaks in this obnoxious cant, what she is really imploring us to do is to give her movement more power. This is evident throughout the piece, but especially obvious when she writes, “make alliances with other change-makers and, together, celebrate your victories”. By “change-makers”, she doesn’t mean the Republican Party. Her chosen alliances can be seen in the here. Again, power, not truth.

    Burke, why do you regurgitate this cant approvingly? Doesn’t the stench of insincerity scorch your nostrils? Perhaps you’ve spent too much time in academia.

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