September 20, 2004

Liberal learning for the new century (#19)

He who would do good
to another must do it
in Minute Particulars.
General Good is the plea
of the scoundrel,
hypocrite, and flatterer;
For Art and Science
cannot exist
but in minutely organised Particulars.
[William Blake]

For decades now, a common lament has been the increasing specialization of knowledge and learning and the subsequent erosion of liberal sensibility in the academy. The forces at work behind this trend are legion and responsible for the questions held by many—among them, potential liberal arts students and their parents—concerning the contemporary relevance of a liberal arts education. For reasons explained below, I submit that liberal education is, in fact, more relevant now than ever, and I suggest that understanding this relevance is key to conceptualizing a liberal arts curriculum for the new century.

Although fueled and shaped by any number of seemingly ineluctable historical, political, and economic forces, academic specialization has also been enabled and impelled by technology. That technology is instrumental for specialization is obvious; less obvious is technology’s epistemological role:

At no period in human culture have men understood the psychic mechanisms involved in invention and technology. Today it is the instant speed of electric information that, for the first time, permits easy recognition of the patterns and the formal contours of change and development. The entire world, past and present, now reveals itself to us like a growing plant in an enormously accelerated movie. Electric speed is synonymous with light and with the understanding of causes. [Marshall McLuhan, media theorist]

McLuhan here suggests that the effect of technology is not limited to the exponential proliferation of information but extends to the kind of knowledge that is made possible by both the speed and extent of available information. Instant access to organized stores of information on a superhuman scale enables perception of previously inaccessible patterns and relationships, to which McLuhan here refers as causality, but which I suggest might more broadly be conceived as insight.

As has been noted elsewhere in these reflections and proposals, facts these days are cheap. What is dear, and dearer with every passing information-saturated moment, is the capacity to generate insight from facts and information and to bring insight to bear upon them in turn. I contend that information and communication technologies now confront our students with an epistemological environment that requires, not so much new cognitive skills, as a new ordering and emphasis of these skills. In a world in which, not just factual information, but the semantic and algorithmic parsing of this information is and will increasingly be instantly and ubiquitously available, the ability to contextualize and synthesize information in response to complex and emergent issues and questions is crucial. Poetics, or the ability to make meaning from seemingly disparate elements, is fast becoming as important as analytics and may, in the future, become even more important. Creative thinking deserves as much concentrated attention and nurturance as the liberal arts have long devoted to critical thinking.

Our students must become, not simply receptacles, but artisans of meaning.

The liberal arts, with their long tradition of “well-roundedness,” are singularly well-suited to help students meet the challenges of the information economy, but we must first reconceive the notion of “well-roundedness,” not simply as exposure to content across the disciplines, but as the cultivated capacity to integrate knowledge in ways that generate meaning and insight for complex problems and questions. We must teach specifically toward this capacity.

Blake locates evil in the general, in received and abstractly applied notions of value and truth. On the contrary, he claims, the good is always a matter of “Particulars” that are “minutely organized.” Consistency suggests that, for Blake, general rubrics of organization simply reinscribe the generalities he would have us eschew: what is required is the ability to organize to the moment, to the question at hand, to the voices and needs that splinter all that we think we know and give rise to new knowledge, new insights.

Posted by love at September 20, 2004 11:28 AM
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