Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Why Universities are failing: 4. Epistemological inadequacy

In a most lucid New Yorker article "After the Fact. In the history of truth, a new chapter begins"   without ever referring to Universities, provides further evidence as to why they can be said to be failing. Her article begins within recent experience of the so-called, 'US political debate' in which she notes: 

"The past has not been erased, its erasure has not been forgotten, the lie has not become truth. But the past of proof is strange and, on its uncertain future, much in public life turns. In the end, it comes down to this: the history of truth is cockamamie, and lately it’s been getting cockamamier."

Implicitly, if not explicitly, within this claim sits the question of what the role of the institution we call a university is within an unfolding 'public life'?  Have universities become makers of cockamamie?

If you are reading this post then I invite those of you who are connected with, or concerned about universities and what they are becoming, to reflect on Lepore's examination of the following thought experiment?

"Most of what is written about truth is the work of philosophers, who explain their ideas by telling little stories about experiments they conduct in their heads, like the time Descartes tried to convince himself that he didn’t exist, and found that he couldn’t, thereby proving that he did. Michael P. Lynch is a philosopher of truth. His fascinating new book, “The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data,” begins with a thought experiment: “Imagine a society where smartphones are miniaturized and hooked directly into a person’s brain.” As thought experiments go, this one isn’t much of a stretch. (“Eventually, you’ll have an implant,” Google’s Larry Page has promised, “where if you think about a fact it will just tell you the answer.”) Now imagine that, after living with these implants for generations, people grow to rely on them, to know what they know and forget how people used to learn—by observation, inquiry, and reason. Then picture this: overnight, an environmental disaster destroys so much of the planet’s electronic-communications grid that everyone’s implant crashes. It would be, Lynch says, as if the whole world had suddenly gone blind. There would be no immediate basis on which to establish the truth of a fact. No one would really know anything anymore, because no one would know how to know. I Google, therefore I am not."

As you sit in your next meeting, or look at the pronouncments that come from University senior management, or strategic planners, consider what 'trajectory commitments' their language reveals.  Are they knowingly or not followers of Larry Page, or do they understand what is actually entailed in 'observation, inquiry and reason'? More importantly how is your university, or any university, positioning itself to serve a society that runs the risk of not knowing how to know!

 Some in universities might consider that the historical practices of proof construction still play some role in University and academic life:

"In the West, for centuries, trial by combat and trial by ordeal—trial by fire, say, or trial by water—served both as means of criminal investigation and as forms of judicial proof."

The profound shift from 'proof through ordeal' to 'proof through deliberation' is entertainingly revealed in the novels of Diana Norman (writing as Ariana Franklin). This shift was one of the more significant institutional innovations of the last 1000 years, though one would not always believe so in the combatative arenas of University funding and decision making where there is an increasing propensity for senior managers to believe they can discern winners and losers in a globalised academic battle for hegemony! 

As  Lepore notes:

"Between the thirteenth century and the nineteenth, the fact spread from law outward to science, history, and journalism."

To this we might add the creation of universities as arbiters of religious belief and then fact? After all:

"Empiricists believed they had deduced a method by which they could discover a universe of truth: impartial, verifiable knowledge. But the movement of judgment from God to man wreaked epistemological havoc. It made a lot of people nervous, and it turned out that not everyone thought of it as an improvement."

So to what extent does your university purvey a utilitarian, epistemologically naive, pedagogy, whether by commission, or omission? For example, by priviledging narrowly conceived research at the expense of transformative learning and/or research, because, as Lepore says:

"we no longer take responsibility for our own beliefs, and we lack the capacity to see how bits of facts fit into a larger whole. Essentially, we forfeit our reason and, in a republic, our citizenship."  

Citing Lynch and Jefferson, Lepore offers insight and possibility for reclaiming purpose in the being and doing of a university:

"He [Lynch] thinks the best defense of reason is a common practical and ethical commitment. I believe he means popular sovereignty. That, anyway, is what Alexander Hamilton meant in the Federalist Papers, when he explained that the United States is an act of empirical inquiry: “It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” 

I would put it differently: how can we create and re-create the circumstances for the design and enactment of systemic governance so that common practical and ethical commitments (knowing how to know and do) emerge coherant with our circumstances of living in a climate-changing world?  And how might universities embrace this imperative as their reason d' etre?   Unfortunately these concerns appear largely absent from the recent UK Green Paper (Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, November 2015) critically reviewed by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books.

N.B. My thanks to David Waltner-Toews for alerting me to the article by Jill Lepore. 

1 comment:

David Waltner-Toews said...

In the last few weeks in both Milan (the Ispra-IRR meeting on how to assess quality in science for policy) and London (One Health & Zoonoses symposium) I argued for spaces where "high quality, constructive conflicts" could be carried out. My premise was that in complex situations there will always be multiple perspectives, based on differing values and rules, than cannot be resolved by acquisition of more data. What results are public screaming matches in science & scholarship in general as much as in politics (GMOs, BSE, climate change, food security, eco-health, One Health, etc). Therefore one way to navigate a post-normal science world is to create spaces in academia (eg platforms run by respected journals such as "Nature" or "Science") and in public to characterize the different perspectives and negotiate ways to proceed without degenerating into pitched battles.