Sunday, March 30, 2008

Two Universities

As I am preparing material for the Faculty Teaching Forum, I am struck by the strong pattern in the reading materials between two visions for undergraduate education. The first involves the idea that teaching undergraduates involves the dissemination of expert knowledge. The student's job is to acquire important knowledge claims from their expert instructors and the supporting texts. This is what Larry Spence is describing as the Talk-Test model of teaching. In any case, students are passive recipients of knowledge, rather than active constructors of knowledge. It seems that most college text books are designed with this model in mind. That most knowledge has been settled on by the experts and the students role is to acquire it. Certainly, when I think of Edward Wilson’s model of the university characterized in Consilience, this is what one comes away with. One might call this model the medieval university of divinely inspired expert authority.

This model corresponds to a level of cognitive development characterized by Perry as dualism. And certainly, it sets up a dualistic structure in the university. One of a small elite of knowledge providers and a large mass of knowledge recipients. The artifacts and practices of power within the university seem to support this view.

The second model of the university that comes to mind from the reading, is a model that sets the promotion of the cognitive and values development of young adults. Rather than placing invariant, received truths at the center of its model, this view places the process of inquiry and mature, contextually sound, values-based knowledge construction at the center. The sort of classroom experiences emphasized in this model put uncertainty and the process of inquiry at the forefront. The idea is that knowledge is not fixed, invariant, final, but, always in the process of becoming, both in terms of human endeavor, but also in terms of individual development. The goal is to move students from their early stages of dualist thinking (where they passively receive absolute knowledge) to a view that emphasizes their ability to construct knowledge on their own, moreover to be able to take a principled, meaningful position in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity =, even though other knowledge claims exist along side their own. This is essentially the enlightenment model of the university. [I should note that the ancient debate between Becoming and Being is inherent here = both for Plato and Siddhartha].

In my view, this second model is the one that promises a path to human liberation. It proposes the project of aiding individuals in finding the path for a more meaningfully engaged life. – a life free from the bondage of dependency on authority for direction and purpose. One where they are critically engaged in life, rather than being so easily enslaved by those in power or who have power over them.

It is also the model most consistent with the demands of modern living. Where people must take in a dizzying amount of information and varied opinion. They must have some means of sorting through these to find the solution or knowledge position that suits them the best. They must be wary of becoming another lemming in mass society -- to avoid being another passive lamb lead to the slaughter.

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