Thursday, April 24, 2008

Practical Reason

I've only had this book for a week, and I've already read it twice. It's A New Agenda for Higher Education: Shaping a Life of the Mind for Practice (William M. Sullivan & Matthew S. Rosin, 2008, JosseyBass). The book is the outcome of an extensive seminar supported by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in which a dozen or so faculty in various professional programs (engineering, pre-med, law, nursing, education, etc.) talked about the ways in which they combined liberal education and professional education. Rather than seeing a tension between those two traditional opposites, the members of this seminar came to understand how neither is fully effective without completely embracing the other.

One of their more interesting claims is that our current agenda of critical thinking, while useful, is incomplete. Critical thinking is an analytical event: pulling an argument into its component parts, evaluating the character of each part, and rebuilding the parts you find solid into a new argument. They contrast this with "the new agenda," which they call practical reason. The underlying epistemological premise of practical reason is that it "...looks on knowledge, including representational knowledge, as founded on participation and engagement with the world" (p.103). A blend of objective analysis and narrative engagement, practical reason allows us to not only understand what we can do, but to explore what we ought to do.

The members of this seminar looked at one another's syllabi, and four general topics of content came to the surface regardless of their discipline.
  • Identity -- understanding yourself as a decision-maker, including your skills, knowledge, values, preferences, and blind spots.
  • Community -- understanding who has a stake in the outcome of your decisions, what their values are (and therefore what their preferred outcomes are likely to be).
  • Responsibility -- understanding the relationship and duties you bear to each of the members of this community.
  • Bodies of Knowledge -- understanding the particular theories, materials, and procedures of your chosen field.
As we look at a typical design education, we see lots of opportunities to engage in learning the body of knowledge -- through studio courses, materials and structures and systems courses, architectural history courses, and so on. In fact, that's about the only one of the four that's systematically addressed. We hope that you can develop some of the other three understandings on your own time, but we don't take it as our job. We have some component of "general education" in the curriculum, through which we hope that you'll magically become a "well-rounded person," but we never articulate the ends to which that "rounding" should be put.

One of the reasons I shape my intro design theory course the way I do is that it feels like an important opportunity to at least introduce the first three topics. Given that they won't be raised again in any of the further courses, I don't have any idea whether or not it's the right thing to do. But I'd feel irresponsible if I didn't try.

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