Monday, December 22, 2008

Vocationalism and Higher Learning

In 1936 (Robert Maynard) Hutchins published The Higher Learning in America, a set of lectures in which he presented his newly congealed idea about education to a wider public. These ideas were conservative in substances but radical in tone, because they called for a major reorientation of the institutions and values of the American higher education.

Hutchins begin his tract by vociferously attacking American colleges as vacuous sites that exhibited either ideals nor coherence. "The most striking fact about the higher learning in America," he declared, "is the confusion that besets it." He criticized the emphasis on fun, vocationalism, misguided ideas of progress and utility, and clumsy attempts to mold "character" directly, Furthermore, he decried the lack of standards, the total dependence on money, the hegemony of sports, the rampant anti-intellectualism, and the unexamined assumption that all individuals deserve an education, whether or not they choose to apply themselves to the task.

In the place of these false gods, Hutchins (...) called for an education that was centered on the nurturance of the mind. "An intellect properly disciplined, an intellect properly habituated, is an intellect able to operate well in all fields," he contended. Hutchins did not hedge. He asserted that the "unifying principle of a university is the pursuit of truth for its own sake." In confident, lapidary phrases he went on: "Education implies teaching. Teaching implies knowledge. Knowledge is truth. Truth is everywhere the same. Hence education should be everywhere the same. I do not overlook the possibilities of different in organization, in administration, in local habits and customs. These are details."

Building on a curriculum of great books - works that has stood the test of time-Hutchins endorsed a course of study that featured the art of reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and mathematics. Such a course of study would engender a common stock of ideas and common methods for dealing with them. The systematic thinker of the past, most notably Aristotle and Aquinas, emerged as the guiding light of this enterprise.

Most interestingly and most controversially, Hutchins argues that the curriculum had to be coherent and that the foundation of this coherence ought to be metaphysics. By metaphysics, Hutchins meant the are of knowledge that draws out the basic principle and causes underlying our world, our existence and our individuality. Waxing grandly, Hutchins pointed out:"Metaphysics then, as the highest, science, ordered the thought of the Greek world as theology ordered the Middle ages ... Without theology or metaphysics a unified university cannot exists." More concretely, through immersion in metaphysics, students would come to understand the various disciplines and their relationship to one another.

And so, whether they were studying physics or politics or poetry, students would come to grips with the principles that undergird concepts and practice in those disciplines, and perhaps even the discern the similarities and differences between a scientific and humanistic view of the world. Similarly, in comparing natural sciences, social sciences, and metaphysics, the student would learn that these areas "deal with the same propositions and facts, but with different ultimate references." Hutchins concluded that the "fundamental problem of metaphysics, the social sciences, and the natural sciences are, then, the proper subject matter of the higher learning"

Taken fro
m: Leading Minds (Howard Gardner, 1995)
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Robert Hutchins was the youngest person ever to be named president of a university - before the age of thirty. What is remarkable further is that he was named the president, in 1927, of the University of Chicago - a well renown university till this day (controversial or otherwise, I will let you decide).

Nonetheless, an extraordinary feat by all accounts.

Hutchins conception of education as quoted above is very interesting since it lies very broadly congruent and at some specifically to the conception of academic or scholarly life of the early Muslim scholars the likes of Ibn Rushd, al Kind, al Farabi, Ibn Sina, al Ghazzali, al Khawarizmi and so many others in regards to knowledge or epistemology. In fact, Aquinas in many ways had manifest certain concepts quite similar to Al Farabi and Ibn Rushd - this is not surprising since the two were considered the most knowledgeable in the Peripatetic school of philosophy of their time.


In considering the "vocationalistic" attitude of todays university, even in Singapore, one wonders is there every a platform or institution that would truly be able to become the platform that trains individual to become thinkers and proponents of a society that values principles, ethics and the utmost "truth"? The answer to that would lead to repercussive conditioning into the society or humanity at large.

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