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dmazella's picture

the disciplines and decontextualization?

Hi Anne,

Thanks for the reflections contained here.  There is much in this essay to respond to, but I wanted to pass along a quote I found while I was working on an information literacy/pedagogy piece on undergraduate research.  It's from Sharon Bailin, whose home discipline is philosophy of education, a discipline I had never thought existed until I started reading this stuff over the summer for my article. 

To me, this quote seems commonsensical, but I value it because it articulates the chief usefulness of disciplinary thought, or really what we should call "disciplinary thinking," which has to contain some element of self-criticism and self-assessment:

A point that emerges from the debate regarding the generalizability of critical thinking is that the norms, standards, and criteria of particular domains are vitally important for critical thinking.  This points to the centrality for education of disciplinary knowledge and understandings.  Thus teaching good thinking means doing a good job at teaching the disciplines: that is, teaching them not as static bodies of facts to be memorized but, rather, as modes of inquiry.  Such inquiry must be shown to be critical, which entails teaching the principles and procedures of the disciplines, the methods whereby inquiry proceeds, the criteria according to which reasons are assessed and standards for such assessment, and the overall goals and deep questions that are at issue.  Such inquiry must also be shown to be creative, which entails demonstrating that disciplinary knowledge is open-ended and dynamic, that there are live questions, areas of controversy, and ongoing debates within every discipline that furnish the arena for evolution and change.  Innovation does not happen in a vacuum, but arises, rather, in the context of questions, debates, and methods that are part of an intellectual tradition.  It is the critical principles and procedures of these traditions that allow for constant examination of current beliefs and theories and the generation of new views that are better able to solve the problems and resolve the deep issues in the area and to open up new areas of exploration (162-3)

What is most striking for me here is the suggestion that "Innovation does not happen in a vacuum, but arises, rather, in the context of questions, debates, and methods that are part of an intellectual tradition."  The innovations that matter, or that get picked up by others at any rate, are made against a backdrop, or within a context, of "questions, debates, and methods" constituting an "intellectual tradition," that allow the "community of inquiry" to extract "critical principles and procedures" for the "generation of new views."  What this account of intellectual innovation suggests to me is that innovation does not proceed from decontextualization, but from the active recontextualizations of the inquirer.  This is something that Bailin, I think, would see as a creative process, and indeed, her point that creative and critical thinking are inseparable components of "good thinking" is very apposite here in this kind of discussion.

The only danger of Bailin's point, however , is reading terms like "context" or "intellectual tradition" too narrowly and institutionally (in other words, losing sight of the creative nature of these operations), and losing sight of what Paul has called their social/political nature.  Even Bailin, after this defense, immediately calls for some kind of interdisciplinary understanding.  But I think that if we read context along the lines of Charles Taylor's "social imaginaries," we might get what I conceive, very broadly, as a "context" informing the "community of inquiry": what Taylor calls "the ways in which people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations" (106). 

In other words,  you and Paul seem to take the positivist position that the contingent social/political origins of the disciplines' "normative notions" diminishes their status and usefulness for analysis (measuring them against some quasi-scientific standard of truth that Paul at least formally abjures), while I'd argue with Taylor that this social/political dimension of the disciplines, functions as a trace of specificity, historicity, and therefore non-universality.  They are no more or less contingent than anything else we rely upon to understand ourselves and the world around us.

So my point is that what we and our students need is not a passive state of decontextualization, which we get anyway by virtue of existing in a web-dominated information environment, but learning how to recontextualize the information that flows into us, and all around us, from every direction.

DM

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