The Aims of Education

My approach to teaching could be described as “outcome-based education,” given the emphasis of my courses on helping students to develop particular skills of moral cognition.

For me, this narrower, short-term aim has always been tied to a broader vision of the humanities, or of liberal education, or of human life in the world. It has taken be by surprise, then, that on several occasions colleagues have asked something like the following critical questions:

In focusing so much on skills and measurable outcomes, are you not selling out to the corporate model of higher education as mere job-training? Are you not betraying the spirit of liberal education by capitulating to the increasingly corporate or consumerist approach to higher education, which reduces the whole enterprise to the provision of “credentials”?

This is a fair question, one made perhaps more urgent by the fact that the vast majority of my students are professionals-in-training, and much of what I do, particularly in engineering education, is to prepare them to work well and responsibly in their professional roles.

My first reply to the question of whether I am betraying the liberal arts is simply, “I hope not!”  I think I can do better though, in that I can draw a distinction between outcomes-based education of the kind I am developing from the job-skills-training model that seems more and more prevalent in higher education today.

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Knowing By Heart

I’m just back from a regular practice session with the Atlanta Open Band, a community contra-dance band of which I am the chief instigator and organizer. We ran later than usual because, just about the time we’d usually wrap up, I fell into teaching the band a new tune by ear.

After practice, one of the musicians said to me: “The only tunes I know by heart are the ones I learned by ear,” with the implication that she might have to re-teach herself by ear all the tunes she usually reads from the page.

Mulling that over, just now, it struck me that it might be another connection between music and ethics: I hope for my students that they might know ethics “by heart” in a sense precisely analogous to knowing a tune by heart.

To know a tune by heart is to be able to play it, and vary it, and improvise on it, and dig into the structure of it, and play counterpoint against it without having to read it off a page or follow someone else’s lead.

On the side of ethics, I was thinking particular of theory. It’s one thing to read the Categorical Imperative off a page, for example, and to memorize it in order to copy it down later; it’s something else altogether to learn to notice and respond to the autonomy and dignity of human beings by experiencing them in real time, in their concrete immediacy, in the pulsing ebb and flow of social life.

The question is how best to create an environment and to structure a set of activities that might guide students to such experiences, and to help them to understand what they are experiencing.

Some Notes on the Side

I’ll be attending the 2015 International Conference of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, next month, in California. My presentation for the conference is a progress report on an collaborative project on hydraulic fracturing, about which I really will post some things this week.

In the mean time, I’ve got something of an experiment brewing for the conference: I’ve proposed, and the conference organizers have agreed to support, an after-hours acoustic music session and tune swap.

The main point is just to play some tunes with people. Beyond that, I’m curious to see what, if anything, getting some people together to play some tunes might contribute to the life of the conference and of the association.

In the deeper background, of course, is my own interest in possible metaphorical and experiential overlaps between playing music and ethical living.

I’ll report back on how the experiment goes.

The Music of Movement

Thinking about the convergence of ethics and music, I was reminded of a passage in Oliver Sacks’s A Leg to Stand On.

The book recounts Sacks’s own experience as a patient, recovering from a severe injury to his left leg.

He describes experiencing his leg as an alien thing, little more than a pillar of chalk attached to him but unconnected to him, no longer part of his bodily experience of himself. Then, in an extraordinary ten-minute period during a physiotherapy session, his sense of his own leg began to come back to him, dramatically and, at first, erratically.

But then his therapists urge him to walk, and he simply cannot imagine how it is to be done. With some prompting, he is able to move a few steps, but only hesitantly and mechanically, relying entirely on visual cues.

. . . as if I was operating a peculiarly clumsy, and unstable, robotic contraption, an absolutely ludicrous artificial leg. I cannot convey, except in this way, how strange this pseudo-walking was – how entirely lacking in any sense, and, conversely, how overloaded with a painstaking mechanical exactitude and caution. I found it a matter of the most elaborate and exhausting and tedious computation. It was locomotion of a sort, but unanimal, unhuman (p.144.)

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The Music of Systems

As I continue to mull over possible connection between ethical experience and music, I came across a passage suggesting that systems have a kind of music to them.

I provided students in my environmental ethics class with a few excerpts from Donella M. Meadows’ very useful book, Thinking in Systems: A Primer. The last chapter, “Living In a World of Systems,” provides insights from general systems theory as to how best to go about working to change systems of all kinds.

One section in particular caught my eye:

Getting the Beat of the System

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On Helping My Daughter Learn to Drive

I’ve noted already that things I learn in private life sometimes converge with what I’m thinking about in my professional life, and this morning brought an especially complex tangle of such convergences.

(I am a practical ethicist, though, so I suppose some spill-over is inevitable. In fact, I used to observe that it’s very hard for me not to talk shop in social situations, since the whole world of human experience is shop.)

My older daughter is 15 and has her instructional permit for driving. I took her out this morning to the parking lot of a nearby mall so should could continue getting used to being behind the wheel and developing basic skills.

We’ve been to the parking lot several times in recent months, but at irregular intervals, so her progress toward competence is slow. She is improving, though.

I was talking to her, as I drove home, about what it’s like to be an experienced driver.

It’s a matter of paying attention, I told her. More than that, it’s a matter of having ingrained habits of paying attention. So, if I’m at an intersection or driveway trying to turn right, I have to be sure to glance to the right before I hit the accelerator, in case a pedestrian is crossing in front of the car. Continue reading

It’s Not Them . . .

It sometimes happens that things I learn in my private life have a profound impact on some aspect of my professional life, usually to the benefit of those I work with.

In particular, I have been involved in the American traditional dance scene since I was a graduate student: contra dance, English country dance, and a select few varieties of couples dance. I now play fiddle in a couple of contra dance bands, and my wife is making a name for herself as a caller and choreographer.

I may have things to say, later on, about what I’ve learned from being a musician and playing for dances. My experience organizing the Atlanta Open Band has given me some insight into the conditions under which large, transformative projects might succeed or fail, for example, and I’m convinced that there is some deep, metaphorical connection between musical improvisation and ethical living.

As I was thinking about yesterday’s post on electronics in the classroom, though, and on some of the attitudes evinced by contributors to the discussion on The Daily Nous, I was reminded of one of the principles my wife learned when she was first learning to call dances: It’s always the caller’s fault. Continue reading