Journeyism 2

Meeting You Where You Are At Today

“We have to make a start”1Philip McShane, Futurology Express, Vancouver: Axial Publishing, 2013, p. 12.and a very elementary one at that. Both our invitation and our challenge is to meet you where you are at today. We would like to hear about your experience of studying your chosen subject(s) at a post-secondary institution, but with a specific focus in mind.2There’s no harm in reflecting on your secondary school experience either and that context is considered in Chapter 32, “Putting Our Global Minding in Order,” in Benton, J., Drage-Gillis, S. & McShane, P., Introducing Critical Thinking, Vancouver: Axial Publishing, 2006, p. 124.You and possibly other stakeholders have invested a great deal of time, energy and expense in your post-secondary education. Are you (as well as the overall educational enterprise and society at large) getting sufficient return for all this effort? How do you make that determination? The opportunity is here, now, for you to reflect honestly3What we mean by “honestly” here will become clearer as we move forward through the series. However, the basic issue is spelled out bluntly in Journeyism 9, footnote 7. and at your own pace on that journey.

Your participation in our Journeyism series, we hope, will be active as opposed to passive.4“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 1103a.33. And while you may wish to participate privately, and we certainly respect that wish, we would enthusiastically welcome your shared reflections along the way – positive or negative. Either way, we invite you to conduct a preliminary investigation by engaging in what we call “Empirical Exercises”.5The name of a series of exercises undertaken by Benton’s philosophy students between 2005 and 2012. Note that what we mean by ’empirical’ is different from, and should not to be confused with, the traditional philosophic meaning of the term, “empiricism”. The meaning of the word “empirical” will carry an increasing amount of weight as we progress through this series.6“When culture is conceived empirically, [fill in your subject name here] is known to be an ongoing process, and then one writes on its method.” Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology, New York: Herder and Herder, 1972, p. xi.

In the meantime, we must avoid as best we can the pitfall that has victimized us since elementary school: being hurried past our struggle to understand something just for the sake of “covering the material.” We are drawing your attention to a deeply entrenched and regrettable classroom routine of educating us out of our minds.7The drudgery of forced short-term memory work for the sake of passing exams haunts us at every turn in our formal education. Indeed, that experience may provide some important data for your reflections in the forthcoming exercise. So, we intend to observe a leisurely pace8We will have more to say along the way about “how to read,” the adequacy of which includes the importance of reading patiently and on pace with your effort to understand. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard once observed, you only begin to read seriously when you take your eyes off the page. See Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston, 1970, 14, 21, 39, 47, 83 on the challenges of reading adequately. that respects your intelligence, rather than ignores it. And we’ll make every effort to avoid getting ahead of ourselves.

 

Exercise

To begin, we ask you to take a shot at a biographical memory search in order to generate some personal (empirical) data: for this exercise, consider this series your laboratory and your approach to the area of study the specimen.

Your task is to ask: What observations can I make about the process by which I studied my subject(s) in my academic discipline? In other words, how did I go about performing my tasks in order to achieve what might be deemed progress in my area of study?

We have optimistically italicized “process” because we are guiding you into unknown territory. Our first goal is to arouse your curiosity about, and begin to notice, the broad range of activities that describe how you undertook to acquire what was considered to be “sufficient competence” in your subject area.9The degree, BA, is sometimes (humorously) referred to as meaning “Barely Adequate”. Seriously, though, how might that claim of “adequacy” line up with your observations, meeting expectations, etc.?

We suggest a glance through your field of study in any university syllabus would be a decent place to start. Notice the data presented there. Identify the range of complex topics listed. Notice the manner in which the material is expected to be “covered” from Year One to Year Four.

Whatever experiences and questions bubble to the surface, it is important that you be aware of them. What you draw from them will be another matter, the significance of which will gradually emerge as we work our way through this series. We hope the personal data you generate with this exercise will be a bit of a revelation to you. Perhaps you may discover you have little or no data at all to start with. That in itself is significant.

It’s hard to embrace a solution to a problem one does not even know exists.10Brown, P., Duffy J. eds., Seeding Global Collaboration, Vancouver: Axial Publishing, 2016, p. iv.

Gathering Relevant Data: Examples from Personal Experience

Just how gradually will you begin to notice? John Benton’s undergraduate experiences below illustrate how time-consuming11One difficulty is the fact that individual humans need all the time it takes to solve problems. There are simply no short cuts. and challenging it is to become aware there is a problem at all. That just might be the greatest challenge here. At all events, we are just setting out, from the ground up, so to speak. Actually, from our standpoint, we’re trying to pull ourselves out of a hole. You can pun on that metaphor as you please. (Your journey will benefit from a good sense of humour). However, try to avoid overlooking or dismissing any personal data along the way. And so as the old joke goes: when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

 

Illustration 1

We begin with an anecdote drawn from John Benton’s former career as a secondary teacher. He used to ask his Grade 12 philosophy students, most of whom harboured very cynical views on the “practical” relevance of philosophy to “the real world”: “what does the expression PhD stand for?” It turns out, in seven years of teaching philosophy, not one student, many of whom were destined for university, knew offhand what the term PhD stood for. Imagine their surprise (perhaps yours too?) when he revealed that the P in PhD stands for philosophy. Today, if you Google the term you get something like this: “What does it mean, Ph D? Ph D is an abbreviation for “Doctor of Philosophy,” commonly called a doctoral degree.”12(Google, accessed 9/21/17). But why is Philosophy included in this prestigious title?13For a subject that suffers from a perception problem, there are a lot of people graduating from, and working in, universities worldwide whose achievement in their field, their reputation, and claim to relevance is somehow tied, at least in name, to this much-maligned discipline, “Philosophy”.

 

Illustration 2

Benton recalls another related story from his undergraduate days.

“I remember experiencing a rather haphazard approach to the enormous body of material in which my courses were ordered and the random manner in which our professors had us engage in reflection on the subject matter. I didn’t know why, of course. I just accepted it and dutifully went about my business. Furthermore, and most significantly, peers working in other subject areas remarked having the same sort of experience.14On a much more advanced level of reflection, there is greater coherence to tracking individual progress through Mathematics and Physics, but it is necessary to dodge this large issue for now, and further note that the domain of Mathematics and Physics, too, is not immune to various disorientations of procedure within the hierarchy of sciences. We hope to gradually identify these disorientations as we go along. We were all being kept busy and doing what was deemed necessary to graduate.

By my fourth year I had a nagging, but extremely vague, sense that there was a certain aimlessness to it all, as if there was missing some sort of ‘control’ of the material, a criteria for both establishing coherence and identifying progress in my or any other discipline, whatever ‘progress’ meant. Upon graduation, I felt lost about how my subject worked, and how its massive labour force of scholars and their products fit together not only within the discipline, but with all the other disciplines in a somewhat murky ‘overall picture’.15In brief, “A (fill in your subject here) mediates between a cultural matrix and the significance and role of (its subject-matter) in that matrix.” Bernard Lonergan, (1972), p. xi. And what of the prospect for its practical contribution within the educational community and beyond?

 

“Shift happens…”

In the spring of 1977, I chanced upon a book called Method in Theology.16Although theology was the field of study, the author was ultimately interested in “method” for its interdisciplinary value: “I am concerned not with the object that theologians expound, but with the operations that theologians perform.” Lonergan, 1972, xii. In other words, what is being scrutinized is process. I read the first few paragraphs of its Chapter 1. I forced myself to return to those paragraphs and re-read them and thought about them over and over. All along, I slowly puzzled over the question: what does this author mean by ‘method’? Why does he consider it so important? Only very gradually did I begin to connect the author’s concern to my earlier vague reflections on my experience as an undergraduate. The underlying cause for my aimlessness as a student was becoming somewhat less murky. The more I pondered this, I wondered if, indeed, reflection on method could be a basis for making sense of and giving structure to the entire assembly and scope of my subject-matter. For several more months, I brooded further on the need for method and the potential of its relevance to other academic disciplines as well.

 

“Eureka!”

A personal breakthrough occurred in July of 1977 that brought further clarity.  It dawned on me that I had been extemporaneously carried along by a tidal wave of data (content) accrued by scholars working in isolation in increasingly specialized areas. In short, I had been drifting. The clarity came as a result of a shift in the way I was thinking about the subject-matter.17This shift in reflection is given introductory treatment in “Chapter 1. The Move Beyond Spontaneity”, Introducing Critical Thinking, Benton, J., Gilles-Drage, A., McShane, P., Vancouver: Axial Publishing, 2005-6, 4. I became aware that there was this enormous flow of human activity that didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

At the same time, concern about method, and its reflections on procedure, pointed to the role philosophy would play in setting a standard as a basis for coherence and competence in any subject matter, as well as generating practical measures for how these goals could be achieved. Of course, I was a long way from formulating those thoughts as such. However, four years of experience as an undergraduate convinced me there was an issue with conventional academic practice that for one reason or another had been overlooked.”

 

A Fresh Look at the Function of Philosophy

How is any academic community to proceed when it seeks to set standards and generate practical knowledge to benefit the human community?

Given Philosophy’s current shaky reputation, both in the academy and on the street,18See Journeyism 18 and Journeyism 19, “Transforming the Philosophical Tradition: Part 1 and Part 2”. earned or not, we think it is important to clarify what we mean by “philosophy’s integral role,” and at the same time, get you thinking about why philosophy is the context in which to tackle this difficult question. In doing so, we are making a clean break from all shades of conventional views on doing philosophy.19It is likely there are a fair number of readers who already have had exposure to the conventional philosophic tradition and are curious about, or perhaps even hostile toward, the claims we make about philosophy studies. And since we are only starting out at this point some of the things we claim probably don’t make much sense to you. Broadly speaking, the history of philosophy at this point in time, for one reason or another, is its unsuccessful struggle to master two basic problems: how to explain human knowing and human decision-making, the collective product of which properly grounds the vast panorama of human meaning in all of its forms. This resulting confusion has denied philosophy its fundamental role in the control of human meaning and led to its currently marginalized status in the academy. Even if you find our line of inquiry quite odd, what is even more odd to us is that the issues we raise here are strangely unpopular in philosophy. If you will please bear with us, then, we will address this matter later in this series. By deferring the matter to later, its is our hope that by then you will have begun to formulate your own empirically-verified view of yourself as a knower and decision-maker, thereby furnishing a basis upon which to judge the philosophical tradition for yourself.

Among other things, when we are doing philosophy, we are actively paying close attention to the process of what actually goes on in any area of study. The initial challenge is to accurately observe how scientists and scholars alike go about performing their tasks. We say “among other things” because there is more to it.20Our empirical approach, the activity of observing data, will in good time invite a more explicit “dual focus” on both our thinking selves, as well as on the material we are studying. Incidentally, as far as that goes, the terms “philosophy” and “critical thinking” are interchangeable. However, for now, our first challenge is to help you to discover for yourself that philosophy is an activity that occurs when you are observing and asking questions about process in your area of study. All along, then, we will be encouraging you to generate data from your personal experience and ask questions about it.

You will most likely experience a period of disorientation with this shift in focus on the specimen we call your field of study and how you proceeded. Please do not be discouraged. It is a natural part of the initial process of thinking empirically. We, the authors, have experienced the same thing. Again, Benton recalls, “It took many months before I could begin to formulate my leading question properly, as well as begin to make sense of how and where it was leading. And all of this reflection would not have been possible without a nudge from someone or something to focus my attention.”

With a little nudge from us, an open mind, and a willingness to take the time, might you begin to notice similar elements in the process you experienced as an undergraduate?

References   [ + ]

2 Comments

  1. hazzang825 on July 15, 2019 at 5:15 am

    What observations can I make about the process by which I studied my subject(s) in my academic discipline? In other words, how did I go about performing my tasks in order to achieve what might be deemed progress in my area of study?

    At first I thought I should just get good grades on tests. Usually the midterm and the final exams decide my grades. I thought getting higher grades meant progress.

    I am now learning Dentistry. Over the years, the purpose of this study has become quite clear, to help people eat, talk and smile.

    Fundamental questions are, Why am I learning this? Why are we learning in this order? So I asked my kind professor and she taught me.

    Here is the flow of what we are learning.

    First we need to become a scientist. What we have to deal with is a human body. It is a living thing so we learned biology. It is composed of molecules so we learned chemistry. And so on. We learned basic sciences.

    Then we learned more about the healthy state through psychology, anatomy, etc. We also learned about pathology, the abnormal state of human body.

    After the basic sciences, healthy state, and pathologic state, now we are learning how to help teeth recover from the pathologic state. Since teeth usually don’t recover by themselves, we need to create something similar to the natural state.

    Despite the fact that the tooth is small, it is delicate. And if we fail to reconstruct properly, then it will fail eventually.

    After this I began to understand more clearly what I have to focus on as opposed to just memorizing.

    • Terrance on July 17, 2019 at 10:11 pm

      Hello hazzang825,

      Thank you very much for your great comments.
      You help shed light for us and for readers on new subtleties and on the scope of the project.

      Please free to contact us any time with more comments or questions.
      All the best in your endeavours,

      Terrance Quinn and John Benton.

Leave a Comment