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 with a specific focus in mind. We would like to hear about your experience of studying your chosen subject(s) at a post-secondary institution.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 honestly and at your own pace on that journey.

Your participation in our Journeyism series, we hope, will be active as opposed to passive.3“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. Either way, we invite you to conduct a preliminary investigation by engaging in what we call “Empirical Exercises”.4The name of a series of exercises undertaken by Benton’s philosophy students between 2005 and 2012. The meaning of the word “empirical” will carry an increasing amount of weight as we progress through this series.5“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 correctly make sense of things just for the sake of “covering the material.” What good has that ever done? We like to refer to that “covering” as an expedient layer of manure to mask a deeply entrenched classroom routine of educating us out of our minds.6The 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 pace that respects your intelligence, rather than ignores it. And we’ll make every effort to avoid getting ahead of ourselves.

To begin, we ask you to take an honest stab at a biographical memory search in order to generate some personal (empirical) data: consider this series your laboratory and your subject area the specimen.

Your task, then, is to answer the question: What observations can I make about the process by which I studied my subject(s) in my academic discipline?

Note that we have optimistically italicized “process” to get you to focus on, and identify, the broad range of activities you undertook to acquire what was considered to be “sufficient competence” in your subject area.7The 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 the institution’s syllabus for your discipline would be a decent place to start and to observe the data presented there. Then identify both the range of complex topics listed and how that material is expected to be “covered” from Year One to Year Four. We hope the personal data you generate here will be a bit of a revelation to you. You may even discover you have little or no data at all to start with! That in itself is significant, but whatever experiences and questions bubble to the surface, it is important that you be aware of them. Now, what you draw from them will be another matter, the significance of which will gradually emerge as we work our way through this series. Just how gradually? John Benton’s undergraduate experiences below illustrate how time-consuming8One difficulty is the fact that individual humans need time to sort out 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.9Another difficulty is the fact that “It’s hard to embrace a solution to a problem one does not even know exists.” Brown, P., Duffy J. eds., Seeding Global Collaboration, Vancouver: Axial Publishing, 2016, p. iv. At all events, we are just setting out, from the ground up, so to speak. Actually, in our view, we’re trying to pull ourselves out of a hole. You can pun on that metaphor all you like, just so you don’t end up missing the point by overlooking or dismissing any personal data. And so as the old joke goes: when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

To provide context to the task, we begin with an anecdote from John Benton’s former life 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: what does 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.”10(Google, accessed 9/21/17). But why is Philosophy included in this prestigious title?11For 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”.

Holding to this biographical line of thought Benton recalls another related story from his undergraduate days.

“I remember experiencing a rather haphazard approach to the enormous body of knowledge in which my courses were ordered and the random manner in which our professors had us engage in the subject matter. I didn’t know why, of course. I just accepted it for what is was and dutifully went about my business. Furthermore, and most significantly, peers working in other subject areas remarked having the same sort of experience.12On 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’.13In 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?

In the spring of 1977, I chanced upon a book called Method in Theology.14Please don’t be put off by the subject, theology. Its subject-matter is of no direct significance to our purpose. On that point the author is emphatic: “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.

A personal breakthrough occurred in July of 1977 that began to bring further clarity to my brooding.  It occurred to me that I had, to this point, been extemporaneously carried along by a tidal wave of data (content) accrued by scholars working in isolation in increasingly specialized areas. There was a shift in the way I was thinking about the subject-matter.15This 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 suddenly became aware that there was an enormous flow of human activity that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Suddenly, the topic of method, and its reflections on procedure, began to bring into focus philosophy’s integral role in setting a standard for some sort of coherence and universal competence in any subject matter, as well as articulating practical measures by which this could be achieved. Of course, I was months away from formulating those thoughts as such. However, with four years of evidence to draw from, I was convinced there was a serious problem with conventional academic practice that for one reason or another had suffered from oversight and neglect. How is any academic community to proceed when it seeks to set standards and generate knowledge for the benefit of the human community?”

Given Philosophy’s current shaky reputation, both in the academy and on the street, 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 how philosophy fits into our picture. In doing so, we are making a clean break from all shades of conventional views on doing philosophy.16It 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. But 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.17Our empirical approach, the activity of observing data, will in good time invite a more explicit “dual focus” on both ourselves, 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. All along, then, we will be encouraging you to generate data from your personal experience of such things and ask questions about it.

You will most likely experience a period of stumbling about with this shift in focus on the specimen we call your subject area, your discipline. Do not be dismayed. That is what is supposed to happen when we are thinking empirically. We are with you on this now and remember being in that state then. Again, Benton recalls, “I had to stumble about for quite some time before I could begin to formulate my leading question properly, and begin to make sense of how and where it was leading. And my gradually becoming aware of all this activity most certainly would never have occurred 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?

 

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