A Utilitarian World (1)

The Dilemmas of Learning              

Over the years (17 to be exact), this web site has turned into a vast enterprise. There are now no less than 1200 pages of material on the site and most of the articles and essays are original. I often comment on learning and research in education and industry. Today, I am beginning an occasional series that is part of my new book. So, I would appreciate any feedback and advice on this entry and others as they appear. I would like the book I am writing to reflect and incorporate the concerns and views of the large community of readers who visit Critical Approaches on a regular basis.

The work of research and learning, particularly in applied areas like design can be as pragmatic as required depending on the project or the demands of clients or the general challenge taken to various problems and issues. However, any learning process and research that is entirely governed and judged by pragmatic standards is rarely that useful. In saying this, I am trying to soften current trends and discussions among educational policymakers and the community that suggest that learning without a pragmatic outcome is not valuable and in the end will not add value to society or to the individual learner. The emphasis on outcomes in education has become so dominant that it seems almost heretical to raise some questions about it.

For example, a course in philosophy or ethnography may seem irrelevant to designers or engineers or medical practitioners. In fact, if you take a close look at the professional schools, there is a nod to the humanities in some of them, but for the most part, the curricula have narrowed to reflect the immediate challenges of the professions. Engineering schools often have courses in Technology and Society and do permit their students to take electives. But, the core training focuses on the perceived needs of specialized individuals to the exclusion of what are seen to be courses that are less important to the future employment of professionals. Martha Nussbaum has commented on this situation in her new book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010 Princeton University Press).

Part of the challenge here is that learning should not be narrow but also learning is by definition a process that is always unfinished. The idea that students can earn their qualifications in a linear and direct way actually contributes to failure unless the disciplines are very simple and the skills needed never evolve or change.

Three concepts to keep in mind here:

  1. Learning is non-linear, therefore broad based skills provide students with multiple pathways to achieve the goals they set for themselves;
  2. Pragmatism is not in and of itself a negative, but pragmatism in the service of limited outcomes decreases flexibility and inhibits creativity;
  3. Professional disciplines need to integrate and not just pay lip service to other disciplines. 

Part Two