Winter 2005 - Volume 8 Number 1
Homeless in the House of the Intellect: Formative Justice and Education as an Academic Study
New York: Laboratory for Liberal Learning, 2005
Robert "Robbie" McClintock is a very unusual man. He is regarded as an information technology visionary and has uncontested entrepreneurial skills. In 1986, he founded the Institute for Learning Technologies at Columbia University in New York City, and has managed to "mobilize" over $20 million "to develop prototypal places for digital study." He is a man possessed.
Some of the rhetoric that pervades his many articles and reports on the subject of computer-mediated teaching makes me cringe. It contains a good deal of the ancient pestiferous piffle about transforming the role of teachers from being a "guide on the side, not a sage on the stage," and about denaturing the classroom to replace "teacher-centered" with "student-centered" education.
Some of the rhetoric is more promising. In "The Educators Manifesto" (1999), he speaks of "renewing the progressive bond with posterity through the social construction of digital learning communities." The heart seems in a comely place.
Projects undertaken by the ILT do not seem to fit with the normal practice of using pre-packaged educational food pellets to reward rat-like students for pushing the right key. A quick review of the ILT website <www.ilt.columbia.edu> yields some surprises. The subject matter of some of its projects includes "Digital Dante" and "Study Place: John Locke". There is also a provocative site called "Seneca Village" that promises students the opportunity to do urban history in the form of an investigation of a small community that existed from 1825 to 1857. It was, we are told "Manhattan's first significant community of African American property owners. By the 1840s, it had become a multi-ethnic community African Americans, Irish, and German immigrants, and perhaps a few Native Americans." Between 1855 and 1857, Seneca Village was razed to become part of Central Park. Perhaps something strange is happening here. I am reminded of my own involvement in the creation of interactive videodisc materials marketed as "The Bartlett Saga" about twenty years ago. Perhaps the ILT is doing something more than automating education in the interest of neoliberal corporatism. Feeling decidedly ambiguous, I plunged into the book.
Homeless in the House of the Intellect turns out to be a prototype itself. A slim volume of 100 pages, exclusive of its index, it is also unusual in that 63 of those pages have footnotes that cover more than 25% and as much as 93% of the space. It is a rehearsal for a far more ambitious project, a large studytentatively entitled Formative Justice: A Theory of Educationthat is modeled on John Rawls' A Theory of Justice. What Rawls did for the concept of "distributive justice" in the allocation of material goods and services, McClintock plans to do for "formative justice" in the promotion of "human potentials."
This sounds at first blush like a very Aristotelian project. It smacks of the democratic goal of permitting the prosperity and technological sophistication of the postmodern era to make citizens "free" in the Aristotelian sense of liberation from labour and the opportunity to fulfill their fundamental naturesa project that, as Terry Eagleton recently argued in his splendid account of the state of postmodern literary criticism, After Theory, has been pursued from Aristotle through Aquinas and all the way to Marx. But, again, I am caught short. McClintock styles himself in the model of Plato. He seems willing to give that baleful old windbag, Socrates, a pass and to write off his authoritarianism and elitism to simple metaphor while pursuing something akin to enlightenment. It is plain that my reading of McClintock will be a rough ride.
What then, does he say in this peculiar little book? The elements of his argument can be put fairly simply. First, the formal study of education in universities is in woeful shape. This is mainly because scholars who specialize in education literally do not know what they are doing. They are generally demeaned and dismissed by their colleagues in other disciplines and, it seems, rightly so. On occasion, they are so incapable of defining their own purpose that they self-destruct (as the University of Chicago's Department of Education did in 1996, when its dithering "Self-Study" led to the decision by the university to close it down).
McClintock, of course, does not say that education departments are populated by fools. In fact, that is the problem. They suffer from an overabundance of talent, but their projects are badly designed, unfocussed and torn between being academic departments involved in the disinterested study of an important aspect of the human experience and being schools intended to train professionals in the application of educational techniques in practice. Most other domains of knowledge, he says, have resolved this dilemma by fashioninglacking better terminologyacademic departments and professional schools. Accordingly, there are academic departments of economics and professional schools of business, departments of sociology and schools of social work, of political science and public administration or law, biology and medicine, physics or chemistry and engineering. The list goes on.
Departments of education try to do both in a single institution. This, in McClintock's view is a disaster. At best, it puts scholars and practitioners in a muddled relationship in which competition for scarce resources (not least of which is credibility within their universities) results in profound ambiguity of purpose. Worse, it leads to shoddy scholarship and inept practical training. Standards plummet as the Ed.D. becomes a second rate sheepskin to be handed out indiscriminately to working teachers with too much time on their hands. According to McClintock, the dilution of the doctoral degree in education is apparent when it is revealed that the number of doctorates won in education in 2000-2001 was 1.7 times greater than in the combined physical sciences, 1.5 times greater than in the combined biological sciences, and 1.7 times greater than in the combined social sciences. Put another way, for every Ph.D. in economics, there were eight doctorates in education, for every Ph.D. in sociology, there were more than twelve in education, and so on. The pathology can be seen on other evidence. McClintock reports on a content analysis of professional journals and contrasts education with political philosophy. Though pedagogy has been an essential and enduring theme in the writings of seminal thinkers, few in the field of education bother to take note. He compares, for example, Educational Theory, the "leading journal in philosophy and education" with Political Theory during the second half of the 1990s and the period 1973-2000 respectively. Educators contributed a dozen articles on John Dewey, one each on Plato, Rousseau and Marx and none on Aristotle, Erasmus, Locke, Hegel or even Maria Montessori. Political philosophers, in the alternative, spread their interests much more widely, giving the following scorecard: Socrates 18, Plato 11, Aristotle 24, Machiavelli 11, Hobbes 18, Locke 16, Rousseau 18, Hegel 25, Burke 8, Bentham 8, J. S. Mill 16, Marx 28, Nietzsche 15, Oakeshott 10, Rawls 12, Habermas 8, and Foucault 18. "The discrepancy in the results between the two fields," McClintock explains, "is not the fault of individual scholars. With the current organization of effort, the study of education radically lacks the critical mass to take effective account of its historical roots in educational theory." It would, perhaps, be churlish to take McClintock to task for shoddy scholarship, himself (a broader range of journals and concordant time frames would have been more persuasive). His "research" may have been no more than heuristic, but it is certainly suggestive of a serious problemlet the rigorous research come later.
Unlike many harsh critics (and not only of education), McClintock provides not only a diagnosis but also a course of therapy as well. He recommends heroic measures. He wants radical surgery. It is past time, he insists, to follow in the steps of other important disciplines and to distinguish between the theoretical and the applied, the disinterested and the interested, the academic and the practical facets of the field. By dividing the study of education into the categories of academic scholarship and applied training, he believes, each branch of the common tree will have the autonomy to pursue its specialty without making seemingly necessary compromises that ultimately do harm to both. With breathing room between them, the academics and the practitioners may again be able to talk to, rather than to run over, one another. It is a thought worth pursuing. I shall not rehearse the particulars of McClintock's scheme. Anyone interested in the details can easily skim his work, await the full treatment in his forthcoming larger text, or sign up for a conference (to be held in the Spring of 2006) that will address these issues directlymore information can be found at <www.liberallearning.org>. Instead, I would like to raise just three of the issues that derive from McClintock's work, and that are timely subjects of discussion among college educators.
First, what is our responsibility as professional teachers to partake of both the academic education and the practical training that is available in postgraduate institutions in order to make ourselves better as generators and purveyors of knowledge? Second, how may we best involve our students in both avocational education and vocational training within the college system. Finally, what are the best ways in which both formal and informal professional development can contribute to our lives as academics and as teachers? To date, the attitudinal bias and administrative policies and practices of most institutions have been all too clear. The academic, theoretical and interpretive aspects of our profession have been submerged by an ideologically driven commitment to narrow vocationalism. McClintock is concerned that the two separate but equally important dimensions of education are now confused and stultified in universities. In pointing this out (with unspoken implications for colleges), McClintock has done us all a service. People like me will remain suspicious of his entanglement with the still unfulfilled promise of technologically enhanced learning, of his artless ambition (he may pull it off and become the John Rawls of liberal educationwho knows?) and his particular take on ancient verities. No one, however, can doubt his breadth of learning, his erudition and his commitment to the restoration of public life and public education. His diagnosis, prognosis and proposals are worthy of serious consideration.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. He can be reached at email@example.com or 416-491-5050, ext. 5195.
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