by Mark English
Disruptions to business as usual, such as we have been experiencing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, inevitably raise questions regarding which activities are essential or important for a good or fulfilling life, and which may be happily dispensed with. Answers to such questions will, of course, often be very subjective, influenced by personal histories and circumstances and driven by implicit assumptions and deeply-held values.
My focus here is mainly on activities associated with education and research, but I also touch on the arts. I readily admit that what I say is based in part on certain assumptions about the nature and value of knowledge, assumptions which are less widely shared today than they once were – at least amongst academics and intellectuals working within the arts and humanities.
As I see it, skepticism about the possibility of objective knowledge is all too often taken to extremes. This can be motivated by a desire to undermine the claims or status of the sciences and to defend the status of non-scientific disciplines. But it is not an effective strategy, in my opinion, and is ultimately self-defeating.
I am always a bit uneasy talking about academic disciplines and discipline boundaries. For one thing, it feels a bit redundant. Disciplines are what they are, and practitioners and observers make their own judgments about where to draw boundaries and about the extrinsic or intrinsic value of particular fields. But a live-and-let-live approach becomes problematic in times of change, in times of crisis: in times like these, in fact, when the future is in the balance and business as usual is just no longer an option.
I see our educational and cultural infrastructure as having lost its legitimacy and being in desperate need of reshaping and radical reform. The early years of education are particularly crucial but universities find themselves having to do remedial work and teach basic skills. I won’t go into detail. Most people know the situation and everyone has their own ideas about possible solutions.
What is clear is that much more needs to be done in the earlier years, both in terms of imparting practical skills and knowledge, and in terms of broader goals associated with education’s socializing – or civilizing – function. It is beyond dispute that the K-12 system in America and many equivalent systems elsewhere have been failing badly for years.
Universities are also struggling and the value of higher education is increasingly being called into question. College enrollments in the United States have declined by more than 10 percent over the last eight years. NPR reports that the current crisis may be an existential one for many colleges. But what is being taught in many of these colleges may be part of the problem.
All intellectual disciplines – be they scientific or scholarly – can be seen as adding to a shared knowledge base and having knowledge as their reason for being. Other possible raisons d’être for academic and intellectual disciplines could be given, of course. And are. My point is just that I don’t find other justifications for classing activities as serious intellectual disciplines particularly convincing.
The fields in question may well be intellectual, but where is the theoretical rigor, where is the discipline, if anything goes on the knowledge front? Theory must be constrained somehow, and knowledge-seeking or knowledge-building activities typically have certain constraints built in, in the form of methodologies developed over time.
Besides, what is the point of theory if it is not a means to some end? It must derive its value from something. It has no intrinsic value (as I see it). And that something, historically speaking, has virtually always been shared knowledge. Theory arises quite naturally in knowledge-seeking and pedagogical contexts.
Of course, high levels of rigor and discipline are often in evidence in activities which involve various kinds of practical knowledge. Some such activities are dependent on or associated with a body of theory. Some are not.
Explicit claims about the world always need to be assessed regarding their plausibility. This need not be – and normally isn’t – done in a rigorous or systematic way. In day-to-day life and politics, all kinds of claims are made and assessed on the run within dynamic social contexts. I am not complaining about this.
What’s more, in ordinary life the truth of a claim is often less important than its social function, its role in modifying behavior for example. Or think of politeness phenomena like white lies which are primarily designed to spare the feelings of others. Courtesy and truth don’t go together well!
Within the strict confines of intellectual and technical disciplines, however, the truth or otherwise of the claims being made or assessed is (I am claiming) quite central. Unfortunately many academic disciplines have lost sight of this simple and obvious fact and have become, wholly or in part, self-perpetuating talking shops, jargon-ridden and superfluous extensions of the jousting and jostling of ordinary social and professional life.
Knowledge and truth relate not just to propositions and theories but also, in a sense, to artistic representations. I have recently been thinking about the concept of art and, particularly, about problems of definition. The term ‘art’ is intrinsically vague and ill-defined and a comprehensive theory of art seems quite unnecessary. At any rate, the lack of such a theory will hardly prevent us from discussing in clear and cogent terms the aesthetic qualities and features of particular kinds of object or product (novels or films, say) or of individual works.
Imaginative literature and cinema can be seen as making claims about the world (and so, possibly, as conveying knowledge). But the claims are necessarily implicit and indirect and typically engage the emotions as much as or more than the intellect.
Even apparently explicit claims within such works are indirect. For example, explicit statements in the dialogue or narration of a novel or film are embedded within an imaginative construction and cannot be taken at face value. The statements are actions within a world which is not our world, at least in a literal sense.
Literary and cinematic works seek to engage us in imagined worlds. These worlds may or may not be plausible representations of recognizable aspects of the world we know, or of the patterns and concerns of our personal and social lives.
Truth in literature or cinema means something like “true to some aspect of life as we experience or envisage it.” We respond: Yes, that rings true; that’s how it works, that’s how it feels. (Or not, as the case may be.)