Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Preserving the Tradition

While I respect the position described by David Wiley, I disagree with it, for two reasons.

First, rather than 'treasure and preserve' and 'extend', we in academia routinely dump the work of our progenitors. These routine upheavals, Kuhn's 'paradigm shifts', are genuine schisms, representing divisions so sharp that even the language of the discipline changes. Would we require that an aspiring chemist be completely versed in phlogiston theory? That an astrophysicist calculate heleocentric orbits? That doctors prove their competence in bleeding and the use of leeches?

Second, if only one person out of a hundred becomes a steward of the discipline, then we've already lost. What tradition we do inherit is not passed from person to person like a torch, but rather moves forward in time through communities of practitioners. I mean, there are Zorastrians, the stewardship has been maintained, but who cares? The community moves on.

It seems to me that there is a very important sense to the idea that the nature of a discipline is recreated through each successive generation. The old is not preserved, per se, but absorbed, along with a body of other social and cultural influences, reformed, and cast in a new light, born again almost literally with each rising of the sun.

Moreover, the more rigidly a disciplinary community strives to 'treasure and preserve' and 'extend' its inheritance, the less likely such a community is to be the locus of the discipline reborn. When such ossification is fostered, the inheritors of the community will be just those who 'just get their paper and go on to take that academic appointment or professional job', while the one person who 'catches the vision' will be just the one person who was tossed out as insufficiently reverent.

Indeed, what was surprising about Thomas Kuhn was not that he shattered the foundations of logical positivism, but that he did so from within the field, publishing (with great irony) in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. We are more likely to inherit our tradition from one who was an outcast - a Descartes, rebeling against the Scholastic tradition, a Luther, hammering home his opposition to the Catholic church, a Thoreau, writing about freedom from inside a jail, an Einstein, laboring as a patent clerk, a Wittgenstein, rewriting language while a prisoner of war.

And the thing is - open societies, those that can embrace heresy and make it their own - endure. Those societies that place a premium on treasuring, preserving and extending, they lose everything. If this is not reflected in the nature of the university, or the purpose of a degree, well, communities move on.

-- Stephen

David Wiley wrote:
I am very much in the "steward of the discipline" camp. To me, the
notion of stewardship implies a sacred trust. It is a responsibilty to
take the work, sacrifice, and dedication of generations before that we
have been so fortuante to freely inherit, and to treasure, preserve,
and most importantly, extend this work to continue to benefit humanity
and bless mankind. It is no small thing to be a steward of a field
like education, biology, chemistry, literature, art, and even military
science. Hundreds and thousands of people have worn out their lives to
bring to light one or two small contributions to these great bodies of
expertise and knowledge.

While those who know me will agree that on the surface I am very easy
going and informal, deep down I have a great reverence for the
opportunity to serve (and I do consider it service) in this
stewardship capacity, and (as sappy as it may sound) I feel a great
responsibility and desire every day to use this opportunity to benefit
those around me. I just hope to make my contribution or two before my
life is worn away, and I hope that someone treats my efforts with the
same respect.

Perhaps my thinking is summed up in the language of the signs seen
outside so many campgrounds: Leave it better than you found it.

I guess my answer to the question "what is the purpose of doctoral
education?" is that it involves the enculturation of stewards into an
ever rotating collection of people who reverence their responsibility
to their fields and the rest of humanity in this way. Will we get this
out of all of our students? Definitely not. Will we see this attitude
in 1 out of 100? Probably not. Most will just get their paper and go
on to take that academic appointment or professional job it qualifies
them for. But a precious few will catch the vision, and so long as one
or two do, then all the rest of our work is justified.

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