Higher education is guided by philosophical principles that administrators use to set curricula and establish policies that govern how institutions are run. The educational philosophy of pragmatic instrumentalism offers one such ideal, which proceeds from a belief that theory and practical application could and should be meshed in order to prepare students to impact their environment. This is a theory well-suited for a Democratic society, the well-being of which men such as Thomas Jefferson believed hinges on the participation of an informed populace. Though pragmatism in higher education seeks a practical and applicable learning outcome for students, it does not mean, and should not be interpreted as causing, the marginalization of the liberal arts.
Keywords: education, philosophy, pragmatism, instrumentalism, theory
Toward a Pragmatic Philosophy: Marrying Theory and Practice in Higher Education
The philosophical stance of the German science educator Martin Wagenschein crystallized my collective experiences as a student. With the benefit of having envisioned the problem from both poles of the educational spectrum – of student and teacher – I find myself in the position of relating to and internalizing what Wagenschein had to say about what is, and is not, important in imparting knowledge to students. His personal experience shaped an argument that forms the basis of my own philosophy of higher education, namely, that it is important students not only become fluent in the facts and processes that underpin their chosen disciplines, but that they should come away with a wider understanding of what they have learned and the context in which it exists (Corrigan & Dillon, 2011). In other words, as a student, I should be able to do more than recount a theorem that adequately explains a phenomenon; I should be able to explain the broader significance of the phenomenon to the world in which I live.
It is a matter of importance to me that the wall between the academic and the practical be a permeable one. It is frustrating to have mastered a subject, or to thoroughly comprehend a philosophical position, only to find that one is nearly incapable of explaining to a lay person how such knowledge might conceivably make a difference in the secular, non-academic world. Conversely, it seems axiomatic that an educator would find it immensely unsatisfying to fail to reach a student on a level any more rewarding than the dry recitation of facts and figures. My epiphany came from my appreciation of what is known as the Wagenschein Effect, in which students are able to compute proof of, but cannot provide a simple explanation for, phenomena (Heering, 2007).
The Wagenschein Effect manifests a philosophical flaw still prevalent in 21st century higher education, which seeks to turn out graduates as well as profits. My philosophy of higher education is informed by a desire to see that education is more than the accumulation of knowledge for its own sake. To that end, I have become a firm believer in the precepts of pragmatic instrumentalism, as put forth by the renowned American educator and theorist John Dewey, among others. In his famous work Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, Dewey asserts that true knowledge is the development of human intelligence and capabilities in learning how to pair education and environmental interaction. “Knowledge as an act is bringing some of our dispositions to consciousness with a view to straightening out a perplexity, by conceiving the connection between ourselves and the world in which we live” (Dewey, 1922).
Today’s complex environmental and geopolitical challenges underscore the continued relevance of Dewey’s theory. For him, pragmatism translated to purposeful education, producing individuals who, as citizens inextricably linked to the world around them, are fully prepared to seek practical resolutions to problems. In short, it represents a marriage of academia and environment. A number of methods have been enacted to blend the two, to prepare students and close the gap between higher education and the pragmatic, “real world” application of knowledge. Many have argued over the best way to achieve this goal. Dewey, Lev Vygotsky and other proponents of various forms of instrumental pragmatism argued for “the importance of activity and learning in the process of doing” (Moll, 1990).
Inquiry learning and problem-based learning are two fairly recent innovative developments arising from the pragmatic school of thought. Both seek to reduce the sheer weight of cognitive activity in a higher education learning environment to better accommodate
“learning in problem-solving or investigations of complex phenomena” (Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, & Chinn, 2007). Inquiry learning and problem-based learning are both strategically oriented pedagogical concepts rooted in a pragmatic philosophy of education. Both focus on self-directed learning skills and emphasize collaborative problem-solving and, as such, are well-suited to aid the synthesis of higher education and results-oriented environmental resolution (Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007).
The traditional model of classical education, itself a product of caste-conscious socialization, has abetted the teaching of liberal arts curricula but is, in part, responsible for a persistently stagnant view of higher education. Many noteworthy education theorists and philosophers have expressed a suspicion of pragmatic instrumentalism. The noted English cleric John Henry Newman feared that the pragmatic approach would erode the intrinsic value of higher education. Newman, writing more than 100 years ago, said that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is a virtue that should never be lost. “That alone is liberal knowledge, which stands on its own pretensions, which is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refuses to be informed…by any end, or absorbed into any art…” (Newman, 1891).
This is a myopic view that limits the potential of higher education. John Dewey’s notion of participatory learning in higher education is in keeping with Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about informed public opinion nurturing Democratic government. It is this egalitarian philosophy that provides the basis of my own perspective on the true mission of higher education. Skyrocketing costs are making it increasingly difficult for the average citizen to earn a college degree in the U.S. and elsewhere, so it seems that Newman’s advocacy of knowledge for its own sake has never been more impractical. In the current economic climate, it is essential that higher education adopt the pragmatic philosophy espoused by Dewey, William James, Charles Peirce and others, who argued that theory should yield practice in order that social problems may be more effectively resolved (Dewey, 1998). It is vital that students be taught to devise theories that can be applied to civic matters, especially if the number of college graduates continues to decline.
An ever-narrowing stream of college degree holders carries with it the possibility that the U.S. may one day give way to an elitist environment in higher education, as happened in the England of Newman’s time. Those who can afford higher education would, presumably, have leisure to pursue knowledge for its own sake, to the detriment of the Democratic ideal and its attendant egalitarian model of education. Rather, colleges and universities should be forums for learning to distill practice from theory, a cognitive discipline crucial to the development and implementation of effective and responsible public programs. It is my belief that higher education has a responsibility to produce competent and knowledgeable participants in Democracy. Consequently, I am in agreement with the philosophy of Dewey, who “believed that education should assist students in developing their individual capacities, with the ultimate goal of developing sound problem-solving capacity, regardless of the area of endeavor to which that capacity is applied” (Forest and Kinser, 2002).
Higher education reflects and anticipates the participatory process upon which American Democracy is predicated. In that spirit, higher education becomes, for me, a collaborative laboratory of ideas in which student and instructor work together to foster new avenues of inquiry and new levels of understanding. It is a clearinghouse for unfettered theorizing, where trial and error lead to actionable solutions and measurable outcomes. In an era where the idea of participation has drifted far from the realm of public policy development, institutes of higher learning must be places where students learn to think in terms of personal and civic improvement and to be skeptical of paradigmatic practice (Null, 2011). This describes my perspective on the role of higher education and summarizes what it means to me.
The Greek writer Plutarch believed that men of intellect and ability should dedicate themselves to civic improvement and that society could expect to reap continuous benefits thereby. Indeed, one may well regard Plutarch as a precursor of the pragmatic school of thought. “(Plutarch) did not think that philosophy, or the pursuit of letters, ought to exempt any man from personal service in the community to which he belonged…” (Plutarch, Langhorne & Langhorne, 1801). No mere philosopher, Plutarch practiced what he preached: “He sought no excuse in those from discharging offices of public trust in his little city of Chaeronea” (Ibid). This seems an outmoded philosophy in light of the past three decades, during which students went to college in droves to learn to make money. Today, the moral, ethical and physical costs of this value system are all too apparent, with recession, rampant unemployment and corporate malfeasance having become commonplace and brought many to the brink of ruin. Higher education offers a potent antidote to such social ills, if only universities can be convinced to employ a more universally pragmatic approach, one in which students are encouraged to appreciate a broader view of their environment and embrace their role in its maintenance.
An argument in favor of pragmatism is not, at the same time, an argument in favor of abolishing liberal arts education. Quite the contrary, it is important that fields such as philosophy and literature, which have so much to impart in terms of logic, reasoning and context, be fully integrated in the theory-to-practice model postulated by the pragmatists. A college education is meant to be an enriching experience that touches on all facets of one’s intellectual and ethical development. There is an oppressive (and limiting) tendency in modern society to adopt a very superficial view of the true purpose of higher education, a view that emphasizes the strictly vocational at the expense of other, equally important aspects (Smith, Christofferson, Davidson & Herzog, 2011).
Pragmatic instrumentalism has been criticized as contributing to this phenomenon, criticism that cites “a culture and system of higher education driven by individual careerism and pragmatic instrumentalism” (Smith et al, 2011). This is unjust criticism, in my view, and reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the instrumentalist principle. Liberal arts education is integral to the process of theory development. The critical, analytical and interpretive skills required to formulate well-rounded theory, leading to intelligent and effectual policy, and the philosophical judgment needed to assess a specific set of problems have as their foundation the liberal arts, which have been so trivialized and often overlooked in recent years. Students in all disciplines should be encouraged to take comparative literature, learn a second language or enroll in some other course of study that enhances reflective, multi-dimensional and contextual thought. The purpose of higher education is not just to produce a competent human being; it is to give the student all the tools necessary to become a successful and productive contributor to society.
We may take as our example the trend mentioned above, the overwhelmingly careerist attitude of late 20th- and early 21st-century students and institutions in considering why a philosophy of higher education is important. If colleges and universities are to produce students who display intellectual depth and are adept at thinking critically, then everyone involved in the academic process must share in a common mission. Instilling common academic values at the institutional level is a function of educational philosophy and the responsibility of administrators and educators. In A Comprehensive Study of Education, Samuel Ravi explains that a philosophy of education serves as the “cornerstone of the foundation of education,” providing direction and establishing important guidelines (2011).
Ravi argues that an educational philosophy is important from both a conceptual and practical standpoint. It sets a course by which higher education may stay relevant in the face of societal change and helps determine the particular roles to be played by the individual components of higher education. Some key roles include:
Curriculum – A philosophy of education is critical in the development of curriculum that mirrors the values and needs of society (Ravi, 2011).
Administration – A guiding philosophy determines how higher education will be planned and governed; for instance, whether it will institute a pragmatic approach or emphasize a primarily liberal arts curriculum (Ravi, 2011).
The interrelationship between philosophy and education is virtually implicit in today’s system of higher education. There is a nearly constant social shifting at work, which is manifested in the way institutions of higher education approach curriculum development, administrative policies and even what kinds of students they will pursue. The education theorist and author J.S. Ross wrote that “Philosophy and education are like the two sides of the same coin; one is implied by the other; the former is the contemplative side of life, while the latter is the active side” (Rather, 2004).
Ross touches a key point in my own philosophy of education, which favors a seamless integration of the philosophical and the active, a symbiotic relationship implied in pragmatic instrumentalism. As mentioned previously, the Greek writer Plutarch’s conception of the role education should play in society (or the role the educated man should play in society) is important to my philosophy and dovetails with my conviction that higher education is indispensable to Democracy. Thomas Jefferson offered a memorably eloquent summary of the importance of inclusiveness to the Democratic educational model when he said “It is safer to have the whole people respectably enlightened than a few in a high state of science and the many in ignorance” (Adams, 1888). This notion of a “respectably enlightened” populace inspires my belief in the importance of education in, and the usefulness of, pragmatism in higher education.
If Plutarch and Jefferson helped lay the foundation for my educational philosophy, John Dewey and the other advocates of pragmatic fundamentalism gave it structure and expression. Their emphasis on interaction, inquiry, analysis and practical applicability provide the best means for preparing a student for a productive and rewarding life. And pragmatism does not necessitate the marginalizing of academic disciplines such as philosophy, which is so important to the development of imaginative and innovative theory. “Philosophy is criticism; criticism of the influential beliefs that underlie a culture…” (Koch, 2001). Philosophy and criticism have been, from ancient times, central to the very concept of higher education and thus should remain part of a higher education curriculum that fosters a pragmatic approach.
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TOWARD A PRAGMATIC PHILOSOPHY
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