Higher Education as Disciplinary Practice

In the last post, I wrote about Derek Bok’s recent book. A minor theme of Bok is the tension in academia between content and skills. This manifests itself in a number of areas, but most prominently in the discussion of professional study versus arts & sciences.

I have a slightly different take that I would like to put forward for your comment. I may be wrong–after all, I have a long established talent at reductionism. If so, I hope you will let me know.

The distinction that I wish to make is between teaching about some discipline and teaching how to practice that discipline. Of course, practice requires knowledge of content: History includes names, dates and events, but what historians do is far more than that–history is the interpretion of those names, dates and events using a specific way of thinking involving a specific set of practices. At least, that’s my hypothesis.

I wonder then, if the fundamental difference between secondary and higher education is this distinction. Higher Education teaches how to think about issues and problems, which is more than a mere skill since it presupposes a context rich with content. Lower levels of education, I think, are more about learning about and being able to describe issues and problems.

In your own classrooms, do you teach about your discipline or do you teach how to do what practitioners of your discipline do?

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One Response to Higher Education as Disciplinary Practice

  1. Jeff says:

    To answer your question first, of course I do both. From the introductory classes through the senior seminars and senior theses, students that I work with learn about the primary and secondary materials that make up the building blocks of history and historical inquiry, but they also explore various approaches of historians, the methods used by those historians (including myself), and the debates that have ensued. At times, the discussions revolve around describing the “content” of the past, at others, around how the past as we know it was created (often after the fact). Still, I hope that such discussions would integrate both these things.

    My initial reaction to your distinction between secondary and higher education is that it is indeed reductionist. However, having worked with a number of secondary teachers in my discipline, I know that there certainly is pressure (due in large part to the nature of the testing that exists) to focus on “facts” over skills, on the “truth” rather than analysis. [Witness as well the recent troubling change to Florida K-12 Education Laws (http://www.oah.org/pubs/nl/2006aug/newsprof.html)] But we shouldn’t dismiss the many secondary teachers that work hard to go beyond facts-only based testing.

    I’m not going to quibble with your description of history, though I would point out that the two views you’re expressing are more a phenomenon of a popular/scholarly divide than a secondary/higher education one.

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