Last week, the excellent blog Christ & University published two posts on the nature of learning and education in our age. The first, Education as Pilgrimage, offers a wonderful critique of our drive towards over-specialization in academia, a phenomena known as “mathesis.” It’s a beautiful piece by Matthew Moser, who raises the question of whether the disciplines lose something in their radical separation. Says he:
One of the consequences of this move is the significant re-imagining of the “layout” of education. The mathesis of knowledge tends to over-determine the autonomy of each academic discipline. I mean: each discipline is assigned its own autonomous sphere or object of study. These spheres are closed off from each other, driven by a radicalized specialization. I study “biology stuff” when I study Biology. I study “literary stuff” when I take an English class. I study “religious stuff” when I take a Theology class, and so on. Each discipline does its own thing in its own way and never shall the twain meet.
He says, instead, that we might want to consider seeing education as a journey, or a pilgrimage. I recommend going straight to the source article to get a full understanding of what that would mean, but here’s my favorite bit:
…the disciplines aren’t conceived atomistically. Their autonomy is porous—they bleed into each other. You journey through grammar and logic to reach rhetoric, but at no moment have grammar and logic been left behind. Just as on a pilgrimage (not to mention in poetry and in music), each experience, each discipline builds on and gives shape to the next. We might say that each discipline is drawn into the next study.
Next up is a response to this piece by Jeff Bilbro, called Intellectual Appetite and the Organization of Knowledge. In this post, Bilbro draws out a bit more from Moser’s conclusions about he purpose of learning, and in the end, it comes down to a dichotomy between seeing learning as a either an act of mastery or a set of discoveries. Says he:
If we want to control and manipulate reality, we’ll organize knowledge into a map [as in mathesis], but if we want to conform our souls to reality, we’ll understand knowledge as taking us on a pilgrimage.
Knowledge is available to those who are open to it, and while taking an instrumental approach to learning is certainly valid, it’s also limited. Every good scientist knows that doubt is the key to discovery, and that humility is the key seeing variables and explanations and problems that you never expected to see. If you think you’ve covered everything in a perfectly systematic way, you’re setting yourself up to miss something significant. My favorite snippet:
What I want to focus on, though, is this fundamental distinction between possession and participation. Our desire to possess and control the world underlies our continued pursuit of a mathesis universalis, and until we desire to participate in the gift of reality, we won’t want to be led along an educational pilgrimage.
As a final note I want to say that I think these articles are extremely well-written, so that even if you aren’t of the Christian Faith, you’ll find excellent philosophical points to think over and play with. I highly recommend reading these two articles together.