Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Kenneth A. Bruffee's Collaborative Learning and Coming Social Decline

A few years ago a college administrator specializing in teaching methods assessed my teaching. Her ideas were helpful and I benefited from the experience. One of the things that she did was to compile a set of articles that she thought might interest me. I have not had time to read them. Today I was doing some spring cleaning and read chapter 11, "The Procrustean Bed of Cognitive Thought" in Kenneth Bruffee's Collaborative Learning. Bruffee's article sheds light on why our best and brightest, from journalists to college professors to judges, seem to have increasingly poor judgment and increasingly appear to have become dumb.

The education system has followed Bruffee's advice. His advice is to eliminate cognitive content from education and replace it with social construction of knowledge. There is no foundation to knowledge in his view. Rather, it is socially defined. This is a strange concept, and the fact that it has gained currency at major universities explains the competence crisis.

Bruffee argues that knowledge exists solely as a "property of human interdependence". He claims that the opposite view, that there is empirically verifiable truth, is a "procrustean bed" that is so limiting that even the advocates of social construction fall back on it. "Cognitive thought no longer gives us the tools we need to renovate college and university education."

Bruffee analyzes several researchers' work, namely, MLJ Abercrombie, William Perry, Jerome Bruner, Bruno Latour and Nicholas Jardine, all of whom, he argues, are on the right track but are limited by adherence to outdated cognitive rationalism. For example, he criticizes Perry, who argues that while once we assumed that "knowledge consisted of facts in a single frame of reference" now we assume that "knowledge is contextual and relative". He concludes that "Our most important educational concerns today are about relations among persons, not relations between persons and things...Learning involves people's assimilation into communities of knowledgable peers..."

The widespread acceptance of Bruffee's ideas in universities suggests to me that universities will need to be disemboweled. Relations among people are important but do not and cannot replace cognitive knowledge. There is no either/or choice between understanding the real world scientifically and working with people. One needs to work with people and one needs to analyze facts correctly. One needs to write clearly and understandably and one needs to avoid offending his colleagues in doing so.

The distinction between foundational and non-foundational interpretations of knowing is nonsensical, and it is nonsensical enough that one wonders whether the aims of the educationists are to try to improve the learning process or simply to destroy American education and society. Either way, it is important for conservatives to recognize that the education system, from the bottom up, has come under the control of people who have contempt for knowledge as it is traditionally defined and aim to dumb down our society to the point where the public is cognitively incapable of resisting authoritarian aims. Mayor Bloomberg, a leftist, attempted to reform New York's school system and has failed because his reforms were linked to educationists' philosophies.

Bruffee and the university community see a dichotomy between community and cognitive knowledge. It is this dichotomy that will render universities useless to society and will occasion their decline. Cognitive understanding is not merely a construct. It is an approximation of reality adjusted to experience. Over many centuries the approximation has become more accurate through scientific experimentation. If the grounding is discarded, then the approximation will fall out of focus. The result of the lack of focus will be a decline in technological progress and a decline in economic growth. The universities will be to blame, and conservatives will be there to blame them.

It is not surprising, then, that journalists, for example, have come to seem increasingly stupid to conservatives. They have been educated to believe that the mob, the community, determines what is true. For example, looking at the April 9, 2007 issue of US News and World Report, the writers are ignorant of basic concepts of military history and military strategy, yet feel confident to analyze this subject without so much as opening a book about it. Since their community (comprised of fellow idiots) agrees with them, and they derive their understanding from their community, they are confident in their understanding.

Likewise, the glorification of ignorance has become the leit motif of university education. Thus our civilization is in decline. The practical effects of the decline have yet to be felt, but the reckoning draws near. As we decline, it will be up to conservatives to make the reasons for the decline clear. Part of this clarification ought to involve the disembowelment of universities. The sooner the universities are disemboweled, the better.

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