April 03, 2020
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A Warm, Epistemic Caress

Undergraduate teaching must focus on the ‘big think’ questions that ignite passionate interest

A Warm, Epistemic Caress
New entrants are often caught between adolescent imagination and the intellectual reality of a discipline
Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari
A Warm, Epistemic Caress

As students move from Class XII to college, they face radical shifts in the way disciplines are taught. The ‘difficulty’ of understanding subjects is the result not only of a quantitative expansion of the discipline’s horizons, but more importantly, of fundamental qualitative shifts in the way knowledge is produced in professional scholarship. Sometimes, this makes for rude surprises.

A student wants to study psychology because he/she wants to figure out why men are from Mars and women are from Venus. More ambitiously, they wish to learn about the vagaries of the human mind. As the major gets going, they find themselves in labs feeding mice and in class before Power­Points on neurons. Another student has taken up economics because she longs to unravel the ethics of human want and lack in the world. They find that they have signed up for advanced mathematics and statistical modelling instead.    

Inevitably, there are disappointments, sometimes def­ection from chosen courses. This is what career confusion looks like: caught between adolescent ima­­gi­­nation, the pragmatics of professional consideration and the contemporary intellectual reality of a discipline. Post-secondary edu­cation is about exploring disciplines as they exist in the current state of research, which can diverge starkly from the way they appear in popular imagination. This is a reality for which the student has to prepare.

However, a responsible edu­cator knows how to present the alien contours of res­earch knowledge in a way that makes sense to early student learners and excites them. It is a good idea for the educator to ask: what is a teaching question for a discipline? What is a research question? How are they different from each other?

Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari

In 2008, the Teagle Foundation published a rep­ort on economics major that raised this question. Research questions, it claimed, are those which take small steps in highly specialised domains. Teaching questions tackle big issues that are essentially unanswerable. Research questions are by definition small, narrow and technical, as that is the only way to find new knowledge. Teaching questions tend to be big and sweeping. Teaching questions, the rep­ort insists, must be asked as they drive a passion for learning and provide an und­erstanding of the discipline in a historical capacity, even though it is hard to come up with answers that might add to our knowledge.

Economics, the report says, has its own set of teaching questions. They include the issue of the appropriate org­anisation of the economy, whether capitalism is preferable to socialism, whether the market has an alienating effect on individuals or whether consumer sovereignty is acceptable. The ethical, political, and philosophical significance of markets, for instance, has been debated forever. For Marx, a central problem of Western societies was the alienation created by mar  kets. Hayek, on the other hand, argued that the market was central to individual freedom. These are important questions and yet, their philosophic and subjective dimensions make their objective resolution impossible. These are not questions that are part of the economics major any more as they do not fit into the current paradigms of research. But the report feels that this is a loss as such questions can ignite student passion. In contrast, smaller, more technical research questions simply encourage unc­ritical acceptance of established knowledge.  

The report notes that emp­loyers look for students who have attempted the big think questions rather than those who have cultivated research skills specific to the discipline. They need employees who have a cap­acity to learn, with demonstrable critical, quantitative and communicational skills. These are the skills of a liberally educated student, not one immersed in disciplinary expertise.

‘Teaching questions’ are the fundamental spirit of disciplines lying deep inside the maze of facts that make up their bodies.

Teaching questions are what the Harvard educationist Howard Gardner calls “disciplinary ways of thinking”: the fundamental spirit and methodology of disciplines lying deep inside the maze of facts and information that make up their bodies. These questions make up the souls of disciplines. The study of English literature at the traditional Indian university, for insta­nce, has been dominated by the factual contours of literary history:  from the earliest Anglo-Saxon chronicles to the 20th century. Unfortunately, the historical mapping rarely bothers to highlight the fact that the very category of literature came into existence with Enlightenment modernity, that forces as varied as the spread of print culture, acc­eleration of capitalism and the rise of the middle-class and the development of the nation-state came to shape our gradual understanding of literature as something produced in writing and acc­ordingly consumed through reading in isolation. That the idea of literature as fabrica­ted fiction more or less took shape with the birth of the novel, the quintessentially modern literary genre. The big think questions, here too, are left unexplored.

Is history restricted to the sphere of the rational? Is the idea or the practice of literature separable from the figure of the author? Does the market have an ali­enating eff­ect on individuals? Such big think questions put us on the search for what Gardner calls “the epistemic forms of the disciplines”. On such quests, we can only grope our way, as the light of knowledge is dim when spread across vast domains. In the face of such questions, research conviction is difficult, possibly unattainable. But they should drive the excitement of learning in college, for they unite young passion to the intellectual realities of the disciplines.

The natural sciences have their own share of big think questions. What relation does the three regular states of matter: solid, liquid and gas share with their unusual fourth—plasma? Surely it is a different relation than what the three share with each other, since matter occ­urs as solid, liquid and gas on earth naturally, but can be induced as plasma in the earth’s atmosphere only under artificial conditions? Does the fact that plasma occurs naturally only in outer space make this relationship a unique one?

The famous Navier-Stokes equations, named after Claude-Louis Navier and George Gabriel Stokes, offers an intriguing insight into the primal epistemic form in the physical sciences. A key application of a fundamental law of physics to fluid motion, the Navier-Stokes equations describes essential principles of the way fluids move and circulate. They explain processes of scientific and engineering interest, and help with phenomena as diverse as blood-flow, air-pollution, the design of aircrafts, cars and power stations, weather and ocean currents. But probably the greatest intellectual fascination of the equation is that in spite of their wide practical applicability, they have so far proved analytically unsolvable. This un-solvability has been dec­lared one of the great open questions of mathematics. Empirically evident but rat­ionally un-provable—is it possible to have a more fascinating scientific problem?

Epistemic forms are the very souls of disciplines. Thinking like a historian, Gardner reminds us, is very different from thinking like a literary critic or a biologist. Learning a subject is not merely about covering a canon in detail or taking in a lot of information; it is also assuming the very mode of thought that defines that discipline. The latter should be the core goal of teaching and learning, and will make the transition from high school to college, stimulating, enjoyable, and rich with possibilities.

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Saikat Majumdar, Prof of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University, is author of College: Pathways of Possibility

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