Some notes on knowledge disciplines and God

Back in March I wrote about Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Fox and the Hedgehog, where he proposes two different categories of thinker/writer; those who view the world through the lens of one defining idea (hedgehog), or those who draw on a range of ideas and experiences (fox). In his book ‘Curious’, Ian Leslie proposes that as individuals we benefit from nurturing both ways of being; to be a ‘foxhog’ who develops a specialist view of the world along with a broad range of knowledge that enables one to empathise, connect and adapt. 

As a field of study, higher education draws heavily on the disciplines of economics, politics and philosophy. I have set out to read in these areas assuming breadth, but I increasingly feel that economics and philosophy in particular are fundamental to my specialism. I no longer feel that I’m going off on a tangent by reading Piketty or (trying to read) Nietzsche. It all relates and connects, often explicitly so. In the last month I have seen the same references (e.g. Adam Smith, John Locke, Karl Polanyi) cropping up in pretty much all my reading matter – from Rabbi Sacks’ Dignity of Difference to Tim Jackson’s working paper for CUSP, and a new book on economics (Rethinking Capitalism – Jacobs and Mazzucato 2016) that I attended the launch for last month.

As news came in yesterday of Finland mandating the introduction of transdisciplinary, topic-based teaching for all school-age pupils, I coincidentally found myself reading a lovely paper by David Jardine and Kim Grant (2011). It captures an email exchange prompted by a classroom discussion about the industrial model – the breakdown of things into detached parts – influencing schooling from the early 20th century (Ken Robinson also talks about this in his TED talk on schools killing creativity).

Jardine and Grant’s conversation draws on literature ranging from Gadamer and Aquinas to C.S. Lewis and Calvin and Hobbes (yes really) in exploring Jardine’s question: ‘What about our knowledge of the world? What (if any) good is it?’. This is a key angle on the debate about the purpose of higher education, and I was reminded of Paul Standish’s paper on the ‘given’ in educational research, as the value of knowledge is so rarely questioned in everyday life.

During the conversation, Grant refers to Parker Palmer, writer of much lauded self-help books for teachers such as The Courage to Teach (1998), in which he describes the vital need that teachers have ‘to investigate connections between our subjects, our students, and our souls that help make us whole again and again.’ (p.120). Grant writes of her realisation that ‘we have broken things apart…in order to better grasp them and pin them down long enough to teach about them.’, claiming ‘…it does strike me as ironic because my passion in teaching has always been about showing the connections.’ She also ponders whether all ‘great things [are] filled with sufficient grace’, and whether/how ‘different ones of us attuned to different fields of grace’, citing how, while maths leaves her ‘cold’ despite having had great teachers, she loves to study history.

Grant describes how the study of cells may fulfil a biologist and the study of musical theory may enliven the writer of symphonies, and proposes the disciplines are different ‘worlds’ through which ‘God’ reveals himself, quoting Aslan at the close of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: ‘[in your world] I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.’

Grant, K, and Jardine, D. 2011. “We Need a Saviour“: An Irreconciling Conversation about Curriculum. Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies, 7.

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