No More Grooves
Remarks prepared for Faculty and Administrative Staff Convocation. August 22, 2005
In his celebrated collection of essays, Science and the Modern World (1925), Alfred North Whitehead presciently describes how scholarship and higher education will evolve in the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century intellectuals pursued grand schemes and theories to explain the way things are. Emerson’s essays explored science, politics, history, art, metaphysics, and law with equal rigor and interest. Darwin’s theories brought responses from thinkers of every stripe. At a time when manufacturing began to allocate to each worker a tightly defined task, nineteenth-century scholarship roamed free, declining to define boundaries between academic fields. William James could easily move from medical studies to experimental psychology to philosophy. Whitehead saw in 1925 a very different landscape. Academic departments had begun to build walls, dig moats, plant briar patches. Integration of knowledge and research across disciplines ceased for all but a small number of truly remarkable scholars. The “passion for holism,” a pursuit of “the unity of knowledge” that inspired John Dewey to create Chicago’s Laboratory School in 1896 was already an outmoded dream by the time of Dewey moved to New York in 1904.
Writing twenty years after Dewey’s experiment came to an end, Whitehead well understood the danger of what we would come to call “silos” of thought, inflexible organizational divides, a culture of the specialist. “The fixed person for the fixed duties, who in older societies was such a godsend, in the future will be a public danger.” The future will require, Whitehead believed, a wide angle view, a broad understanding denied one strapped too tightly in specialization. Whitehead wanted “balance,” a quality lost when we can only view “this set of circumstances, or that set; but not both sets together.” Failing an overall plan or a commanding vision, progress loses any significant reach. “Each professional makes progress, but it is progress in its own groove.” A limited, boring horizon for teaching and research. In John Kenneth Galbraith’s words, the “bland lead the bland.”
Looking back now, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, we can only marvel at the clarity of Whitehead’s assessment. Academic research and writing continued to embed itself in ever more narrow professional and ideological grooves until near the end of the twentieth century, when multi- and inter- became, slowly, the prefixes most favored by the academy: multidisciplinary, multilingual, multiracial, multiethnic, interdisciplinary, interdepartmental. If the early twentieth century laid out and then dug deeper grooves of thought, the later part of the same century thoroughly flattened them. University departments and fields of study today bear names of expansion and inclusion which a generation ago would have catalogued middle school curricula: life sciences, social sciences, language and literature, human services. And within these broad circles students and faculty now move effortlessly between what were formerly segregated disciplines. No one today, for example, can offer for publication in a top journal a study of literature that does not engage a number of adjacent fields: history, psychology, politics, sociology, art.
The trend toward inclusion and expansion now enjoys universal acceptance. From the first moment a child enters the American educational system, his or her experience models the integration of thinking and acting so evident in our university curriculum. In pre-kindergarten through graduate studies, students work in groups and plan projects together. Universities sensitive to student success organize “learning communities.” Learning is today a shared experience and a shared responsibility. So widely acclaimed are these practices that it is easy to forget how new the integrated models for study and learning truly are. As schoolboy in the 50's, a college student in the 60's, and a graduate student in the 70's, I never observed nor participated in any group project, research, or learning, nor did I see or hear anyone advocate or experience what today is a central, unifying principle of study, teaching, and research.
What are the implications of this trend, this out-of-the-groove experience, for Texas A&M International University? Said simply, our academic practices have kept pace, our organizational thinking has lagged behind. Our recent re-accreditation process by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools lays clearly before us our institutional challenge in the coming decade. The accreditors’ demand—a coherent whole, fed by a series of integrated parts—leads to unexpected and exciting revelations, synergies we did not imagine even a few months ago. Let me suggest a few interesting examples.
First, our graduates need the help of Career Services far beyond the date of graduation. Institutional Advancement maintains contact with our alumni throughout the world. Career Services and Institutional Advancement must work closely together to create a culture of alumni participation even as students enroll for their first course. Second, the Canseco School of Nursing trains professionals dedicated to promoting a wholeness of mind and body. Student Health Services and Counseling Services watch over students’ physical and mental health. The School of Nursing, Health Services, and Counseling must work closely together. Third, recruitment and retention depend upon an array of services, conventionally divided and duplicated, in student life, in residential life, in advisement, in tutoring. These services must work closely together. Fourth, faculty must establish for all courses learning outcomes and assessments closely aligned with programmatic goals and outcomes. Students will most effectively meet those outcomes when teacher, tutor, mentor, advisor, and counselor share complementary strategies. Fifth, we will this year establish two newly conceived faculty positions, one in assessment and one in pedagogy and technology. These subjects embrace the entire curriculum and support work of the entire institution. Irrespective of where these faculty positions are housed, they will work with and serve us all. In sum, whether we are purchasing computers or devising learning outcomes for doctoral courses, our efforts must reflect an institutional integration.
We mark this fall the thirty-fifth year of our University’s life. We also mark the tenth year since we moved and began to raise this gorgeous new campus, this “University City,” as we might say in Spanish. For the next ten years, we will continue to build, but we must also better integrate, better articulate the parts that we now have in place. The academic grooves which we have abandoned, freeing our study and research, we must now give up in our organizational strategies. Our Strategic Plan, which together we write and rewrite, think and rethink, sets forth the structure. Every task, every course, every person—faculty, staff, administration—must follow a path clearly linked to the Strategic Plan.
Alfred North Whitehead can rest easy. The grooves which formerly bounded our academic activities and our learning have been ground smooth, the rough places been made plane. As all of you historians of ideas know, none of this is truly new. Great and imaginative minds never tolerated life in a groove. Emerson and James, Hawthorne and Dewey, Jane Addams and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Unamuno and Ortega y Gassett, thoroughly understood “cultural studies,” and they all practiced the “new” historicism before it had a name.
Cynics, however, have a long memory. And it is the nature of cynicism not to accept defeat. Will the habit of integrated thought and action, group activity and shared responsibilities, first come, then go, then come again like phonics? I think not. Peter Smith, in The Quiet Crisis, describes our multi-dimensional, blended environment for education: web-based, advising-based, workplace-based, consortium-based, assessment-based, community-based. A dream of such broad reach is not easily frustrated or reversed.
Jane Addams, in her famous essay “A Modern Lear,” demonstrates that true progress requires “mutual responsibilities and relationships.” Our accomplishments will fall short of our dreams, she warns, “unless we look all men in the face, as if a community of interests lay between, unless we hold the mind open, to take strength and cheer from a hundred connections.” There could be no better words to guide our vision, our thoughts, and our actions for the next decade.
Ray M. Keck, III