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Cognitive Work

Some of the most sceptical remarks about a liberal/interdisciplinary education come from those who are experts in established academic disciplines. The criticism is that by providing a wider base at undergraduate level one is dumbing-down the education.

Here are some questions I have put to my colleagues  in this situation:

1. What intellectual tasks do you find difficult? For example: Learning a foreign language? Learning maths or computer programming? Reading 2-3 novels every week? Doing experiments in a laboratory?

2. Now if someone said you had to do one of these things – one of the things you find intellectually difficult – as part of your degree, would you say this was hard intellectual work?

3. If you were able to achieve meaningful progress in one of these areas, despite finding it difficult, would you say you had achieved something of value?

If the answer to questions 2 and 3 are ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ – as they often are – I then ask my colleagues why they think a degree is ‘dumbed-down’ if it requires students to study a range of knowledge which in turn implies hard intellectual work. How can difficult cognitive work be symptomatic of dumbing-down? Isn’t dumbing-down meant to imply that things are getting easier? But the very basis of these questions and the direction of the answers points to the fact that demanding such breadth is cognitively exigent.

The standard reply is that in taking on these new intellectual challenges one has had to give up time from more disciplinary study. I do not deny that. What I query is whether the sort of intellectual expertise as defined only department by department is always the best and only sort of rigorous academic education for all our students.

Liberal Arts students often take on precisely the sorts of intellectual challenges I have outlined because they find them challenging. Of course they also find them rewarding. Who can deny that it is in overcoming challenges that we find our greatest rewards? Such students find that in taking on such challenges they experience a meaningful cognitive shift in their understanding of a range of subjects and that this impacts on their learning in general. This is valuable in itself – as any widening of vision has an intrinsic value – and it is valuable for the future lives of many of our students.

I have described in other places (e.g. here and here) why I think we should work harder in universities to find a way to value and credit this type of cognitive work. It will be a challenge for us to find ways to measure and value such achievements. But we should not shy away if we are serious about learning and if we wish to provide different types of high-level academic challenges for different types of students.

Photo Thinking Hard  under CC license from JuliaKlarman’s Photostream

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