From the Archives 5

A plea (ignored) for studies emphasizing the sane and the humane over the technical, the quantifiable.I know that people find philosophical discussions in meetings in the college to be a waste of time and I do not attend many meetings these days because my thought is primarily in the realms of philosophy and theory and this causes me to take time and, in the context of college sensibilities, waste it. So, instead of attending meetings, I put my thought into writing and invite those who wish to decide for themselves if they want to waste time or find for themselves that there is some value in thinking about the ideas I put forth.The reason I write now is because I came close to wasting people’s time in a meeting regarding the diversity and equity master’s degree program and my first utterance had more to do with philosophy and theory than it did with anything that could be considered concrete, but substantial enough to deserve an attempt at making the philosophical and theoretical useful to the conversation, here, trying to evoke discussion of the need for inclusion of the term “empirical” to define the kind of research in which students would have to engage in order to earn a doctorate in the program.How one talks about the issue and its ramifications necessitates visiting realms of thought that have the scent of philosophy and theory, it being impossible, I think, to consider whether or not research in a doctoral program in diversity and equity need be empirical in nature. I wished for it to be understood that there is a good amount of very good and very important work done across the social sciences, in education that does not reflect empirical research but, instead, mental concentration, deep, deep concentration on a problem to understand its meaning, the meanings discovered sometimes serving the discipline well by defining its goals, the nature of the outcomes to be sought by educators, the reasons for the educational problems that exist, that have existed over time, investigations into the nature of the thought that caused the problems to arise, and the nature of the solutions as understood in terms of how they might affect people’s growth and development as intellectual beings.I have it in my head that there are many aspects of education that cannot be measured well using the tools that are used in empirical research but that do deserve consideration—the historical and economic forces that influence the way in which education works in a particular society, the reality behind the attitudes that empirical studies can find to exist but cannot begin to explain in terms of what they are or the effects upon persons and people they may and do have. Histories, autobiographies, biographies, even fictional narratives hold answers to the questions that should be considered in education that are not and will not be if the field insists that those who work and think as biographers, historians, and writers of fiction be excluded or forced to study in substantial ways aspects of research in which they have little interest. Yes, they need to know and know well how the research of the type in which they may not be interested works and knowledge of the results such research produces and how those results should be read. But to insist that they understand the empirical to be superior to the non-empirical and that their dissertations include empirical research is to send a very bad message, the message that has been sent to students over the years that has caused a good many with very good minds to find other places to discover ways to unlock the meaning of life as human beings, the meaning of life well lived, as a human being, and how to design educational programs that help people to find ways to the good life, the life of liberty in pursuit of happiness.I just borrowed, of course, from the Declaration of Independence, a document that in many ways is about education that makes no reference to empirical data. Its writers are so bold as to say that there are certain truths that are self-evident, that some things are known to exist because any conscious being know of such things to exist because they are living life and using or being influenced constantly by those things. For example, one cannot prove empirically that freedom of thought is a good thing but one can understand that to think about whether freedom of thought is a good thing is to engage in free thought. One can surmise that hunger is not something good simply by experiencing hunger or observing the suffering of the hungry. One can argue that informed choice is better than choice made of ignorance and one can say that living without fear is a considerably better way to live than living with fear. One can say that decisions based on good information and sound thought are better than decisions based on little or bad information and little or poor thought. And sensible people engage in discussion about such qualitative aspects of life as the goodness of things, the thoughtfulness behind an idea, the nature of good sense, the nature of good information, and the nature of sound thought and even the amount of fear a thoughtful person will hold if well informed and sensible.I know many a work that has taught me to think the way I do about life and education and most of these are not based in empirical research. The empirical research I do read is research that helps me to understand the world I know mainly in terms of theory and philosophy, theory and philosophy derived from living and from reports on lives not mine lived by others. Story gets at the human aspects of existence, things not measurable by application psychometric instruments or even qualitative study of the kind sometimes acceptable in our field, contrived studies that have to push aside huge portions of the reality surrounding that interfere with getting at the particular problem under consideration.I strongly believe that it is a truly stupid thing to do to denigrate a particular approach to understanding the world by having programs in higher education, particularly that branch of higher education, that explain to students that empirical research is superior to research that does not qualify to be empirical under the force of the currently used definitions. Empirical is about evidence and evidence comes in many forms, most of which, the most important of which, are not reducible to clean variables that can be extracted from the realities that give them their real meaning. The ridiculous claim that theoretical or philosophical study is not data based is to not understand what data is, to reduce notions of data to insignificance because so much is excluded from the pool as to make the pool so dry, so bereft of the human stain (thank you Philip Roth) as to be antiseptic, a cure for our humanity rather than a healthy elixir that serves or passions, our creativity, our inventiveness, and our ability to mingle with others, to share with others, to enrich others with that we possess that is original and, therefore, life enhancing, vivifying, and yes, satisfying.The tragedy of our field, education, a field that is not very well respected, that is constantly criticized for not producing much that is good, helpful, meaningful is that it may be what the critics say it is and this because the field has failed to define itself in meaningful terms, terms that would allow it to pursue means to discovering means of education that do educate for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Instead, what we have done is tried to discover ways to force students to conform to norms that few wish to unpack for their inhumanity, norms that tell students who they should be and force them to do things that will help them become someone who others have designed. We fail because we fail to look at the question of who the designer should be and how we get to designs for human existence that are worth the cost of education, designs that are of philosophy and theory, theory and philosophy that comes from study of data that comes from living the life of a human being, as an individual, an individual who, at his or her best is unpredictable, to others and to self, and this is what our empirical approach to education cannot accept for fear that we may be called unscientific.We cannot live this way. The new an innovative field of education, if there is a field of education, will be accepting of narratives, of philosophy and theory, of stories and of thought that works to define societies fit for human life. We are not there and we are not even considering there and we are disrespected for the way we have gone about and continue to go about trying to make others in academia respect us.

By lafered

Retired professor of education concerned with thoughtfulness

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