April 20th, 2010

Joining the Conversation


In a previous blog entry, we revisited the market metaphor and its applicability to higher education. Robert Knapp pointed out some of the comparisons that stimulate thought, analysis and hopefully response. But he concluded, as most in higher education have, that overall, a business model does not capture what higher education aspires to be about.

He suggests an interesting alteration—a slogan that captures what Knapp considers an appropriate guiding metaphor for higher education. “Joining the conversation.”

Knapp explains why and how this metaphor fits, starting first with the liberal arts. “I confess that my personal slogan for the content of the liberal arts is simplistic to the edge of caricature: the liberal arts are about the Big Eternal Questions. Yet I find this slogan unfolds usefully for my teaching. … Human life generates questions about its meaning and potentials; it always has, and still does. These questions come up in new ways in each time and culture, but there are recogniziable themes, including the origins of evil and suffering, the nature of allegiance, the nature of the nonhuman world, and many others; these are the Big Eternal Questions. They keep recurring because life keeps confronting us with them and because there are no answers to them, except local and provisional ones. An important part of maturing as a human being is to recognize all this in some fashion, and to work out some stance in relation to it.

“If these questions are inescapable, it is natural to ask how others have understood them and dealt with them; if there turn out to be no crib sheets to memorize, it is natural for inquiry to take the form of exchanging what information and insights people have been able to gather—conversation in short.” (pp. 429-430)

So education is really about a conversation. It’s hard to imagine a metaphor more unlike the market one. It’s way past the difference between apples and oranges—these two metaphors are canned fruits and fresh vegetables! But the Knapp metaphor is worth contemplation. Later he points out how it “encourages learning from the past, but finds high significance in the present.” A moment of insight happens when people discover the significance of the questions and start trying to respond to them. The metaphor also “supports the idea that knowledge can be both definite and continually in flux. It encourages interactive teaching and learning, and thereby supports intellectual empowerment of students.” (p. 430)

Reference: Knapp, Jr., R. H. Joining the conversation: An essay in guiding images for college teaching and learning. In B. L. Smith and J. McCann, eds., Reinventing Ourselves: Interdisciplinary Education, Collaborative Learning, and Experimentation in Higher Education. Bolton, Mass.: Anker, 2001.