Thursday, September 06, 2007

A State of Intellectual Confusion

I am confused. Very confused. I cannot help my daughters in their studies.

I first found this problem while they were at school.

Maths was different. So were English and Art. And other subjects. A core problem was that the frames - the intellectual structures - used to define the subjects had changed. So what I knew was meaningless so far as my daughters were concerned unless I could relate it to the frames. And I could not because I did not know them.

Now I have a new problem. And this relates to university studies.

Eldest asked me to look at her essay in development studies. I think that it is okay, certainly better in some ways than I could have written at her age. Yet it is also - at least as I see it - deficient.

During the week I talked to one of my colleagues who is doing development studies at Sydney. The unit she is doing at the moment appears full of values, poorly taught, with little intellectual rigour. Helen's course at the University of New South Wales is better measured simply by the degree to which it can engage her in an intellectual sense. Yet I struggle with both.

I did development economics, not development studies. But my studies were informed by my study of history and prehistory. Later there was my work as a professional economist and public servant where I was directly concerned with development issues.

When I did development economics the core question was to how to raise standards of living. Without this, nothing else had meaning. There were whole schools of thought discussing this issue. Today the position appears very different with a focus on social issues. Raising standards of living appears a sideline issue.

So when I read Helen's essay tonight, I did not know what to say. The essay focused on the import substitution school in development. There was some good stuff in it. But there was limited recognition of the historical debate in economics that has raged around this topic, little about the conceptual underpinnings developed in the past, nor (for that matter) much about the actual experiences of countries including Australia that have gone the import substitution path . Essentially we had an essay that addressed an economics topic without, in some ways, reference to economics.

Helen wanted me to give an assessment as to how well she might do. Depending on the structure of the course, the content, and the attitudes of examiners, her potential mark would appear to range all the way from very high to a bare pass. I suspect that were I to write on the same topic in the same course I might well fail, because my arguments would be just too far outside what appears to be the accepted frame.

There is a bigger issue in all this, one that links to my musings on the history of Australian and New Zealand thought. What are the current intellectual structures? How did they develop?

I can follow this in public administration, for example, because I have been in contact with the system, have studied it and written about it. So I can trace changes over time.

But when I come up against something like development studies I cannot. There is an apparent discontinuity. All very confusing.


Anonymous said...

I think you are evidencing what I see in the corporate world. There is a specialization that starts without an understanding of what come before, what is happening around the function and what happens afterwards.

I relate it to Henry Ford's prodcution line applied to intellectual property.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a very interesting thought, David. I think that you are dead right. I think that it links to something else that I have been thinking and writing about, the decline (death?) of management.

There is a limited place for management (or thought) in a world of process and ever increasing specialisation. I referred to this in a post on another blog -

The point about Ford's production line really resonated.

Anonymous said...

...full of values, poorly taught, with little intellectual rigour...

That is a very accurate description of my Honours Year in English at Sydney University in 1964, with only one exception, Associate Professor Bill Maidment's tutorials on critical method. Otherwise the leading light at the time, Sam Goldberg, and his associates began with a whole set of values derived from the Cambridge critic F R Leavis. The resulting parroting is well described in Andrew Riemer's Sandstone Gothic.

In History the values were implicit rather than explicit. Few of us questioned them, or perhaps even knew what they were...

I really find it hard to imagine a values-free zone, Jim. Values are behind any decision one might make about what is or is not worthy of attention, just for a start. Sure, I would agree the values need to be up for discussion.

Just thinking... No disrespect intended. "Badly taught" is something else again. I can probably count on one hand -- well maybe two -- the university courses I did that were actually well taught. That transcended, by the way, the political position or values set of the presenter...

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, very interesting on Sydney. Thanks for the link.

For my part, I have always argued that values are inextricably involved with any form of human endeavour. See, for example, two of my very early posts on history:

The core of my argument about the development studies courses is that they appear to lack intellectual rigour.

To illustrate by example.

The concept of "development" is itself value laden. So any course must address the meaning of the word, to disentangle the value assumptions.

By contrast, when you come to import substitution you are dealing with a far more practical issue, one with a long history of theoretical analysis and practical example. To me, a development course that talks about import substitution without addressing that history lacks rigour.

We can see the outcome in some of the anti-APEC protests. I can debate values with them, but I often cannot talk about underlying issues because they simply do not understand what I am talking about.

Lexcen said...

Are we talking about a paradigm shift?

Jim Belshaw said...

I think that we are, Lexcen, but it's one I find very confusing in that I think that we are in fact at another shift point at the moment. That is, things are shifting again just as I am struggling with the last shift!

I have a feel that the last round of changes has reached their use by date, that yet another paradigm shift is underway.