Saturday, September 06, 2014

Does Every Discipline Have a Worldview-Changing Idea?

The college is up for re-accreditation.  In addition to showing that we are doing the usual things well, we are also supposed to come up with a big idea of something new to try - a Quality Enhancement Plan. We have decided that this big idea should be to improve critical thinking, and/or creative thinking - somehow.  I am on the committee charged with coming up with a good idea of how, exactly, to do this, so I have been pondering the problem.

One of the hardest things to teach in sociology is to get students to move from thinking about society in terms of individuals, to thinking about society in terms of groups.  I start many classes with Marx in part to plant this seed. The actors in Marx' account of society are not individual workers and individual owners, but whole classes of workers and owners.  Similarly, when we talk about the patterns of gender relations, it is hard to keep students from immediately translating that into how a man and a woman interact - usually meaning the student him- or herself. Likewise, seeing social structures is a qualitatively different idea than seeing how one person habitually acts in relation to another.  We expend a great deal of creativity in trying to get students to think critically about social structures and social groups.

In other words, it is a persistent problem in teaching sociology to transform a student's perspective from the individual imagination to the sociological imagination.  Once you get it, you see the world differently.  The sociological imagination is a vital tool in critical thinking about society.

So here is the beginning of an idea: suppose every discipline has a fundamental shift in thinking that it is trying to teach - a new lens for seeing the world that it is trying to fit students with.  If so, then the college as a whole might fruitfully work together on the shared or meta-issues in teaching these disparate worldview-changing ideas.  We would be working creatively and critically as a faculty, and helping students to see the world creatively and critically with these new lenses of several kinds.  That would be a Quality Enhancement Plan worthy of a liberal arts college.

So the question is, does every discipline have a core idea that is hard to get students to see, but once achieved, fundamentally changes the way they think?