Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Balance

In yesterday's New York Times, the conservative pundit David Brooks contrasted two ways of living.

First, he quoted a recent report of a faculty committee at Harvard University on the purpose of education: "The aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves." Individuals should learn to think for themselves, summarizes Brooks. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values.

Then Brooks turned to a book published last summer by the political scientist Hugh Heclo, called On Thinking Institutionally. "In this way of living," says Brooks, "we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions -- first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft. Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we're supposed to do...New generations don't invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of."

Brooks, as you might expect, extols the second view. "Faith in all institutions, including charities, has declined precipitously over the past generation, not only in the U.S. but around the world," he writes. "Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior." Drugs in sports, greed in banking -- all have their origin in a disrespect for institutional rules we have inherited from the past.

Well, yes, that's an easy shot. But institutions can be stultifying, too. Rules readily become dogmas. Traditional habits become rote recitation. Dreary conformity replaces creative thinking.

What is required is a balance between skeptical thinking and respect for traditional structures. And that is what has made the scientific way of knowing such a reliable and useful human invention.

Skepticism is institutionalized in science. Doubt is mandatory. But players must play by the rules of the game: reproducible data, publication in peer-reviewed journals, citation of relevant past work, exclusion of appeals to emotion, personality, politics or religion, and so on.

Skepticism without the institution is pseudoscience. The institution without doubt is scientism. A scientific thinker should be radically open to marginal change, and marginally open to radical change -- cautiously questioning everything, respectful of the accumulated knowledge of the past. This same balance might usefully apply to other institutions, such as journalism, sports, banking, politics, religion -- and, yes, university curricula.