Academia: Teaching to Uncertainty

Thursday's Child Has Far to Go

In the past, I’ve been deeply drawn to a common claim made on behalf of liberal arts education: that it offers a superior preparation for the uncertainty and contingency of their postgraduate futures, compared to an education that is narrowly attached to a particular profession and its required skills.

I’m still emotionally attached to this argument but it has so many problems that I’ve come to question its value. The first is that it is on some level simply rephrasing a very old Western-tradition understanding of “liberal arts” in contemporaneously acceptable language. The medieval European understand of liberal education, based partially on a reinterpretation of classical ideas, asserted that elites needed an open-ended education based on the trivium and quadrivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) because as rulers, they would face complex and unexpected problems, whereas others only needed introduction to “practical arts” relevant to specific repeated labor with a known value. Recoding this around uncertainty doesn’t get away from the hierarchical implications embedded inside it. The hidden proposition is that it’s fine for petrochemical engineers to just learn petrochemical engineering, but that future politicians, leaders, scientists, policy-makers and so on need to learn in a more flexible and less prescriptive way.

If the underlying point about uncertain futures is true, then actually it’s the opposite: the people who need liberal arts the most are the petrochemical engineers, or anyone else who might want to work in a field that could shift dramatically based on changes in the economy or in the material conditions of human life. Once you see it that way, however, you recognize that either everyone needs liberal arts or no one does, that it can’t possibly make any sense as something limited to future leaders, or as something best reserved for an elite. If liberal arts and preparation for uncertainty are synonymous, everyone needs that combination; if everyone needs it but what we mean by liberal education is only accessible or comprehensible to students with special or privileged preparation, then we’re lying or confused about our proposed linkage to uncertainty.

Which is the next problem. I think the uncertainty-liberal arts linkage also depends on a caricature of “vocational” or pre-professional pedagogy and curricula by faculty and other higher education professionals who have limited experience with those practices and structures. I’m mindful here of the history at my own institution, where film and media studies most recently and all of the performing and studio arts further back (pre-1980s) were regarded by some other faculty as potentially too “vocational” to be truly liberal arts. When I’m aware of similar conversations today, I’m often struck by a degree of incuriosity surrounding how we talk about the content of educational experiences that are allegedly too instrumental, too fixed, too rigidly tied to a single profession or job. I think in some cases, faculty who identify as doing liberal arts are transposing an objection they have to the professional practices, outlooks or ideologies of the end products of some courses of study with the structure and nature of the pedagogy in those courses of study. I have an issue with the dispositional outlook of many professionals holding an MBA, but I have done very little to think about or study whether what I take issue with is rooted in what and how they learned on the way to that degree. Only rarely do we get a specific enough look inside some aspect of professional or vocational training to see a connection between a profession’s questionable practices and the questionable things taught to those professionals—say for example the connections between police training on the use of force and the actuality of the use of force by contemporary police. Pedagogy is hard to witness and analyze wherever it happens in higher education, whether that’s a class for electricians or a class exploring 18th Century English literature.

This leads to my deepest doubts about uncertainty and liberal education. Namely, I think our conceptual assumptions about how to teach to uncertainty are almost inchoate and the empirical evidence of whether we do so successfully is debatable. If we are in any sense successful, I think we have no idea what it is that we are doing that accounts for that success—and arguably it has nothing to do with anything taught in higher education but is instead about social capital and available economic resources. This is where “preparation for uncertainty” lives alongside other reassuring concepts like “resilience”, “emotional intelligence”, or “grit”. They may not be measuring either attributes that people have that can be developed in others or concrete skills that are teachable, but instead just “do you have access to money and to social networks?”.

Let us suppose that liberal education of the kind offered at highly selective private colleges and research universities offers a good example of curricular structures or pedagogies that prepare graduates to anticipate and endure uncertainty. What exactly are those structures and practices, then?

Many of us would answer “critical thinking” (which may just be transferring to an equally leaky terminological boat). We’d assert that critical thinking suffuses our institutions in such a way that their graduates learn to view the world around them skeptically and provisionally, and that this in turn prepares them to adapt rapidly to changing economic and social conditions (and to help lead or direct processes of change for others). The major problem with this answer is that any curricular structure, any pedagogy, can likely and perhaps justifiably claim to be producing critical thinking and hence, preparation for uncertainty. It’s so truistic and unspecified that it’s hard to be satisfied with it as an answer. It’s possible we could decompose “critical thinking” to far more specific epistemological and methodological commitments in various academic disciplines: the scientific method, thought experiments, close reading, etc. and get a better account of how to teach skepticism, provisional truth-making, and so on. Possibly.

Once upon a time, I used to think that curricular structures which enacted uncertainty for students would be a specifically good preparation for uncertainty. Meaning what, exactly? To some extent, what some students and faculty mean when they talk about interdisciplinarity, in programs of study that are ad hoc assemblages composed out of every individual student’s evolving interests and aspirations aligned with whatever was available from already-planned courses and the existing specializations of sitting faculty. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, or in this case, ad hoc individualization recapitulates professional uncertainty. I no longer think this follows. In fact, perhaps the opposite is true: a stable, predictable, sequential program of study might paradoxically provide durable tools for recognizing uncertain conditions and adapting to them. At the least, it is hard to be certain that experiencing controlled uncertainty or assemblage is a good preparation for coping with it subsequently.

This, I think, is the more pressing problem. Does anyone cope well with uncertainty, and are the graduates of any kind of higher education dispositionally or technically more able to cope? The covid-19 pandemic combined with the instability of American political life has been an interesting test case for this question. There’s a lot to say here (and I’m turning on comments for anyone who’d like to weigh in), but as a first-approximation answer, I’d say I’m at least uncertain about our supposed ability to train people for uncertainty. Educated professionals may have weathered the economic disruptions of the pandemic fairly well, but that’s a material by-product of the work they do and the technologies they have to use, pandemic or otherwise. They adapted to masking and social distance quickly, but that may has been as much an act of sociopolitical affiliation as it was an ability to change habits at need. How well they coped in terms of mental health is still an open question. Did their professional work rules and processes, set collectively, show an ability to quickly cope with shifting evidence, changing rules, a dynamically evolving crisis? There’s no yardstick here to measure by, but I’d say at best sort of? 7 out of 10? Some over-reactions, some under-reactions, some decisions not based on the best science, but also some pretty quick and adroit thinking. After all, most workplaces and localities never expected to have to manage a global pandemic more or less on their own.

Who is adapting best to uncertainty in the political sphere? Many educated professionals, especially those who identify as liberals or progressives, have self-reported in the last year that they feel completely incapable of adapting to the politics of this dangerous moment in American history and the numerous uncertainties it presents. As they should.

I believe in what Helga Nowotny calls “the cunning of uncertainty” and accept her argument that everyone—rich and poor, college-educated in a liberal-arts curriculum, or high-school educated in a trade, can and should cope with that cunning. By “cunning”, Nowotny means that uncertainty is an irreducible part of human life and the physical universe, and that we should follow where it leads us. Just so. I also believe in what the economist John Kay has called obliquity: that in a very concrete and empirical sense, many of our most cherished goals and values are only achievable if we do not try to achieve them directly. Tell me you want to be happy in life, and I will, following Kay, tell you that you should not try to be happy. That the road to happiness involves a long detour through uncertainty.

At the same time, we can and should be reducing uncertainty where it has been engineered on purpose, where it is used to produce insecurity and precarity for the benefit of a few. What I fear we mean sometimes when we say that a liberal education is preparation for uncertainty is not the broad reality of uncertainty as Nowotny describes it, nor for the oblique routings between an educational present and life-long aspirations, but instead is an attempt to naturalize and justify the labor markets of the early 21st Century. The uncertainty and instability of those markets is a product of the credulous and wholly ideological celebration of “creative destruction” and “disruptive innovation” by the oligarchs of our present American moment and their courtiers. There is nothing inevitable, desirable or natural about the proposition that industries, workplaces, jobs, and communities should perpetually expect to be broken, eradicated or discarded at any moment by private equity firms, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, or crony capitalists. The proposition that training for uncertainty means accepting the need to change everything about your skills, values, desires, aspirations and material situation at a moment’s notice not because you wish to change but because a few people with extraordinary wealth and power have almost incidentally destroyed everything about your status quo is not the cunning of uncertainty but the craft of exploitation and domination.

And for the same reason, we should not have to adapt to a rising authoritarianism or a capricious pack of unprincipled liars doing whatever it takes to hold to power. You cannot and should not build a political system that is so stable that it banishes contingency and forbids contention—but neither should we accept that our political tomorrows must be arbitrary and that the well-educated should be prepared to adapt to life under any form of sovereignty.

Maybe a liberal education is about embracing uncertainty where it is generative, necessary and useful. And maybe we’re middling-skilled in teaching that embrace. But we shouldn’t accept that the job of a liberal education is making graduates live complacently into what has been done to them and their possible futures.