Thursday, May 14, 2009

I think, therefore I do [PRAGMATISM]

May 14, 2009

By Kenneth Paul Tan

PRAGMATISM is celebrated today as a virtue. The ability to adapt to changing circumstances, to focus on achieving results and to compare options using cost-benefit analysis is valued over inflexible obedience to dogma.

In public administration, pragmatism is opposed to the worst forms of bureaucracy. In politics, closed-mindedness, extremism and fundamentalism are mitigated by various moderate 'third way' approaches that deconstruct competing ideologies like liberalism, capitalism and socialism in order to combine eclectically their best aspects, leaving behind the unhelpful, irrelevant and harmful.

In Singapore, pragmatism is held up as a pillar of governance, one reason for the nation's widely acknowledged economic success. The right thing to do in order to achieve continuous economic growth will depend on context, of course. For instance, when the Government needed to strengthen its moral authority, it refused to allow casinos to operate here. But when it became clear that a flagging tourism sector needed a boost, the Government abandoned this position and allowed not one but two casinos.

The pragmatist seizes opportunities and manoeuvres nimbly around threats, so focused on finding technical solutions for achieving the overriding goals that these goals can sometimes disappear beyond the horizon of critical consciousness. Pragmatism can thus degenerate easily into an expedient and uncritical focus on technical mastery directed solely towards the achievement of a limited set of human aspirations, shielded from philosophical reflection, moral reasoning and critique. Ironically, uncritical pragmatism can become dogmatic.

The focus on 'how to' without thinking about 'why' encourages an 'anything goes' attitude that disregards the larger implications of one's choices and actions. That humanity has been so successful at developing the technical means of mastering and controlling nature is testament to its remarkable creativity. Yet this narrow focus on technical mastery has endangered the very habitat that humanity needs to survive. It is the same drive for technical domination, fuelled by indiscriminate profit-making, that has enabled people to control other people in a deeply inequitable global market. Today, we have some agreement on the dangers of this logic as the world embraces the now-fashionable language of sustainability and contemplates the serious economic crisis that it finds itself in. But is this too little, too late?

To prevent pragmatism from degenerating into yet another dogma, we need to ensure that pragmatic decision-making does not occur in an intellectual void. Pragmatists must be informed by a rationality that can expand beyond the narrowly technical and into the moral-political and the aesthetic. This will require a critical understanding of the significant ideas and values that have shaped the world. Universities will have an important role to play in this regard.

But universities too are vulnerable today to the very same reductive pressures against which they must protect culture and knowledge. Can universities exceed the limited and limiting expectation that they must, first and foremost, serve the purpose of economic growth? Furthermore, it is not easy for a neo-liberal university to maintain genuine autonomy in a world where universities must compete fiercely in a global market for talent and resources.

In this context, success can easily degenerate into an uncritically pragmatic question of technique, with universities devoting their resources to mastering the techniques for scoring top marks in international ranking exercises. Thankfully, many universities have been able to play the game without losing sight altogether of their larger and nobler educational purpose. But there is tension and the balance universities strike may not always favour their nobler aspirations.

Traditionally, universities have been perceived as spaces that provide a temporary life of contemplation in preparation for the 'real' life of action in the world: The use of the word 'commencement' to describe graduation ceremonies reflects some of this thinking.

But thinking and doing should not be artificially separated thus and associated with student life and work life, respectively, with the former subordinated to the latter. The university experience should not be reduced to a stage in life that one has to put up with in order to obtain the right qualifications to get ahead in 'real' life. Universities must graduate people who are more than excellent technical problem-solvers. Doers must also be thinkers; and for higher education to be able to facilitate this, its thinkers should also be doers.

What we need is an educational approach that opposes uncritical pragmatism. Whatever the discipline or subject, curriculum and pedagogy can be designed to build not only technical competency, but also the capacity for philosophically informed critical thinking, a vital skill for leadership in the public, private and people sectors.

Pragmatism can serve us well in a diverse, multicultural and globalised world. But pragmatism can easily degenerate into an unthinking mindset, more dogmatic than any ideology it pretends to distance itself from. Uncritical pragmatism engenders the doer who will not think beyond the narrowly technical; who is incapable of moral reasoning, critical thinking, creativity and imagination; the doer who despises such things as naive, time-wasting or troublesome.

The doer-who-will-not-think engenders in turn, and imprisons in a stereotypical ivory tower, its opposite - the thinker-who-will-not-do. Universities must - now more than ever - break down these barriers between thinking and doing.

The writer is associate professor and Assistant Dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS. The above is an excerpt of the NUS Outstanding Educator Award public lecture that he delivered on April 28.

[This is new, and yet not new. In one of my more philosophical classes, the question of science and knowledge and the explanation of the world about us, it was pointed out that the "Science" is about How to do, not What to do, or Why do. The older world and older "wisdom" was about explaining the world in terms of meaning. Why was the world created. How should one act towards another. Pragmatism at its most basic is still an "-ism" which means that there are some fundamental unquestionable doctrine or dogma.

It may be that we can never eradicate all "-isms", but perhaps we will have the wisdom to know when to leave one "-ism" and take another one.]

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