One important attribute of Hamilton College’s new Educational Goals (listed in my previous blog post and described here) that has not yet received much attention is their internal design. There are various relationships between the Goals, and recognition and understanding of these will help students and faculty use them more effectively to develop a dynamic and integrated approach to the liberal arts.
Goals 2-5 (Analytic Discernment, Aesthetic Discernment, Disciplinary Practice, and Creativity) represent a major step forward in the way in which the College speaks about the nature of intellectual work. In the past this has generally been expressed simply as Critical Thinking. Analyzing and critiquing ideas, observing and interpreting data, interrogating whether something is true or not – these examples of Analytic Discernment concern the ability to grapple with information in an honest and disciplined way. (We have adopted the word ‘Discernment’ over ‘Thinking’ to suggest a higher level of thought and judgment that becomes a habit of mind.) This type of thought is essential no matter what one’s field. The limitation of this is that Analytic Discernment represents but one mode of thought. It is equally important to develop our capacity for other kinds of thought. Critical Thinking has itself been called out as suggesting an essentially negative way of engaging with ideas – emphasizing criticism, tearing down ideas, finding flaws – without being sufficiently balanced by constructive or creative thinking. Unfortunately this often results in students who are more comfortable tearing things down than building things up. I am not suggesting that Critical Thinking is always negative, but it does indicate that Critical Thinking/Analytic Discernment needs to be balanced with other forms of thinking.
In fact, much of the work of the liberal arts concerns another, complementary type of discernment – the ability to make thoughtful and informed judgments of aesthetics and quality. Judgments of good versus bad, or better, are somewhat different from true versus false. A sense of beauty, style, elegance, clarity, and design is of course a central concern of the arts – but this capacity to grasp aesthetic issues is important in many fields and occupations. Being able to perceive the aesthetics of a building, a graphic design, a landscape, a computer program or mobile device – all fall under the goal Aesthetic Discernment.
There is a basic knowledge of what constitutes quality that is specific to every field and profession. Understanding the elements of nuance, tone, and style that are part of the ‘art’ of a given field is one of the markers of those who have become honed and professionalized in that discipline. In our personal lives and transactions as well we often make choices on the basis of aesthetics. The ability to deal with judgments of quality are important not only to fulfill the human desire for beauty and grace, but also for practical reasons. It is often the case that an aesthetic improvement results in a corresponding technical improvement. But it’s the need to improve the quality or the aesthetics that drives the technical improvement. This is clearly the case in music, and I cannot imagine only in music. So Aesthetic Discernment is not frivolous – but rather an integral part of how we relate to our world, part of the human genius, and most certainly part of what gives the liberal arts dimension and color.
One element that I have not seen in other schools’ language on mission and goals is a recognition across disciplines of the vital role of Practice in learning. Practice is about doing something, working consistently with the focused intention to get good at it – to master a skill, a discipline, an art. I have written several times already, as have others, about the nature and importance of Practice or Craft. In the present context what needs emphasizing is that Practice is vital for progress not just in the arts but in all fields. Of course the specific content of Practice varies – but to be genuine and effective it must be serious rather than casual, it requires focus instead of diffuseness such as that caused by multitasking, and sustained and consistent over time, not occasional or sporadic. And there needs to be both technique and method to the act of Practice, as well as a specific goal. Understanding the ‘craft’ or ‘art’ of a discipline includes having some experience with the process that leads to mastery. It is surprising how rarely this is discussed in the liberal arts context, given how important a part of learning it is.
Finally, Creativity is widely acknowledged as crucial to achievement in any field (see Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind). Success in the liberal arts and in life require us to go beyond the comfort zone of ‘being a good student’ or of jumping through the right hoops; this is where Creativity comes in; it is also where students who have been successful primarily in jumping through hoops often falter. It is actually a higher level mode of thought which builds on the other three modes of Analytic and Aesthetic Discernment and Practice. This goal challenges us to go beyond the familiar and secure and to synthesize ideas and information in novel ways in order to bring something new into being – an idea, invention, work of art, a new interpretation, a solution to being caught between a (proverbial or literal) rock and hard place.
Analytic Discernment, Aesthetic Discernment, Disciplinary Practice, and Creativity are thus distinct, complementary, and interdependent modes of thought. Whether in the arts, humanities, social or hard sciences, all four of these elements operate and ideally work together. The essential philosophy behind the Educational Goals is that all four of these kinds of thought are necessary to a person’s complete intellectual development.