RATIONALIST VALUES WE ALREADY TEACH IN THE COLLEGE CURRICULUM

CLARK F. FORD


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American public universities arose out of Western culture, and therefore teach (deliberately or otherwise) many of the values of Western culture. It is important that we, as educators, acknowledge these values that we already teach as we tackle the issues involved in Ethics and the College Curriculum.

I. Rationality is a value that we teach.

Among the values that we teach (especially in the sciences, philosophy and ethics) is strong dependence on rationality as a tool for discovering and evaluating knowledge, truth, meaning, and morality. Although some maintain that rationalism is value-free, I believe a case can be made that it is not value-free, but is a culturally embedded value that is a byproduct of Western history. Rationality is so imbedded in our curricula (except perhaps in the Arts), so central to the mission of our universities, that it is considered by many of us to be the main guiding principle of our discipline, fundamental to knowledge, the fountainhead of enlightenment, indeed, the cornerstone of our intellectual culture and civilization. Through rationality, our culture has transcended superstition, irrationality and primitive human behavior.

Rationality is promoted as being an objective, verifiable, and universal path to knowledge, truth, meaning, and morality, that transcends even religion and belief. As such, it is considered to be basic to all peoples and an essential element of education in our public institutions. Although we acknowledge religious freedom and cultural diversity, we rarely question the dominance of rationality in our curriculum and we not only teach it, but often impose it onto our students. We see rationality as the salvation of society, the driving force of our scientific, technological, economical and political progress. We hope for ourselves that we are rational beings, and we wish for our students to be as rational as possible also. This is what many of us feel education is all about.

In science and elsewhere in the curriculum we are taught to develop our left brain analytical abilities, while our right brain activity atrophies, is distrusted, and is invalidated. Thus we foster what may be a very limited rationalist approach to reality and we teach this to our students. The rationalist approach validates only knowledge that comes from outside oneself via experimentation and observation and training. This knowledge to be valid also must make rational sense, and it must be able to be accessed by everyone.

We teach that knowledge must be rational to even qualify as knowledge. Intuition, feelings, and relationships, for example, do not and can not produce knowledge by themselves. We teach that whatever is intuited or felt must be validated rationally to count as knowledge. Rationality is presented as the medium of knowledge, so that all knowledge claims must be translated into rational terms, and evaluated through the lens of rationality. Such concepts as inner knowledge, and personal knowledge are denied validity and are marginalized as simply beliefs, or perhaps delusions. We certainly would not, at a public institution, attempt to teach any skill or path designed to lead to personal or inner knowledge. First of all, inner knowledge is thought of as somewhat of an oxymoron, and second, it is really in the realm of religion, separate from our secular pursuit of universal rational knowledge.

Since knowledge must be rational, it follows that truth and wisdom must also be rational. Western philosophy, widely taught at our universities, seems to be defined and dominated by rationalism. Ethics is conceived of and taught in rational terms. We teach that for a course of action to be considered ethical we must be able to justify it rationally. For this we offer students a wide variety of moral theories, which, depending on the assumptions we make may be used to justify almost any action. Approaches to moral behavior grounded on feeling, caring, love, compassion, relationship, or spirituality are considered outside of the realm of rational moral theory and are not taught. Is it any wonder that many students and society in general are having a hard time finding meaning in life beyond the materialism that is produced by our culture's immersion in rationality?

Many of my colleagues in the sciences embrace a rationalist, reductionist, materialist cosmology. To question the exalted place of rationality is a heresy in science. Science has staked out the rational part of reality to explain as its turf, but in a scientific cosmology, this is perceived as the whole of reality. And this assumption, which of course cannot be proven, is often thought to represent objectivity! It is as though the monotheistic one God of medieval Judeo-Christianity has been replaced by the enlightened one Truth (with a capitol T) of rationalism. This seems like a religion to me, and I am wondering why we are teaching this religion at our public institutions? Why is the rationalist perspective such an exalted and dominant value in our curricula while we deny and invalidate others? Isn't this a cultural value judgement?

While the domination of rationality may be a step in the right direction compared to medieval religious repression, I would like to advocate a more balanced approach to knowledge, and truth, meaning and morality that involves and values right brain as well as left brain input.


II. Why do we value rationalism?

I have often wondered why it is that we value rationalism so strongly, and make such a strong cultural value judgement against the validity of intuitions and feelings. However, my academic background and training has been narrowly limited to the life sciences. I have no real training in philosophy, history, religion, psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, or any other discipline that might shed light on this question. After all, I shouldn't be asking this question in the first place. The values of rationality are self-evident: rationality has allowed us to reach unprecedented material mastery over our environment through technology, it has freed us from religious and political tyranny, it has opened the doors to an intellectual wonderland, and it provides us with an understanding of the cosmos and a methodology for determining right from wrong. In short, rationality empowers us, informs us and defines us. But perhaps our embrace of rationality isn't as enlightening and objective as we would like to think. Is it possible that the objectivity that we pride ourselves on (especially in science) is a cultural illusion?

Feminist literature reminds us that our intellectual cultural heritage is based on male patriarchal rationalism. Perhaps western culture could be characterized as based on Greek male patriarchal rationalism, injected with patriarchal Judeo-Christianity, and enforced onto western europe by patriarchal Roman armies. We teach western philosophy that is ostensibly "love of wisdom" but seems to some more like "love of male patriarchal wisdom". In short, we have a whole culture, a whole civilization that has elevated one kind of thinking, one kind of value system (based on "male" rationalism) over other approaches to knowing and valuing that involve more balanced participation of rationality with intuition and feelings, more balance between left and right brain. This balanced, holistic approach to knowing values the intuitive much more than does our western rationality. I have the sense that this personal, intuitive approach to knowing relies more on emotions than does the strictly rational approach. It may not be particularly compatible with male patriarchy, but is valued by many women and also by indigenous peoples. However, since women and indigenous peoples have been devalued and marginalized by the male patriarchy that came to power in the Mediterranean basin and later in europe, this balanced, intuitive approach to knowledge has also been devalued and marginalized.

Our great western cultural books were written largely by male rationalists who did not understand the intuitive approach to knowledge and did not value it. Socrates was told by the oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man in the world. But what of the predictive knowledge and wisdom of the oracle itself? The intuitive workings of the oracle were a mystery impenetrable by the rational mind, and have ultimately been ignored or denied. This kind of feeling based, intuitive knowledge has been devalued in part because it is too personal. It often can be productively shared only with those who have a similar feeling or intuition. One cannot enter into verbal combat to prove or disprove inner knowledge. It therefore does not lend itself to a male-dominated intellectual power structure based on persuasion, and intellectual control over others. Intuitive knowledge also tends to be more symbolic and sometimes is not very concrete or immediately practical. It is little wonder that it is undervalued in our materialistic and pragmatic society.


III. What are the consequences of our rationalist values?

We might be missing something really important. Rationalism is a very narrow path to a very narrow truth. Similarly, it has been said that science shines a very bright light on a very small spot. I believe it is arrogant and ultimately irrational to think that rationality is the only path to knowledge, truth, meaning, or morality. We have two hemispheres in our brain and we know that both must work together, yet we glorify the work of one half and devalue the work of the other. We convince ourselves that we are the most advanced culture and civilization because we are rational and this arrogance causes us to dismiss all else. The input of women who have promoted feeling, intuition, connection, relationship, and peace has been generally dismissed in western culture for 5,000 years ever since male dominated warrior cultures swept into the peaceful neolithic settlements of old europe. European explorers circumnavigated the globe, discovering thousands of indigenous cultures, many of whom were peaceful, intuitive, connected with nature. These cultures were thought inferior, and their wisdom ignored. I argue that these cultures have much to teach us about the value of a more balanced approach to knowledge, truth and wisdom involving both rationality (using our left brain) and intuition (right brain).

Our rationalism has lead to widespread acceptance of dualisms such as mind vs. body, thought vs. feeling, humanity vs. nature, and male vs. female. In these dualisms, mind is superior to body, thought superior to feelings, humans superior to and separate from nature, and males superior to females. In fact, mind, rational thought, humanity and maleness have been linked, associated with advanced civilization, and exalted. On the other hand, the body, irrationality, feelings, nature, and femaleness have also been linked, associated with so-called primitive indigenous cultures, and have been denigrated, distrusted and exploited. This is part of the legacy of rationalism that we pass on to our students. While we may not think that we are embracing these dualisms, they follow directly from our imbalanced overvaluing of rationalism. Not only are these dualisms unnecessary, but they are ultimately very destructive.

In the recent children's movie myth "Pocahontas", John Smith, the rationalist european explorer bent on ecological destruction and exploitation of the new world meets Pocahontas, the holistic native american woman who feels intuitively connected to the natural world. Realizing how much John Smith is cut off from the natural world and from his intuition, she asks who the real savage is. We know the answer to that question, and that is perhaps why we are here.

Our over-dependence on rationalism has cut off our left brain from our right, and it has cut us off from nature, from our bodies, and from our feelings. We live in an age of alienation, that is producing increasing ecological destruction, violence, hopelessness and moral decline. Perhaps it is the perception of moral decline in our students and in our society that has prompted this meeting. But, stuck in what I will call the rationalist paradigm, we are not likely to transcend these problems. We teach an ethics grounded in rationalism, based on the assumption that we can figure out the right thing to do, that it will make sense, and that it can be justified by its logic.

Our philosophers and ethicists respond to ecological and social crises by producing theories of caring for each other or for the environment that do not require emotions. Thus we have Kant's categorical imperative which could be viewed as a way to rationalize the concept of love. Its as though, we can't understand love, can't quantitate it, can't justify it, so we have to translate the concept into rational terms. And we teach that this is good, is right, is the only sane approach to a difficult problem. We are taught to think our way through every situation, but we are not taught how to access, evaluate or trust our deepest, most profound feelings and intuitions. Is it any wonder that many in our society feel alienated and hopeless? Rationalism searches for meaning, but ultimately cannot produce it because meaning is not rational.


IV. Solutions

I am not advocating abandoning the use of our rational faculties. I am advocating that we admit that as a culture we have embraced an imbalanced over- dependence on rationalism that has had some very negative consequences. And I am advocating that we work to foster a more holistic, balanced use of both our left and right brain abilities. We need to teach our students to probe and critically evaluate their feelings (as part of knowing themselves), and to actually begin to trust their deepest an most profound feelings and intuitions. We need to begin to honor and validate this inner knowledge, and encourage our students to seek it.

As educators, it is inevitable that we teach our values, and I believe that we need to admit that rationality has been one of the strongest values that we have been teaching in many disciplines in the college curriculum. We need to acknowledge the cultural bias that has produced a great deal of our enthusiasm for rationalism, and to acknowledge and show respect for other cultures of knowing and wisdom. Perhaps we should teach Intuition 101, or Making Wise Decisions Based on Your Feelings 203, or Personal Knowledge Through Meditation 405.

The potential benefits of teaching students to be more in touch with their feelings and intuitions are many. Perhaps we could begin to heal the social malaise that grips our culture. Perhaps we would change many of our practices that damage the earth or each other. Perhaps we would have brilliant intuitive insights into the nature of reality leading to quantum leaps in science and technology. Perhaps we will find resolution to many of our moral dilemmas. John Smith had a dilemma: how could he reconcile his own rationalized separation from and superiority over nature but also honor and respect nature at the same time? Pocahontas did not have this dilemma. She intuitively knew she was part of nature.


Copyright CLARK F. FORD

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Last updated: June 6, 1996