A New Agenda for Higher Education: Shaping a Life of the Mind for Practice

reviewed by Sam J. Fugazzotto - August 25, 2008

coverTitle: A New Agenda for Higher Education: Shaping a Life of the Mind for Practice
Author(s): William M. Sullivan and Matthew S. Rosin
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0470257571, Pages: 272, Year: 2008
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Sullivan and Rosin’s A New Agenda for Higher Education advocates for the reform of higher education, starting with the teaching practices of individual faculty members. Two poles of knowledge structure the book’s discussion: the abstract/theoretical and the concrete or practical. Academe in its present state gravitates toward the former, while the public and employers in particular call on colleges and universities to develop students’ practical skills more fully. Using practical reasoning as a unifying concept, Sullivan and Rosin seek to bridge the gap between the abstract and the concrete.

The book has its genesis in the “Life of the Mind for Practice” seminar, which met between September 2002 and December 2003 and received sponsorship from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The seminar began with the premise that the liberal arts and professions need each other. Although external constituent groups often see the liberal arts and sciences as impractical for employment, they also see professional education as divorced from ethical or social contexts. Educators thus face the challenge of preparing students to act and live life not only with pure knowledge but also with “judgment…and responsibility for action” (p. 3). Indeed, the fourteen faculty members selected to participate in the seminar, who come from the liberal arts and sciences as well as the professions, already strive to take up this challenge. By integrating abstract reasoning and practical judgment in their teaching and using each to inform the other, they stand apart from many of their colleagues. Participants’ teaching practices formed the basis of seminar discussions and confirmed the interdependence of the theoretical and the concrete. This interdependence, in turn, leads to the book’s final argument for reform: that practical judgment and professional responsibility ought to become organizing principles for higher education.

Through the remainder of the introduction and in Chapters 1 and 2, Sullivan and Rosin discuss examples of courses that seminar participants teach. Hessel Bouma III integrates standard biology instruction with moral and ethical issues. Similarly, Robert McGinn encourages his students to consider the ethical issues that affect engineering practice. Finally, Allen Hammond IV uses a case study approach to show his students how the consistent use of legal reasoning may not lead to consistent results. Chapter 1 continues in much the same vein by discussing the teaching practices of more seminar participants: Elliot Dorff (rabbinical education), Arthur Elstein (medicine), and Barbara Stengel (teacher education). Chapter 2 uses examples of teaching practices that have a greater focus on identity. It also introduces the challenge of developing faculty to teach toward practical reasoning. Gary Lee Downey and Juan Lucena explore the professional identity of engineers and how that impacts their practice in different cultures, while Daisy Hurst Floyd teaches how lawyers’ identity can affect their relationships with clients. From the liberal arts, William Spohn uses Bible study to show how the Bible can inform moral/ethical action in contemporary settings.

Chapter 3 narrates the seminar meetings themselves. Despite the initial hopes of seminar facilitators, the first meeting ended up serving as a case study of academics’ tendency to veer towards the abstract. Participants seemed to prefer theoretical modes of discussion, even of their own teaching practices! This meeting thereby highlighted a key challenge that broader reform of higher education must face. The second and third meetings saw greater success. During the second session, participants discussed their own syllabi in pairs, instead of talking about hypothetical cases. By the third session, participants worked in trios to turn their syllabi into narratives on how practical reasoning forms the end goal of their courses. Four domains of practical reasoning emerged from these discussions: identity, community, responsibility, and bodies of knowledge. Together, these themes challenged the predominance of the critical thinking agenda, which privileges theory over practical reasoning.

Chapter 4 integrates the insights from the seminar to contrast practical reasoning with critical thinking. While four broad domains compose practical reasoning, the academy tends to privilege only one: bodies of knowledge. However, acting responsibly through practical reason demands that students also have a grounded identity, a sense of how that identity is formed through others in community, and a sense of responsibility for the community. Critical thinking abstracts knowledge from a specific situation to make theory and tends to look down on concrete application as lower-order. Practical reasoning, by contrast, demands a more dialogical process—from the concrete, to the abstract, and back to the concrete. Sullivan and Rosin propose the study of rhetoric as an analogy to practical reasoning. Good writing allows one to reflect on the abstract based on concrete principles, but it should also act to persuade others. Similarly, higher education ought to strive to teach abstract reasoning but should also teach students to use abstract knowledge to engage and persuade others cooperatively.

Sullivan and Rosin’s Conclusion sums up the book effectively. It seeks to answer the question of how academe should respond to the calls to prepare students better for practical judgment. As the Conclusion reports, the book progresses as follows: an examination of actual teaching practices, a narrative of what happened during the seminar, the distillation of key concepts, and a call to action. This call to action requires greater collaboration across disciplines, as well as a retooling of faculty development. Also, four constituent groups must buy into, participate in, and/or contribute to a new model for faculty development that privileges practical reasoning: faculty, graduate students, administrative leadership, and campus centers for teaching and learning.

The agenda for reform that Sullivan and Rosin propose certainly resonates with this reviewer. A focus on practical reasoning in the academy seems to represent an effective compromise between faculty calls for academic rigor and employers’ demands for practical skills. Practical reasoning incorporates both theoretical and practical education and becomes greater than the sum of its parts. For example, instead of taking a professionally oriented course in engineering and a philosophy or ethics course, students who enroll in Robert McGinn’s engineering course learn of the applications of ethics in their own professional practice. Philosophy and practice inform and enhance one another rather than simply co-existing in the form of two required courses in a plan of study. Hiring managers and other external constituents no doubt would welcome an agenda for practical reasoning in higher education. In many cases, the difficulty in carrying out this agenda will arise from within, as faculty members themselves are not taught how to teach for practical reasoning. Sullivan and Rosin are right to emphasize the need to change doctoral education so that faculty-to-be can carry out reform from the inside.

On a more mundane note, this reviewer found that the writing style of A New Agenda occasionally makes it less accessible. Its core purposes—to explain what practical reasoning is, why it ought to underlie undergraduate and professional education, and how to begin thinking about reforming the system—seem lost at times in the examples of teaching practices.  Sullivan and Rosin no doubt seek to stay true to the spirit of practical reasoning by using practical examples to inform abstract theory and then to bring that theory back into the work of reform, but at times, readers might find it difficult to see how examples build on each other to form larger points. Seminar participants could engage in dialogue with one another to reach those points, but readers often read alone. If practical reasoning hinges on dialogue, then why use a dialogical strategy in a form that does not readily allow for it (i.e., a book)? The book’s points are compelling indeed, but they occasionally leave one wishing for a clearer presentation.

A curriculum focused on practical reasoning would certainly set an institution apart from many of its competitors, but what could happen if a critical mass of institutions came to see value in a practical reasoning agenda? How might individual colleges and universities set themselves apart from another? While beyond the scope of A New Agenda, this reviewer wonders about strategic possibilities for higher education in a brave new world of practical reasoning. If curricula rooted in practical reasoning currently represents a unique way for institutions to create value for their constituents, how might such curricula continue to create value after practical reasoning comes to define best practice in teaching? One wonders if we’ll see the day when we need to answer that question in earnest.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 25, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15351, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 7:39:47 AM

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