mandag, maj 11, 2009

Against Uncritical Pragmatism by Kenneth Paul Tan

Against Uncritical Pragmatism: Education for Doers Who Can Think and Thinkers Who Can Do
By Kenneth Paul Tan
Delivered at the Outstanding Educator Award Public Lecture, at the National University of Singapore, on 28 April 2009

Pragmatism is today celebrated around the world as a virtue of contemporary decision-making. The ability to adapt to changing circumstances, to focus on achieving results, and to compare options using cost-benefit analysis is highly valued over inflexible obedience to totalizing dogma and stubborn habits. 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 eclectically combine their best aspects, leaving behind the unhelpful, irrelevant, and harmful fragments.

In Singapore, pragmatism is held up as a pillar of governance and a cultural reason for the nation’s widely acknowledged success, achieved, it is commonly argued, through policies whose overriding objective is to ensure continuous economic growth. The right thing to do in order to achieve this continuous economic growth will depend on the context and is, in fact, whatever works best in that context at that point of time. For instance, when the government needed to strengthen its moral authority, it adamantly refused to allow casinos to operate in Singapore. But when it became clear that a flagging tourism sector needed a boost, the government abandoned its more moralistic language for a hard economic justification for building not one but two casinos in global-city Singapore.

The pragmatist seizes opportunities and manoeuvres nimbly around threats, so focused on finding technical solutions for achieving the overriding goals that these goals practically disappear beyond the horizon of critical consciousness. Few Singaporeans would ever think to question the goal of continuous economic growth as the ultimate goal that makes all others possible. Pragmatism, initially an open-minded attitude, can therefore degenerate easily into an uncritical focus on technical mastery directed solely towards the achievement of a narrow and limited set of human aspirations, obscured and shielded from philosophical reflection, moral reasoning, and critique. Ironically, uncritical pragmatism can become a new dogma.

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 to control nature and satisfy an expanding set of human needs is testament to its remarkable creativity and drive. Yet, this narrow focus on technical mastery has endangered the very habitat that humanity needs to survive. And it is the same drive for technical domination, fuelled by indiscriminate prospects for profit-making, that has enabled people to control other people in a deeply inequitable global market that overproduces things while turning to the lucrative business of advertising and branding to convince consumers that they really need to consume more, and therefore have to work harder, obtain loans, and invest their earnings to be able to afford it. 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 that shoves into the blind spot the larger and less tangible consequences of our actions, we need to ensure that pragmatic decision-making must happen not in an intellectual vacuum. Pragmatists must not act in ignorance, but be deeply 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.

I want to argue that universities play an important role in preventing pragmatism from degenerating into a short-term and self-destructive obsession with technique and profit. More than a role, it is a responsibility.

But universities today are vulnerable to the very same reductive pressures against which it must protect culture and knowledge. Can universities genuinely 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 neoliberal university to maintain genuine autonomy in a world where universities compete fiercely in a global market for talent and resources. In this context, success can so easily degenerate into an uncritically pragmatic question of technique, with universities devoting their efforts and resources towards mastering the techniques for scoring top marks in the international ranking exercises. Thankfully, many universities have been able to play the game without too much losing sight of their larger and nobler educational purpose. But there is tension and the balance may not always hold positively when it is most needed.

Traditionally, universities are perceived as spaces that provide a temporary life of contemplation in preparation for a ‘real’ life of action in the world: The use of the word ‘commencement’ to describe graduation ceremonies reflects some of this thinking. The pejorative reference to universities as ivory towers is a clear sign that this traditional model is inadequate. Thinking and doing must not be artificially separated and associated with student life and work life respectively, with the former subordinated to the apparent needs of 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 with little capacity for moral reasoning, critical thinking, and the imagination of alternative realms of possibility. Doers must also be thinkers; and, for higher education to be able to facilitate this, 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 capacity for philosophically informed critical thinking, a vital skill and habit for today’s leadership in the public, private, and people sectors. I know that many of my NUS colleagues are driven by a similar ethic and are very experienced and successful at performing their vocation according to these values. I would like now to share from my own practice some examples of how I have attempted to break down the boundaries that separate thinking and doing. I will focus on the setting of assignments and examinations, the design of classroom activity, and the bridging of classroom and world.


The ‘dialogue’ is an assignment I devised for the University Scholars Programme module called Democratic Possibilities in Singapore. Student teams were assigned to topics such as fear, multiculturalism, meritocracy, pragmatism, and globalization, and asked to look for one or two news articles with a theme that related strongly to their assigned topic. They then wrote dialogues surrounding the central issues in these news article, spoken by fictitious characters who took distinct theoretical and philosophical positions such as liberalism, communitarianism, Marxism, and feminism. Finally, the students performed scenes from their dialogues – some even made short films based on the dialogues – and led the entire class in a discussion of the main ideas and issues, the theoretical and philosophical applications, and the moral-aesthetic dimensions of politics and democracy. To encourage active, out-of-the-box thinking during these seminars, the students themselves designed experiential activities, in some cases very elaborately executed.

Imaginatively entering into the worldview of each character, the students were expected to ensure that their characters engaged with one another in an effort to resolve their differences or at least to clarify them. Through this collective writing exercise that called for creative engagement of the abstract and the concrete, the students quickly learnt to identify clearly the commonalities and fundamental differences among these important theories and philosophical traditions that have shaped the world, and that continue to be embedded – sometimes unnoticed – in our contemporary institutions and practices. The collective writing experience, as frustrating as it often turned out to be, made students appreciate what was at stake in negotiating their differences.

In designing this exercise, I had also hoped that the dialogues themselves could serve as academic and democratic models of civility amid fundamental differences in ideals and values. The process of writing the dialogues followed by their open discussion in class would help develop skills for real-life discussions and negotiations, rehearsing for future action in a complex world that is diverse and multicultural, yet profoundly interdependent even at the most global levels. Students learn that in such a world, we do not have to give up our ideals and convictions, but we should first listen to what others are saying (or not saying), then understand why they believe the things that they do, and then appreciate what is at stake if they were to abandon or compromise these beliefs. Only then can our own ideals be nuanced and strengthened not by dogmatic insistence, but by critical engagement with others and oneself.

Focusing only on the instrumental value of ideas and ideals, an uncritical pragmatist might suggest that we should forget about historical, foundational, and embedded reasons and motivations. But these reasons and motivations become the 800-pound gorilla in the room that prevents deep understanding amid an unavoidable diversity and threatens to wreck any superficial success at forging collective agreements and agendas.

24-Hour Take-Away Exam

24-hour take-away exams are a useful way to develop a student’s ability to handle intellectually challenging tasks within a realistic and less stressful time constraint. They also allow, in fact demand, more original, unexpected, and sophisticated questions to be set that require students to apply and critique what they have learnt rather than regurgitate this material as a demonstration of their short-term memory. Such questions call for deep understanding of concepts and analytical tools, and sufficient imagination to look beyond issues and contexts discussed in class. The 24-hour exam gives students the opportunity to produce good quality responses that demonstrate their capabilities, while retaining the important element of working under pressure, but doing this in a more realistic setting than a 2-hour closed-book exam.

In 2002, the examination questions for the Democratic Possibilities in Singapore module referred to an actual advertisement of a commercial slimming and beauty centre graphically promoting its bust enhancement treatments. In the first question, the student had to play the role of a neo-Marxist feminist and, from that position, write a tightly argued letter to the newspaper’s forum page. In the second question, the student had to play another role, as a feminist with a different theoretical position – for example, a liberal feminist – and, from that position, write a letter to the forum page that engaged in debate with the neo-Marxist feminist’s arguments. In the third question, the student had to play a third role, as government advisor and, from that position, formulate recommendations for responding to a public outcry against this sort of advertising deemed to be exploitative, obscene, and inconsistent with Singapore’s ‘Asian values’. By setting up these hypothetical situations and roles that students could relate to, I was able to test them on the depth of their knowledge of Marxism, liberalism, feminism, and communitarianism, all in an action-oriented approach.

Case Studies and Role Play

For the module State-Society Relations in Singapore, which I taught at the LKY School, I developed a classroom activity that combined a case study approach with role play. At the start of semester, student teams were tasked to write factual case studies on a range of suggested topics such as the casino debates in global-city Singapore. In the second half of the semester, once the theoretical material had been discussed, seminars were dedicated to ‘working through’ each of these case studies. Having carefully studied the cases ahead of class, students would role-play scenarios carefully designed to foreground difficult moments of decision-making as well as raise problems that arise from the collision of theory and practice. For public policy students, these role-play scenarios were useful in setting up open- ended situations that allowed theory and concepts to be ‘experienced’ and problematized. They were also an opportunity to practise or rehearse the kind of real-life functions that political leaders and public managers often do perform.

For instance, the team that wrote a case on the casino debates were asked to imagine that they were corporate communications executives in various relevant ministries who, in 2004, were tasked to brainstorm ideas in order to produce an outline for a comprehensive press statement by the Minister for Trade and Industry announcing the government’s decision to go ahead with the integrated resorts proposal. They were also asked to cooperate on drafting some talking points in anticipation of questions from the press and other stakeholders who may be present at the press conference.

Through this exercise, students used research skills (library work and interviews mainly) to write the case studies. They engaged with the more conceptual material introduced in class to frame the empirical data so that key learning points would come to the foreground. And, through role play, they actively experienced the situations, dilemmas, and challenges of working and negotiating with one another in a scenario that may in fact serve as a rehearsal for real life.


My efforts to develop service-learning at NUS are, perhaps, the most elaborate example of how I have attempted to connect the classroom with society. Service-learning is a two-way process through which students can learn how to deal with the many complications of connecting theory and practice. Through attachments and projects designed to enable critical engagement with society, students can enrich their classroom learning and actually experience for themselves how ideas, values, debates, and contradictions play out in social and political life. Through classroom learning, students acquire different analytical lenses for making sense of a complex reality, learning how to make judgements and decisions within such complexity. This two-way process, which rarely happens without design, instantly transforms students into social agents and empowers them in profound and often unpredictable ways.

Civil Society: Theory and Practice was an advanced module mounted by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences for the University Scholars Programme. In this module, students were required to dialectically engage the experiences they gained on semester-long practical attachments to civil society organizations with theoretical and comparative case study materials discussed in class. The attachments provided students with the opportunity to work with organizations in the identification of real community needs and the co-execution of projects through which these needs could be authentically and realistically addressed. A central question was ‘How do we make sense from diverse and often incompatible sources of and approaches to knowledge on the one hand, and experiences gained from practical exposure on the other hand?’ Writing assignments and closing seminar sessions were designed to provoke sustained critical reflection on their experiences and theoretical knowledge.

Over 10 weeks, students gained some first-hand experience of the life of civil society organizations, including the more mundane aspects of their work. Partner organizations have included Action for AIDS, AWARE, Consumer Association of Singapore, Nature Society (Singapore), Rainbow Centre, Singapore Heritage Society, Singapore International Foundation, Teen Challenge Singapore, The Necessary Stage, Theatre Works, and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). In their closing seminars, students devised various creative means of conveying the significance of their attachment experiences and what they made of the often contradictory, or at least untidy, relationships between theory and practice.


Today, I have argued that pragmatism can serve us well in a diverse, multicultural, and globalized world. I have also argued that 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 most narrowly technical and profitable; the doer who is incapable of moral reasoning, critical thinking, creativity, and imagination; the doer who despises such things as naïve, time-wasting, or troublesome. The doer-who-will-not-think engenders and imprisons in a stereotypical ivory tower its opposite, the thinker-who-will-not-do. I have argued that universities must, now more than ever, break down these barriers between thinking and doing. They must resist the temptation to appear superficially practical and useful to the powerful doers-who-will-not- think, if this will mean compromising their mission to educate people more holistically so that they will have the philosophical capacity, the moral courage, and the imaginative vision to understand what it really means to be in the service of humanity.

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