Friday, May 23, 2014

The danger of eclecticism in learning (or, an argument for the virtue of syncretic learning)

One of the best parts of working on a college campus is that, almost by definition, my job is to be a learner. And, in addition to traditional courses, college campuses offer a wide variety of learning opportunities, from theatrical performances, art exhibits, lectures, and (one of my personal favorites) afternoons reading in the library.  At BYU, this list also includes weekly campus forums and devotionals.  This past week's speech was given by John Lamb, BYU's Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecturer for 2014.  I shouldn't hold this stereotype, but because Lamb is a scientist, I was expecting a highly technical and uninteresting talk.  I was pleasantly surprised.  It was one of the best talks I've heard at BYU in recent memory and Lamb made a strong argument for the value of a university education and the importance of being a deep and broad learner.

But, there was one aspect of Lamb's remarks that I think is potentially problematic, and that represents a more general problem in higher education.  Toward the end of the talk, Lamb told students:  
Let me encourage you to be not only diligent, but to be eclectic (emphasis added) in your learning.
 Like many others, Lamb is encouraging students to learn as much about the world as they can.  It's good advice and aligned with the mission of nearly every institution of higher education.  So, the problem I see isn't so much in what Lamb said, but in how he said it.

Eclecticism is characterized by the absence of any kind of guiding system, philosophy, or theoretical framework.  This can be quite advantageous in situations in which breadth and variety are the only concerns, precisely because eclecticism provides the "flexibility" to select from a variety of sources, without any concern for the relatedness of the things that are selected.  So, for casual decisions about tastes and preferences--e.g. where to go to dinner tonight, what movie to pick from Netflix, etc.--eclecticism functions perfectly well.  Unless I happen to be a film critic or restaurateur, there's no need for me to make these decisions based on any kind of underlying philosophy, or to try connect my various decisions into some kind of integrated framework.

Similarly, eclecticism is sometimes touted as a virtue in learning because it conveys the sense of breadth and well-roundness that we strive for in university education.  However, while eclecticism as an approach to learning does achieve the breadth we hope for, it's failings come with regard to the way in which learners connect and integrate their learning.  Eclecticism makes no attempt to provide a sense of coherence, integration, or alignment.  And, this same disconnectedness is one of the primary problems with formal education, particularly the general education experience on college campuses.  Far too many students approach their education eclectically, picking and choosing courses haphazardly and never participating in any kind of integrative experience that helps them connect their learning across their varied experiences.  Consequently, their learning remains superficial and disconnected from their lived experience.

What I wish Lamb would have told students was to be syncretic learners.  Syncretism allows for breadth and variety, but is ultimately focused on reconciliation, union, connectedness, and integration.  A syncretic learner still reads broadly, takes a variety of classes, and  seeks out a diversity of ideas.  However, this learner moves beyond eclecticism by looking for connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, theories, or concepts.

Capstone projects, theses, internships, and other culminating learning experiences are really about leading students to syncretism.  While eclecticism sounds nice and gives learners the freedom to dabble in a variety of areas, a university education isn't simply about a disconnected, albeit pleasurable, learning experience.  Our goal as educators is to move beyond providing variety for students, and to engage them in the hard work of achieving cohesion, wholeness, and integration.  



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