Liberal Education 1000

The course title for Liberal Education 1000 is "Knowledge and Liberal Education", and the course aims to introduce students to knowledge across the various disciplinary areas of the university, within a liberal education context. We start the course with some basic questions: What is knowledge? What do we know, and how do we know what we know?How sure are we of the knowledge we have? What evidence do we have, and what kinds of evidence produce reliabbe knowledge? Are there different kinds of knowledge? Is scientific knowledge different from knowledge in the social sciences, the humanities, the fine arts?

Knowledge is sometimes ordered into a hierarchy, from factual knowledge, to process and conceptual knowledge, to metacognitive knowledge. Students in this course will certainly learn some factual knowledge from different disciplines, but the emphasis will be on the higher-order forms of knowledge. We will look for common concepts or themes or threads across different disciplines, whether in knowledge content or in how knowledge is constructed or used. The lab sections of the course in particular will help students with the processes of knowledge, with thinking and writing abstractly and building a convincing argument. This will lead to metacognitive skills and knowledge, which involve "thinking about thinking": being able to monitor your own thinking, and to assess the quality of your own and others' thinking.

What does this have to do with liberal education? Liberal education is built on four pillars: breadth, connections, critical thinking skills and civic engagement. Breadth will be evident in our study of knowledge, both content and process, across different disciplines. Connections across disciplines will be made, as we look for common themes or patterns of how knowledge is constructed and used. The process and metacognitive skills described above are critical thinking skills: we will practice critical analysis of various readings and lectures, and learn how to question ourselves and others about knowledge and the conclusions we draw from knowledge.

The critical thinking and civic engagement aspects of liberal education lead us to to questions about the uses of knowledge. Once we have seen what knowledge is, and how it is constructed and validated in different disciplines, we move to larger questions. Whose knowledge is important? Who pays for the creation of knowledge? Are different kinds of knowledge valued and funded differently? How is knowledge used? Who decides how it is used? For example, scientific knowledge has led to many advancements in the quality of human life over the last few centuries, in areas such as transportation, communication, disease prevention or treatment, greater food production, computer technologies, etc. But science has also led to the creation of nuclear weapons, and to the increased industrialization which many argue has created global climate change. How do we weigh the advantages and disadvantages of knowledge? Is all knowledge good? And if not, how can we decide what is good knowledge and what is not?

What is the point of knowledge? One argument often made is that all knowledge is important and good, for its own sake. This viewpoint would support the creation of new knowledge, no matter how it ends up being used. Other people argue that knowledge is only important as a tool, and that the proper aim of that tool should be the betterment of human life. Is the betterment of human life a standard by which we can judge knowledge? How can we define a better life, and how would we measure it? We are now into questions of moral judgment, and of what is a good life. This goes beyond issues of individual happiness, to the broader questions of the public good and social justice. How should or can knowledge be used for the public good? Who decides what that public good is, and how can we achieve it? These are questions that should concern us all, as citizens of our various local, national and global communities. Civic engagement means being aware of these concerns, and being willing and able to think about the public good, not just your own individual good.

In evaluating knowledge and the uses of knowledge, we will also be making academic judgments of quality. In our postmodern world, there is a strong tendency to think that all ideas and opinions are equally valid, and that all opinions should be welcomed and tolerated. But in the academic world, some opinions are seen as better than others. In what way? Opinions are evaluated according to how convincingly they are argued for: what evidence is presented for or against the opinion, how opposing evidence is handled, how logical the reasoning is.

In this course we will be advancing not simply opinions, but opinions backed up by facts and by logical reasoning. This convincing others of the validity of your viewpoint through evidence and logical reasoning is called building an argument. You will learn to judge the arguments presented to you by others, and to make your own arguments. Being able to do this is a key aspect of critical thinking, and of your university education: to be able to consider all sides of a complex issue such as the good life, evaluate the data and factual knowledge available, come to some conclusions about it, and convince others of the reasonableness of your conclusions by marshalling your evidence and reasoning into a coherent argument.

Learning to think critically can be difficult and uncomfortable, as you learn to think in new ways. This course will introduce you to those skills, provide you with many opportunities to use them, and encourage you to see how they are useful in both academic and non-academic life. In our fast-changing world, the purpose of a university education, in particular a liberal education, is to learn to learn. This course will start you on that journey!