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Higher Ed

Questions About the Purpose(s) of Colleges and Universities

Edited By Shirley R. Steinberg

What are the purposes of higher education? When undergraduates 'declare their majors,' they agree to enter into a world defined by the parameters of a particular academic discourse, a discipline. But who decides those parameters? How do they come about? What are the discussions and proposed outcomes of disciplined inquiry? What should an undergraduate know to be considered educated in a discipline? How does the disciplinary knowledge base inform its pedagogy? Why are there different disciplines? When has a discipline 'run its course'? Where do new disciplines come from? Where do old ones go? How does a discipline produce its knowledge? What are the meanings and purposes of disciplinary research and teaching? What are the key questions of disciplined inquiry? What questions are taboo within a discipline? What can the disciplines learn from one another? What might they not want to learn and why? Once we begin asking these kinds of questions, positionality becomes a key issue. One reason why there aren't many books on the meaning and purpose of higher education is that once such questions are opened for discussion, one's subjectivity becomes an issue with respect to the presumed objective stances of Western higher education. Academics don't have positions because positions are 'biased,' 'subjective,' 'slanted,' and therefore somehow invalid. So the first thing to do is to provide a sense, however broad and general, of what dinds of positionalities will inform the books and chapters on the above questions. Certainly the questions themselves, and any others we might ask, are already suggesting a particular 'bent,' but as the series takes shape, the authors we engage will no doubt have positions on these questions. From the stance of interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, or transdisciplinary practitioners, will the chapters and books we solicit solidify disciplinary discourses, or liquefy them? Depending on who is asked, interdisciplinary inquiry is either a polite collaboration among scholars firmly situated in their own particular discourses, or it is a blurring of the restrictive parameters that define the very notion of disciplinary discourse. So will the series have a stance on the meaning and purpose of interdisciplinary inquiry and teaching? This can possibly be finessed by attracted thinkers from disciplines that are already multicisciplinary, e.g., the various knids of 'studies' programs (Women's, Islamic, American, Cultural, etc.), or the hybrid disciplines like Ethnomusicology (Musicology, Folklore, Anthropology). But by including people from these fields (areas? disciplines?) in our series, we are already taking a stand on disciplined inquiry. A question on the comprehensive exam for the Columbia University Ethnomusicology Program was to defend Ethnomusicology as a 'field' or a 'discipline.' One's answer determined one's future, at least to the extent that the gatekeepers had a say in such matters. So, in the end, what we are proposing will no doubt involve political struggles.