Sunday, February 10, 2008

From d to e

What's a liberal arts education for? This question (of dubious urgency) has been asked and addressed--and answered in various ways--thousands of times, in writing, conversations, and speeches at colleges around the country. I can't say I've formed a great answer to this question, but last night I was reading an article* in Seed about knowledge hierarchies that provided a useful framework for thinking about education, especially liberal education. The author explained that humans will create more data this year than in all previous years combined, and cited Russell Ackoff's** DIKUW hierarchy: start with data, which is the basis for information, which is the basis for knowledge, which is the basis for understanding, which is the basis for wisdom.
This structure establishes a workable hierarchy, but Milan Zeleny thought there was a further step after wisdom: enlightenment. Zeleny defines enlightenment as "not only answering or understanding why (wisdom), but attaining the sense of truth, the sense of right and wrong, and having it socially accepted, respected and sanctioned.”
I don't see why obtaining truth and a sense of right and wrong--enlightenment--requires social acceptance, respect, or even sanction to be valid. Kant's essay on enlightenment argues, to the contrary, that the enlightened man thinks freely and independently of his peers, ultimately satisfying the conditions necessary to act freely.
"Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity," he writes. "Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another."
Still, it's sensible enough that data and enlightenment occupy opposite ends of the same spectrum, and that traveling from the former to the latter answers usefully, if not perfectly, what a liberal arts education is for.

* It's print-only for now.
** Ackoff's formulation builds on Harlan Cleveland's DIKW, which omits understanding. Zeleny's contribution would, I suppose, make it DIKWE, but that appears to be uncommon.