Gave the 2009 NUS Outstanding Educator Award Public Lecture, 28 April 2009
Updated: Dec 30, 2020
In this lecture, titled "Against uncritical pragmatism: Education for doers who can think and thinkers who can do", Kenneth Paul Tan argued for an educational approach that opposes uncritical pragmatism, suggesting from his own practice how curriculum and pedagogy can be designed to build capacity for philosophically informed critical thinking, a vital skill and habit for today's leadership in the public, private, and people sectors.
Pragmatism is popularly celebrated as a virtue of contemporary decision-making, where adaptability, a comfort with the eclectic, a focus on results, and faith in the cost-benefit calculus are valued over inflexible obedience to totalizing dogma. In Singapore, pragmatism is held up as a pillar of governance and a cultural reason for the nations widely acknowledged success. However, pragmatism can, in practice, degenerate into an anything goes attitude that replaces decision-making practices that are informed by an expanded rationality and deep knowledge of the significant ideas and values that have shaped the world. An uncritical pragmatism can limit human aspirations to a very narrow set of ends, obscured and protected from philosophical reflection, moral reasoning, and critique. Thus, ironically, pragmatism can turn into yet another dogma.