Thinking and Doing in Education

Back in late 2013, I had a short but congenial e-mail exchange with John Tierney about his article on the Maine Maritime Academy and a follow-up piece that discusses various responses he received mostly on the theme of career-oriented education vs. a liberal-arts eduction. Many more readers added their thoughts in another follow-up. I was recently cleaning up my e-mail archives and had a chance to revisit my thoughts on the issue.

The thought that piqued my interest was this, from the first follow-up piece mentioned above.

[W]hat is it about professors and administrators in many liberal-arts colleges that leads them to believe the kind of education their institutions provide is somehow superior to, more formative of a good life, than education that is more career-oriented?

I read these articles too late to join in the active discussion, but it got me to thinking (and to belatedly e-mailing Professor Tierney). I’ve heard enough belittling comments thrown about between liberal arts majors and science majors to know that this tension exists in my world too.

The thought that occurred to me is that there exists a two-by-two educational matrix of thinking and doing.

  • Thinking about thinking: philosophy, literature, intellectual history, abstract mathematics
  • Doing about thinking: communications, writing, journalism, law, education
  • Thinking about doing: history, sociology, psychology, economics
  • Doing about doing: engineering, medicine, biology, chemistry, applied mathematics, fine arts, finance

The matrix is certainly messier than that, but the basic thought helped clarify part of the issue for me: there’s a struggle about the balance in education about thoughts and/or activities.

My observation is that there are some people who tend to assign more value to the thinking part of the educational endeavor and some to the doing part. On either end of the spectrum are caricatures like the absent-minded philosopher or the strictly-by-the-book engineer. Most people live between these extremes themselves, but often they identify more with one caricature than the other.

I’m sure that money, economic marginalization, and class affiliation are key issues, as some of Prof. Tierney’s correspondents argued – but I suspect there’s a psychological bit too, summed up in tension between thought and activity. The popular understanding of Rafael’s School of Athens – Plato pointing up, Aristotle down – even if an inaccurate critique, suggests a longstanding belief in a tension between the two.