Friday, March 6, 2009

Doing, Contemplating, and Becoming

This is a particularly pragmatic time in America (which is saying something, since the nation has always prided itself on its pragmatism). In higher education this means a turn towards "education as doing." Whether it is service-learning, undergraduate research, or any of another dozen reforms, hands-on learning is the rage in the classroom.

The focus on doing shows up in mission statements and institutional goals as well. Westminster, like most other institutions of higher ed, has campus-wide and program-specific learning goals. Most of them promise that students will be able to do certain things upon graduation--think critically, for example.

Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that many more faculty members hope that their students will learn how to be "agents of social change" than who think that students ought to study the classics. The Chronicle article sets the debate up as one between "doing" and thinking, and then trots out the usual suspects to argue about whether the favor for social change is evidence of a leftward lean in higher education.

Who cares? The question isn't about the politics of doing in education, but instead its goals. After all, conservative institutions and liberal ones both try to distinguish themselves by highlighting how well their students do things.

This talk by Barry Schwartz on practical wisdom, and this article by David Loy on the intersection of social change and personal development, make the same point--that our mistake is to assume that you can either learn to do something or you can learn about it. Instead doing and contemplation have to go together. When they do, the result is competent people who are also good--moral, humble, brave, wise. Otherwise we develop either technocrats or narcissists. We've enough of both.


derek bitter said...

I agree, doing and contemplating do need to go together, I want to say contemplating should come first, but doing/experience usually offers us some good things to contemplate on. What I think is important is that we teach a certain level of objectivity towards how we approach things, otherwise our contemplating gets turned further inward, which can create a narcissist, and our doing will be forceful and too full of passion. Maybe that would make a technocrat, I'm not sure.

Peter said...

It would be nice to read the article in the chronicle that you are referring to. A link perhaps.
But in regards to this notion of doing and contemplating, why do you think they separate the two? It seems like they are often a part of a "liberal education". Of course , what do I know since I did not have a liberal education.But I wonder why the discussion is not specifically about the two together.

wellconnected said...

During a time like the one our country faces now, in his Inaugural address President Roosevelt spoke of people who "do" without contemplation, "They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and where there is no vision the people perish...Happiness lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort...These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto, but to minister to ourselves and to each other." (A bit scary to read, actually. The parallels to what is happening now are striking...)

I agree with gary. Doing and contemplation have to go together. This preceeded by watching/observing and followed by becoming.

If happiness lies in the thrill of creative effort, and if men perish where there is no vision, acknowledging the creative process is key to learning and should be of paramount concern to educational institutions seeking to foster students who will be agents of social change.

We watch to learn, contemplate to process and understand, do to know, and become along the way. Hopefully to be of value to each other.