Monday, April 7, 2014

Our 'Two Cultures'

Many years ago, a very thoughtful man wrote about "two cultures." The man was C. P. Snow, a Cambridge intellectual, and the two cultures were: scientific and humanistic.

It was a very good idea, a very nice distinction, and it was very influential, and people still talk about it.

But Snow was talking about a divide within intellectual culture, and the most important divide we must come to grips with today is: between intellectuals and practical people. Students and 'experts' often demand that higher education be "practical," and intellectuals take offense, because it rubs them the wrong way to hear that what they have devoted their lives to is not valuable. (Wouldn't you feel the same way?)

So intellectuals focus on what they feel is lofty and valuable and important, and practical people worry about jobs and skills, making and selling things and delivering services––all things intellectuals also need to live. But a good rift makes people forget what they have in common, and that's what this rift between intellectuals and practical people does.

Intellectuals are concerned with ideas, and practical people do things. Yes, being concerned with ideas means doing things: writing and researching and lecturing––and teaching. It's not that "those who can't do teach," but rather: that those who teach do not perceive their professional doing's as teaching; they rather see it as a heap of ideas, facts, principles, theories, and other similar abstractions.

And therein lies the rub.

Ideas are abstract. Actions are concrete. "Doing things" aren't even the same as "actions," because words that name actions are mere descriptions. The words "baking a cake" name an action: they don't get any cake baked.

Those concerned most with ideas often favor them over practical concerns. There really is some substance to the image of the 'absent-minded professor': to intellectuals, many practical details are just not as interesting or meaningful as ideas. But many of the professionals who work with professors find ourselves more on the practical side of the divide. Professors appreciate our help getting things done, but when what we do extends into their idea-domain, things get tricky. And we instructional technologists and designers and ed tech folk experience this daily.

And so practical matters are hard to grasp intellectually exactly because they aren't ideas, and they aren't susceptible to many intellectual (which is to say: abstract) approaches.

Take the law of universal gravitation. It's not in this room, nor on the planet Mars. It's a law, not a thing. The law may govern things (matter, to be exact), but the law isn't itself matter––and it would be madness to think so.

And the same for "social solidarity": sociologists talk about it and measure it, but you can't hold it in your hand. Likewise "meaning" and "reason" and "textuality," and all kinds of other abstractions whose importance we can admit without wishing they were food or water or sunshine.

Actions, like other things, exist in time and space: this thing is to the right or left of that, and I put one foot down first and the other foot down next. Immanuel Kant constructed an astonishing theory about time and space––but reading it won't help you find your keys or walk without falling down, for both of those are doings and not ideas. The idea of walking is subtle and complex––have you ever read anything about kinesiology?––but actually walking is nothing when done right, everything when done wrong.

Yes, matter may be arranged to express and to show and to prove an idea: in letters and numbers and demonstrations and experiments. But those are things and actions subordinated to an idea and arranged beautifully to express that idea. And it is a very special skill to express the abstract in the concrete. Great artists do it. It would be ungrateful to ask ordinary people, even the most thoughtful intellectuals, to approach that level of skill. We have some such expectations, and we're often disappointed, but we also tend not to recognize how high our expectations have been.

Exactly part of becoming an intellectual is: learning to subordinate practical matters entirely to ideas. If you ever went to graduate school, even for a professional pursuit, you likely remember the wrenching process of learning the procedures and norms of your discipline. You only get the ideas by doing things in a very specific way: using words this way and not that, footnoting like this, researching like that.

It's like those scenes in the musical My Fair Lady (or the play Pygmalion from which the musical is derived) in which Eliza must learn to speak properly. Even those who went to college, however briefly, may remember the odd feeling of the persnickety finickiness of college professors, they way they seemed to rephrase our thoughts in slightly different words––oh but those little differences seemed to matter so much! It was like treading on eggshells.

So intellectuals teach. And they believe and feel that they're teaching abstract ideas. And so all the practical matters of teaching often seem just beneath them––and they are: in the sense that practical matters are of a completely different order from ideas.

And yet teaching and learning are completely practical. Teaching and learning take place in time and space. The first day of classes is September 14th. English 216 meets on LC 114 Mondays from 11 to noon. Your paper is due next Thursday in my mailbox by 5 pm.

And teaching at its basis is instructions: do this, then that, in this order. If you can't give clear instructions, you may teach well or poorly, but no one may show up to class. It's not that everything can be reduced to a set of procedures, but if I don't know how to write a paper, I can't show you what I've learned about Descartes.

Instructions and procedures, like so many things in education, are, in a very rich and profound sense, a platform for knowledge, not the knowledge itself––just as words are a platform for poetry, and poetry a platform for feelings and thoughts and experiences and reflections and things.

That's aesthetic: how things are arranged to point at once both towards and beyond themselves, to become gestures whose import we don't just think but also feel and sense in very powerful ways. At that far end of things, teaching is indeed an art: an art of doing and instructing and arranging actions and experiences.

But here and now, at the near end of things, teaching and learning are like, say, project management. And "like" is the key relation here, because practical matters are connected by relations of similitude, by analogy. Baking a chocolate cake is like baking a lemon cake. And baking a cake is like baking biscuits––but different in crucial ways. And baking biscuits is like baking cookies, but again different, etc.

Practical matters are concrete doing's, but they are ordered in relations of likeness, with typical and prototypical instances, and types emerging from the instances: a butter cake, an angel cake, a biscuit, a scone, a muffin.

In the domain of ideas, analogies are risky and suspect: they can work or fail, and much of the domain of logic arose very long ago to prevent analogies from going to far.

And that, in a sense, is how science and the humanities, logic and poetry, parted ways––so that a couple thousand years later C. P. Snow could write about the two cultures.

Today our leap across the divide is a trickier move: connecting abstract ideas and concrete actions. For we who work in education must take all our abstractions and carry them to those who need them: putting one foot in front of the other and hoping we can be graceful enough in ordinary things to get as close as we can to making helping others learn into something very near to art.

––Edward R. O'Neill

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