A recent blog on the third alternative to the usual argument concerning the primacy or preference between expert and generalist brings to mind another all too common dualism expressed consistently by the general public in the U.S.—particularly in organizational settings. This is the constant gripe that something is too abstract, too theoretical, too unrealistic or too pie-in-the-sky and not practical enough for the real world (This is a different gripe from the one stating that something is too hard to understand.). So what exactly do people (including students who are intent on getting employed in the real world) mean by ‘practical’ and why is it always expressed as a polar opposite to theory or reflective thought?
The dominant approach to teaching in formal and informal educational programs is one of training rather than education. Training is felt to be practical, something that can be taken from the class room or workshop into the work place immediately and put to good use. Training is a process of matching input to output—what you are shown is what you demonstrate you can do. Students are tested to make sure the expected outcome is what they demonstrate to the instructor given the instructor’s input.
The consequence is that people do things without understanding or reflecting on why they are doing what they are doing and the way they are doing it. Worse, they too often show little interest in becoming more reflective and thoughtful about why they do what they do in any particular situation. In a manner of speaking, they take pride in taking ‘thoughtless’ acts, in being ‘men(sic) of action’ rather than giving time and energy over to ‘naval gazing’ or some other obvious waste of serious effort.
“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”
Martin Luther King, Jr
The pejorative spin put on reflective thought or thinking by those championing a totalizing focus on ‘practical’ action reflects a cultural norm in too many organizations and institutions. The split between thinking and action is an old polarization in the Western tradition. This split however is not something that should be celebrated and protected going into the future.
A recent article in the New York Times is an example of people beginning to realize that the split is not only unnecessary but a bad idea in ‘reality’. Knowing what direction your going in is as important as taking the first step. Skills, tools and technology are without productive value unless used for the right reason, in the right places, for the right people at the right time—all of which takes caretaking, deliberation, reflection and consideration. The habit of taking ‘sound shots’ (When hunters fire at sounds they hear in the woods rather than at animals they see.) in the real world is demonstratively unsustainable.
Wisdom is the reconstitution of thinking and action, of theory and practicality. Wisdom is 'reflective' action.