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The Practical Impractical

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"This is all too abstract. This is too theoretical. Couldn't you just give us practical things we can use?" It is the ultimate dismissal a teacher can deliver. A presentation viewed as abstract, theoretical, or intellectual is blown out of the water.

As it happens, however, things "intellectual" are intrinsically theoretical. They are by their very nature "abstract." To think about them is to think about what has been "abstracted" from many particular things.

But let's go further. The abstract, the theoretical, and the intellectual are all extremely practical--if we understand them and the role they play in our lives. This point is of profound significance for the school-restructuring movement, for if we truly understood it, we would shift our classroom paradigms for teaching and learning.

For example, human life would be unintelligible without language. But language itself would be unintelligible without abstractions. Virtually every word has a meaning precisely because it represents an "abstraction"--a kind of generalization about a lot of highly unique individual things as to what features they tend to have in common. When we call a person a "woman," we abstract from everything that is individual and personal about her and focus on what she has in common with everyone else of her gender.

Likewise, without theories, we could never explain anything. Things would occur around us for no reason that we could fathom. We would stand around in a stupor, unable to fit anything into anything else, for a theory is simply an invented way to take some set of things (which we don't understand) and transform them (into something we do understand) by means of some "theory."

Both abstractions and theories are constructs essential to a mind engaged in reasoning something through. Our ability to figure things out is a product of the intellectual dimension of our minds and it functions by means of reasoning. Poor intellectual functioning, poor reasoning. Good reasoning, good intellectual functioning.

Why, then, are so many teachers irritated by the abstract and the theoretical? Why are they not energized by intellectual questions? The answer is simple. Their schooling did not develop their intellectual capacities to a high level. To be painfully candid, most teachers are not skilled at theoretical work. They are uncomfortable with abstractions. They don't understand reasoning. The whole notion of things intellectual is really--if truth be told--pretty much of a puzzle to them. But without intellectual skills, we don't quite know what to do with abstractions and theories, we cannot bring them alive in the mind or apply them with force in the world.

I am arguing that the general distaste of many teachers for abstractions, theories, and intellectual presentations is a sign of a very serious problem in education today. It means that most teachers are unlikely to assign serious intellectual work to their students, or, given a significant intellectual task to assign (made up by someone else), they are likely to have difficulty explaining intellectual standards appropriate to the doing and assessing of the task. They will not grasp the (intellectual) moves to make in coaching the students through the task. Furthermore, for similar reasons, they are unlikely to understand how to cultivate their students' intellectual development in general. They are unlikely to be able to distinguish genuine intellectual quality from pseudo-intellectual quality. An articulate and amusing but poorly reasoned essay on a significant topic is likely to seem better work to them than a well-reasoned but unflashy essay. And more, they will lack the theoretical perspective needed to make intellectual connections between subjects. Hence, when they use "themes" to organize their teaching they are more likely to use superficial connections (a unit on "bunnies") than to focus on an important interdisciplinary issue (How does money affect our lives, for good and ill?).

Of course, the basic problem of an anti-theoretical, anti-intellectual orientation is not by any means confined to the K-12 community. Far from it. Part of the problem is that focusing on the intellectual, at virtually any level of social life, goes against the grain of our times. We do not live at a time in which most people are receptive to intellectual discipline. We do not live at a time in which most people are willing to accept intellectual standards or use them in their thinking. We live, rather, in an age of rampant subjectivity, in which people think they have a natural right to think or believe whatever they want, irrespective of evidence, knowledge, or quality of reasoning. People often say and believe just what they want to say and believe, whatever feels good, strokes their ego, or is commonly accepted. If it sounds good or looks good, then it is good. "If I believe it, then it is true for me." "Don't I have a right to my own opinion?" "Isn't my opinion as good as anyone else's?" "Who's to say what is right and wrong?" We have our work cut out for us.

We need strong leadership in the K-12 community to work toward a paradigm shift in our understanding of the role of the intellectual--including the abstract and theoretical--in learning. K-12 leadership must be local, unflappable, and long-suffering. It needs to meet the problem head-on, and probably take a lot of flak for a long-term staff-development plan of a sort very different from the usual--one that routinely challenges teachers intellectually.

Make no mistake, this is not a matter of giving teachers sample lessons to emulate. It is not a matter of giving teachers some new definitions of terms. This is a matter that goes directly to how teachers view education, their own most deep-seated habits of thought, and their primary values.

"Intellectuality" and its significance to learning and instruction cannot easily be understood or transmitted. To understand intellectual work, it is essential to understand reasoning as an intellectual process. To understand reasoning, it is essential to understand basic structures integral to it--for example, assumptions, inferences, and implications. And to understand these structures, it is essential to understand intellectual criteria crucial to the assessment of these structures in action. One understands all of this only by becoming intellectually disciplined oneself, which is not the same thing as becoming an "intellectual" in some snobbish sense of the word.

For example, if we assign students an intellectually challenging task, and we are responsibly engaged in responding to their reasoning intellectually, we will have to aid them in the process of coming to terms with the intellectual structures implicit in their thought. Sometimes, we will have to raise questions about the purpose or goal of the reasoning, sometimes about the question or problem at issue, sometimes about information or evidence in use, sometimes about inferences being made, sometimes about concepts implicit in the reasoning, sometimes about assumptions uncritically presupposed, sometimes about implications that may or may not follow, and sometimes about the point of view or points of view that are, or should be, involved. And we will need to do all of this in such a way as to help students appreciate the importance of being clear, accurate, precise, relevant, and logical, as well as being sensitive to the complexities inherent in the questions they are asking and broad-minded in seeking to think them through.

To do this, teachers must acquire, over an extended period of time, an inner sense of the interrelationships that exist between structures in reasoning and a clear sense of how to bring intellectual criteria to bear on them. They must discover and learn to value the kind of inner dialogue that is typical in the mind of an intellectually oriented thinker:

"Let's see, if we put the question this way, then we are bound to focus on this. Does that make sense? And if we interpret the information this way, then we are assuming that. Are we justified in doing so? And if we use this idea to organize the data, one implication will be. ... But is that implication consistent with the results we obtained when we ... etc. ... etc. ... etc."

Most teachers are not practiced in such disciplined inward talking. They have not been trained in the art of taking reasoning apart, constructing, or assessing it. Very often they are unaware of the structure of their own reasoning. They even at times appear to simply jump to conclusions with no discernible reasoning at all. They are not as a rule comfortable with abstract intellectual distinctions. In their own schooling, they did not experience many "intellectual" exchanges (such as above). The moves one makes in such exchanges are not clear to them. For many, reasoning is simply a series of assertions about a subject. When asked for their reasoning on a subject or issue, they are much more likely to say something like "I think this and I think that and I believe this and I believe that" than they are to say "My main conclusion is this based on these three reasons. I have reasoned to this conclusion from this point of view, assuming that and that. The data I base this on is this, and this, and that, which I obtained from this source. If I am on solid ground, then this and that should follow."

Recognizing the relevance of intellectual considerations is, of course, highly dependent on our overall vision of education and whether or not we recognize the relevance of intellectual discipline. That this discipline is intrinsic to intellectual development is itself not well understood by most teachers I have worked with.

Virtually all forms of self-development require discipline of some sort, and most teachers are aware that dancers, tennis players, scientists, engineers, carpenters all submit to a discipline in their special fields. But it does not follow that most teachers have a sense of what it is to discipline the mind in a broad and interdisciplinary sense--the kind of discipline that, when truly educated, one carries into every domain of thinking. Broadly based intellectual discipline requires a special respect for "abstractions" and "theory" and a special orientation to one's own mind: on the one hand, a rejection of the notion that truth is whatever I choose to think it is, and, on the other, a transition to thinking of myself as subject to intellectual requirements inherent in every intellectual task I take on.

Hence, whenever a mind tries to figure something out, explicitly or implicitly, it is focusing on a question. But any clear question imposes demands or requirements on the mind that would settle it. If I raise a mathematical question, then there are mathematical requirements that I must meet to answer the question appropriately. If I raise a scientific question, then there are demands implicit in the concept and process of scientific inquiry. If I raise a moral question, then I am bound to respect moral principles in my reasoning. I must consider morally relevant evidence. I must be accurate in my characterizations. I must enter sympathetically into all relevant moral points of view inherent in the question I have set myself.

As I become intellectually disciplined, I come to seek out and routinely impose requirements and limitations on my own thinking. I realize that I have no intellectual right to answer a question in any way that pleases me. By regularly reviewing in my mind the precise question I am asking and what that question requires of me, I regularly impose the discipline of those requirements on myself. I willingly submit to those requirements not because I like to constrict myself and make things more difficult, but because I recognize that I can settle the question in no other way. It becomes for the conscientious reasoner a matter of intellectual honesty, intellectual responsibility, and intellectual realism.

How many of our graduates have any sense of what this discipline is and what it requires of them? How many of them feel any of this responsibility?

I believe we must undergo a revolutionary rediscovery of something very old and, in most people's minds, not very exciting: cultivating the dimension of the mind traditionally known as "the intellect." To do this, we need to face the fact that K-12 education has lacked true intellectual community, that most teachers do not have a clear view of what intellectual work, intellectual quality, intellectual criteria, and intellectual discipline are. We must recognize that the word "intellectual" is not a friendly word for most teachers. It doesn't play much of a role in most of today's' classrooms. It is not a common word for teachers (or administrators) to use. It represents training and discipline for the mind that is rare--for teacher, administrator, or student. It will not be an easy sell in Peoria, Tuscaloosa, or Tupelo--or in New York City or Chicago, for that matter.

So we must ask ourselves: Are we ready to bite the bullet? Are we ready to focus long-term in-service and staff development on such heady stuff as Socratic questioning and the evaluation of reasoning, go against the very temper of the times, and face the ultimate dismissal phrase: "This is all too theoretical"?

Or shall we ride around the reform merry-go-round for a few more dizzy rounds looking for one of those elusive shortcuts to educational quality--a reform strategy that does not require that we take seriously such ugly, old-fashioned expressions as "intellectual work," "intellectual standards," "intellectual discipline."

Richard Paul is the director of the Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, located at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif.

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