Practical Learning: Reuniting Thinking and Doing

Written by on June 23, 2009 in Basics Of Self Education, Learning Tips - 7 Comments

hand-holding-wrench-stock-expert“If thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it.”

The word “intelligence” conjures up images of books, classrooms, and serious-minded professors. But, real learning is just as likely to involve wrenches, ballet studios, and repairmen examining the parts of a bicycle.

In Shop Class as Soulcraft: an Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford shares his experiences and research related to the divide between thinking and doing. In this post, I’ll summarize some of his ideas and discuss their implications for independent learners. You don’t have to choose between being a “thinker” or a “do-er.” By accepting both, may find that your work is more intellectually rewarding than ever.

Are You Living an Abstract Life?

Many people now graduate from high school or even college without the ability to do anything. They get jobs as knowledge workers and their work consists of creating ideas, brands, and culture. Or, they work in a cubicle with such little responsibility that they do not need to know how to actually create anything on their own.

At home, people live apart from the things that they own. We don’t know how things work and we don’t know how to fix them. We have little connection to what we drive, wear, eat, and live in. In fact, manufacturers are beginning to create products that are harder to fix. Many cars, for example, now require foreign, specialized tools that can only be purchased by a dealer.

Unfortunately, living so abstractly makes us disconnected from the world.

Thinking and doing are meant to be united. A true intellectual is able to apply his learning to the actual world, instead of simply living in clouds of ideas and theories. The type of knowledge that results in action can’t be taught in classrooms alone. It requires people to create and to fix, to learn through practice and failure.

After graduating with a PhD in philosophy and getting a job at a highly-regarded think tank, author Matthew Crawford became frustrated with the fact that his work was so abstract. He wanted to do something. So, he quit the think tank and opened up a motorcycle repair shop. It may sound unusual for such an educated person to choose manual labor. But, Crawford found that working on a trade was, in fact, more intellectually stimulating.

Practical knowledge isn’t as easily transferred as facts and statistics. But, its results are real and tangible. “Practical know-how…is always tied to the experience of a particular person,” writes Crawford. “It can’t be downloaded, it can only be lived.”

How Thinking was Separated from Doing

Originally, work wasn’t so disconnected from practical knowledge. People employed at banks, car manufacturers, or other jobs were encouraged to use their minds when making work-related decisions.

Then, the idea of “scientific management” became popular. Basically, this line of thought states that the best way to get work done is to give people small, highly-structured tasks that they do not need to really think about. Crawford explains:

“The dichotomy of mental versus manual didn’t arise spontaneously. Rather, the twentieth century saw concerted efforts to separate thinking from doing. Those efforts achieved a good deal of success in ordering our economic life, and it is this success that perhaps explains the plausibility the distinction now enjoys. Yet, to call this ‘success’ is deeply perverse, for wherever the separation of thinking from doing has been achieved, it has been responsible for the degradation of work.”

Instead of building a complete car, an employee now took on the job of applying hub cap after hub cap in an assembly line. Instead of analyzing the facts to determine if a loan applicant is creditworthy, the banker simply entered information into a computer. In many cases, doing things in the workplace became fragmented and lost its intellectual quality.

The best way of illustrating the separation of thinking and doing, is to see exactly what business expert Fredrick Winslow Taylor was telling people about company management:

“The managers assume…the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge into rules, laws, and formulae…

All possible brain work should be removed from the workshop and centered in the planning or laying-out department…”

Remove “all possible brain work” from employment? Yikes. No wonder so many people find their jobs unfulfilling. They’re discouraged from intelligent work and prodded into simply following rules and procedures.

What Can You Do?

One of the most important steps lifelong learners can take is eliminating their prejudice about manual work. Realize that thinking-jobs are no better than doing-jobs. In fact, in many cases doing-jobs require more intellectual stamina.

Crawford urges readers to stop being afraid of learning how to do things well:

“The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into ‘college prep’ and ‘vocational ed’ is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement.”

Even if you want to work in academia and prefer the abstract, consider learning how to do something in your spare time. You may find a certain satisfaction in creating and repairing things that are real.

Another way to reconnect thinking and doing is to pay more attention to the things you interact with on a day-to-day basis. Can you mend your clothes? Stop a leaking faucet? Grow your own food? You could pay someone to do these tasks, but choosing to be a master of your things is a step towards intellectual freedom.

Embrace practical knowledge and you’ll begin to bridge the artificial separation between thinking and doing.

See Also:

The Joy of Practical Learning

The 3 Forms of Learning and Why You Won’t Want to Ignore Any of Them

7 Comments on "Practical Learning: Reuniting Thinking and Doing"

  1. Savant June 26, 2009 at 4:01 am · Reply

    Always remember their are tons of Educated failures out their especially in suits!!!

  2. Anon June 26, 2009 at 7:50 pm · Reply

    Excellent advice to go from the practical to the abstract. Many disciplines evolved
    from purely practical concerns. For example, much of geometry
    came about from observational astronomy and land surveying.
    Even philosophy developed from certain problems of living.
    And there is a still a sizeable amount of resources in the life sciences devoted
    to plant and animal cultivation and curing human disease.

  3. Paul Kurucz June 29, 2009 at 5:06 am · Reply

    Many (most?) teachers work with a simple structure when planning a lesson: Teach the theory, give examples, and then do an exercise. The challenge for me was to understand why most students couldn’t apply the theory they had just “learned”. I found several reasons, most prominent of which was as you note, Jamie: the practical applications are treated separately from the theoretical.

    So I changed things around: All my lessons start with the physical challenge, practical case, or situation, require students to take a problem solving and creative approach (normally in teams), and present their solutions and ideas (ownership & communication). Then we take the problem and look for situations where it repeats and summarize into a theory, model, or formula.

    The result? Many students could now apply theory to practice 🙂 And many kinesthetic and goal oriented learners were ecstatic!

    (Others who were listening/verbal learners and who were very comfortable with their success in a lecture approach were threatened by the approach – 10-20% of my university level classes)

    My biggest challenge? Other faculty: “What a ridiculous idea! Students are not smart enough to create theories that the masters created…” And for those faculty who “go it”, most were not able to apply this new way of thinking to their lesson planning because they themselves had little ability to apply their own learning to practice (ironic, isn’t it!)

    Just for interest: Other factors that contribute to the problem of a scientific/theoretical approach to learning:

    – snobbery towards “blue collar” work – basically the philosophy that “physical work” is socially lower than mental. This is a pretty powerful belief.

    – A primarily Asian learning mode of “Learn from a Master [by listening], become a Master, iterate what you learned from a Master”. This is in contrast to a constructivist approach to learning.

    Great article, Jamie!


    Paul Kurucz
    (a former university faculty) 🙂

  4. Amity September 11, 2009 at 3:50 am · Reply

    I’ve started to create a checklist of things I want to do immediatley after reading a book/article etc and its serving me well. This is a very insightful site for scholars.

  5. Deborah October 20, 2009 at 6:22 pm · Reply

    Yesterday I heard a story on npr that reported on the rise across US campuses in the number of students with mental health issues. While this may be a result of better treatment and diagnosis–and certainly many students can not “just snap out of things”– it seems to me that there could be a correlation with a disjoint between thinking and doing. When I hear about students who are incapacitated by their situations, I wonder if they had more experience with actually doing something or creating something if those skills wouldn’t help at least some of them work through things? It seems that an understanding of concrete process could translate to helping students deal with things more abstract. At the least, feeling capable of DOING something could provide some escape from only thinking about things. There are so many stories about people who should have given up considering what they had to overcome but succeed because they take incremental steps towards a different outcome.

  6. Annaly August 12, 2010 at 9:09 am · Reply

    So many educated people don’t see value in doing physical work and I think that leads to not seeing value in doing anything. There’s a definite disconnect between learning and putting knowledge into action in our society.

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