Ideas are (Potential) Actions
5.18.09 | Recently in talking with faculty and students at Wabash College, I was expressing my view that knowledge in any domain is not about facts and information but about being able to do things using such facts and information as tools for problem solving. Some faculty and students told me they saw this as a reasonable claim for domains in science or social science—where it seems clear that knowledge is a matter of acting to look at and transform the world in new and different ways. But what about the humanities? Wasn’t it really “ideas” here and not actions that constituted these domains and their contributions to society? Wasn’t it these ideas that students needed to learn?
These were great questions and I had not thought about them enough—I guess because I have been too caught up in our recent STEM mania (we academics are always tropic to where the money is). But, then, when I thought about people like Plato, Descartes, and Habermas, it certainly seemed to me that they very much thought of their ideas as interventions, as proposals about how to think about and change the world. Plato, after all, in his Republic, laid out an ideal society that he very much wanted to see implemented (people like me with bronze in their soul would sadly have been at the bottom of his utopia). He thought Homer (a poet!) had been the major political and cultural force shaping Greek society, which is why he wanted to ban poets. Nineteenth century Austria played with “big ideas” from the humanities, feeling that no more than interesting ideas were being harmlessly thrown around—sometimes the more outrageous the better—and they got Hitler doing more than playing with them (see the wonderful book Wittgenstein’s Vienna).
No, ideas in the humanities are very potent indeed, both for good and bad. Maybe that’s why we don’t want to fund them any more.
Editor’s Note: See additional posts in this series on 21st century assessment:
Games as their Test
Assessing Development, Not “Static Stuff”
Appreciating What the World Says Back to Us
‘Rise of Nations’: A Model for Assessment?
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