Learning to Think and Learning to Do

Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

The liberal arts have not had a strong few decades considering the steep decline of the humanities major and the concomitant rise of business degrees. However, recent and thought-provoking discussions on the value of the liberal arts in business curriculums have rekindled an age-old debate on the value of education: is it about learning to think or learning to do?

This divide in education is at the heart of the so-called 'techie' versus 'fuzzy' divide here at Stanford. Engineers build bridges, write software programs and design processors. They are doers, not thinkers. Those in the humanities and social science ponder deep thoughts, write papers elucidating these thoughts and then go to lunch to talk about Keats or Hume. They are thinkers, not doers.

For such sophisticated consumers of information, Stanford students appear to have bought into this stereotype and have agreed to this core divide. That is unfortunate, because I fervently believe that this divide does not exist at all. Having spent time on both sides (I consider myself a 'tezzy,' which is fortunate because the alternative combination is unprintable), I can state that both the social science and humanities students and the engineers are thinkers and doers.

The social sciences focus on devising a science of humanity, with the ability to predict actions and explain phenomenon. They generate hypotheses, collect data and determine theories that provide predictive power. In this way, they devise solutions to problems, such as how to distribute resources fairly. The same action mentality exists in the humanities. History pieces together evidence from the past to explain our world and to provide better information about our current environment. Philosophy can determine the best course of action given a set of circumstances.

Those in the humanities and social sciences are doers, just as engineers are thinkers. Few computer programs are mere duplications of past work. Even similar requirements for a piece of software will require different choices due to context. A slightly higher number of users or a change in the speed of the processor can have repercussions, and such trade-offs require experience and indeed, thinking, to determine the best outcomes. Such trade-offs and changes are similar in all the engineering sciences. Without engineers thinking, much of our technology would simply be inoperable (or nonexistent).

Why, then, are the fuzzy and techie stereotypes so ingrained? For that matter, why is the central division between doers and thinkers still prevalent? I believe that their source is an issue of culture. The two supposed sides have different means of solving problems, and to a certain degree, they are incompatible with each other.

However, that incompatibility has led to the meltdown of the economy, as those in quantitative fields failed to consider other traditions among dozens of other examples. For this reason, business schools are starting to add the liberal arts to their curriculums (most notably at Stanford's GSB). Why graduate someone with only one type of skills? Instead, use both sources to create students with a strong and diverse fountain of knowledge on which to build a career.

With all the discussion of changes to the freshman year, now is an excellent time to consider the necessary skills and background that should be taught to all graduates of our school. IHUM, for all of its controversy, meets its objectives well. The problem is that its goals are inconsistent with the broad background needed for an introductory course in the freshman year.

Instead, I would like to see a freshman year course focused on trade-offs in a broad range of disciplines. Trade-offs are at the heart of living in a democratic society and any discipline where resources are not infinite. Imagine a class that focused on questions of ethics (asking which of multiple options is most ethical), social sciences (asking which policy is best) and engineering/sciences (considering resource allocation and choices between multiple technical options). The integrated and interdisciplinary sequence could create a consilience of the humanities and sciences -- a critical asset in the world we now find ourselves.

From there, we need to better integrate literacy in both technical and humanities disciplines for all students, regardless of major. It is still unbelievable to me that engineers and scientists can graduate without a grounding in ethics, and that humanities students can graduate without a basic understanding of statistics. Opening the minds to the entire intellectual legacy of humanity is a worthy and necessary goal.

The divide between doing and thinking in education has endured since the time of the Greeks, and it seems almost impregnable. On the micro-level though, we can create the outreach and the bridges necessary to fill in the divide. We are all tezzys now, or, if you prefer, that other label.