Distilling the Concrete from the Abstract

Article excerpt


This article addresses the question of how the implications of abstract principles and other intellectual concepts can be rendered more apparent to students in the classroom. People commonly express normative values without appreciating their individual and social consequences. The author provides a number of classroom experiments he has employed as a professor of law. They are offered not as specific models to be followed by others, but to encourage a broader use of methods of transcending abstract thinking.

JEL Codes: A2

Keywords: Social costs, Law, Microeconomics, Social policy

"Ideas have consequences." -Richard Weaver

Anyone going into a classroom to teach should do so with Richard Weaver's words (Weaver, 1948) firmly in mind. A common shortcoming in the learning process arises from the failure to distinguish intellectual abstractions from the reality they are intended to represent. Alfred Korzybski's now classic observation that "the map is not the territory" (qtd. in Wilber, 1977, p.41) is a reminder that the world, and our thoughts about the world, never precisely coalesce. The word "water" will never quench one's thirst, nor will there always be agreement as to its meaning (e.g., does "watered stock" in a corporate setting have the same significance to a rancher with his "watered stock" of cattle?).

Given the nature of our minds, it is probably inevitable that a fuzziness will always exist around the words we use to describe the world. Our learning - whether from direct experiences with the world or from secondary accounts - is inherently subjective in nature. It is continually filtered through lenses of our own creation that are fashioned with the assistance and direction of others. We organize our thinking around concepts and categories that have no existence outside our minds. We attribute qualities, and interpret words and events, according to meanings fashioned by our thoughts. This separation between the abstract world of our thinking and the concrete world in which we live is at the base of so much of the political and social conflict in which mankind has long been submerged. It is also a challenge, to those of us who teach, to help students transcend this epistemological difficulty: to help them become aware of the unavoidable limitations of abstract thought. I am continually trying to develop exercises that take ideas out of the realm of abstraction and bring students face-to-face with the implications these ideas hold for their own lives. My purpose in doing so has far less to do with the subject matter of the examples used than with helping them discover that the advocacy of any idea carries with it unforeseen consequences.

In his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan (2007) inquires into "why democracies choose bad policies." He illustrates how voting is marginally cost-free to individual voters who, consequendy, make choices they would likely not make were they to pay the full costs of their preferences. Along this same line, I have used the example of the beauty pageant contestant who, when asked, "if you had but one wish, what would it be?" robotically responds "for peace and brotherhood for all mankind." Her reasons for giving such an answer, I suggest, is that she knows she does not have a wish; that her statement is cost-free to her. I hope that such inquiries will help students see the importance of considering the long-term costs of present thinking and decision-making.

One of the best teaching performances with which I am familiar occurred in a high school history class in Palo Alto, California, during one week in 1969. Students in the class could not understand how after World War II most German people could maintain that they had been unaware of the atrocities practiced by the Nazi government. In a subsequent class, the teacher - Ron Jones - began conducting exercises designed to foster such values as "strength through discipline" and "strength through community. …