We don’t study what we’re good at

(Dear Grammar Nazis, never mind the preposition hanging off the end of that title. We’re going for colloquial English today.)

I’ve spent most of my life attending and working in educational institutions, which has given me lots of time to observe academic professionals. While many of them are experts in their fields, I’ve found something ironic: academics don’t study what they are good at, or perhaps, academics aren’t good at what they study. In other words, the subjects that interest people aren’t those that they feel they have mastered. This is precisely why people study those subjects: they want to improve at something they don’t fully comprehend yet; they want to know more about something. Of course, people tend to improve, and even become accomplished, at something they spend a lot of time practicing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “good” at it.

A couple examples might help illustrate my point. First, there are many professors of communication studies where I work. One would assume that these professors are good at communicating. After all, they have been studying communication long enough to earn a Ph.D., yet many of these people are famous for terse, cryptic replies in emails, or no reply at all after they ask for assistance. In short, there are experts in communication studies who have communication problems. There are also misanthropic anthropologists, unreasonable philosophers, racist ethnic studies professors, and I’ve also worked with a Ph.D. computer scientist who couldn’t accurately diagnose a networking problem.

Second, in the movie Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams has a great monologue about Freud doing enough cocaine to kill a small horse, hinting that at least one psychiatrist has some addictive tendencies as well as some pretty colorful theories about the human mind. We’ll assume that Williams’ monologue is scientifically accurate for our purposes here, or at least anecdotally useful. Freud’s colleague, Jung also had some unusual ideas about human consciousness, as well as several extramarital affairs and possibly a mental disorder. Certainly, Freud and Jung have contributed much to the fields of Psychology and Psychiatry, but if their personal histories are any indication, they may not of have been the best examples of mental health.

What is going on here? Why are experts apparently inept at practicing what they preach, so to speak? The answer, I submit, is that we don’t study what we’re good at. Rather, we study what interests us, and along the way, we might gain some proficiency in our chosen course of study. However, there is a difference between knowing something well and doing it well. For example, having a deep understanding of music theory doesn’t let me immediately pick up a saxophone, trumpet, or guitar and play them like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, or Jimi Hendrix — even being able to write music for those instruments doesn’t ensure my ability to play them. Conversely, some musicians don’t understand music theory, yet they can play their instruments better than folks who know how to play that instrument and know music theory. In other words, performance and knowledge aren’t the same thing: knowing how to play the piano, i.e. pushing appropriate white and black keys in rhythm to create music, is different than being able to apply that knowledge. There is a similar situation going on with the communications professors and psychiatrists. These people know a great many things in the fields they study, but performing that knowledge is a different task entirely.

This is where Aristotle’s concept of wisdom might be useful. Aristotle distinguishes two types of wisdom, theoretical and practical. To paraphrase Aristotle’s point, theoretical wisdom is knowing facts about the world, and practical wisdom is knowing how to live well. We might say these two categories of wisdom are ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’. The professors and psychiatrists from earlier have theoretical wisdom and little practical wisdom: they know a great many things, but they don’t seem to apply that knowledge very well. Practical wisdom is knowing what to do at the right moment: talented musicians who play their instruments very well without knowing the theory behind their performance possess practical wisdom without much theoretical wisdom.

This two-headed wisdom monster presents a problem: how do we have both practical and theoretical wisdom? Philosophers have been bickering for millennia about wisdom, so can we even trust that they know what they’re talking about? This isn’t a question I’ll pretend I can answer, especially in a single blog post, but it’s interesting food for thought. It’s something to strive for.

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