Highbrow Aversion, Pt. 2

by Ian Tingen

Hey all! I had to write this teaching philosophy up as part of a pitch I had to make for a web show; another product of the Lewininan apostasy.

PS – If anyone has a copy of the book I cited (an actual copy, not just a pdf) – it’s definitely on my wishlist.

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory.”
– Kurt Lewin, 1951

If you’ve ever been in a psychology class, you might have learned about Kurt Lewin, the “father of modern social psychology”. Even if you’ve never been a psych student, you may have seen the quote above – it’s a favorite of ivory tower types of all stripes. The pithy, concise defense of esoterica borders on academic autofellatio. But is that all Lewin intended? Maybe – but let’s revisit Kurt in a moment. First, we need to talk about our current informational reality.

Today’s knowledge seekers have unparalleled access to the accumulated thoughts of human history. They can call up entire digital archives in the palm of their hand – but how do they know what is worth their attention? Modern, responsible pedagogy means blending equal parts education and information curation. Our stewardship must also be engaging and relevant – our competition is with institutions and media that evolve much faster than the academy. We need to be Up. To. Speed.

Some might confine this standard to the the present and future – but this is foolhardy arrogance. We must be willing to master communication and critique of digital information AND of our own knowledge bases. Let’s return to Lewin. The most commonly-accessible version of his 1951 quote leads this essay. Let’s peek outside those nine words:

“Many psychologists working today in an applied field are keenly aware of the need for close cooperation between theoretical and applied psychology. This can be accomplished if the theorist does not look toward applied problems with highbrow aversion or with a fear of social problems, and if the applied psychologist realizes that there is nothing so practical as a good theory.”

Not quite as pithy – but so much more than the ego trip above. Imagine my surprise when in my graduate history of social psychology seminar that even my professor (Ph.D. granted at Yale) didn’t know the full breadth of Lewin’s quote. That moment taught me that it’s not just tinfoil nuttery that we must be critical of, but also our own history and biases as academics. We must be authentic in demonstrating our own blind spots; willing to interrogate our own authority. We must teach new scholars these same values. We must prepare them to interrogate, identify, and enhance their world – no matter what their world may become.

It is no longer enough to merely profess. We must confess our limits. We must address our audience in manners both eloquent and modern. We must be model agents of progress, uncomfortable though it may be.

This is my teaching philosophy, and I challenge you to do more with me.

Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers (D. Cartwright, Ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.


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