Knowledge Must Become Capability

July 25, 2010

Sorry about the absence of posts.  I got holidays coming up and I;m in a rush to get things finished.

I’ve been meaning to post something on the relationship between theory,  practice and education since I started this blog.

This is something that I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about.   At various points in my career I’ve been involved in mid career education  for diplomats, the military and broadcasters.  Also  anyone who has worked in a University department that teaches journalism and communications will recognise that the issue of the appropriate balance between the more abstract and the more applied in the curriculum is never far beneath the surface.

My approach to these issues has been influenced by a somewhat  odd source:  the  discussion of the relationship between theory, education and practice  in Book 2 Of Carl von Clausewitz’s On War.  Although he is concerned with strategy I think that many of his arguments readily transfer to other fields.  Clausewitz was an educator as well as a theorist and one of the things that distinguishes On War from other discussions of strategy is this concern with how abstract knowledge can be turned into practice.

As a teacher Clausewitz sees what is needed is officers who can instantly assess a situation and see the risks and opportunities inherent in it.  This is not something that can be learned in the classroom.  There is no substitute for experience.  An officer has to learn to do their job under fire and when cold and wet and hungry. Understanding the realities of the job really depends on doing the job.

But…this is not enough.  The judgement at the heart of the commander’s task depends on an understanding of the many factors that shape warfare.   The situation that the commander acts in is not confined to what is in the immediate vicinity.  Even in the 19th century it could be affected by the reactions of armies, publics and governments thousands of miles away.  The real significance of what happens here and now is not confined to the here and now.  Understanding these interdependencies is the realm of theoretical knowledge.  It then followed that study of theory and history was a key strand in shaping the judgement of the officer.  Theoretical knowledge had to be internalized;  ‘knowledge must become capability’.  Thus when an officer had to make a judgement in a concrete situation that judgement and the perception of the situation behind it would be based not just on the direct  (inevitably limited) experience of the commander but on the distilled experience captured in theory.

In 1806 Napoleon swept the Prussian Army was  from the field in a few short weeks. For Clausewitz the failure was an intellectual one:  because it lacked any theory of how war was being transformed the army clung to past glories.

There is a lot more that I could say but I will stop and extract two lessons.

The first is about the type of theoretical knowledge that academics produce.  Theoretical generalizations are not an end in themselves.   Academics have to consider how knowledge can be applied in practice.  As academics we might be very happy to be able to predict that independent variable X will produce a particular effect on dependent variable Y 80% of the time.  To be able to use this knowledge we have to be able to go further: we have to able to identify what accounts for the 20% of cases and how we can tell what sort of situation we are in.  Clausewitz keeps reiterating how simple warfare is but he still writes a 600 page book because actually understanding how to apply that knowledge  is quite hard.

In the political science community there is an active debate about the increasing scholasticism of the field.  The challenge for academics is not just to produce knowledge that is relevant for practice but to think about how, as Clausewitz puts it,  we can help to turn knowledge into capability.

A second lesson that I’ve taken from Clausewitz that has been amply reinforced by my own experience is that in most walks of life the knowledge that you need to do a job changes depending on your position in the organization.  If you are involved in mid career education you wonder what you can teach people who are actually doing the job that you are studying.  The answer is quite a lot.  Clausewitz thought that the more senior you became the more you had to balance complex competing factors.  Junior army officers don’t think very much about strategy or military history because they are too busy looking after their troops and doing their day to day job.  Journalists or producers spend their time writing stories and making programmes;  they don’t think about management skills or the forces reshaping their industries.  This applies to academics too most academics don’t spend their time thinking about the future of academia or the latest developments in pedagogical theory – they are too busy writing papers and lectures.   What academic study can bring is an understanding of the bigger picture, the forces shaping the working environment, an understanding of different ways of approaching the tasks, new skills, not to mention an emphasis on rigorous critical thinking.


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