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What’s the difference between abstract and concrete thinking? Why does it matter?

Some people think in terms of their experiences and the things they can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell; they ask questions about objects, events, and procedures. Others think in terms of possibilities and principles; they ask questions that apply ideas in lots of different ways. Some people think in terms of specific how-to steps; they read the instruction book or do things they way they were told because each task is different. Others think in terms of relationships and patterns; they see how something they’ve done before is similar to what is being done now and use the same methods as far as they can—before reading the instructions.
People in the first group are called “concrete thinkers.” They tend to experience the world as a series of separate, discrete objects and events, and learn by experience working with objects, or by seeing or hearing concrete examples. Once they learn how something is done, that’s the only “right” way to do it.
People in the second group are called “abstract thinkers.” They’re constantly generalizing from events and experiences and relating or connecting them to others, and experience the world as an unfolding set of more and more complex interactions hoping to find a few basic principles that apply to everything. All humans generalize, but for abstract thinkers, it’s the only way to operate.
Jean Piaget, the psychologist who defined the stages in a child’s mental development, and Maria Montessori, the genius who created the Montessori Method that is the basis for many pre-school education systems, both agree that most infants and toddlers are concrete thinkers—it’s all about the experience, the object, and the senses. They encourage learning through lots of sensory experiences and discourage any attempts to reason or analyze those experiences until after 6 years old. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf Schools goes even further, discouraging even reading until after 7 years old.
In most pre-school and primary school classrooms, tests support these ideas. Most children in pre-school, kindergarten, and through second grade learn best by manipulating objects, imitating others, and working with concrete examples.
Somewhere in the 3rd grade, however, a split begins to become evident, and by the 4th and 5th grade the difference is quite clear: generally a third to a half of the children learn by seeing relationships rather than by manipulating objects—with an even larger fraction in communities where the parents work in academia, where abstract thinking has historically been encouraged. Once, these children would have been put in a “college-prep” program, while their concrete-thinking friends would be encouraged to find a trade or profession that was based on developing skills with specific methods.
This is because, traditionally, the Liberal Arts colleges were designed to encourage abstract thinking. While specific skills were being developed within the disciplines, the connections between them—between language and mathematics, biology and art, music and motion, for example—were emphasized. People who completed the bachelor’s degree in a traditional Liberal Arts college were able to solve problems and think “outside the box” in ways that people who’d simply learned how to do a job couldn’t.” As a result, they quickly moved up the ladder in organizations into management, went out on their own to become entrepreneurs, or stayed in academia where they could continue to explore new ideas.
Only a few young people were rich enough or smart enough to have such an education paid for, but once they did, they were fully prepared to live a life of constant self-improvement. Some people were able to work their way through these colleges and so receive the benefits. Still others set about to teach themselves, by reading and conversation with wise mentors, the same skills and processes.
This meant that, up until World War II, about 20-25% of the adult population of the U.S. could be called “abstract thinkers.” They were, by and large, the professors, senior managers, inventors, entrepreneurs, social activists, and statesmen who led our nation.
At the end of World War II the GI bill made it possible for thousands more to afford such an experience, but there were so many students and so few teachers, and there was such a push to help these men get good-paying jobs, that the system was warped. Then the soldiers’ children hit the same institutions, and the Liberal Arts degree was undermined in a way that it has never recovered.
As a result, most Americans graduate from college having been trained in a discipline, rather than having learned how to see connections and draw inferences based on those connections. And, under federal mandate, the public school system no longer distinguishes between the two forms of learning, reinforcing only concrete thinking in most classes. So, from elementary school through college, the vast majority of Americans are being trained as concrete thinkers rather than abstract thinkers.
Sadly, this means that the children who learn best by seeing relationships and drawing inferences are often lost in the system—and many of them drop out completely. They can see the pattern and they draw the inference: there’s no place for them in a concrete-thinking world.
Sadly, too, this means that adults who we would normally expect to be able to do so can’t. Doctors are being trained not to even ask whether someone’s work or family life might have something to do with their medical symptoms. Engineers are being trained not to find ingenious (the word from which engineer is derived) ways to do things, but to design or develop the next incremental step in a product line—or simply analyze or supervise the production of an existing object or process. Research scientists are being trained to solve the problems that the funders are willing to pay for rather than explore the edges of ideas no one has looked at before.
It’s hard for someone who is a concrete thinker to see the value in abstract thinking. In general, they don’t see that the things in their workplace and home haven’t always been the way they are, that someone had to stop doing things the “right” way in order to do things a new way—and invent the lightbulb, the car, the computer, etc. They know it as a fact, but not as an experience. As a result, they tend to discourage people who start thinking in abstractions or exploring alternatives, asking why they’re saying such “crazy” things or spending their time with such “useless” ideas. In the meantime, America’s capacity to innovate, to solve the problems of the present and build for the future, has all but disappeared. What remains is a religious conservatism based on the one “right” way, and an unwillingness to accept any alternatives.
And yet, if we look at the sacred literature of Christianity and Judaism, of Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and especially, Taoism, we see that we are all called to move beyond concrete thinking. Jesus didn’t mean “love the man in the house next to you” by the word that’s been translated as “your neighbor;” Jesus meant “love all the human beings you encounter.” Moses, Abraham, Jacob, and Mohammed didn’t just talk to their own personal creator/god; they talked to the Creator/God of all the universe, whose words apply not just to those men’s lives but to all our lives. Thus, to be religious, to be spiritually wise, is to generalize, to see a pattern and apply it.
And, if we listen to the people who’ve been active in their religion for many years, the wise old men and women who were there week after week, but may not even make it to services very often any more, we hear that they’ve reached the point where they no longer need to hear the specific message, or do the specific action that was so important for so many years, because it’s now a part of them and they see it and apply it everywhere. They’ve become abstract thinkers.
Is it possible that they have come to think that way, not in spite of what’s “normal” but because abstract thinking is what the mature mind does? Piaget and Steiner, those men who said that toddlers need to be encouraged in concrete thinking, say so. They say that the normal progression of the human mind is from concrete to abstract, specific to general, experiential to inferential. And the ancient religious mystery schools, the teachers of Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, and St. Paul that later evolved into our Liberal Arts colleges, were designed to do just that.
They say that God is the ultimate abstraction. All things dissolve into the essence of God, their source. God is, they say, the pattern that holds all matter and energy in some semblance of order, the intelligence that underlies existence, the totality of all relationships.
All this suggests that concrete thinking is only a stage in our mental development and that, for our wellbeing and for that of coming generations, we must once again encourage the development of abstract thinking in this country and in the world. Only then will we see the connections and patterns that allow us to live as our great spiritual teachers have encouraged and our God-given nature is designed.

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