The Great Divide: Action vs. Reflection at Today’s Colleges

Yesterday, my daughter, husband, and I returned from college trip No. 2.  

E. is a rising high-school senior and in the grip of her obsessive parents, who are insisting that she visit every college to which she might apply. The schools on her list are scattered around the perimeter of the USA, which means 3000-mile road trips that are helpful neither to the family pocketbook nor to the family nerves. They are, however, very helpful for getting the feel of colleges.

E.’s interests are eclectic. Although she’s most attracted to small liberal arts colleges, we’ve also visited some large and mid-size universities that offer strong humanities programs. Naturally each institution comes across very differently depending on size (from 1200 to 40,000 students) and location (urban or rural, sunny or snowy), but what’s been most fascinating to see is the differences in how they present their mission.

Most of the schools we’ve seen have delivered one of these two pitches:

Pitch 1: “Come here and you will have an amazing learning experience in which you’ll explore big ideas with small groups of like-minded peers led by caring, highly engaged professors. You’ll have many opportunities to conduct research in your areas of interest and maybe even get published. As a result, you’ll be admitted to the very best graduate or professional school.”

Pitch 2: “Come here and you will acquire hands-on experience through classes and internships that prepare you for the workforce. You’ll also become a member of a lifetime network that gives you entrée to the best jobs. You’ll be a part of the Woodchuck Family [or whatever], and Woodchucks look after their own.”


Notice that in both cases the ultimate promise is the same: a great career. But Pitch 1 emphasizes reflection (“ideas,” “small groups,” “caring professors,” “research”) designed to appeal to top graduate schools, whereas Pitch 2 emphasizes action (“hands-on,” “internships,” “network”) designed to appeal to employers.

Pitch 1 schools present reflection as something you should do first, and for some time, in order to build up a flexible foundation of smarts before proceeding to the more focused, active part of your education. Pitch 2 schools, in contrast, see reflection as something to skip if you can and hurry through if you must: twenty minutes devoted to an internship proposal, perhaps, before heading out to the recruiting fair or football game. At each type of college, reflection and action are separated, and one is preferred. Pitch 1 schools tend to talk about passion; Pitch 2 schools, about practicality.

Of course, I’m exaggerating a bit. Every college website touts caring professors, hands-on experience, intellectual rigor, a helpful alumni network, and so on. But the thing is (cut to obsessive parents nodding sagely), you can’t tell from the website. When you visit a campus—and especially if you sit in on an actual class—the institution’s main message becomes clear. And most schools lean clearly one way or the other.

Since I believe the main purpose of college is to develop leaders (broadly defined) and that leadership is developed only through a well-integrated combination of action and reflection, I’ve found this division of emphasis disheartening. I liked many of the schools we visited, but I worried about the Pitch 1 schools taking E. down a meandering path of classes with titles such as “Post-Feminist Zombies and the Ukulele” and the Pitch 2 schools tossing her into a four-year video game called “Rack up the Credits and Graduate to Money!” Neither approach seems to foster learning or leadership in any real sense.

The college that did the best job of presenting a more integrated approach was, I thought, Claremont-McKenna, one of the five Claremont Colleges in Southern California. I have no connection to CMC and no inside knowledge; I’m going solely on the impressions created by an information session, a campus tour, and an interview for E. (plus of course their website and the write-ups in various college guides). Their message stood out as resolutely pro-reflection and pro-action, presenting both modes as essential and complementary. They have a set of general education requirements that’s broader and more rigorous than anywhere else we saw, and at the same time they offer programs that seem designed specifically to help students put ideas to work and engage with the world. For example, E. is an avid reader and writer; upon learning this, her interviewer told her both about the literature major and about opportunities to work at the college writing center.

Who knows where E. will end up; there are many great options. But we’ll certainly encourage her to apply to Claremont-McKenna and, if she’s admitted, to give it careful consideration. As higher education wrestles with ever-rising costs and ever-increasing questions about its purpose and value, I hope more colleges will think seriously about ways to integrate reflection and action. The Great Divide is no way to educate future leaders.

For more on integrating action and reflection:

“Getting the Mix Spot On: Learning by Doing and Learning by Reflecting” (blog post by Nigel Rayment)

Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (book by Matthew B. Crawford)

“Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance” (working paper by Stefano, Gino, Pisano, and Staats)

About Jocelyn R Davis

Jocelyn Davis is Principal of Seven Learning, a leadership development firm that creates a lasting lift in leaders' effectiveness using classic books, films, and stories.
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7 Responses to The Great Divide: Action vs. Reflection at Today’s Colleges

  1. Lori McGlone says:

    Jocelyn this is so insightful. In many cases, college bound students are looking for a bit of both-reflection and action. And certainly upon graduation having both critical thinking skills and the beginnings of a resume will be ideal. In an effort to differentiate, some campuses may be leaning too far in one direction; those that balance nicely in the middle may ultimately stand out the most.

    • Lori,
      Absolutely–I think striking that balance is a way for colleges to stand out in the crowd. A lot of them talk the talk, but I’m not sure how many walk the walk!

  2. Reblogged this on Admissions Unlimited and commented:
    A thoughtful post from a parent going through the college selection process with her child. What approach is best for a particular student: reflection, action, or an integration of the two? Worth pondering.

  3. Joanna says:

    Dear Jocelyn,

    All of us at Claremont McKenna have experienced this combination of action and reflection, but none have written about this so eloquently as you have! A good example of this occurred back in my Freshman year when I took an American Biography course. We read a fabulous book on the lives of female suffragists in the early 1900s. CMC not only invited the author to come and speak at the Athenaeum, but I got to sit down and talk with her over dinner about her life as an author! She said that if I ever wanted to start writing I could contact her whenever I wanted.

    Best wishes to your daughter!


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