Knowledge, Education, Learning and Thinking: What Does It All Mean? (Part One)

“Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake.” – William James

Why Think?

Thinking takes place on at least three levels: autonomic, reactive and deliberative. Each involves a specific process that the brain goes through to effect targeted and desired outcomes. While the first two are done without conscious effort, deliberative thinking cannot be done without it. Any one who has tried knows how demanding and draining it can be. It’s a process that many of us have a hard time staying in long enough to produce anything different from what we think we already know. Often, at the beginning of the process of deliberative thinking, we shut it down by saying to ourselves, “I already know that!” This causes the mind to close and interest to wane. When this happens any curiosity we may have regarding the truth about ourselves and the universe does not stimulate us sufficiently to use our minds in the necessary ways to obtain it.

In the context of the work environment, sometimes the work we do doesn’t require us to think in order to perform our daily tasks. We are instructed (trained) how to perform our responsibilities and are judged simply by how well we do them. Nothing beyond doing our jobs is requested of us.

Sometimes the work we do requires us not to think in order to do it well. We’re told that we’re not paid to think, just to do our jobs the way we are told to do them. Anything beyond that is unwelcome input. Consequently, many people do not use their ability to think in ways that move them into greater realms of opportunity, creativity and productivity. If it’s not going to get us anything except a reprimand or a pink slip, why try to think more than we need to?

What about the places where we’re supposed to learn how to think and the benefits of regularly doing so? Even though most educational systems make noble attempts to instruct students in the ways of thinking well the daily routine and mechanics of teaching eventually overwhelms the best intentions of educators and administrators alike. Students exit from “the system” with some valuable information but not a very clear understanding of how to knit it all together into a meaningful whole that has beneficial ramifications for both the students and the societies in which they live.

Most of what we do on a daily basis doesn’t involve much in the way of our brainpower. Routine and habit are shortcuts to action without thinking. They’re what you do when you’re not thinking about what you’re doing. So, why think?

The Purpose of Thinking

The Seventeenth Century French Philosopher, Rene Descartes began his exhaustive investigation into the meaning of life with what to him was the only undeniable fact of life: the human ability to think. The Cartesian method of philosophical inquiry was revolutionary because it was the first to use shared concrete, everyday experiences of life, like thinking, to construct an understanding of the meaning and significance of human existence. Descartes’ dictum, “Cogito, ergo sum,” (I think, therefore, I am) was a whole new way of thinking about life by grounding it in thought.

If Descartes is correct that because I can think I therefore exist as a human being, then the question arises, “if I know that I am, is this the same as knowing who I am?” The answer is no. Just because I know I exist doesn’t mean that I know much about myself. Your ability to think gives evidence that you “are.” The task of actually thinking is to learn “who you are” and how you can “be the Self” you were born to be.

Meander, a Fourth Century BC Greek philosopher, said that the basis of civilization was for citizens to “know themselves,” and that this meant, “to get acquainted with what you know and what you can do.” He assumes that all human beings have within them, by virtue of their being alive, knowledge born of their unique manifestation of life. In the Eighteenth Century AD, the English poet, philosopher and lexicographer, Dr. Samuel Johnson, would perfectly summarize this philosophy of knowledge when he wrote, “human beings need to be reminded more than they need to be taught.” The activity of thinking reminds you of what you innately know but have forgotten. Thinking is the process by which you uncover your Self and its potential and by which you discover creative ways to apply what you already know to being your Self within the context of your community of life. When you spend time thinking, you afford yourself the opportunity to get acquainted with your innate knowledge and with what you can do with that self-knowledge.

The Problem of Education

The primary purpose of employing your ability to think, therefore, is not merely to exist but to exist in a specific, unique way. How this is done depends on how the individual is taught to think. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), one of the foremost thinkers of the Enlightenment, remarked, “science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.” He described his approach to education as organizing life when he said, “the science I teach is how one might occupy his proper place in the universe.” He was undoubtedly aware of the ancient teaching of Confusius: “Do not worry about holding high position; worry rather about playing your proper role.”

The best teachers I had throughout my formal education and beyond were those who not just caused me to think but who helped me to learn the purpose of thinking. Thinking was not done merely to arrive at solutions to problems and answers to questions but was to be done to “know myself” and to learn how to be myself in the world as a unique presence. Knowing myself through thinking leads to acting as that unique Self and not as a mimic of any other even though some, if not all of my actions might be similar to others’ in appearance and outcomes.

John Ruskin, a Nineteenth Century English social critic, said, “Education does not mean teaching people to know what they do not know; it means teaching them to behave as they do not behave.” A good education teaches you how to use your ability to think so that you can behave in the ways that emanate from your uniqueness as a person and that consequently lead to your being a success as that person. Thinking shapes, directs and expands the capacity to behave in the particular ways that lead to personal accomplishment and significance.

In modern times, especially in Western education models, students are seen as proverbial “empty vessels” sitting at the feet of “fuller,” older, wiser, learned professional educators who empty their knowledge into those empty heads thereby filling them with what somebody else knows. During the socialization process of teaching children how to exist in a particular culture, the system of education serves to provide the psychological structures for social homogenization by imparting the “wisdom of the ages,” knowledge handed down from previous generations and that is deemed that everyone should know. This most certainly is a vital function of education. However, when this approach becomes the primary emphasis of education, as it most often appears to be in academic institutions throughout the West, it translates into teaching students what, not how to think.

The late 19th early 20th Century English philosopher, mathematician, and writer, Bertrand Russell, was no fan of formal educational systems and said so when he commented that education was “one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought” and that “men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.” He would agree that much of what passes for education is nothing more than the simple transmission by others of what they believe is important for students to be taught which often has nothing to do with the learners. His comment suggests that he saw the main purpose of contemporary formal education to be to mold children and young adults into an image that conformed to and reflected the prevailing culture. Education was the process by which people became like each other instead of becoming their unique Selves.

Russell would concur that content often lacks context, meaning that teaching frequently doesn’t involve instructing students how to determine the veracity, viability, worthiness and usefulness of what is learned. It winds up being mere “data dumping” with little, if any attempt to help students “connect the dots” among the enormous array of data being offered from multiple sources and perspectives. Ben Hecht (1893-1964), an American author and dramatist, described the significance of context well: “Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.” The education process is filled with billions of “seconds” and pieces of information that, all being emphasized as important to know, serve more to cloud than clarify the meaning of time and what happens within it. It emphasizes the threads not the tapestry, the parts not the whole.

John Locke (1632-1704), the British philosopher and medical researcher, wrote, “till a man can judge whether they be truths or not, his understanding is but little improved, and thus men of much reading, though greatly learned, but may be little knowing.” If thinking is taught to be the process by which the thinker is able to accurately discern right from wrong, truth from falsity, authenticity from disingenuineness, then merely learning new information is not the way this can be done. Locke intimates how we can learn to ‘judge whether they be truths or not’ when he penned, “reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.”

Reading is an indispensable method of education. However, as Albert Einstein observed, “reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.” Sir Arthur Helps (1813-1875), English writer and dean of the Monarch’s advisory council, agreed with such sentiment when he wrote, “reading is sometimes an ingenious device for avoiding thought.” So reading, an essential means of education, can be a detriment to creative thinking. (I hope this is not the case as you read this article!).

The problem is that formal education offers no heuristic that students might use to organize and focus their thinking about everything they learn or to help them discover how to practically apply what they learn to the adventure of living. How often did I scurry between classes in college going from biology to philosophy, physics to religious studies, psychology to sociology knowing the content of the courses but without understanding how they all might be mutually corroborative and collaborative in providing a comprehensive foundation for innovative thinking about how to better live and enjoy my life? It took at least a couple of decades for me to even begin to appreciate the intrinsic symbiosis of the volumes of knowledge I had acquired throughout my higher education experience. Today, a couple of decades later still, my thinking is consumed with and consummated by discovering the interconnections among the pieces of information I have floating around in my head as I attempt to purposefully link the data dots into the big picture of my personal reality. This is more than mere “data mining,” it is “data melding.” It is this principle of information integration that should, but often does not, guide all educational endeavors.

Commenting on the rapid profusion of information throughout the early Twentieth Century, the American poet, e e cummings, paraphrasing a verse from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ put it succinctly when he wrote, “data, data everywhere but not a thought to think.” Without the context, the “big picture,” the organizing principles of how to coordinate and use what we know, whatever we know will only take us away from ourselves by pointing to all that is outside us as the means of finding ourselves and the purpose of our lives. Our proper place in the universe is obscured and eludes us because we’ve not been provided, or have not diligently pursued the proper context within which all of what we know can be brought together to make our lives sensible and centered.

We cannot occupy a place we have not recognized as ours alone to occupy. Nor can we properly occupy that unique place until we have properly prepared ourselves with authentic, honest, abiding self-knowledge. Formal education, by providing massive amounts of asynchronous, external information, unwittingly becomes the chief cause of the obfuscation and “cluttering up” of the Self. Self-knowledge gets lost amidst the din of seemingly competing voices and ideas. Consequently, the Self becomes disjointed, disharmonious and disquieted for it has not found its proper place in the universe. It becomes as a prism refracting the various inputs it receives into even more detailed yet diffused bits of data.

Being overwhelmed with the prospect of learning what we believe we need to know and then applying it appropriately, many of us simply give up trying to think in the ways we could. Ironically, we have been educated out of thinking. Ayn Rand said it perfectly, “man’s basic vice, the source of all his evils, is the act of unfocusing his mind, the suspension of his consciousness, which is not blindness, but the refusal to see, not ignorance, but the refusal to know.”

Can education be directed to actually help human beings find their proper place in the universe? How can we connect the dots of our variegated and vast knowledge? How can we make it all assimilate into a common core of comprehension? Is it possible to turn the education process from an ego-driven “give and take” (where one ego gives information and other egos esteem themselves on how much they can take and then give back on exams) into a nobler endeavor that edifies by elucidating the humanity with which we must live for the brief while we are alive?

The paradigm that will help us bring it all together and coordinate our fragmented knowledge into clear understanding is the one that guided great civilizations of the past: know yourself first. The constituent elements of knowledge coalesce into a unified whole only after you get acquainted with your innate knowledge about yourself. Then all subsequent information that you acquire will gather to weave the larger tapestry of your unique presence within space and time. Only then will your education experience be as a crucible into which discontinuous data is poured but out of which holistic, useful and beneficial knowledge emerges.

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