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

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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?

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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.

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