Thought Possible

notes & magnifications, by J.E. Robertson
MARCH 29, 2011 7:45PM

How to Make Our Culture a Thinking Culture

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The best thing a young intellect can learn is that knowing and creativity are not distinct disciplines. The idea that all knowledge can fit into scannable multiple-choice tests is undermining this vital insight. Students are graduating from high school with the idea that knowledge is the ability to guess from a narrow menu of options. Knowledge, in fact, is thoughtful, spontaneous, creative and requires critical application, and practice. 

Young writers often believe they must either express knowledge or be creative, but that they can't do both. Worse still —especially if you have to grade the work of college writers— they tend to be convinced that a non-creative piece of writing can't be made better by thoughtful, inventive phrasing. Worse still, there is a tendency to go the other way, to assume that what seems to the writer to be an inventive turn of phrase stands in for the need to express knowledge. 

The key, of course, is that all good writing requires thinking that is both creative and critical, and which is informed by a wide range of informational sources. Hyper-specialization makes for narrower views and reduced vocabulary; hyper-generalization makes for vague assertions and lack of specificity.

Good writing benefits from a good dose of both tendencies, and a judicious mind that applies creative instincts to fashion language that says many things clearly, without deviating from a core purpose, and without obscuring the individual talents of the writer. This critical creative thinking is genuinely useful to writing fiction, poetry, essays, or analytical texts; it just needs to be applied differently, depending on the content and the aims of the writing.  

And non-writers can learn from this idea: what we learn in school is not always how to think. It is often the idea that critical creative thinking is taboo, that it can cause us to overlook the obvious, or that it will only get in the way, as overtaxed instructors labor to deliver testable information to oversized classes.

What is sometimes visible at the university level is that there is a coordination between the tendency to take mental shortcuts and the process by which many students believe writing is supposed to happen. Something in their training may have hindered their willingness to give the full weight of their attention to the process of translating thoughts into words.

This is not to say they don't think, or that they don't do so with talent and aplomb. Rather, they think, but they also skip over vital connective tissues in the organic landscape of their thinking.  

Whatever the cause, whatever the reason, this undermines their humanity and deprives our wider culture of the best expression of what makes good thought happen. There has to be an element of personalized critical creative thinking in any expression of complex ideas, or the full expression of those ideas will likely fail to come through.

It is a common complaint that we need to reverse the perceived trend in our culture away from critical thinking and informed engagement with the realm of ideas. Certain tendencies in the way we treat developing minds leads them to put thoughtful knowledge, creative thinking and informed engagement with ideas, into separate categories, one or more of which many people will simply view as the province of others. 

We need to remember that intangible qualities are not without value; we need to remember that intangible qualities are sometimes more significant in terms of their impact on our environment than all the material calculations on which we base decisions about exchange value. 

The ability to apply critical creative thinking might not be easy to measure on scannable standardized tests, but it has significant value for the wider culture and for the future of our civilization. Simple geometric problems, multiple-choice questions or word puzzles, may require some element of this ability, but if they allow for only one positive outcome, and good minds could easily value very differently the nuanced weight of more than one of the options, they are not challenging enough to incentivize or to measure real critical creative thinking. 

In fact, I would go as far as to say these shortcut exams are just that: shortcuts. And there are no shortcuts to developing a complete, well-rounded, forthright and agile human intellect.

If we want a future shaped by people who reason by applying critical creative thinking, supported by both a wide range of informational knowledge and a diverse array of practical experience, we need to allow our children the opportunity to develop those elements of their intellects.

If we cast aside that principle of full-bodied intellectual empowerment, in favor of drab, inflexible, unthought fact-testing, we will undermine that future. The arts, the sciences, knowledge of physical space, and complex reasoning, need to intermingle in the regular work of students as they develop their thinking and their talent for language, and we need to encourage teachers, mentors, coaches and parents, to do the complicated work of fostering such complex reasoning. 

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