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Monday, July 18, 2016

Breeding Stubborn Ignorance and Ignoring the Responsibility of Self-Education

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” 

Most people limit their intelligence through their own means. They simply choose to stop reading, to stop studying, and to stop seeking new knowledge because they think they possess all the information needed to live. Socrates's metaphor of a finite container aptly fits their existence.

Living a good life requires using our intelligence – we can never remain satisfied that have attained sufficient education or wisdom; instead, we must maintain a thirst for knowledge that feeds our need to learn. This thirst is natural to the human species; however, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham believes we all would rather not think if we don’t have to. He contends that is why we have memory.

Willingham says, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason why so few people engage in it.” He goes on to explain ...

“Once we learn how to do something (like cook spaghetti sauce), memory becomes the brain’s big crutch. It’s the primary way we 'avoid thinking.' When we want to make spaghetti sauce, we prefer to do it the same way we learned how to do it rather than rethinking sauce ingredients and recipes every time we have spaghetti. Think how exhausting our lives would be if we didn’t have memory to do the heavy lifting in our lives, if for instance, we didn’t drive our cars automatically but had to think through each step every time we drove to work.

“Consider how much better our brains are at the complex operations of seeing and at moving our bodies. Our brains do them instantaneously and effortlessly. Thinking, by contrast, is slow, painstaking and unreliable. Humans don’t think very often because our brains are designed for the avoidance of thought.”

(Daniel Willingham. Why Don't Students Like School? 2010)


It is absolutely frustrating to discover that in adolescence, when changes occur in the brain that allow children to think more critically and solve more complex problems, many resist cultivating a fertile mind simply because they begin to hate school, feeling exerting effort to learn is too difficult or simply not “cool.”

Developing a strong self-image as a learner and regarding oneself as responsible for acquiring new skills, knowledge, and insights is crucial to lifelong learning. This preparation starts at a young age.

World renowned Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck discovered that people have one of two “mindsets” – fixed or growth. Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence and talents are innate and fixed. They don’t think they can improve with work and effort. People with a growth mindset believe that they can improve themselves through work and practice.

One of the biggest differences between the two mind sets is that of talent versus effort. The fixed mindset believes that talent and intelligence is everything; it is what defines a person and protects him or her from failure. From this point of view, effort is only for people with deficiencies, and as Dweck points out, “if you have no deficiencies and are considered a genius, a talent or a natural, then you have a lot to lose and effort can reduce you.”

Dweck states that the growth mindset is very different; even the genius has to work hard for his or her achievements. No amount of talent guarantees success. Effort drives even the most gifted toward reward.

All lifelong learners find that persistence, motivation, commitment pay huge dividends with a “growth” mindset. In a growth mindset, individuals can find failure painful but not defining. To them, failure is important because it highlights problems that allow them to face, deal with, and learn from adversity.

Dweck also found that successful students discover that their primary goal is to expand their knowledge, how they think and investigate the world around them. They do not see results as an end point but merely as a means to continue and grow.

In fact, Dweck’s conclusion about complimenting learners is rather startling: You should praise children for qualities they can control, like effort. Those praised for their innate brainpower might develop the sense that hard work isn’t necessary.

(Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. Mindset - How You Can Fulfill Your Potential. Constable Books. 2012.)

How can you foster learning that impacts growth? Here are a few things Dweck suggests:
  • Reading research that shows growth and improvement is possible
  • Developing resiliency
  • Trying new things
  • Reading about and extracting lessons from others with a growth mindset
We must understand that although learning can be difficult, developing a curiosity for understanding while accepting change, and even failure, allows us to find value in the complexity of the process itself. This “job” of learning is not over upon high school or college graduation. In reality, it has only begun. To buy into the idea that a quarter or less of our lives should be devoted to learning is ludicrous.

Formal education should entice us to open new avenues of interest and develop wisdom of thought. Even those who lack formal education need to adopt the mindset of growth.

Do you know what an autodidact is? An autodidact is defined as “a self-taught person who has learned a subject without the benefit of a teacher or formal education.”

Author Louis L'Amour, one of America’s most prolific and manliest fiction writers, was said to be an autodidact. During his career he cranked out over 120 dime Western novels as well as several collections of short stories and poems. He chronicles his life in the autobiography Education of a Wandering Man.
Brett and Kate McKay share some of L'Amour's story ...

“Due to family hardships, L’Amour dropped out of school when he was fifteen and spent the next eight years traveling around the American West working odd jobs on cattle ranches, farms, lumber mills, and even mines. To earn extra money L’Amour boxed in small prizefights around the country and earned a reputation as a formidable opponent. While in his twenties L’Amour became a merchant marine and traveled the globe via steamship.

“During all this time, L’Amour was voraciously reading books. As soon as he set foot in a new town, he’d locate the local library. If libraries weren’t around, he’d skip meals so he’d have enough money to order books from catalogs. He was also working on his craft as a budding writer, scribbling notes in cheap notepads that he kept with him all the time. 

"All of his experiences while traveling, all the books he read, and all the notes he wrote laid the groundwork for his later successful career. But even after L’Amour became an established writer, his pursuit of learning continued and rewarded him greatly.” 

 (Brett and Kate McKay. “How and Why to be a Lifelong Learner.” March 20, 2013.)

L'Amour is considered one of the world's most popular writers. In 1982 he received the Congressional Gold Medal, and in 1984 President Ronald Reagan awarded L'Amour the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is certainly a prime example of a self-motivated, lifelong learner driven to excellence and a pursuit of perfection.

To close this blog entry, I believe Americans must re-dedicate their efforts not only to honoring their obligation to self-education but also to committing their efforts to lead by example and become lifelong learners who encourage reluctant citizens to better themselves through pursuing knowledge.

Can't we improve all of the ills that endanger our society through accepting the challenges of growth and improved education? Crime, violence, drug abuse, terror, political turmoil … the list goes on and on – fixing these problems requires extreme intelligence and a renewal of values. How can a generation that devalues education apply needed solutions?

I must admit I am shocked at the low level of social intelligence displayed by so many now. As a teacher, I remember when knowledge we often referred to as “common sense” was valued. In the past it seems the quest for truth and wisdom began with a basic understanding that shared intelligence was vital. I wonder if greed, power, and laziness have turned the masses into self-gratifying hedonists unconcerned with intellectual growth.

Real learning is difficult. It always has been, and it always will be. Rewards come after great persistence. The dedication of individuals to higher levels of thinking by using AN OPEN MIND is not dependent upon age or “genius” genetics. We must become vow to better people – better youth, better adults, better parents, better citizens – through developing intelligent thought and behaviors all throughout our lives.

We can ignore our responsibility to live intelligent lives. This is perhaps the greatest mistake a human being can make – to decide to stagnate in ignorance. I believe we are seeing how the acceptance and even the praise of ignorance destroy our underpinnings as a nation. Taking the path of least resistance in life is easy. It is also the greatest loss of freedom any person can suffer -- not to mention how it damages the social fabric of America.

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