International Congress on Education
Castel Gandolfo, March 31 – April 2, 2006
THE EDUCATIONAL CHALLENGE OF THINKING
Michele De Beni
Do we teach people to think today?
I would like to begin by asking you a question: “Do we teach people to think in school, in the family, through the media, in our communities?”
The question presupposes that we already have answered one basic problem: to establish what we mean by “teach to think.”
If the most authentic meaning of “to think” is “to think with attention,” “to ponder,” we must ask ourselves how much time is really set aside today to this necessary exercise of the mind.
The question becomes even more urgent if we consider that our young people are dealing with such a vast quantity of information that they risk being overwhelmed by it.
How does one learn to perceive it more correctly? How can information be reorganized? How does one learn to select and control a mental process? The various studies demonstrate that thinking skills are not automatically learned in a natural way. They require long, willful attention to reflective thought.
In our modern-day culture, therefore, we face a gigantic challenge with regard to the complexity of knowledge and the conscious and expert use of the thought processes. This problem is not only a cognitive one; it also touches on ethical questions of choice and the use we make of knowledge.
The basic distinction between “knowing” and “thinking” was clearly introduced by Hanna Arendt: knowing has scientific questions as its object, whereas thinking is that activity of the mind that has problems of meaning as its object, that is, the important existential questions. It is not a matter, then, only of knowledge, but of thinking wisely, redeeming thought to its natural role as “tool of civilization,” of new and continual “humanization.” In this sense we should all feel involved and realize that if the “art of teaching true intelligence,” all the multiple resources of intelligence, is neglected in our educational communities, young people run the risk of being “habitually stupid.”
We must find the courage, then, to ask ourselves which culture we intend to promote and what importance we want to give in our study plans to meaningful questions such as friendship, cooperation, good, evil, suffering or happiness…. There are no ready-made answers to these questions. Answers should be sought through dialogue, within a plurality of viewpoints and meanings, in the effort to come up with a syntheses and to give meaning not only to our thinking but also to our actions.
And this is the beginning of the real challenge of thought: to explain the complex nature of human beings, of reality, of thought itself, adopting a polycentric perspective, by appreciating diversities, individual elements, and then integrating them in a new, original unity. From this point of view, the activity of thinking can be seen as opening the eyes of the mind, a reflective and meta-reflective process of the mind itself, of distinction and unity, of discovering the multiple and the one, in self and beyond self.
Thus the question “Why think?” finds an answer that is as obvious and disconcerting as the question itself: “Think in order to be.”
“Thinking” must be characterized by “being,” not simply in the sense of “existing,” but of being a person who questions him or herself, who comes forth, steps out, moves ahead. Therefore, it implies the fatigue of thinking, the effort to generate ideas. It is an “exodus” that requires stepping out of ourselves to go towards others, in search of and in witness to the truth, for love of true knowledge.
From other viewpoints
In order to learn, then, it is above all necessary “to understand how to learn,” but to learn with meaning, that is, to comprehend. And this does not involve only study skills, but also the construction and de-construction of mental categories, the world of emotions and, above all, the ethical choices towards which thought itself is oriented.
In this regard, I think it would be interesting to pause for a moment to consider one aspect of thinking which directly involves problems and processes of a cultural and intercultural nature, that is, the so-called “challenge of globalization.”
An initial premise to deal with this is to understand that the change concerns not only “the others” but firstly ourselves, and that our “old maps” are now obsolete. It follows then, that knowing how to decentralize from our point of view requires that we work on a polycentric vision, that we purify ourselves of manipulations and superficial generalizations, so that we be guided solely by one sincere vision of truth.
A second condition for opening our mind is that we free ourselves from presuming our thought superior to that of others. Still too often, the use of this model is reinforced in the family, schools, churches, our communities, in politics. It is difficult for us to imagine, to think in ways that are different from our own schemes and systems, outside of our boundaries, to think of stories that are different from our own.
If teachers truly want to form students, they themselves must begin to learn something about the opinions of the students they want to teach. Actually, they are truly able to educate in the measure that they are able to learn, in an exchange of thoughts and through mutual correction. Also error, then, is an integral part of thought, the inevitable passage towards development and education; so not the final point of a knowing process, but its epistemological apex.
The capacity to think requires the interiorization of mental processes which are not the fruit exclusively of an individual elaboration, but of an encounter, of interaction. Consequently, the task of the educator is not to promote uniformity, but to lead the students to form an original synthesis of the different viewpoints, by stimulating their potentials, favoring their creative participation. This is the new dignity we must give back to the person; herein, probably, lies the challenge of education to freedom, stemming not only from the ignorance of not knowing, but above all from the ignorance of not knowing how to think and of not knowing how to think together.
A Teacher as Model of thought
Socrates, in struggling with the dominant decadent mode of his time, referred to thought as the witness to truth and as the remedy (“pharmacon”) to the evils of life. Only the divinity was wise, whereas human knowledge counted little or nothing. Thus, those who believed that they possessed knowledge and that they possessed it in an absolute way, in reality betrayed true knowledge. Human beings, therefore, must first all recognize their own finiteness.
But if knowing, like “knowing in order to be,” begins by recognizing one’s finiteness, what is its foundation, the true sense, the truth towards which it tends?
Chiara Lubich offers an answer, a model, in her text on “Jesus the Teacher.” Her talk follows its own characteristic line of thought: do not seek so much to describe the reality, as to understand it in its basic reasoning process. In other words, it proposes to think not only of the reality, but of all reality, applying to observation that “principle of transcendency” which allows us to go beyond the “principle of evidence.” Therefore, thinking is not only intended as a logical-scientific option of truth, but rather, as certainty of the spirit, and therefore, as inner understanding. It in no way excludes research and the explanation of causal connections, but it justifies the meaning within a set of values.
Therefore, we need to specify that such a decidedly expressed option towards a transcendent model of knowledge (expressed for Christians through Jesus’ life and teachings) is not to be understood as an a priori defined essence, but as a real and true pursuit, as an intimate connection between a pedagogy of existence with a pedagogy of essence.
From this viewpoint, Jesus, the God-Man, sums up the characteristics of reality and utopia, of temporality and transcendency.
In fact, when Chiara affirms that “Loppiano is a very specific and original kind of school…” and that “the books, the classrooms, the courses, are not the primary things that make it a school,” but it is the presence of a teacher, of Jesus, with his “very special lessons which are far beyond any others, even those of the greatest teachers on earth.” By saying this she does not intend to underestimate teaching or studies. In fact, both human beings and Jesus are teachers, even though in different forms and on different levels: human beings teach contingent truths, supported by reason, whereas Jesus the teacher teaches universal truths which speak to the conscience.
This could appear to people, even to the wisest, as “a knowledge that is foolishness,” that is, unreasonable, since it is not centered exclusively on reason. But this is precisely the most significant passage of Chiara’s talk: it opens up to a knowledge that is wisdom, which is not contrary to demonstrations or psychological and social investigation, but which incorporates them and, at the same time, transcends them as knowledge of conscience. The horizons are widened and raised higher, beyond the boundaries which self-centered postmodern thought seems incapable of surpassing.
Jesus’ invitation, which Chiara understands as a calling to “leave the other teachers” and to follow His teaching, can be understood as a return to the theme introduced before on the relationship between knowledge and wisdom. The search for a primary source of meaning becomes the principal motive, a question of hierarchical choice in which the meaning comes before the object itself of knowledge.
It is Jesus who gives form to all other meanings. He is the Infinite Meaning that gathers the different finite meanings. From this perspective, to “renounce all truths that people can share with us” does not mean to renounce or reject the necessary autonomy of scientific research, with its respective objectives and methods. Rather, there is a re-contextualization of meaning which is not found in knowledge as such.
This is an explanation to Jesus’ invitation: “Do not call anyone ‘teacher’ because you have only one Teacher, Christ.” Clearly, Jesus did not intend to affirm that the community does not need any teachers, but rather witnesses of life, not focused on themselves but on Him, who is Love.
Thinking is true, then, if it does not turn in on itself but goes out to others, if from monologue it becomes a recounting: of self to oneself and of self to others; and if it becomes dialogue: with one’s interior world and with the social and cultural world.
This is the way to give life to a research community, quite different from that which is intended today by “community of scientists.” More than anything else it is a community “in search”: as such it certainly does not give up the rigorous laws of rationality (critical thought), the elements of discovery and imagination (creative thought), but it relies on the sense of belonging and sharing that bonds members to each other (thought as care).
The idea of care is comparable to that of service. In fact, as Jesus concludes in the passage of Matthew: “The greatest among you must be your servant” (Mt 23:11). Thus Jesus invites us to use thought not as one person’s power over another, but as a means for mutual responsibility. He asks us to renounce power, not as a renouncement to think, but as a choice of non-power, that is, of service. Also thinking, then, if done “out of love” can become a real act of service for a person, for humanity.
Thinking-Being Nothingness out of Love
We may ask how thought can be translated into an act of love. It is a dynamic that unites life and thought, theory and practice, personal research and dialogue. It is a process of listening, of gift and communion, of thought that is participation, introduction, through the Son-Jesus, into the Space and Logic of the Trinity.
In this Logic, Jesus on the cross who cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the apex of love, “the culminating point, the most beautiful expression of love,” the “miracle of the annulment of all that he is.” Fruitful thought, therefore, is such if it is “empty of self.” “So then nothingness is no longer seen as being in antithesis to being, or as an act of emptying… but being itself, lived as love. In the various “lessons” of Chiara Lubich, nothingness, gift and love are closely interrelated. Jesus forsaken is its emblem: nothingness, because he is the greatest gift, the greatest love.”
The same logic should animate thought that is imbued with love, that makes itself one with love. In this way – out of love – I put aside my thought, I let go, I silence it in order to receive the wealth of the thought and wholeness of the other. Only a change of this kind can lead to a dynamic, constructive synthesis capable of overcoming fragmentations and taking in the many forms of learning.
On the pedagogical level, I would like to suggest, as a proposal for research and reflection, some indispensable points to develop for a real, effective methodology for the education of thought:
- Think (development of the meta-cognitive cognitive capacities)
- Think of self (development of the sense of self-perception and self-awareness)
- Think of the other (development of the affective and cognitive capacities for decentralization)
- Think with the other (education to social-cooperative thought)
- Think for the other (education to altruistic-moral thought)
Goals and objectives which are certainly not easy and immediate, but which a true educator must personally and collectively assume responsibility for in order to find together the courage to educate, to open our eyes and those of our young people towards new spaces of true intelligence.