Minding Your Mind: A Thinking Column

Santa Clarita Signal • Opinion Column • Sunday, September 28, 2014

 Minding Your Mind

David W. Hegg

Years ago a slogan became popular exhorting us to support college education because “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” The assumed bias behind this advertising campaign was that universities were the best place to help keep minds from being wasted. But, as I have interacted with the product of some of our best universities I have wondered just what is happening in our educational system today. If we’re agreed on the value of the mind, then it is also important for us to agree on what is the best way to train a mind. The question is this: Is education supposed to tell us what to think, or is it meant to teach us how to think?


Plutarch, the great 1st century philosopher, biographer, and moral essayist, is reported to have said "A mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” From ancient times education was understood as the means by which one learned to think well, and apply critical analysis to life in a beneficial way. The educated person was a critical thinker, able to take in information, synthesize it, and produce a rational decision or solution. Simply put, education taught students how to think rather than merely what to think.


Of course, at first education is the instilling of basic facts. The ancient trivium began with grammar, the term used to describe the basic building blocks of knowledge. Numbers, letters, and other basics were drilled into the beginning student, but as they grew education turned from merely knowing to logically using these basics. Second in the trivium progression was logic, the term describing the challenges of putting the basic building blocks together in meaningful ways. Finally, rhetoric described that stage in education where the logical use of the basics was communicated in ways necessary to solve new problems and meet new challenges. The process – grammar, logic, rhetoric – was crafted by those instructing to produce thinkers. Their goal was more than to fill the mind with facts. It was primarily to set individual minds on fire in order to produce the heat of creative, brilliant, paradigm-expanding intelligence.


The best teachers I ever had were often the most frustrating. Instead of spoon-feeding us the answers for the upcoming exams, they forced us to analyze situations, comprehend data, and put it all together to find the best answer to whatever questions were to be raised. They forced us to develop our own beliefs and positions, while making sure we could support our views cogently. They were much more interested in producing intelligence than merely instilling facts. In this way the sent us on our way able to face the complexities of an ever-changing society with confidence. We left with a box of intellectual tools and historical precedents that continue to enable decisive and beneficial responses to the challenges of the day.


It is disheartening to see those in leadership today stymied by the challenges they face. So many seem stuck in analysis paralysis, unable to craft a decision-making process that will quickly and effectively allow progress. The recent challenges of ISIS, immigration, the Ray Rice debacle, and a host of other problems have brought to light at least one common denominator. We are quietly becoming a nation where we don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to respond. We shoot ourselves in the foot, which is usually in our mouths, time and time again. We look confused because we are, and it isn’t because we haven’t earned degree after degree at the best colleges and universities. The reason is clear. Somewhere along the line, we’ve exchanged thinking for knowing. We know lots of stuff, but we can’t figure out how to handle the bully next door or respond to pressing concerns that threaten our very way of life.


We all have been given minds, and it would be a terrible thing for any mind to go to waste. But the answer is not to simply fill them with truth. What is necessary is to sharpen minds with the skill to take truth and apply it to life, to go beyond thinking “what” and get all the way to “why” and “how.”