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Where Did All The Thinking Go?

Where Did All The Thinking Go?

 “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it.” ― Henry Ford

What Do We Really Want?

We live in a fast-food society, at least in the USA. We want what we want, now! We prefer not to work too hard for it, if we work at all, and many of us have a sense of entitlement. We believe all of us should go to college and get our degree, but not much effort should be expended in doing so. After all, we have lots of cheeseburgers to munch on and many parties to attend.

“Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”
― Thomas A. Edison
When I was teaching, even at the United States Military Academy, I ran into this attitude often. Students wanted to do the minimum amount of work to get by with a passing grade. In contrast were the non-traditional students taking evening classes after working a fulltime job during the day. It appears as though there is an “entitled” attitude prevalent in this country, and “thinking” is not for us.
Who Killed Homer?

Some Hellenic Naval officers, whom I taught in a graduate-level program management course, presented me a small token of their appreciation at the end of the semester. It was a book entitled, “Who Killed Homer.” I do not really remember how the author of the classic, “The Illiad,” had died, but the book was not about his fate. Rather, it was about the fate of classical education: it had died. And with its demise, we blundered into “everyone advances,” or “no one left behind,” an educational philosophy that is in part responsible for the poor showing of education in America.

“Why should things be easy to understand?
― Thomas Pynchon

Dare require a student to think (think critically) to earn a grade, and you are likely to be faced with a lawsuit. At a minimum, you might be forced to render the minimum passing grade for mediocre performance. My wife once had a student who wondered why they failed math, in spite of the fact that they had never attended a class or taken an exam. Where did we go wrong? Was it killing Homer? What’s wrong with leaving behind people who do not keep up?

Hey, What About the Learning Impaired?

Oh, you mean me? I am dyslexic and live with Asperger's Syndrome (in the Autistic scale). I had speech therapy from first through seventh grade in public school. When I graduated from high school, I could read at a sixth-grade level. After my first semester of college, I had a 1.2 grade point average. So, do not inquire about learning disabilities.

“I get stubborn and dig in when people tell me I can't do something and I think I can. It goes back to my childhood when I had problems in school because I have a learning disability.”
― Ann Bancroft
Having stated the point strongly, I do recognize that learning disabilities exist, beyond my personal experience. However, I am not qualified to address them.

Are We Afraid To Think?

I am training an amazing group of analysts (They are probably training me as much as I am them) in predictive modeling and all the stuff that goes along with it. They are a breath of fresh air. When I was a contractor for the Department of Defense, I worked with several very competent people, but at least half of the government civilian and contract employees seemed incapable of critical thought. It was routine to go to work, get paid for doing nothing useful, get in your car and speed home to do who-knows-what. People who could think critically were threats to the hierarchy and were, more often than not, put into menial jobs to curb their thoughts. Thinking was dangerous!

“If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think, they'll hate you.”
― Harlan Ellison
Have We Forgotten How To Think?
I am afraid that thinking really is a dying art. We fill the void of inactivity with the NFL or the NBA on ESPN. The most popular conversations at work revolve around quarterbacks and point guards. People talk about their favorite teams as if they were earning regular revenue for their loyalty. I suspect that many people yell at their televisions, offering expert and well-thought advice to the offensive coordinators and referees.
“People don’t like to think, if one thinks, one must reach conclusions. Conclusions are not always pleasant.”
― Helen Keller
A Testimonial
I was the first child of five (three sisters and a brother) to attend and graduate from college, and I was the middle child. My parents did not have the money to send me, so if it had not been for a full scholarship, I would not have attended. I was working as a “professional” landscaper at age 11 (I cut grass and cleaned gutters and so on) through high school. I had five properties I attended to.  Getting to work involved pushing my lawnmower down the street, sometimes as far as a mile.
Throughout high school, I played soccer, kept score for baseball, and was a trainer for the football team. I did not have a car, so I either walked five miles home or bummed a ride, usually with a coach. I continued to play soccer in college, worked on the weekends delivering furniture for Ethan Allan, and earned a Bachelor of Science Degree with a double major. Just before graduation, I was able to buy my first car, with my dad cosigning. Needless to say, I did not have time for mindless activity.
When I graduated from college, I had my car and a set of uniforms for which the Army had provided an allowance. My first residence was a one-bedroom efficiency apartment, furnished and rounded out with a stereo system I purchased from a pawn shop. While listening to Dan Fogelberg, I read J.R. Tolkien and other works of science fiction, in addition to readings required by the US Army Armor School. This may sound like I am anti-television for I did not own a TV, not that I could have afforded one. However, I can stand with the best when it comes to movie trivia.
The bottom line is: I had to think my way through life.

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” 
― Groucho Marx

How To Stimulate Thinking

Turn the TV off! And then try some of the following:
1.    Put a jigsaw puzzle together. When you finish, take it apart and put it back together without looking at the box (as much as possible). I usually do this two or three times a week, but I can put a 1000-piece puzzle together in three hours (I like poster puzzles). It requires thought and concentration.

“The solution often turns out more beautiful than the puzzle.”
― Richard Dawkins
2.    Read a classic, like Moby Dick, Charlotte’s Web, or To Kill a Mockingbird. If you really want to think, read the Lord of the Rings. If have the 50th Anniversary Edition, which was restored to the original text by Tolkien's son.

“Your mind is your library of what you read.”
― Lailah Gifty Akita
3.    Write something, anything. You can keep it to yourself, and it will still make you think. Better yet, blog or write a book. I self-publish and blog. Sometimes I fell like I think too much.

“Writing is essential to learning. One cannot be educated and yet unable to communicate one’s ideas in written form.”
― Richard W. Paul, The Thinker's Guide to How to Write a Paragraph
4.    If you are a gamer, stop playing mindless games of muscle reflex and turn to games of strategy. Better yet, design and test scenarios for these games. Designing (creating) is an action that causes thinking. I typically design a scenario, play it until it is bug-free and then throw it away to start a new one.

“There's a difference between playing and playing games. The former is an act of joy, the latter — an act.”
Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration
5.    Go for a walk, hike, or run. However, leave your Walkman or iPhone at home. Think instead of mindlessly listening to music. At least listen to music that will stimulate thought if you cannot live without it. Sometimes, I listen to Enya.
“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
6.    Play Chess or Stratego with friends or family. You will be forced to think, at least if you want to win. Other games requiring human interaction are good as well, even card games. But leave the TV in the off position.”
“Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it's about deliberately choosing to be different." 
― Michael Porter
7.    To prove I am not anti-television, watch a movie that will make you think and emote, like, "The Million Dollar Arm." Better yet watch a documentary or a Ted Talk.
“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”
― Carl Sagan

Jeffrey Strickland is a data scientist the author of “How Students Make Meaning in Calculus.”


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