Monday, April 25, 2016

Thinking Beyond Oneself

I have recently noticed a tendency of many, including my students, to respond to complex situations and issues based on their own rather narrow personal experience. This seems completely natural as we come to have beliefs, habits, and predispositions based on our experience. However, the nature of many complex situations and issues exceed things we have personally experienced yet many still based their beliefs about those situations and issues on personal experience that is somewhat removed from the problem or situation being judged. 

For example, with regard to online learning, someone who has taken an online learning course might have experienced feeling that the instructor was distant and perhaps aloof and not very involved in their progress. Is that sufficient reason to conclude that many or most online courses have instructors who appear distant, aloof and uninvolved to their students? Perhaps not.

I have on occasion argued that the primary job of being a teacher is to get students to have questions, which involves (a) admitting that one does not know, (b) committing time and effort in searching for a suitable resolution, (c) being open to alternative explanations, (d) being willing to question one’s own assumptions, and (e) perhaps revisiting the problem and explanation more than once.

I am now thinking that such an inquiry process is basically learning to think beyond oneself – beyond one’s personal and direct experience. I recall in high school when I was on the debate team that part of the preparation was to argue both sides of an issue. That seemed reasonable at the time. I remember learning in a college literature course that there was a dramatic turn toward the self and writing in the first person several hundred years ago, and that turn to the self impacted how stories were told and what was told. At the time, I related that to Descartes’s cogito ergo sum or je pense, donc je suis – I think, therefore I am (or I exist). We are after all thinking beings. Is it not remarkable that consciousness and self-consciousness exist at all? Why should there be consciousness and self-consciousness?

However, over-reliance on one’s beliefs and prior experiences can lead one to make many errors of judgment. I have made my fair share, and now when I consider the ones that come to mind first, I notice that my errors were due to an overconfidence in my own beliefs. I had a wrong-headed confidence in the absolute truth of what I believed to be true, and many of those so-called truths turned out not to be true.

Rather than further embarrass myself with true confessions, I only wanted to point out that I have often believed more than I could possibly have known. At an advanced age, I am just learning to think beyond myself.