Thinking Out of the Box

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If only everything in life were simple. How wonderful that would seem to be! Having an easy answer for every situation we face would appear to make all of our decision making so much less stressful. Anxieties would melt away, or would they? 

If we’ve lived more than just a minute we’ve learned that life can be complex, difficult. There is rarely a single answer for anything other than adding two plus two. Thinking and then doing is an intricate process that often leads to disagreements and taking sides. How and what we choose to do or not to do, say or not say affects our lives in so many different ways. If we are wise we will realize that there is rarely one way of believing or doing things that works for everyone. Thus we tend to become more willing to accept our differences as a necessary given in life. 

Religion and politics often ask us to choose one or the other. Proponents of a particular set of values and beliefs want to think that they have found the one and only valid way to approach life. In truth the “facts” that they present to persuade us to accept their philosophies are often more likely to be only “opinions.” 

History is replete with individuals or groups insisting that their views are the only valid ones that we should consider. Humans have been divided and conquered from the beginning of time by arguments that favor one person, group or country over another. In spite of a multitude of religious beliefs we are encouraged to embrace only one as the truth. So it is also true of political, cultural and societal canons. Unraveling the tangled ball of human ideas is a lifetime project that never seems to have a clear conclusion. 

We appear to agree that it is wrong to kill another person, but even that concept becomes blurred when we excuse ourselves for ending lives in war or punishing a criminal by death. We say that we should not steal from others, but we have been known to take the freedoms of other humans and then find excuses for misappropriating their liberties. Looking away from our contradictions and pretending that they don’t matter can be more comforting than facing our complexities and asking, “Why?”

I have greatly enjoyed my work with young people because they are never afraid of pushing back, noticing contradictions, thinking about fairness. Sadly as adults we too often squelch their attempts to make sense of the world around them. We may hide controversies and insist that they accept a standard point of view in an effort to protect them from unpleasantries. Instead we may find that allowing them to question the status quo and respecting their thoughts as they proclaim them is a better way of helping them to begin the process of making their own decisions about how to take on the looming specter of adulthood that lies before them. 

A toddler will ask “why” a hundred times a day, but as children grow older they often learn that asking too many questions, seeking too many answers is not always admired by society. They begin to hide the true thoughts running through their minds and seek like minded people to reinforce their beliefs rather than feeling free to explore the many ideas of humankind. Their natural inclination to constantly seek real answers begins to shrivel up and fall victim to propaganda and even lies. 

As a teacher I encouraged my students to have the courage to ask questions, lots of questions. I often explained that authoritarians throughout history have attempted to deny people the freedom to think out of the box. We talked about the torture of Galileo for daring to claim that the sun is the center of the universe and not the earth. I told them about political regimes that first imprisoned the teachers and journalists and historians to quiet the sounds of their voices. I suggested that having a variety of books to read was one of their greatest freedoms because in many times and places what people might choose to read was constricted to conform to a particular set of beliefs. I even reminded them that slaves were often kept ignorant of learning to keep both their bodies and their minds in chains. 

I remember one of my students returning as an adult to tell me that he had seen such constrictions on the freedom to think when he served as a soldier in Iraq. He spoke of how he thought of my insistence that unbiased education should be one of our most cherished freedoms. He saw firsthand how outlawing openness of thought created violent governments rather than functioning democracies. He fully understood the importance of allowing the free flow of ideas.

In the present time we seem to be engaged in a dangerous culture war in which many among us want to encase prohibitions into law. Some worry about exposing our children to what they see as radical ideas. They view open dialog as being propaganda rather that the exercise of freedom. They want to “protect” the young from thinking that runs counter to their own, little realizing that a curious young person will always find a way to seek the truth. They do not seem to understand that discussions without condemnation lead to better answers than groping in the dark. 

I trust the young. I know them to have good hearts and excellent minds. They are more than willing and capable of learning not “what to think,” but “how to think.” That process often requires thinking out of the box and considering all of the many points of view. I believe in the long run they will be better able to make the difficult but informed decisions of adulthood when we have challenged them with a multitude of ideas rather than feeding them only what we want them to believe.   


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