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Roadtopeace just had a dialogue with a trio of educators who not only extended our thinking but altered a view or two. What follows arose from that conversation. We hope this posting will stimulate others researching similar lines.

The level of insight in the American electorate was one of the basic points under discussion. Each of us recognized the value of insight and that our school system does not do a very good job on this fundamental measure of intellectual prowess. As a matter of fact, many voters today cannot even connect their own situations with government policies. This feature does not bode well for democracy.

How can we teach insight to the individual student, the child? How does insight come to be in the educational experience?

All agreed that this is a very tall order for most of us. But consider this: most of us only use something like 10% of our true mental capacity for reasons too numerable to relate here. The potential is there for improvement, vast improvement. Moreover, there are many wise people in our midst who seem never to run out of insight. How do they do it? How did they come by their wisdom? They deserve our deepest studies for insight not only into their insight but how they acquired it.

To illustrate how insight works, we can look into the realms of mathematics, hard science, soft science, philosophy, psychology of religion, and psychology itself. In each of these there are areas beyond which we as individuals have little or no background, no words to express thoughts or to think with. Although insight may come from filling out the unknown areas, insight is expressed by our ability to recognize and bring the unknown into the realm of the known, at least within our own minds. How nature works is the cumulation of insights over the generations from the times of the Greeks. One way or another, people sought to understand nature, and if that didn't work, ascribe its works to supernatural beings. That particular dogs us to this day, especially among those less fortunate who miss out on education, or are born disadvantaged.

Sometimes reading what others have written develops insight. For example, Galileo taught us the laws of falling weights (and was confined to his living quarters for life for doing so.) Newton extended Galileo's thinking into a marvelous universal law of gravity that was understandable by most any one taking the trouble to try. Einstein, along with others, noticed that Newton's law, as universal as it is, does not explain features like the precession of the orbit of Mercury, where the location of closest approach moves in ways not predicted by Newton's "universal" law. Einstein found a deeper insight, too profound mathematically for many of us to master. He was both very curious and smart. He noted facts, and worked on resolving them, just as Newton did. "What-if" thinking and wonderment doubtless went into the thinking of these great people. That is how insight developed in these people. Be doubtful, question concepts, look especially for exceptions, things that do not fit. Ask yourself why.

In antiquity, arrowhead designs improved on what was already available. So knowledge must be one requirement for insight. In modern cases, there may or may not be much written. Or is simply not known to us. What then? Well, one can still ask questions, look for exceptions. What we know already is the starting point, not the end of the matter. How much practice we have had in digging successfully below the surface is important. After every such dig, the next one comes easier. One cannot build an edifice without the tools and motivation, at least in our age. Motivation comes from success. And success comes with practice. It is that simple.

From knowledge, there is a fundamental rule we can follow; question answers to questions with further deeper questions. For example on this site, we ask who are the terrorists? The direct answer is extremists, of course. Then, who are the extremists? The initial answer was crazy people. For too many that was that, and still is. This answer, we and many others could not stop with. A better and obvious answer became simply people radicalized. Again for many that was that. The latter answer is more insightful than the first answer. But, in itself, it is little help in fighting terrorism.

Jessica Stern gives us some guidance--asked herself:

    " how do terrorists become radicalized?"

After interviewing terrorists of many different kinds, or several faiths and circumstances, she concluded: terrorists are radicalized by feelings of alienation and humiliation. Of course, there are variations on this theme and other factors, but these are the main ones. This deeper insight still provides no solution, but we are now much closer than we were on 9/11.

The next question then becomes, why do terrorists feel humiliated and alienated? This time there are several answers: when people are abused, deprived, ignored, debased, robbed or any number of similar things. Stern detailed many such incidents.

From there one has to ask: why are they abused, deprived, ignored, debased, robbed? And that too has an answer: those doing the abusing, depriving, ignoring, and robbing, do those things because of their genetic and cultural heritages.

So now we ask, what can be done about that? Society must change is the global answer that seems evident. So then the digging-for-insight question is: What about society needs to be changed and in what ways? Again there are at least several partial answers already on the table, mostly from others.

Ever since Abraham, violence has been associated with monotheism. Why? The accurate, but superficial answer is because the fight is over whose god is God. The deeper answer is that monotheism itself along with its many schisms is the work of the Authoritarian Personality. At least two solutions lie in Ethnic Integration and educating each child to have an effective balance between an Internal and External Locus of Control.

Oil riches in Middle Eastern nations that had not yet modernized, became tempting targets for appropriation by Western societies with long histories of imperialism in one form or another. One solution here seems obvious: pull out of the Middle East--completely. That will not happen under current policies until the wells run dry later in this century.

Can anything be done in the meantime? Perhaps. For example, if America spent as much capital on finding and developing alternate energy sources as it spends on war and defense, we could extricate ourselves from oil dependence in short order. Will we? Given present policies, maybe next century. Something has to happen before that.

Religions whose gospels preach the necessity for war and violence provide excuse for radicals within all three monotheisms to terrorize. Societies with superior technologies naturally win the violent encounters. The losers feel resentful, humiliated, and alienated. Except for their language, abode and welfare, they are people much like you and me. And we too would not like to be treated in such ways; we might even take up arms as our founding fathers did!

One solution in the religious side is for each monotheism to rein in its own radicals. What would be wrong with a regular conference of the leaders of monotheisms getting together to solve this problem of extremism? It would surely be a step forward. Do they trust one another? Not nearly enough, despite local protests to the contrary.

On the governance side, it seems that promoting democracy is one answer, for by and large democracies are less war-like than other types of governance. That is a tall order and requires patience; lots of it. And patience is in short supply just now. Moving the rich societies away from imperialism as policy is a corollary.

Back to the question of insight. Note the progression; answers were easy enough to find, thanks to the likes of Jessica Stern who asked the terrorists themselves why and how they got into the business. One might then ask, when can you trust a terrorist? When their answers have the ring of truth is one answer. Another level of confidence comes from checking their facts. Yet another level of confidence comes when we realize that terrorists are not that different from each of us. See Ameer Ali for more on how a bright, normal young man became one of histories most feared terrorists. Better yet read "Confessions of a Thug" by Philip Meadows Taylor for the full story of how he became a pirate on land, a consummate terrorist.

What we ordinary people can deduce from the above is that while insight requires a modicum of curiosity and smarts, it is not that hard to create. Ask a question, then ask about the answer, and continue as long as there are any questions that can be asked. This was the way of Socrates; it is also the way of science that gave us the technologies we so enjoy today.

From birth, we are all curious until our thinking becomes regimented and limited in scope provided by the straight-jackets of modern scholarship in pure mechanics--whether they be doctors, lawyers or just mechanics. Nevertheless, the curiosity element for the insight-development ritual is innate and can be nurtured. To develop insight, we must preserve our curiosity as we grow in knowledge throughout life. And we are all geniuses compared with worms, horses, chimpanzees, and our great grandfathers for that matter--not genetically, but in what we can do. So we can each gain insight limited only by our nature / nurture heritage. The former we are stuck with, at least until genetic science can rebuild or repair what we are born with. Knowledge, the working kind that proper education brings, is something we can do something about, at least as a society. If all we do is preserve our innate curiosity into adulthood, what would the world be like?

Well, it might change forever how we learn! Some of the most gifted teachers today follow the practice of stimulating their charges to teach themselves, employing their curiosity, simply by making information available in forms understandable. People learning to educate themselves in this way do not necessarily do well across the board on a standard achievement test, they just have an ability to remake the world. Neither will everyone benefit. For the dyslexic, a lot of hard drilling in the very early years is the only way to literacy. For the less gifted, the bar must be set within their means, but always with teaching as much depth as possible.

As it is, we are all limited by the insight we have individually in applying our knowledge. I have known people with PhDs who could not apply the tools of their trade! Conversely, I know a gifted "waitress" who became a successful chemist on her own and taught her mentor a few things along the way. The differences between these people were many. The waitress had a tremendous storehouse for facts; was innately eager and curious, unencumbered by prohibitions on what she could do. The PhD either knew the answer or he didn't and that ended matters. He provided specific answers to specific questions, but exploring the unknown, the reason for his PhD, was beyond him. If things didn't fit his shoe box, he was lost. The waitress had very little factual knowledge by comparison; she just knew how to find the answers, and did. Each was a good person. Each was intelligent. One had all the societal advantages, the other didn't. One was rigid in his thinking, the other was flexible in hers. One was closed of mind, the other was open. Which of these two people was more productive? Which could make the wiser choice in choosing a leader? Which would you prefer to associate with?

As a mentor in many similar events, experience seems to tell me that the act of teaching itself is a way toward deepening insights. What would Socrates have been without his students? So why can we not have students at the advanced levels teach students at the lower levels, as a formal part of their own educations? Some advanced schools already do this. We start life as proteges and become mentors later on. Above all, my late wife Kris was a mentor, a learner and teacher by example. She never missed a chance to learn something, even on her death bed.

Insight requires knowledge obtained somehow and of course the smarter a person is the deeper his/her insight can be. Gender provides a different perspective. And so does the prior knowledge a person has to develop intuition from. It is not all logic in the formal sense. Witness that seemingly illogical path that so many women follow successfully. They have learned some very important things on the intuitive level.

Indeed, intuition may come from that part of our minds that handled "thinking" before words came to be expressed via evolution. One distinguishing feature of this thing called life, is response to food and danger. Sperm cannot think, but they know which way to swim when the chance arises. Birds likewise do not think, but they recognize predators and communicate their presence to others. Chimpanzees may not think with any depth, but they manufacture tools with which to find food and use those tools intelligently in acquiring food. All this is intuitive thinking -- and insightful beyond what a worm can do.

We all agreed that insight is desirable for good citizenship for it gives its owner the ability to make better choices in situations requiring knowledge and insight--like local and national elections in particular. All agreed also that our educational system could do a better job than it is in this regard. From these premises, the conversation was far ranging.
  • Codify some obvious mechanics of the class room that moves in the direction of gaining insight and achieving wisdom.
  • Establish true dialogue with all participants.
  • proceed by the Socratic Method in various areas that required both deductive and inductive thinking; allow questions to beget questions;
  • encourage intuitive thinking, especially as a guide to discovery by more formal methods.
  • encourage students to discover questions and research answers for themselves; build their internal locus of control./li>
In other words, practice thinking on the frontier of what student's know, let them look for cause and effect, and learn to recognize the difference. This does not mean a rigid curriculum, or even a standard score on performance. Rather, it means how well one can meet unexpected or unknown situations and overcome them by looking for and finding deeper causes and effects, and from these take more effective action. This is the essence of insight. We can never have too much, but right now in our educational system, we have too little. This is not to say the knowledge in its own right is not necessary. It surely is, especially the basics.

Insight arises from answering questions and questioning the answers. The latest answers become current knowledge.

The coin called wisdom has two sides:
Insight and knowledge.

Wisdom is there when you see knowledge applied to new and different solutions insightfully and accurately with effect.


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