Teaching How to Think

Where Do We Come From

What Are We

Where Are We Going

Paul Gauguin, D'où venons-nous Qui sommes-nous Où allons-nous, (1897, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Paul Gaugin inscribed the above title across the upper left corner of his 1897 painting; doing so in capital letters and without question marks. He stated the painting should be viewed from right to left, with the three major figure groups illustrating the questions posed in the title. The women with a child represent the beginning of life; the middle group symbolizes the daily existence of young adulthood; and in the final group, an old woman approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts.

In the movie “Blade Runner” set in 2019, Harrison Ford as Deckard narrates avoiding death with the help of a replicant (bio-engineered being). “I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life – anybody’s life; my life. All he’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die.”

And with these three basic questions we are warned by Columbia University President, Lee C. Bollinger in his 2008 Commencement Address. ”When you leave these gates, the positions in the mental universe are reversed in how they’re weighted. The battle over beliefs is increasingly dominating and threatens the possibilities for a reflective mind. Busyness is the first problem. Multi-tasking is the arch-enemy of reflection. Technology gives us too much information too much of the time.”

Gaugin from the past, Deckard from the “future,” speak to us directly, explicitly, life is a journey of reflection; a reflection of three basic questions; “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” Columbia’s President Bollinger speaks, cautions, warns us about the challenges society presents for reflection on those questions.

When considering these questions, what then is the role of Government in education? To begin it is to insure all have the opportunity to receive an education that allows contemplation of these questions; all have the freedom to pursue the path that best answers these questions; that none are restricted in pursuing these questions regardless of economic status. Government must insure the educational system is “Teaching How to Think”.

“If you would have the sun continue to shed his unclouded rays upon the face of free men, then EDUCATE ALL THE CHILDREN OF THE LAND. This alone startles the tyrant in his dreams of power, and rouses the slumbering energies of an oppressed people.” R. Carlyle Buley

Scientific support for President Bollinger’s cautions and the need for reflection, “to think”, come from a study lead by Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. Humans can sort information very quickly and can respond in fractions of seconds to signs of physical pain in others. However, admiration and compassion – two of the social emotions that define humanity – take much longer, Damasio’s group found.

First author Mary Helen Immordino-Yang states “For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection.”

Damasio’s team in their study further state, “Educators are charged with the role of producing moral citizens who can think in ethical ways, who feel responsible to help others less fortunate, who can use their knowledge to make the world a better place; … and so we need to understand how social experience shapes interactions between the body and mind, to produce citizens with a strong moral compass.”

Chris Hedges adds further perspective to Dr. Damasio’s study and the need for “Teaching How to Think”.

“We march collectively toward self-annihilation. Corporate capitalism, if left unchecked, will kill us. Yet we refuse, because we cannot think and no longer listen to those who do think, to see what is about to happen to us. We have created entertaining mechanisms to obscure and silence the harsh truths, from climate change to the collapse of globalization to our enslavement to corporate power that will mean our self-destruction. If we can do nothing else we must, even as individuals nurture the private dialogue and the solitude that make thought possible. “

Returning to the question, what is the role of government in education? It is “Teaching How to Think” through interaction primarily of the person and secondarily of technology. As Deckard begins to understand that the meaning of life comes from our ability to connect with others, it is others who provide the answers to the questions “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”

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