Independent Thinking Skills! Learning Outside of the Academy
Shortly before the 2016 Presidential Election, I (Will) tweeted a rhetorical question that compared Trump’s campaign with a recent scientific discovery. The analogy was this: just as the sound of black holes colliding confirms Einstein’s theories on gravitational space-time from a century ago, so too does Trump’s popularity signal a historical event, namely the collapse of our education system. The sound of the comingling blackholes travels through space and reaches our radioscopes 100 years after the fact, thereby letting us sense the sizeable magnitude of a distant event. The rise of Trump confirms that, long ago, our education system stopped facilitating the type of critical thinking skills that would encourage individuals to challenge the prevailing epistemology of ignorance that goes by the name of status quo.
In the recent weeks, with the confirmation of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, history has repeated itself. The issue at stake, as I see it, has less to do with partisan politics and special interests (though, of course, those factors play a part) and more to do with the interplay between mis- and dis-information, on the one hand, and independent thinking skills, on the other hand. Mis-information is a common word these days. It connotes the pervasive spread of false facts and the (causally related) undermining of journalistic integrity. Dis-information, however, is somewhat of an uncommon term, though it has been alive in U.S. politics since the 1990s. Unlike mis-information, which stops short of assigning malicious intent to the spread of false facts, dis-information names the deliberate attempt to deceive individuals, parties, and governments. Mis- and dis-information are sometimes used in tandem, but it is becoming harder and harder to determine whether simple ignorance or purposeful deception and ideological intrigue is at the root of much of the country’s antagonism. For me, the route through the fog will not be mapped by educational institutions or media outlets, because of their historical collapse and erosion, but, rather, through the independent study of people who seek to think for themselves and liberate their minds and hearts from the shackles of both acquired and manicured ignorance.
When I was in middle school, I had a teacher named Susan Renaud. Ms. Renaud was an unapologetic feminist and radical educator who looked into the eyes of privileged white people like me and said, “You. You will become aware of yourself, your position in the world, and your blind spots. You will do this in order to make the world a better place.” She didn’t say exactly these words. Instead, she taught us to Know Ourselves through tactics that seemed, at the time, a bit harsh and direct for 12-year-olds. If, for example, we asked a question that revealed we had not been attending carefully to the lesson or the instructions, Ms. Renaud would reply: “Independent Thinking Skills.” She would simply repeat this phrase as we blinked back at her until we understood her meaning. Think about it. Think about what you’re asking. Really think about it and see if you can figure out the answer on your own.
Years later, I look back on this teaching technique with awe and wonder. Ms. Renaud didn’t treat us like children, not in the conventional sense of this phrase. She knew that we were already thinking about the world and making sense of things. She knew that we had to become responsible for ourselves and the questions we asked, otherwise we wouldn't be able to understand the complexities of the Zapatista rebellion, the geography of the Khyber Pass, or the other topics of study she wanted to teach us. “Independent Thinking Skills” was one of the phrases that motivated my early matriculation from high school, my pursuit of a BFA in experimental theatre, my awakening during my Masters study in theatre historiography, and the attainment of my doctorate. More importantly, the notion of independent thought and self-reflexivity continues to fuel my wars of position and wars of maneuver against ideologies I know to be false, intentionally harmful to life, and unhelpful in mapping the complexities of this world.
Mine is a battle not against individual political figures or contemporary paradigms of Right and Left; rather, I work on behalf of transformative light, creative thought, and philosophical inquiry. And the language I’m using in this blog entry is not simply a purposeful allusion to incendiary figures like Robespierre or Ida B. Wells (though it is definitely that, too). My language is part of my lesson. What’s the benefit of understanding how to see and conjure analogies between such far-flung entities as colliding black holes and the failings of traditional education systems? Why should you know and continually think about the specific phrase, “Epistemology of Ignorance”? Will your life change if you know the difference between mis- and dis-information, as well as the histories of these terms? When I use an expression like, “the route through the fog,” are you interested to know that I choose these words so as to link intentionally to the Ancient Greek word typhos (τῖφος), which also meant “smoke” and “mist” and was first used by Hippocrates to describe a confused state of the intellect? Interested still to know that the great Cynic Diogenes of Sinope decried the τῖφος of his time as the biggest impediment to reason and true thinking? I use terms like these, tacitly cite specific intellectual traditions, and ask all of these questions because I believe that such tactics of thought will soon be lost to us. There are certainly schools where dynamic and rhizomatic thought underpins the curriculum, but these schools are few and far between. For those of us who are beyond the stages of elementary, secondary, and tertiary education (either in age or temperament or both), where will we continue our learning?
This is my plea: the time is now to undertake independent study, either on your own or with a guide. After our first year of business at Inviting Abundance, we have recognized the challenges of forwarding our services as educational consultants outside of traditional learning environments. People seem not to know what that means or what such learning would entail, and this is entirely my point. The time is now to find out what learning looks like outside of school, what a class of your own devising might look like, what a course of individualized research could accomplish.
Obviously, my cards are on the table here. You can glimpse my allegiances and beliefs, and if you read my personal website you’ll see the topics I write about, from philosophies of “refugee” to German philosophy, to Baroque Venice. Perhaps this is not your cup of tea. But cups of tea, herbal remedies, histories of plants, ecoliteracy, ecocriticism, land politics, and other earthly matters are precisely Joanne’s terrain, so you could consider studying with her. Together, Joanne and I bring a wealth of knowledge to the table, from the fine arts (in both theory and practice) to the Humanities more broadly. We are deeply engaged and inquisitive researchers and scholars who want to assist people in finding their own path into the world of nuanced and creative thinking. We believe that this path of thinking and learning leads, ultimately, to a more engaged, meaningful, empowered, and compassionate mode of living.
True thinking has nothing to do with Fox News or CNN and it only occasionally appears in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Instead, true thinking happens to us, and it happens when we learn to see the world anew through the embodied and self-conscious exploration of everyday life. Do you want to know more? Do you want to feel the vibrancy of Independent Thinking? Contact us and let’s work together to create your own course of study.
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Related Articles and Blog Posts: Co-authored by Joanne and Will: Bootleg Education: Para-Pedagogical Experimentation Outside the University Setting; by Will: “Pedagogy”: What’s In A Word? and Race and Philosophy: Reflections On My Online Class