Action is often prioritized over thought. “Action, not words,” and “enough talk” are common battle cries for those who weary of philosophical debates. But all action is based on thought. It is, whether conscious or unconscious, informed action. Thought tells us in which direction our action should move.
But much action is actually reaction and so does not involve a carefully thought-through strategy. Even when action is well-informed and strategic , it is often based on flawed assumptions. This is especially true when predicting future states of affairs. Buzzwords like “think out of the box,” “the ownership society,” “entreprenuership” and many others cloud our vision and crowd out alternative visions of the future. In the blog Ke Kaupu Hehi Ale, Noelani Goodyear-Ka’opua quotes futurist Jim Dator on this point:
“The future is fundamentally plural and open–an arena of possibilities, and not of discernible inevitabilities”
-Jim Dator, “The Future Lies Behind”
Buzzwords also tend to make us overcompensate – while we may realize the flaws in a current model, we forget that model’s advantages and may “throw the baby out with the bath water” – jettisoning the good with the bad.
This is happening in education as we speak. While schools focus on making teachers facilitators of inquiry rather than sources of knowledge and information, they downgrade the value of content knowledge to the point where learning becomes superficial. While there are many studies about the effects of information technology in classrooms, some new studies suggest that a lack of content knowledge among teachers is responsible for their ineffectiveness. If you only have a shallow understanding of a concept, you can only explain it one way: the way you learned it. If your knowledge is deep, you can explain the concept from many different approaches, helping students who don’t learn the same way you do.
We see the same effect in the economy at large. Buzzwords like “welfare queens,” “deregulation,” or slogans like Ronald Reagan’s famous “government doesn’t solve problems, government is the problem,” allowed the US to move from pensions to 401ks, end welfare as we knew it, cut food stamps, and essentially dismantle the New Deal. Now we’re seeing the shortsightedness of that approach, with up to 80 million Americans out of work, despite the official 6% unemployment rate. We were duped. Or, if you take Al Gore’s word for it, distracted by TV scandals while US democracy was disassembled and an “assault on reason” itself largely won.
It is for these reasons that I took the lead on a project called “Thought leadership” and have called for “building an intellectual culture.” The thought leadership project’s aim is to gather the top young minds in the Hawaiian community and analyze trends affecting that lahui. A report will be produced along the lines of the Hawai’i 2000 report from 1970. There is an architecture of thought, or what Jaques Barzun has called a “house of intellect” that needs to be constructed, cultivated and maintained. We know that common sense isn’t common, so going beyond common sense should not be seen as something that emerges on a societal scale spontaneously. Institutions and cultural conventions, for all their disadvantages, are needed to develop a thought-sphere that allows us to focus on what’s important, and to do so at a deep level.