Self-correcting homo sapiens

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 76 views 

I like to think I am an astute observer of the human scene, that I have a good memory, and my knowledge base is rooted in sound reasoning and empirical evidence, but I am not.

I know these things are what I aspire to, but I also know I often fail to miss observations ranging from the commonplace to the complex, that I remember things differently from which they happened in reality, and that I am blinded by old assumptions that prevent me from learning new things. I know this because I am a human being.

In years past I have taught material in my classes with full conviction and faith that what I was saying was correct, but that I have since learned was flawed, inaccurate, or misleading. The first few times this happened my inclination was to contact all those students I had five years ago, or 15 years ago, or whenever it might have been, and tell them I was wrong and apologize for misinforming them. Of course this is not possible, nor do I think many, or really any of those students would remember or care by now.

It is because of this experience though, that at some point in the semester when the time seems right, I tell my students, “Don’t believe anything I say.” Some eyebrows raise at this statement, others think I am just kidding, but most students know what I mean: do not believe what I am saying just because I am a teacher; think for yourselves and determine what you believe with your own faculties.

Joel Stubblefield hired me in 1997  to teach at Westark Community College. In my first year he appointed me to the Strategic Thinking and Planning Committee. As the committee grappled with mission, vision, and value statements, SWOT analyses and such, I offered as a mission statement for the college: to assist individuals in becoming self-correcting homo sapiens. My anthropological twist of wording made it wildly unpopular, but I maintain to this day that that is the goal of all education: to realize we do not know everything, to strive to learn more, to adjust our bearings accordingly, and repeat this process indefinitely.

What is the alternative and its consequence? It is all too easy today to lean toward interacting in groups of similarly minded people whether in person, in the mass media, at social gatherings or on social media. We may surround ourselves, constantly if we choose, with other people and other voices that sound just like ours, saying the same things we do, and having our convictions completely reinforced. There are many fancy names for this ranging from groupthink to knowledge blindness, but regardless of what you call it, it is not education, it is not learning, and it does not foster us in becoming self-correcting homo sapiens. Everyone is at risk of falling into this navel-gazing pool of selective perception. It may feel good, but it is not a healthy view of the world and it seldom leads to positive change. Moreover, it is fundamentally not an honest way to go through life.

Learning is never finished and comes in many forms. Taking a college class, earning a degree, or visiting the public library are obvious avenues to new thought. Yes, the cost of learning can be expensive, but most learning opportunities are free. It can be as simple as placing yourself in new locations, listening to people who think differently than you, visiting parts of town you have not been to, or shopping in a different grocery than you are accustomed.

More than money, I believe, fear of the unknown and resistance to change are bigger obstacles to personal and civic growth. It costs nothing to decide to expand your mind.

Embracing the uncertainty of something new can be a challenging, humbling, even threatening exercise. I understand that. I have experienced that. I have also experienced what comes out on the other side – vistas of thought and knowledge that deepen and strengthen my understanding of the world and of my place in it. I would much rather be on this side, uncertain as it is.

The world is a big exciting place. Life is an amazing adventure. How much there is still to learn.