Thursday, February 02, 2023

More Than Mere Knowing: The Emotions Of Critical Thought

We awake up each morning into the unknown. Oh sure, there are things we already know — my spouse takes cream in her coffee, my kids won't eat cold oatmeal, E=mc² — but when it comes to applying our brains to thinking it is upon the unknown that we apply ourselves. I mean, we may appreciate the simple things, the routines, the familiar, the established facts of life, but if we're going to engage in intelligent thought, and we must or else expire of boredom and stupidity. It's the unknown that gets our attention.

What will today bring and what will we do about it? That is what stands at the center of our intellectual lives. It's what gives life relish. Astonishment, confusion, struggle, panic, puzzlement, surprise, eagerness, anticipation, anxiety, excitement, passion: this is the stuff of critical thought, of intelligence.

At the beginning of the pandemic, for instance, I awoke each morning to face the unknown of how I was going to pay my bills. Up until then, I'd earned my living primarily as a public speaker, but suddenly, in a flash, I found myself scrambling from sun up to sun down trying to figure out how to fill in that suddenly opened maw in my immediate economic prospects. And I wasn't the only one. 

Every one of us experiences the emotions associated with intelligent thought, every single day as we piece together the new world into which we open our eyes. I'm not sure where we got the idea that critical thinking was a dry, cool, systematic endeavor but that's certainly not the truth. No, contrary to the popular notions, the application of intelligence is a highly emotional, messy, confusing, stressful process: much more Captain Kirk than Mr. Spock.

One of the functions of schools is to measure intelligence, indeed an entire industry has sprung up around this notion, bringing forth our current era of standardized testing, complete with standardized curricula designed with those standard measures in mind, as if we hope to make all the sprouts grow into plants of exactly the same shape and size. But this is nothing new. Schools were in the intelligence measuring game long before the advent of testing corporations, with their own tests and grades and report cards. Yet all they've ever sought to measure is what kids already know, which has nothing to do with intelligence.

I've had the opportunity to sit in on several psychologist administered IQ tests. I'll never forget the boy who was asked how many arms a person has and was judged to be wrong when he, after much thought, shrugged, "Two . . . or one . . . or even none." Had he just blurted out "Two!" the test would have assessed him as smarter. The kid with the quick hand and ready answer is judged to be the most intelligent by this process, downgrading the child who is engaged in the actual process of applying his intelligence. Which is to say making something that is unknown into something that is known.

Our intelligence is called into play when confronted with the unknown. What are we going to do about it? How do we go about solving or understanding this? Confronting the unknown is necessarily an emotional experience and those feelings of astonishment, confusion, struggle, puzzlement, surprise, eagerness, anticipation, anxiety, excitement, and passion are the material of intelligent thought. Without that, we're left with mere knowing. It's the values and virtues of not knowing that are the real measures of intelligent thought.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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