The Importance of Ideas

One day I realized that ideas had become as important to me as facts. Ideas were real, almost tangible. I could toss them around in new combinations, even blend them like paints. And, like paints, some were opaque, others translucent. Sometimes I reveled in coming across an already-formulated idea.  Other times, I reveled in a new idea that seemed to spring forth from my subconscious.  An intriguing idea was valuable regardless of its source.

Finding or creating a new idea had suddenly become as exciting as being at a Macy’s sale and finding a just-my-size cashmere sweater — or having a friend show me how to knit one myself!  But an idea was far better than a beloved sweater… an idea could evolve and have a life of its own. It was really not like a sweater, but more like a splendid bird that could articulate patterns emerging from chaos.

Why had it taken me so long to give ideas their due? Facts are certainly important, and  provide the basis of knowledge. But do our schools put too much emphasis on facts while failing to acknowledge the power and relevance of ideas? Why is the discussion of ideas so often reserved for those who have already mastered facts, as in classes for the gifted, or for those in higher education?  Shouldn’t students learn at an early age that it is ideas which shape our concept of which facts are worthy of study? Why had I for so long considered a fact to be a sturdy thing, whereas an idea was merely a phantom — fickle and unreliable? Could it be that my schooling had imparted a fondness for facts because they seemed to hold still like obedient students?

These thoughts come to mind as my colleagues in education discuss the meaning of the word knowledge. At first the word conjures up a static image, an image of facts inventoried and stored in a mind that resembles a warehouse. There is something about an idea that prevents it from being warehoused. It won’t sit obediently like a fact. You can store an idea under “psychology” and it suddenly pops up under “art” or “archeology.” A good idea darts around the mind like Tinkerbelle, leaving diamonds of light in its wake. A bad idea flings itself around the mind like a squirrel trapped in an attic.

As a teacher, I think a key problem is that society at large still operates with an outdated simile of the mind itself. A society still operating on the simile of the mind-as-warehouse will never take kindly to an educational system devoted to ideas. The history of ideas, the creation of ideas, the pooling of ideas – all these are issues which draw me toward education. Ideas are what make facts relevant. Yet young students too rarely come home from school filled with the excitement of ideas. They come home, instead, with lists of facts seemingly detached from any overarching concept. Instead of using their minds to consider and build on ideas, they fret over lists of facts which, in their frequent isolation from meaningful context, are soon forgotten. The evolution of knowledge into wisdom is thereby thwarted.

Ideas worthy of discussion do, thankfully, show up in the curriculum. After all, our country was founded on what might be the best idea ever: people working in a democracy to create and sustain a just society. Our Constitution is filled with procedures on how best to achieve this. And our country is known around the globe for being a sort of giant think-tank – a Petri dish for creativity.  Educators in several countries are currently looking at U.S. schools to see exactly how we are fostering the originality and creativity apparently not thriving in their schools.  So, overall, we are doing a good job in engaging young minds.

Meanwhile, we continue to deepen our understanding of democracy and of the human mind as we work toward the “more perfect union” envisioned by our country’s founders. Despite restrictive curriculum guides and textbooks, wise teachers continue to make room for the discussion of ideas. We should express our appreciation to these teachers. They certainly devote time and attention to the domains of knowledge available to deepen our understanding and enlighten our minds. At the same time, they invite and welcome that most wondrous of things: A newly minted or freshly-applied idea.

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