Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge;
it is thinking that makes what we read ours. John Locke
As an unreconstructed information access advocate I should be in a state of digital euphoria. Still, in a world overflowing with “materials of knowledge” I continue to rail incessantly about the need to teach the skills of information literary, agonize abut media monopolies, fret about the demise of investigative journalism, stress about the lack of transparency in trade deals, food safety, national security and Wall Street machinations. I rant about who sets the research agenda, how metrics are manipulated, what and who doesn’t show up in infographics. Just now I’m deeply immersed in the energy that surrounds the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act
As I reflect on all mental spinning of wheels, I have come to appreciate the limits of my thoughts – the ruminations are all about the “materials of knowledge.” More and more I feel the need to trace the information chain from source to destination, to give more thought to the receiver of the message, the one who will ultimately act on whatever gushes forth from the hydrant of metrics, polls, charts, editorials, unfiltered- and uninformed – opinions (Campaign season does this to me.) What – and how — are we voters thinking as we endure the incessant puffery and promises?
The words of John Locke, written more than three centuries ago, focus my thoughts. Today our lives and minds are saturated with “the materials of knowledge” created, processed and delivered to our ears and eyes through channels beyond the imagination of Locke and his contemporaries. What has not changed is the truth that, even in this digital age, “it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” We should perhaps give more thought to thinking.
By force of habit, I searched the term “thinking”- the results flooded my mind with obscure facts about metacognition, discernment, and the physiological processing of turning materials of knowledge into thoughts – mechanics beyond my ken and, for that matter, my interest. So I decided to review my own thoughts on thinking. Thus, I presume to share these personal, unapologetically unscientific musings on what it takes to “make what we read ours.”
- A frequently overlooked yet fundamental element of clear thinking is a healthy dose of self awareness, matched with the confidence to test the ideas and information of others against our own informed values. We need be truly appreciate that we own the right to an informed opinion. We are not empty vessels thirsting for information and ideas splashed our way by untested sources.
- To some extent, the basics of self-awareness and confidence rest on a sturdy and ever-expanding structure of 21st Century skills. This starts with elementary skills of manipulating the mechanics of information. And this level of access depends to a great extent on economic factors, geographic limits, physical and mental ability and training. Contrary to popular belief the Internet and social media are neither universally accessible nor omniscient – much less impartial.
- Too often we acquire only the limited skill to “read” what spews forth on demand; we do not learn the skill or nurture the habit of validating the “materials of knowledge” that are so readily accessible. The challenge to think assumes the skill to critically assess the motives of the source and thus the role of the receiver: Are we thoughtful people concerned with our own or the public good – or are we simply targeted consumers of products or services or pawns to a political pitch. In fact we cannot be tabula rasa “readers” of the “materials of knowledge” brilliantly packaged in formats designed to fool rather than inform – we need to think about it….
- Open discourse with other sentient beings can often clarify, strengthen, and amplify our thinking. Sharing thoughts with others offers the challenge to sift, sort, compare, weigh, and illuminate information and ideas. True collaborative thinking is not so much an exchange of like opinions and ignorance as an honest willingness to listen to – and counter as appropriate – the thoughts of others.
- In truth, Locke does not disparage the reading of (or listening to) books as a viable source of the “materials of knowledge.” Think history, analysis, biography, stories that illuminate the thoughts and challenges, the wisdom and foibles of humankind. Though bookstores and libraries tout the latest hot item rushed to press by an Insider, take time to browse, then drink deep of the literary stream.
- Most important, perhaps, thinking takes time – time to digest diverse materials of knowledge, to make the materials our own. Thinking demands the commitment of precious time to learn, to exchange, to verify, to ponder, to challenge, sometimes to re-consider. Though the product of clear thinking may be neither visible nor measurable, human beings are designed not just to process the materials of knowledge but also to make all that information and all those ideas our own.
why so few engage in it.” Henry Ford