Tag Archives: Thinking

Taking Time to Think about Thinking


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.

Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason

why so few engage in it.Henry Ford


Dr. Martin Luther King’s Thoughts on Thinking


The quest began with a personal need to get back to writing for Poking Around with Mary, long abandoned when life interfered. Because I have been trying so hard to get a grip on a new job I have lacked both time and spirit to poke, much less to think, much less to write.

Knowing that it’s African American History Month I have longed for a chance to poke around the stories and resources I have gathered in better days.  My head teeming with disjointed ideas I kept trying without success to focus on that special theme or idea that might inspire me and inform others.

Today as I rifled aimlessly through the turgid backwater of paper, emails, post-its, phone messages and minutiae on my digital desk, this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King surfaced:

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking.  There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions.  Nothing pains some people more than having to think.

Dr. King’s observation that “nothing pains some people more than having to think” gave me pause.  I posed the question to myself:  Are we as a voting public, am I as a voter, complacently surrendering this democracy simply because we are pain resistant?  Do we the people settle for “easy answers and half-baked solutions?”  Worse, are we relinquishing the power of the people to forces that are only too willing to endure the fleeting pain of thinking for the long-term gain of seizing power?

The corollary lies in another of Dr. King’s prophetic quotes:

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think crtitically.  Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.  (emphasis mine)

Madison, Jefferson, Thomas Paine and others of their ilk enjoyed good educations, amassed impressive libraries, lived privileged lives that afforded them time, skills and tools to think. As men of intelligence and character, they made the most of the opportunity.  Fortunately for us, they thought through the long-term implications of their action. The took time to engage in meaningful dialog.  They weighed their options and considered the consequences of  governing, authority, checks and balances, the public accountability of the government they forged.  They underscored the big ideas, including that fundamental principle that the printing press was a protected public good essential to an informed – and thinking – citizenry.

As we all know, there were some gaps in their thinking about who was qualified to engage in the process, a topic to ponder another day.   Still, their idea of sharing the power with an informed public was both solid and challenging.   The challenge today is to think about how a diverse citizenry with a range of skills, an infinite array of resources, the communications and information tools of the day – can embrace the challenge – and set aside the time – to think.

Monday is President’s Day, originally intended to commemorate the contributions of our forbearers. The day also offers a rare opportunity for those of intelligence and character to think long and deep about how best to nurture this fragile democracy.

Dr. King adds this relevant thought:     “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”