Gazing out over my students, I lecture about morality, or God, or knowledge, or politics, or whatever the philosophical topic is for that day. I struggle, because I can’t yet seem to engage these students with the degree that I want to. How many times have I gone over the differences between inductive and deductive logic? And yet, when I ask them for some distinction, I am met with silence and blank stares. After a few moments, they begin frantically shuffling through their notebooks, looking for a crumb of information. Someone raises their hand. I acknowledge them, and they read something from the notebook that doesn’t make any sense. Yes, I recall saying that, but they say it in a fragment, or they answer the wrong question. Essentially, after months of telling them that the goal is to understand, not to repeat, the greatest reaction I summon at this moment is replay, and poor replay at that. They do not comprehend.

I look out over the classroom, a collective of inactive, simple minds. A thing within their skulls that works to stay awake, look at me, occasionally nod, and occasionally copy down some collection of words that I have stated in succession with emphasis. These recorded words are not reviewed, not pondered; they are left to sit in the notebook, as though all that learning requires to place ink in various shapes on a page and nothing else.

No, no, no. I know better than this. This conception of their minds is flawed, and not because I’m being pesimistic or that I’m now being optimistic that their minds are better developed than this. I know this.

In 1998, my occupation was to stand guard duty in the towers surrounding Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. During our twelve and twenty-four hour posts, my job required me to stay awake and write down in our logbooks anytime we saw a truck drive from behind one hill and disappear behind another. The point of this, we were told, was to track Cuban movement so that we would know when they would attack. Of course, the Cubans are not about to attack Guantanamo Bay in 1998.

You can’t put a Marine in one place for too long with nothing to do before he does something that amuses him. There is an old joke: put a Marine in a completely sealed, padded room and give him three steal balls. Leave him in there for an hour. When you open the door, you will find that the Marine has either lost, eaten, or broken the three balls. This is not absolutely true, of course. But you would be astonished to find out how closely this actually approaches truth.

If I were in that sealed room, I probably would not break them or eat them. I might lose them. More likely, I would stare at these balls and wonder why they’re here, what their purpose is.

So when I’m on these posts, in addition to losing things, I stare at everything and wonder what it’s for, why we’re here, and what the other Marine on post thinks of it all.

Grunts, it is often true, are stupid and narrow-minded on many topics. But often, they are quite clever. And forced into this position, with me staring at them and asking bizarre questions, I learned a valuable lesson that has shaped everything I think about philosophy: everyone is interested in philosophical matters, even if they don’t know it yet.

No mind is simple. If someone is capable enough of ending up in the Marine Corps infantry or a community college class, the mind is not simple. Each mind is a massive conglomeration of ideas, beliefs, feelings, and memories. Each mind is a citadel of thought-parts and feeling-parts, arranged together in a massively complex and unique way: a mental fingerprint that determines everything about how that individual operates in the world.

When conversation and thoughts are not engaging, the responses that a complex mind produces are not complex or interesting. They are predictable and repetitive. When introduced to the common notions of a society, the uncritical mind does not evaluate the immigrant idea, but incorporates it into their own mind. The result is a hodge-podge, unpurposeful mound of ideas that cannot put forth strong, critical thoughts.

With no structure, all new ideas that induce attraction, joy, or confidence are defacto compatible: with no logic behind what is accepted and what is rejected, then emotion determines everything.

With this “structure” in place, many people will have the same ideas concerning those issues that occur frequently, even if the hidden, undiscussed issues are relevant and in contention. And so it will appear, that in a great group of people, all minds are often the same.

But with this new view, I gaze at my students and I see something new, and something beautiful: each mind an unorganized collage of thoughts and beliefs, unknown to even the owner. My task is not to make them respond to my questions: my mind is to peel one idea from another and show them what connections exist between one mind and another, and show their neighbor, and force them to see their own thoughts. Let them judge for themselves whether their beliefs are worth holding or not.  

3 Responses to “Minds”

  1. white text on black background–really harsh on the eyes!

  2. At 28 years old I have found that the act of changing a mind or viewpoint is very difficult. Those people that are willing to listen and digest new thoughts or new ways of thinking are the people that I can relate to. Those are the people that turn my mind on.
    I sadly say that many people I’ve met I find myself “uh-uh-ing” and saying “hmm” because I feel a vacuous sense that neither of us will learn or garner anything from our conversation.
    My time is valuable, and so is my mind and my words, if I feel that my thoughts will never be truly heard, I am more likely not to do more than stir the pot a bit, just to see if there might be a chance that a great spark might ignite something wonderful.
    If I had to put down one single life goal it would be that I remain the most open-minded person from now until the day I die. If you have a good argument I would ask you to bring it to me. The folks that do usually become instant friends and at times civil adversaries.
    I’ve got a pretty simple rule: the longer it takes me to drink a pint of good beer while conversing the more likely I have learned something and found a new friend.

  3. I like the drinking rule a lot.

    When it comes to making friends or deciding whether or not to pursue a conversation, I agree with much of what you say.

    On the other hand, as a teacher, the goals, expected outcomes, power, time, and relationship is different.

    As mentioned in the blog post, I see my goal as a teacher to stimulate self-questioning and self-exploration. This requires, among other things, a tolerance for ambiguity (a habit of mind that can remain active and sane without convictions) and the ability to utilize other people’s thoughts to assist in the self-investigation.

    When I am dealing with a student, as opposed to a stranger at the bar, I have the opportunity to deliver question upon question, demand writing projects, and massive amounts of time to stimulate their minds. Doubts can be raised, habits of questioning and thinking can be instilled. I do not have these powers and opportunities even with my friends.

    On the other hand, unlike with my friends or strangers, I never have the luxury of walking away when I become frustrated with a conversation.

    This can be frustrating, but I do see it as a good thing.

    In the end, however, I see our goals as the same. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a society where everyone could engage in exciting conversation? Where everyone would be willing to re-engage in their own beliefs? What we are seeking is a culture of contemplation and discussion, but that sort of culture requires a large number of a certain type of character. Whenever we stimulate minds, no matter how ineffective it may seem, we are contributing to that project. And ultimately, a culture of contemplation and discussion will only be possible when a large number of people are trying to activate each other’s minds through multiple strategies. At the same time, we must resist the temptation to tell people what they OUGHT to think, esp. regarding politics, religion, and ethics.

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