Making Ideas our Own: The value of depth & feeling in education
03 Apr 2011

TODAY I WAS CLEARING OUT a lot of old books. As someone who has read a fair number of books over the years, I am so grateful for the greater possibilities these authors opened up for me. Reading a profound book is like travel, you can be changed fundamentally by new ideas just as you can be changed fundamentally by experiencing another culture. Before the internet became so popular, reading books (and some magazines) was one of the primary means to expose yourself to new ideas and new thinking, ideas and thoughts that you would never have been exposed to through your social circle. (Even alternative-thinking social circles tend to have a particular set of beliefs that are never questioned.)

These days, with the internet, we can experience a whole host of new ideas — many pretty radical and life-changing. And just as television has reduced our average attention span, the information on the internet tends to be short and sharp. Most of the information videos on Youtube are less than 10-minutes, and most of the written blogs and articles are no longer than several paragraphs. (Longer articles and essays have a much lower hit rate.)

And whilst a shrinking attention span can be a negative thing, especially if it gets so short that people become almost entirely limbic-driven, it also has a positive element to it in that it forces writers to come to the point more quickly without expanding out ideas to fill a whole book. (Video makers tend to produce short videos anyway because of the enormous time and resources involved in making videos in the first place.) So you find that people are starting to come to the point when describing new ideas much quicker, and without the boring padding associated with so many books.

It is a shame that so many 'new-ideas' individuals still see the 'book' format as the holy grail of writing — as if you are not a writer or thinker unless you have managed to drag out your ideas to 50 or 100 thousand words. Stop boring people and just say what you mean.

[This of course does not apply to fictional authors who are required to envelop the reader in fantasy for a long period of time.]

I know it sounds terrible to say, but I have always found large libraries depressing places to be. All those written words, all that conceptualisation, sitting heavily on the shelf — with just a few hidden gems scattered here and there. What about life… how does all that conceptualization ever come to life? The truth is, nearly all of it can’t. It is dead.

What is so great about the internet is that all this dead wood tends never to make it online in the first place, so that the information has more of a chance to come alive in succinct blogs, articles, essays and especially video. Sure, much of this shorter online material is not particularly novel or intelligent, but at least one can realize the value of something much quicker if it is shorter, and with a good search engine one can usually find writes and video makers of real value.

But there is a negative side to the succinct presentation of new ideas: when ideas are presented without the padding then there is a tendency not to sit or play with them. We do not make them our own because we are too busy moving on to the next novel ideas. This way, the profundity of what is in front of us is lost, and we end up superficially collecting novel ideas, and thinking that we are intelligent because we know so much. It would be much better to really allow just a few profound ideas deep into our visceral system than skim through a multitude for entertainment. And there are many sites that present so many startling ideas that we can become quite blaze in how we approach them.

You have probably met the people who know every alternative theory going, but they actually think entirely in the box because none of those ideas have had a real chance to work their magic and really change a worldview. That is the tragedy of too much information.

If you really want to change your thinking, pick just a few ideas and really sit with those ideas a while. Focus on those ideas. In a way, it doesn’t matter so much what the ideas are, only that we allow them to really percolate through our systems — right to the pit of our stomachs. And only when we really get a feel for those ideas can we move on to another. That process changes us — making us fundamentally more insightful. And if we can repeat that process with a range of ideas, then we can learn real mental flexibility.

Personally, I would rather spend time with someone who has experienced a system of ideas deeply than someone who has experienced loads of ideas superficially. Of course, ideally, I would rather spend time with someone who has experienced a number of very different ideas deeply. Those people are the ones who tend to have the most open hearts.

However, there is a difference between making ideas our own by sitting with them than examining those ideas with great intellect. Academics look at ideas deeply, but being the sorts of people who live in their heads, they are often unable to have a real 'feel' for those ideas because they tend to be disconnected from their bodies. Those who do have a real feel for what they study are often the ones who make the important discoveries.

It is time our universities, which are producing many of the leaders and thinkers of tomorrow, stop teaching heads and start teaching in a way that integrates the body into the thoughts and ideas, so that students learn to feel ideas rather than just think them. This way, the expression of those ideas in society is more likely to be infused with heart.