A Mind at Work
July 12th, 2010

I don’t think I have to go too far out on a limb in saying that I value education.  It’s not an especially risky position to take.  I am the fortunate product of a good education, a family of readers, and a marriage filled with challenging ideas.

These things suit me, but beyond that, I believe they make me a better person.  I believe that I improve myself every time I learn something, whether it’s the result of extensive reading or a quick Wikipedia search.  I also believe that learning and education are not exclusively achieved by enrollment in colleges and graduate schools.  They likewise come from independent reading, engaging with people, exposing yourself to new environments and cultures, and experiencing things firsthand.

Having said all this I am fully aware that there are plenty of ignorant people in the world.  Some of them yearn for better opportunities and broader experiences.  But plenty of them are content to meander through life with the knowledge they’ve already obtained, along with whatever else happens upon them without too much effort.

It is this second category of people that GAP and I discussed over dinner Saturday night.  He has a low level of tolerance for people who don’t engage their minds.  Not for people who are uneducated.  Not even for people who aren’t very bright.  His beef is with those who don’t try; people who could ask interesting questions and think interesting thoughts, yet choose not to.  These people exist in all circles of society: urban, rural, middle class suburban, wealthy, and poor.

I am inclined to give these people a pass, of sorts.  There is a part of me that believes that their choices are not my business.  If they are happy enough in their current lifestyle, who am I to assume that my own approach to personal growth is right for them?  Additionally, ignorant bliss aside, for many of these people additional knowledge or analytical insight may not measurably improve their lives in any tangible way.

Yet I have said it: I value education.  I think it is important.  So how can I reconcile that belief to only some subset of my society?  I would never state that vegetables and exercise are only important for people who already enjoy them.  I would never concede that open-mindedness and generosity are only valuable in people who care about those traits.  So why would I parse words when it comes to education?

I suppose it is that when it comes to advocating mental muscle there is a risk factor for snobbery that scares me.  Particularly given that I am well educated I fear that being outspoken about education (formal or otherwise), intellectual curiosity, and other aspects of knowledge and learning will imply judgment that I truly do not mean to convey.

There is a line from The West Wing (probably my all-time favorite show) that comes from a senior White House staffer in the midst of an election cycle.  The sitting president is an educated liberal from a prestigious family, fighting against a challenger who comes from more humble roots and is gaining ground on his platform of being a regular guy.  As the president grapples with how to leverage his own intellectualism the staffer says, “Before I look for anything, I look for a mind at work.”

I have always loved this line because it succinctly communicates exactly what I value.  He doesn’t say, “Before I look for anything I look for a post-graduate degree” or “a high iQ” or “analytical genius.”  He looks for a mind at work.  The range there is so broad.  It allows for so many versions.  A mind at work includes library books, The History Channel, and conversations with quirky and interesting people, as well as diplomas that read Summa Cum Laude.

I suppose what I’m here to say is that I don’t care whether or not you have a college degree or even a high school diploma.  I don’t care if you’re a savant-like genius or a dim-witted fool.  I care if you’re trying.  I care that you get up each day and put your thinking cap on.  I care if there’s a mind at work.  And that, I hope, is a fair position to take.

5 Responses to “A Mind at Work”

  1. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    It’s true, isn’t it? We tend to become lazy with our minds as we age–we no longer are curious about everything or want to learn how things work. Why is that, i wonder?

  2. Anne Says:

    I also place a high value on curiosity and learning. I think where it gets tricky is that it’s something often invisible to the naked eye. So how exactly do you judge or decide that a mind is at work? Someone’s “lifestyle” may be the same–day after day–year after year. And yet, they’re thinking. I’m not sure I think decisions or external actions are always indicative of thoughtfulness, so how do we know when someone isn’t trying?

  3. meghan Says:

    You’re a very good writer, and I think you make some very good points. I think that learning and excitement and wondering are important, but I think there is still a lot of value to be placed in formal education. While I understand it isn’t everything, I think it can often be the place where people learn to think outside the box and imagine and explore. Maybe I say that because I’m a teacher and hope to inspire students to stay in school and think outside the box. Nice post. I hope that you’ll come read my blog…I’m very meticulous about grammar as well and do my best to ensure that I’m always writing at my best. :)

  4. Cathy Says:

    I don’t know. I use my mind every day, especially at work. However, my lifestyle outside of work might not seem like I exercise the grey matter. For example, I like to hang out, drink beer, crack rude jokes for a cheap laugh, watch silly, unrealistic dramas on TV. So I guess I agree with Anne’s comments above.

    For me, what I find truly annoying, are those folks (my step-mother notably) who feel the need to intellectualize everything. I could say the sky is blue and she’d ramble on for 30 minutes about how “it’s not really blue, it’s more an ashen cobalt, blah blah blah”. Whatever. Sometimes it’s good to have idle chit chat. :-)

  5. Katybeth Says:

    How true. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

    To many of us wake up each morning and turn on CNN. Blindly following the media without a second though, mindlessly making choices throughout our day with dulled curiosity. I say “us” because while I might be blessed to be more aware…I am certainly struck with mindlessness often enough throughout my day.

    We chose Waldorf education for my son for the first 8 years of his life and I chose it again for High School. I like that he will be challenge to think beyond google and the media. I like that he will be challenged to think from a number of different hands on perspectives.

    The West Wing line is perfect and I will probably steal it!