If the task of literacy classes is to promote literacy health, healthy reading and writing habits, then I would propose that the task of schools is to promote healthy intellects.
Which begs the question: What is intellectual health?
Maybe the place to start is not with the thing itself, but with its opposite. What does an unhealthy intellect look like?
An unhealthy intellect is one that sees the world only from one narrow point of view – its own. An unhealthy intellect always gives in to knee-jerk reactions, easy certainties, and unquestioned assumptions. It is unaware of its own confirmation bias, and its own filter bubble, thinking that the world-view it lives in is the only valid world view. It never doubts.
The unhealthy intellect clings desperately to ideas it wants to believe even in the face of new evidence. It is easily manipulated and falls for anything that confirms its own opinions. It is closed minded to any challenging idea.
It prefers its own illusions to reality. It lacks logic, or else bends logic to its own ends. It lacks empathy and is willing to think of other people as objects. It idolizes certainty above all else, and hates mystery, ambiguity, and wonder.
The unhealthy intellect never grows, but it doesn’t die either. It just spreads its own disease.
A healthy intellect, on the other hand, is one that at least attempts to see the world from other points of point of view and listens to other people. A healthy intellect always tries to question its own knee-jerk reactions, easy certainties, and unquestioned assumptions. It is aware of its own mental limitations, and makes account of them. It realizes that its worldview is not the only valid world view. It is often full of self-doubt – but self doubt that leads to enlightenment and wisdom. It is curious.
The healthy intellect holds on to certain principles that make thinking possible: That careful observation of the natural world can lead to insights about how it works; that reality is communal and that we should compare field notes with our fellow explorers to be sure we are on the right track. The healthy intellect is not easily manipulated, and has built-in crap detectors that go off when people or media appeal to its own biases. It is up to the challenge of entertaining challenging thoughts.
A healthy intellect prefers reality to its own illusions. It utilizes logic, but realizes that logic has its limitations. It is willing to accept that other people are still people even if they are different or disagree with it, and understands that making other people into objects is not only wrong, but stupid. It realizes that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. It is willing to admit to and live with uncertainty and to celebrate mystery, ambiguity, and wonder.
The healthy intellect is always growing upward and outward and inward. There is always more to learn about the universe around us, about other people, and about ourselves. It grows tall and it runs deep, and it spreads its wisdom and curiosity to others. It asks “Why?”
You can pass every test ever given in schools and still be intellectually unhealthy. You can fail every standardized test ever given in schools, and be intellectually healthy despite that. What if we made intellectual health the goal, with everything else we do in support of that?
If intelligence can be defined, as my wife suggests, as a combination of Attention, Retention, and Connection – paying attention the world around you and to the fields of knowledge humans have gathered, remembering what you have learned, and seeing connections between things, are we really encouraging students’ intelligence when we encourage them to fill their minds temporarily with isolated skills and facts and forget them after the test? Does the process of education itself discourage attention, retention, and connection?
I often ask my students to complete this sentence by creating a simile: “School is like a ____.” The most frequent answer? A jail – because of the way school works. Test prep does not set the intellect free. It traps it.
When I ask students what the human mind is like, I get many answers: a tree, a river, a bucket, a spider’s web… One student said the human mind is like the human body. You have to put good things in it and exercise it, not feed it junk food and let it be a mental couch potato. I asked him this: if the human body is like the human mind, what should school be? “A gymnasium,” he answered.
We need to stop creating jails for the mind and start creating gymnasiums. We need to create places where minds can get fed, where they can exercise. We need schools to be places that create healthy intellects.