Thinking minds are key to the health of our republic

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the Times

Posted: 11/14/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

If I were called upon to give this age a moniker, I would go with “The Age of Borrowing.” Most people, it seems to me, are willing to live by other peoples’ ideas and calculations. So widespread is the proclivity to lean on others’ thinking that “true” opinion has become as rare a commodity as an honest politician.

People hold positions on a wide variety of subjects, of course, but most often these coincide with those of the political parties they support, or the long-held belief systems of their parents. Any new information that runs counter to these positions is immediately trivialized or deemed to be false. Truth, in other words, sits inside a suffocatingly small box.

“Too often,” wrote John F. Kennedy, “we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

It is so much easier to slip into a uniform than to dress to individual taste and occasion. Thought takes work. Why not just go along with what has been handed down, or what one read in the paper, or heard on the news?

Inside the framework of the universe, a man and his ideas are minuscule in scope. So, there is nothing wrong with borrowing, as long as one inspects each idea for virtue and veracity.

One must take one’s most cherished idea and construct a defense for its antithesis. This exercise is essential, for it alone can accentuate the idea and give it anchor; without it, the idea may just be a chimera masquerading for attention and solicitude.

A man must always have his guard up against verisimilitude.

Personal opinions should be fully and critically examined; otherwise, we allow the shadows of falsehood and deception to distemper discourse.

A high-ranking official at an institution decided to put out false information. At another institution, an official withheld bad news. Both claim they misled the people for their own good. Why bring negativity into communication? After all, it is best to have on rose-colored glasses.

Truth is illusory, for it rides on wings that often are burdened by exaggeration, inexactitude, and mendacity. However, we can get close to the truth by stripping away the burden on the wings. That requires study and work.

For the “Age of Borrowing” to move toward salubrious ground, pubic education has to put on a “real” mantle of strength.

If I have said it once, I have said it a hundred times: everything rides on a quality education.

It is not enough that students know how to calculate the mechanical advantage of a pulley system, or that they can recognize the author of a literary passage based on content and style. What good is an equation or a well-read book, if a student has not learned to think for himself.

The labor of thought is not always a pleasant activity, especially where it relies on the self for direction and distillation, but it alone can produce success where success truly counts. One cannot get to new places by using other peoples’ maps.

The trouble with public education today is that many high-school graduates are deficient in knowledge required to enter college. We know this because they are rightfully thrust into remedial classes — a second go at a high-school education, as it were — to ready them for higher learning.

More egregiously, the engine of testing and accountability that powers public education does a shoddy job of cultivating critical thinking skills in students.

A fractured educational system is a great threat to society and our republic, for an education constructed of inert ideas that lead young minds to borrow than to think, can open the door, little by little, to all forms of bad government.

Ramnath Subramanian is  a retired public-school teacher. E-mail address: