How We Think

Chapter 3: Natural Resources in the Training of Thought

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Only native powers can be trained.

In the last chapter we considered the need of transforming, through training, the natural capacities of inference into habits of critical examination and inquiry. The very importance of thought for life makes necessary its control by education because of its natural tendency to go astray, and because social influences exist that tend to form habits of thought leading to inadequate and erroneous beliefs. Training must, however, be itself based upon the natural tendencies, that is, it must find its point of departure in them. A being who could not think without training could never be trained to think; one may have to learn to think well, but not to think.

Training, in short, must fall back upon the prior and independent existence of natural powers; it is concerned with their proper direction, not with creating them.

Hence, the one taught must take the initiative

Teaching and learning are correlative or corresponding processes, as much so as selling and buying. One might as well say he has sold when no one has bought, as to say that he has taught when no one has learned.  And in the educational transaction, the initiative lies with the learner even more than in commerce it lies with the buyer. If an individual can learn to think only in the sense of learning to employ more economically and

(30) effectively powers he already possesses, even more truly one can teach others to think only in the sense of appealing to and fostering powers already active in them. Effective appeal of this kind is impossible unless the teacher has an insight into existing habits and tendencies, the natural resources with which he has to ally himself.

Three important natural resources

Any inventory of the items of this natural capital is somewhat arbitrary because it must pass over many of the complex details. But a statement of the factors essential to thought will put before us in outline the main elements. Thinking involves (as we have seen) the suggestion of a conclusion for acceptance, and also search or inquiry to test the value of the suggestion before finally accepting it. This implies (a) a certain fund or store of experiences and facts from which suggestions proceed; (b) promptness, flexibility, and fertility of suggestions; and (c) orderliness, consecutiveness, appropriateness in what is suggested. Clearly, a person may be hampered in any of these three regards: His thinking may be irrelevant, narrow, or crude because he has not enough actual material upon which to base conclusions; or because concrete facts and raw material, even if extensive and bulky, fail to evoke suggestions easily and richly; or finally, because, even when these two conditions are fulfilled, the ideas suggested are incoherent and fantastic, rather than pertinent and consistent.

§ 1. Curiosity

Desire for fullness of experience

The most vital and significant factor in supplying the primary material whence suggestion may issue is, without doubt, curiosity. The wisest of the Greeks used to

(31) say that wonder is the mother of all science. An inert mind waits, as it were, for experiences to be imperiously forced upon it. The pregnant saying of Wordsworth :

The eye - it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where'er they be,
Against or with our will "

holds good in the degree in which one is naturally possessed by curiosity. The curious mind is constantly alert and exploring, seeking material for thought, as a vigorous and healthy body is on the qui vive for nutriment. Eagerness for experience, for new and varied contacts, is found where wonder is found. Such curiosity is the only sure guarantee of the acquisition of the primary facts upon which inference must base itself.

(a) physical

(a) In its first manifestations, curiosity is a vital overflow, an expression of an abundant organic energy. A physiological uneasiness leads a child to be " into everything," to be reaching, poking, pounding, prying. Observers of animals have noted what one author calls "their inveterate tendency to fool." " Rats run about, smell, dig, or gnaw, without real reference to the business in hand. In the same way Jack Ea dog] scrabbles and jumps, the kitten wanders and picks, the otter slips about everywhere like ground lightning, the elephant fumbles ceaselessly, the monkey pulls things about."[1] The most casual notice of the activities of a young child reveals a ceaseless display of exploring and testing activity. Objects are sucked, fingered, and thumped; drawn and pushed, handled and thrown; in short, experi-

(32) -mented with, till they cease to yield new qualities. Such activities are hardly intellectual, and yet without them intellectual activity would be feeble and intermittent through lack of stuff for its operations.

(b) social

(b) A higher stage of curiosity develops under the influence of social stimuli. When the child learns that he can appeal to others to eke out his store of experiences, so that, if objects fail to respond interestingly to his experiments, he may call upon persons to provide interesting material, a new epoch sets in. "What is that? " "Why? " become the unfailing signs of a child's presence. At first this questioning is hardly more than a projection into social relations of the physical overflow which earlier kept the child pushing and pulling, opening and shutting. He asks in succession what holds up the house, what holds up the soil that holds the house, what holds up the earth that holds the soil; but his questions are not evidence of any genuine consciousness of rational connections. His why is not a demand for scientific explanation; the motive behind it is simply eagerness for a larger acquaintance with the mysterious world in which he is placed. The search is not for a law or principle, but only for a bigger fact. Yet there is more than a desire to accumulate just information or heap up disconnected items, although sometimes the interrogating habit threatens to degenerate into a mere disease of language. In the feeling, however dim, that the facts which directly meet the senses are not the whole story, that there is more behind them and more to come from them, lies the germ of intellectual curiosity.

(c) intellectual

(c) Curiosity rises above the organic and the social planes and becomes intellectual in the degree in which

(33) it is transformed into interest in problems provoked by the observation of things and the accumulation of material. When the question is not discharged by being asked of another, when the child continues to entertain it in his own mind and to be alert for whatever will help answer it, curiosity has become a positive intellectual force. To the open mind, nature and social experience are full of varied and subtle challenges to look further. If germinating powers are not used and cultivated at the right moment, they tend to be transitory, to die out, or to wane in intensity. This general law is peculiarly true of sensitiveness to what is uncertain and questionable; in a few people, intellectual curiosity is so insatiable that nothing will discourage it, but in most its edge is easily dulled and blunted. Bacon's saying that we must become as little children in order to enter the kingdom of science is at once a reminder of the open-minded and flexible wonder of childhood and of the ease with which this endowment is lost. Some lose it in indifference or carelessness; others in a frivolous flippancy; many escape these evils only to become incased in a hard dogmatism which is equally fatal to the spirit of wonder. Some are so taken up with routine as to be inaccessible to new facts and problems. Others retain curiosity only with reference to what concerns their personal advantage in their chosen career. With many, curiosity is arrested on the plane of interest in local gossip and in the fortunes of their neighbors; indeed, so usual is this result that very often the first association with the word curiosity is a prying inquisitiveness into other people's business. With respect then to curiosity, the teacher has usually more to learn than to teach. Rarely can he aspire to the office of kindling or

(34) even increasing it. His task is rather to keep alive the sacred spark of wonder and to fan the flame that already glows. His problem is to protect the spirit of inquiry, to keep it from becoming blasé from overexcitement, wooden from routine, fossilized through dogmatic instruction, or dissipated by random exercise upon trivial things.

§ 2. Suggestion

Out of the subject-matter, whether rich or scanty, important or trivial, of present experience issue suggestions, ideas, beliefs as to what is not yet given. The function of suggestion is not one that can be produced by teaching; while it may be modified for better or worse by conditions, it cannot be destroyed. Many a child has tried his best to see if he could not "stop thinking," but the flow of suggestions goes on in spite of our will, quite as surely as " our bodies feel, where'er they be, against or with our will." Primarily, naturally, it is not we who think, in any actively responsible sense; thinking is rather something that happens in us. Only so far as one has acquired control of the method in which the function of suggestion occurs and has accepted responsibility for its consequences, can one truthfully say, "I think so and so."

The dimensions of suggestion:
(a) ease

The function of suggestion has a variety of aspects (or dimensions as we may term them), varying in different persons, both in themselves and in their mode of combination. These dimensions are case or promptness, extent or variety, and depth or persistence. (a) The common classification of persons into the dull and the bright is made primarily on the basis of the readiness or facility with which suggestions follow upon the presenta-

(35) -tion of objects and upon the happening of events. As the metaphor of dull and bright implies, some minds are impervious, or else they absorb passively. Everything presented is lost in a drab monotony that gives nothing back. But others reflect, or give back in varied lights, all that strikes upon them. The dull make no response; the bright flash back the fact with a changed quality. An inert or stupid mind requires a heavy jolt or an intense shock to move it to suggestion ; the bright mind is quick, is alert to react with interpretation and suggestion of consequences to follow.

Yet the teacher is not entitled to assume stupidity or even dullness merely because of irresponsiveness to school subjects or to a lesson as presented by text-book or teacher. The pupil labeled hopeless may react in quick and lively fashion when the thing-in-hand seems to him worth while, as some out-of-school sport or social affair. Indeed, the school subject might move him, were it set in a different context and treated by a different method. A boy dull in geometry may prove quick enough when he takes up the subject in connection with manual training; the girl who seems inaccessible to historical facts may respond promptly when it is a question of judging the character and deeds of people of her acquaintance or of fiction. Barring physical defect or disease, slowness and dullness in all directions are comparatively rare.

(b) range

(b) Irrespective of the difference in persons as to the ease and promptness with which ideas respond to facts, there is a difference in the number or range of the suggestions that occur. We speak truly, in some cases, of the flood, of suggestions; in others, there is but a slender trickle. Occasionally, slowness of outward

(36) response is due to a great variety of suggestions which check one another and lead to hesitation and suspense; while a lively and prompt suggestion may take such possession of the mind as to preclude the development of others. Too few suggestions indicate a dry and meager mental habit; when this is joined to great learning, there results a pedant or a Gradgrind. Such a person's mind rings hard; he is likely to bore others with mere bulk of information. He contrasts with the person whom we call ripe, juicy, and mellow.

A conclusion reached after consideration of a few alternatives may be formally correct, but it will not possess the fullness and richness of meaning of one arrived at after comparison of a greater variety of alternative suggestions. On the other hand, suggestions may be too numerous and too varied for the best interests of mental habit. So many suggestions may rise that the person is at a loss to select among them. He finds it difficult to reach any definite conclusion and wanders more or less helplessly among them. So much suggests itself pro and con, one thing leads on to another so naturally, that he finds it difficult to decide in practical affairs or to conclude in matters of theory. There is such a thing as too much thinking, as when action is paralyzed by the multiplicity of views suggested by a situation. Or again, the very number of suggestions may be hostile to tracing logical sequences among them, for it may tempt the mind away from the necessary but trying task of search for real connections, into the more congenial occupation of embroidering upon the given facts a tissue of agreeable fancies. The best mental habit involves a balance between paucity and redundancy of suggestions.


(c) profundity

(c) Depth. We distinguish between people not only upon the basis of their quickness and fertility of intellectual response, but also with respect to the plane upon which it occurs the intrinsic quality of the response.

One man's thought is profound while another's is superficial ; one goes to the roots of the matter, and another touches lightly its most external aspects. This phase of thinking is perhaps the most untaught of all, and the least amenable to external influence whether for improvement or harm. Nevertheless, the conditions of the pupil's contact with subject-matter may be such that he is compelled to come to quarters with its more significant features, or such that he is encouraged to deal with it upon the basis of what is trivial. The common assumptions that, if the pupil only thinks, one thought is just as good for his mental discipline as another, and that the end of study is the amassing of information, both tend to foster superficial, at the expense of significant, thought. Pupils who in matters of ordinary practical experience have a ready and acute perception of the difference between the significant and the meaningless, often reach in school subjects a point where all things seem equally important or equally unimportant; where one thing is just as likely to be true as another, and where intellectual effort is expended not in discriminating between things, but in trying to make verbal connections among words.

Balance of mind

Sometimes slowness and depth of response are intimately connected. Time 'is required in order to digest impressions, and translate them into substantial ideas " Brightness " may be but a flash in the pan. The " slow but sure " person, whether man or child, is one in whom impressions sink and accumulate, so that thinking is done

(38) at a deeper level of value than with a slighter load. Many a child is rebuked for "slowness," for not "answering promptly," when his forces are taking time to gather themselves together to deal effectively with the problem at hand. In such cases, failure to afford time and leisure conduce to habits of speedy, but snapshot and superficial, judgment. The depth to which a sense of the problem, of the difficulty, sinks, determines the quality of the thinking that follows; and any habit of teaching which encourages the pupil for the sake of a successful recitation or of a display of memorized information to glide over the thin ice of genuine problems reverses the true method of mind training.

Individual differences

It is profitable to study the lives of men and women who achieve in adult life fine things in their respective callings, but who were called dull in their school days. Sometimes the early wrong judgment was due mainly to the fact that the direction in which the child showed his ability was not one recognized by the good old standards in use, as in the case of Darwin's interest in beetles, snakes, and frogs. Sometimes it was due to the fact that the child dwelling habitually on a deeper plane of reflection than other pupils or than his teachers did not show to advantage when prompt answers of the usual sort were expected. Sometimes it was due to the fact that the pupil's natural mode of approach clashed habitually with that of the text or teacher, and the method of the latter was assumed as an absolute basis of estimate.

Any subject may be intellectual

In any event, it is desirable that the teacher should rid himself of the notion that "thinking" is a single, unalterable faculty; that he should recognize that it is a term denoting the various ways in which things acquire

(39) significance. It is desirable to expel also the kindred notion that some subjects are inherently " intellectual," and hence possessed of an almost magical power to train the faculty of thought. Thinking is specific, not a machinelike, ready-made apparatus to be turned indifferently and at will upon all subjects, as a lantern may throw its light as it happens upon horses, streets, gardens, trees, or river. Thinking is specific, in that different things suggest their own appropriate meanings, tell their own unique stories, and in that they do this in very different ways with different persons. As the growth of the body is through the assimilation of food, so the growth of mind is through the logical organization of subject-matter. Thinking is not like a sausage machine which reduces all materials indifferently to one marketable commodity, but is a power of following up and linking together the specific suggestions that specific things arouse. Accordingly, any subject, from Greek to cooking, and from drawing to mathematics, is intellectual, if intellectual at all, not in its fixed inner structure, but in its function in its power to start and direct significant inquiry and reflection. What geometry does for one, the manipulation of laboratory apparatus, the mastery of a musical composition, or the conduct of a business affair, may do for another.

§ 3. Orderliness: Its Nature

Facts, whether narrow or extensive, and conclusions suggested by them, whether many or few, do not constitute, even when combined, reflective thought. The suggestions must be organized; they must be arranged with reference to one another and with reference to the facts on which they depend for proof. When the


(40) factors of facility, of fertility, and of depth are properly balanced or proportioned, we get as the outcome continuity of thought. We desire neither the slow mind nor yet the hasty. We wish neither random diffuseness nor fixed rigidity. Consecutiveness means flexibility and variety of materials, conjoined with singleness and definiteness of direction. It is opposed both to a mechanical routine uniformity and to a grasshopper-like movement. Of bright children, it is not infrequently said that " they might do anything, if only they settled down," so quick and apt are they in any particular response. But, alas, they rarely settle.

On the other hand, it is not enough not to be diverted. A deadly and fanatic consistency is not our goal. Concentration does not mean fixity, nor a cramped arrest or paralysis of the flow of suggestion. It means variety and change of ideas combined into a single steady trend moving toward a unified conclusion. Thoughts are concentrated not by being kept still and quiescent, but by being kept moving toward an object, as a general concentrates his troops for attack or defense. Holding the mind to a subject is like holding a ship to its course; it implies constant change of place combined with unity of direction. Consistent and orderly thinking is precisely such a change of subject-matter. Consistency is no more the mere absence of contradiction than concentration is the mere absence of diversion which exists in dull routine or in a person "fast asleep." All kinds of varied and incompatible suggestions may sprout and be followed in their growth, and yet thinking be consistent and orderly, provided each one of the suggestions is viewed in relation to the main topic.

In the main, for most persons, the primary resource

Practical demands enforce some degree of continuity

(41) in the development of orderly habits of thought is indirect, not direct. Intellectual organization originates and for a time grows as an accompaniment of the organization of the acts required to realize an end, not as the result of a direct appeal to thinking power. The need of thinking to accomplish something beyond thinking is more potent than thinking for its own sake. All people at the outset, and the majority of people probably all their lives, attain ordering of thought through ordering of action. Adults normally carry on some occupation, profession, pursuit; and this furnishes the continuous axis about which their knowledge, their beliefs, and their habits of reaching and testing conclusions are organized. Observations that have to do with the efficient performance of their calling are extended and rendered precise. Information related to it is not merely amassed and then left in a heap; it is classified and subdivided so as to be available as it is needed. Inferences are made by most men not from purely speculative motives, but because they are involved in the efficient performance of "the duties involved in their several callings." Thus their inferences are constantly tested by results achieved; futile and scattering methods tend to be discounted; orderly arrangements have a premium put upon them. The event, the issue, stands as a constant check on the thinking that has led up to it; and this discipline by efficiency in action is the chief sanction, in practically all who are not scientific specialists, of orderliness of thought.

Such a resource the main prop of disciplined thinking in adult life is not to be despised in training the young in right intellectual habits. There are, however, profound differences between the immature and the

(42) adult in the matter of organized activity differences which must be taken seriously into account in any educational use of activities: (i) The external achievement resulting from activity is a more urgent necessity with the adult, and hence is with him a more effective means of discipline of mind than with the child; (ii) The ends of adult activity are more specialized than those of child activity.

Peculiar difficulty with children

(i) The selection and arrangement of appropriate lines of action is a much more difficult problem as respects youth than it is in the case of adults. With the latter, the main lines are more or less settled by circumstances. The social status of the adult, the fact that he is a citizen, a householder, a parent, one occupied in some regular industrial or professional calling, prescribes the chief features of the acts to be performed, and secures, somewhat automatically, as it were, appropriate and related modes of thinking. But with the child there is no such fixity of status and pursuit; there is almost nothing to dictate that such and such a consecutive line of action, rather than another, should be followed, while the will of others, his own caprice, and circumstances about him tend to produce an isolated momentary act. The absence of continued motivation cooperates with the inner plasticity of the immature to increase the importance of educational training and the difficulties in the way of finding consecutive modes of activities which may do for child and youth what serious vocations and functions do for the adult. In the case of children; the choice is so peculiarly exposed to arbitrary factors, to mere school traditions, to waves of pedagogical fad and fancy, to fluctuating social cross currents, that sometimes, in sheer disgust at the inadequacy of results, a reaction occurs

(43) to the total neglect of overt activity as an educational factor, and a recourse to purely theoretical subjects and methods.

Peculiar opportunity with children

(ii) This very difficulty, however, points to the fact that the opportunity for selecting truly educative activities is indefinitely greater in child life than in adult. The factor of external pressure is so strong with most adults that the educative value of the pursuit its reflex influence upon intelligence and character however genuine, is incidental, and frequently almost accidental. The problem and the opportunity with the young is selection of orderly and continuous modes of occupation, which, while they lead up to and prepare for the indispensable activities of adult life, have their own sufficient justification in their present reflex influence upon the formation of habits of thought.

Action and reaction between extremes

Educational practice shows a continual tendency to oscillate between two extremes with respect to overt  and exertive activities. One extreme is to neglect them almost entirely, on the ground that they are chaotic and fluctuating, mere diversions appealing to the transitory unformed taste and caprice of immature minds; or if they avoid this evil, are objectionable copies of the highly specialized, and more or less commercial, activities of adult life. If activities are admitted at all into the school, the admission is a grudging concession to the necessity of having occasional relief from the strain of constant intellectual work, or to the clamor of outside utilitarian demands upon the school. The other extreme is an enthusiastic belief in the almost magical educative efficacy of any kind of activity, granted it is an activity and not a passive absorption of academic and theoretic material. The conceptions of play, of

(44) self-expression, of natural growth, are appealed to almost as if they meant that opportunity for any kind of spontaneous activity inevitably secures the due training of mental power; or a mythological brain physiology is appealed to as proof that any exercise of the muscles trains power of thought.

Locating the problem of education

While we vibrate from one of these extremes to the other, the most serious of all problems is ignored: the problem, namely, of discovering and arranging the forms of activity (a) which are most congenial,. best adapted, to the immature stage of development; (b) which have the most ulterior promise as preparation for the social responsibilities of adult life; and (c) which, at the same time, have the maximum of influence in forming habits of acute observation and of consecutive inference. As curiosity is related to the acquisition of material of thought, as suggestion is related to flexibility and force of thought, so the ordering of activities, not themselves primarily intellectual, is related to the forming of intellectual powers of consecutiveness.


  1. Hobhouse, Mind in Evolution, p. 195.

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