Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

On Intellectual Inhibition

Originally posted on July 18, 2009

A friend of mine is interested in the frontiers of consciousness development—as am I—and had recently attended the national conference of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). One theme he noted was the growing confidence that appreciation for the not-entirely- materialistic way of viewing the world was growing. I asked him (as I am wont to do) what he imagined the implications of this shift in world-view might be if it were to pass critical mass. He pondered and then suggested a wider use of venues for true conversation, such as  the “world café,” Socrates’ café, and the like.

I considered the various conversation groups I’d been in like this, and remembered that at least half of the group was fairly passive.  It seems that only a relative minority of people  really grapple actively with new ideas. My friend asked if I thought it was a matter of innate intelligence. I considered and replied that my fear was that the impact of normal schooling, the average content of which involved the inculcation of tons of relatively irrelevant information, was more deadening than anyone had appreciated. (The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead had made a similar point back around 1912 in a talk to school administrators, and these statements were incorporated a collection of essays with the title, “The Aims of Education.”) I think these issues still operate today.

I drew the analogy between intellectual “malnutrition” and physical “malnutrition,” noting the case of rickets: It had for a time in the 19th century become so common that it was almost unremarkable. The problem for lower class city youth, growing up indoors, or in a polluted atmosphere of the 19th century European city—was that sunlight was rarely experienced by skin and eyes. As a result, children became deficient in vitamin D, resulting in the disease called rickets—rarely seen today, what with vitamin supplementation of milk and food. Rickets results in a softening of the bones and also other medical symptoms. The point is that this disease and its cause, a chronic vitamin deficiency—was so prevalent in some areas (in most cities in Europe) that many people just accepted this as a mysterious form of being “sickly” that just happened to most people. What, then, if most people suffer more than they realize from a condition of chronic neglect, active inhibition, and dilution of intellectual passion? Also, what if this condition is caused by what is generally accepted as a normal schooling experience and socialization experience in modern culture.

What if we come to realize that modern culture—only one or two hundred years, occurring between an era of traditionalism and unacceptable degrees of credulity (in the divine right of kings, for example), and an era emerging today—“postmodern”—an era of increasing skepticism… is in fact still laced with generous levels of the pre-modern traditionalist tendencies towards repression and inhibition of active inquiry? Indeed, I think it entirely possible—probable, even—that in a few hundred years people will look back and realize that the average child growing up in the 20th century was nourished well enough, physically, but was “malnourished” when it came to support and stimulation for the development of the mental capacities for imagination, creativity, initiative, confidence in philosophical speculation, confidence in improvisation dramatically, musically, artistically and also with public speaking, creative writing, etc.

Intellectual inhibition was further compounded by other problems:
– question-asking often was reacted to as if it were impudence
– many questions collided with the pat formulas and especially religious orthodoxy of some dominant group, teachers, etc.
(I am coming to think that religion is profoundly repressive, in an interesting way: Without having to threaten hell or burning at the stake, what is offered is a kind of warm alternative: We will give you a nice community, a kind community, one that is interested in you. All we ask is that you attend and don’t be a troublemaker. There are some lines of intellectual inquiry that we leave alone; we don’t go there. Like talking about masturbation, it’s just not done. Doubts about fundamental assumptions of our group’s ideology are taboo.
This is all right if the issues involved are trivial, but in our era of change, such a velvet fist does crush passionate inquiry and independence of mind.)
– many questions went over the edge of taboo themes in culture, relating to sex, politics, religion, and the reasons for various customs…
– competition for who’s the smartest was associated with mere effort, willingness to dedicate enormous efforts, even though the goals might be trivial in themselves. . . and so forth.

I mentioned the inhibition also of imagination as well as of any intellectually penetrating or unconventional thinking. The inhibition of imagination and playfulness is extensive in our culture and is explored more extensively in several chapters in my Art of Play book (now out of print but being revised for re-publication). I’m open to comments and suggestions. This theme of intellectual inhibition seems to offer some promise in our collective efforts towards consciousness-raising, true education, or other matters.

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