I was surprised the day I realized that ideas are only good when they are used, and to admire them, toy with them, or otherwise treating them as aesthetic objects is a dangerous habit. Since then I’ve walked a crooked path, because there are a lot of attractive but untested ideas being promoted out there—how many parenting manuals have been written by fresh-faced couples in their 20s?—and it takes a bit of living to embrace them, employ them, and then judge the results. Only a few end up passing the test, but over the years they accumulate into a set of solid and coherent convictions.
I like Alfred North Whitehead’s warning about “inert ideas.” This comes from his essay “The Aims of Education.”
In training a child to activity of thought, above all things we must beware of what I will call “inert ideas”—that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.
In the history of education, the most striking phenomenon is that schools of learning, which at one epoch are alive with a ferment of genius, in a succeeding generation exhibit merely pedantry and routine. The reason is, that they are overladen with inert ideas. Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful—Corruptio optimi, pessima. Except at rare intervals of intellectual ferment, education in the past has been radically infected with inert ideas. That is the reason why uneducated clever women, who have seen much of the world, are in middle life so much the most cultured part of the community. They have been saved from this horrible burden of inert ideas. Every intellectual revolution which has ever stirred humanity into greatness has been a passionate protest against inert ideas. Then, alas, with pathetic ignorance of human psychology, it has proceeded by some educational scheme to bind humanity afresh with inert ideas of its own fashioning.
In the very next paragraph Whitehead offers advice on how to avoid the danger, which I think is sound:
Let us now ask how in our system of education we are to guard against this mental dry rot. We enunciate two educational commandments, “Do not teach too many subjects,” and again, “What you teach, teach thoroughly.”
I think this goes strongly against modern currents of thinking, where every problem is blamed on ignorance and every solution boils down to getting the right information into someone’s head. Too often we’re told that if you are having difficulty living a Christian life, you need to pick up another book on the topic, or you didn’t read the last one closely enough. My suggestion: be sure you’re already living out the things you’ve already learned before moving on to something new.