Inert ideas

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.


4 thoughts on “Inert ideas

  1. MacKenzie has told me, Bernard Leach was so good at solving ceramic form problems on paper, that he often didn’t not continue the problem in clay.

  2. I wish I was as adept at evaluating ideas as Bernard Leach! It would have saved me many years of hopeful traipsing down rabbit trails.

  3. So how do we know when something is a rabbit trail or not? Can we know without actually trying the idea out? I know from experience that considerable time can be used trying to figure these things out when we actually try to live them out; is that time lost? I’m thinking particularly of an agrarian life…it looks good, there are good results(depending on how you measure worth), but great sacrifices, some rather unforeseen, and once you’ve started down the road, even if you want to go back, its just not the same. I’m thinking that education is the same, isn’t it? Once you make a directional change because of an idea, it leaves permanent differences in your life. How do we protect against going too far in the wrong direction when trying to live out ideas, instead of just admiring them?

  4. Angela,

    You ask great questions! I will try to answer them comprehensively in my next post. But the short versions of the answers are:

    • Sometimes we can know without trying (like Bernard Leach), but not always.
    • Sometimes we can decide against without knowing for sure, and just move on to something more promising.
    • Sometimes we can decide for without knowing, and will at least learn more as we follow that path
    • We can go back to where we were, but not to who we were.
    • We can’t protect ourselves, we can only choose wisely–meaning we’d better take Proverbs 4 to heart!
    • But we are still better off choosing and then acting on that choice, trusting in God for protection and guidance

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