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Assimilation stifles free thinking

| March 8, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Songezo Zibi

It is generally accepted that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

Of course, this is pure balderdash, because it is premised on the idea that the sun moves. It doesn’t. Yet we continue to use phrases such as “as sure as I am that the sun will rise tomorrow” to illustrate some or other point we might feel confident making. In my view, this largely explains why humanity is in such trouble due to a lack of ideas.

Is education replication without explanation?

It all comes down to society’s attitude towards education, both formal and informal. Human behavioural and intellectual development – in its primacy – is based on a series of approvals by elders, effectively those with more experience. Usually this means the child must demonstrate an ability to replicate the behaviour of adults. In return, the strength of approval is based on the child’s ability to assimilate this behaviour the fastest – leading adults to declare them ‘good’ or ‘brilliant’.

While some of this behaviour is necessary for survival and the maintenance of social order, in many instances it amounts to nothing more than confinement to an intellectual straitjacket where everything is accepted because it has always been that way.

This, in essence, is our biggest problem and where education fails to help the advancement of society, precisely what it is intended to do.

Too many old, recycled ideas

Anyone who follows hard news stories, reads opinion articles and readers’ letters will know that too many of them are lamentations about a poor state of affairs. There is inequality, poverty, corruption, unemployment, violent crime and many other social and economic difficulties that ordinary people have to face every day. Despite pronouncements to the contrary, it is clear that we have not been able to fashion the kind of solutions required to deal substantively with any of them. If anything, we have been guilty of recycling old, often discredited ideas.

Violent crime has elicited calls for the death penalty from social conservatives, while some politicians and senior police officers have opted for a militaristic, violent approach to the problem.

Inequality, poverty and unemployment have awakened all manner of ideologically dogmatic non-propositions inadequately dressed up as serious ideas. These ideologues either propose a statist, socialist approach, or offer neo-liberal solutions which rely on the ‘trickle-down’ effect which continues to make the rich richer, and the poor poorer.

Frustrated, others propose a combination of the two in various flawed ways. Either way, nothing appears to work. These social ills are simply not getting better.

We need enquiring minds

The fault lies in the foundations of our education system. In the first instance, as Roberto Mangabeira Unger1 opines, it seeks to produce on a massive scale, workers who will fit into the existing production system and help it become as efficient as possible.

While there is nothing wrong with producing a skilled labour force, flaws in the intellectual conception of what education should seek to do result in a population incapable of original thought.

Except where undisputed scientific fact is involved, our education system as an extension of society’s wishes must inculcate an inquiring mind in every child, as Bertrand Russell2 offers.

An attitude which refuses to accept anything as a given is absolutely necessary if we are to have graduates who are always looking for new ways of doing things. They must be people who believe that there is always a more efficient way, a new idea which is worth pursuing with the deepest intellectual and technical zeal.

This will not be achieved if children in school and society are still expected to meet academic and social approval on the basis of how much they conform to existing conventions without understanding why. One of the fundamental bases for academic progress in a child should be their ability to question existing conclusions first, and to show an appetite for alternative inquiry that could come to different conclusions to those accepted without question by society.

It is most telling that those who have achieved great things usually do so by breaking with accepted convention. While they are usually ridiculed in the beginning, in later years their detractors go on to hail them as profound thinkers and innovators.

Even these innovations, however, very quickly become convention as soon as multitudes assimilate the idea. In a society that constantly encourages critical examination of every statement, achievement and reality, there will be those who seek to find a way of breaking with the new convention and create a new one. This is how our society will advance and go on to achieve great things.

In our case, tradition, religion and ideology in their general sense tend to be the biggest obstacles to progress. While all three are important as philosophical and moral foundations that help maintain social order, this is an iterative role as society evolves.

The important point to make is that they must never be such that they inflict dogmatic rules on society which have no realistic foundation. For all three to survive, it is important that children are allowed to find space for them on the basis of independent thought rather than imposition that discourages any examination at all.

Ideological dogma and social biases our enemies

In the context of serious socio-economic challenges faced by many countries, including ours, this defective form of education means we are stuck with some of the biggest enemies of free thinking known to man.

The first is ideological dogma, a disease which afflicts many in our politics today. Having been taught that success lies in the relative indiscriminate application of various intellectual templates which fail to notice environmental evolution over time, they continue to propose that the reason states fail at this is that they are applying the wrong template.

Second are social biases which make it difficult and even impossible for some of the world’s most respected field experts to discern ideological dogma from organic intellectual brilliance based on empirical evidence.

Consequently, how a problem is defined by a researcher often has a lot to do with the philosophical foundations of their thoughts. Having misrepresented the problem, the resultant data analysis tends to be skewed, leading to flawed conclusions and solutions. This data and solutions are then relied upon to develop ideas which we hope will be profound, but can never be because of the fatal flaw in their foundations.

This is a disease which spares no one. It prevents the mind from exploring possibilities which could produce better conclusions and lead to more incisive solutions to old problems. That is why we have politicians who cannot deliver electoral promises, business executives who do not understand social dynamics, trade unions which think their objective is to fight business and civil society leaders who espouse a false radicalism against the status quo. Essentially, they all struggle to think properly and cause lasting damage to society by retarding progress towards identifying and realising a shared vision for progress.

An inability to develop original thoughts leads to stagnation

Intellectuals, whose role is to examine critically the latest developments against existing political, economic, social and technological backgrounds end up falling into the trap of perpetual criticism without offering any profound solutions. While some of this may be ascribed to laziness, it is also very likely that they are also afflicted by an inability and a lack of zeal to develop original thoughts.

Therefore the response to crime is stagnant because it draws very little practical link between social degeneration as a result of other social and economic pressures and crime itself. Consequently, it proposes many primitive methods for dealing with the problem, like more liberal use of lethal force and other brutal forms of policing.

The fight against corruption is going nowhere because society refuses to acknowledge the realities that give rise to it, including the coincidence of economic marginalisation and political power, which forces the poor owners of political power to seek out the rich owners of economic means. In another form, the resources that come with political power are used to accumulate riches improperly and to great cost to society.

In all spheres of South African life, we need a leadership which seeks to free itself of false traditions, dogma and other “One of the fundamental bases for academic progress in a child should be their ability to question existing conclusions first, and to show an appetite for alternative inquiry.” 26 Independent Education • Autumn 12 intellectual straitjackets by encouraging free thought and allowing no taboos. The good place to start is in how we educate the young, at home and in school. Failure to do so will ensure we remain a mediocre people who regard creative genius as an oddity. We will also remain a society that believes the sun moves!


1. Roberto Mangabeira Unger is a philosopher and politician. To read his
work see, for example, Unger, R.M. (2007) Free Trade Reimagined: The
World Division of Labour and the Method of Economics. New Jersey:
Princeton University Press.

2. Bertrand Arthur William Russell, Third Earl Russell, OM,
FRS (1872–1970) was a British philosopher, logician mathematician,
historian and social critic. He wrote extensively on education. See, for
example, Russell, B. (1970) Education and the Good Life. London: WW
Norton & Co Inc. For his treatise on education and discipline, see and for a discussion of
his ideas on education and critical thinking, see

Category: Autumn 2012

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