The Education of the Intellect

Education and the intellect would seem to go hand in hand, yet there is much room for misunderstanding that can cause considerable harm to a child’s development. If we define intellect in a narrow sense, we can get caught in the trap of thinking we can measure intellectual achievement through standardized tests that stress memorization and the accumulation of facts. A sobering thought was recently expressed by an administrator at Peking University High School in Shanghai, the city with the highest scores in the most recent worldwide standardized testing administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “Test taking is damaging to students’ creativity, critical thinking skills and, in general, China’s ability to compete in the world. It can make students very narrow minded. In the 21st century, China needs the creative types its education system isn’t producing.”

An Education for Life School is dedicated to cultivating the intellect within a broader context of life skills that promote creativity, balance, and most importantly, student happiness. From the standpoint of the four Tools of Maturity that form the basis for our school, intellectual development can only reach its highest level when nurtured in conjunction with the body, feelings, and will. Simply put, physical development provides the energy for productive mental activity, sensitive feeling forms the basis for knowing which of several options to pursue, and dynamic will makes it possible to overcome obstacles that might block implementation. The four Tools working in harmony produce success and a deep sense of fulfillment.

A related imbalance is created when a premature emphasis is placed on intellectual development. There are periodic calls to teach reading to kindergarteners, algebra to 6th graders, and college level courses to high schoolers. Often this emphasis results from a lack of appreciation for other kinds of development that would not only benefit the student, but provide a solid foundation for future intellectual growth. It is not uncommon in these situations to observe kindergartners who can sound out words but lack social skills; 6th graders who can solve equations but have trouble controlling their emotions; and high schoolers earning college credit who lack the breadth of life experience to appreciate the ideas they are being exposed to.

A balanced and timely development of the intellect requires that we expand our definition of the term far beyond a simple ability to master facts. To this end our school has evolved a set of intellectual goals that include:
Reasoning: the ability to think things through clearly
Truthfulness: the alignment of thoughts & actions with truth, avoiding rationalization & lying
Tolerance: the respect and appreciation for different points of view, open-mindedness
Introspection: the ability to analyze personal behavior for appropriate motives and effects
Humor/Playfulness: the ability to find amusing and uplifting perspectives
Intellectual Curiosity: the approach to learning that asks questions and seeks answers

If we focus on this broadened definition, the ongoing flow of life experiences offers an abundance of meaningful opportunities for intellectual development. A few recent examples from our high school include: creating a script for the school play, discussing and designing a plan for improving the preschool playground, and writing a critique for an author who sought suggestions on how to present his ideas to children. This involvement in real-life situations lays the groundwork for the more abstract applications of the intellect that accompany college studies, as well as for the most refined use of all: the life-long ability to discriminate between ignorance and wisdom.

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