Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Ability to Think for Oneself

As I approached the lift which descends from the platform at London Bridge station I saw two ladies look through the glass window, down the lift shaft, and they shook their heads. No lift. Another person leaned over, looked down, looked at the ladies and shrugged his shoulders before following them to the distant escalator. The last man of the group looked down, and walked away too. No lift.

My turn now, and yes I looked down the lift shaft. No lift; but also no call light on the panel beside the lift shaft. I pressed the down arrow, it lit up, and immediately the lift began its graceful ascent to platform level. That’s all that was wrong. The assembled people were so busy looking for the lift that someone had forgotten to call it.

So why did we all exhibit this same behaviour of looking down the lift shaft, and why did all the other people walk away one after the other? Are we really so incapable of thinking for ourselves?

At an American university some years ago the professor sent a student out of the lecture theatre, asking him to retrieve the class register left on his desk. He then told the remaining students he would bang on the table a number of times, and they should add one count to the number they heard. The first student returned and the exercise commenced.

As the mass of students added one extra count the lone student looked confused. However it was only a few minutes later when he started to add one count, all be it falteringly. Within 5 minutes he was adding one extra count without hesitation. Such is our relationship with the people around us.

This is why several people walked away from the lift without noticing the call light unilluminated: they were more concerned with what the other people were doing. I too fell in to the trap, but as an academic I understand the power of thinking for myself, which is why I broke ranks and looked where the others had not and saw the lift had not been called.

The ability to think for oneself is central to the academic mind. If we did not do this then you would be going home tonight on a cart pulled by a donkey. We need to have vision and imagination, and the ability to pursue our ideas with determination.

However before we launch ourselves off in to glory, we must also remember the need to take a measured approach to what we do, otherwise we will separate ourselves from logic and reason, and success would be a chance occurrence and not one of design.

We also need validation. As academics we cite the experts in the field under investigation. We may have expertise but that does not make us experts. We must have confirmation from experts of the rectitude of our decisions and actions; experts who have made it their life’s work to research and study their chosen subject. This gives our work, and ourselves, credibility.

On Friday I will be working with MBA and MSc students in Munich, engaging in deep learning strategies. We will debate subjects of their choice from the field of ethics, and case studies I have provided, and their content will be aligned to the learning outcomes of the module. There is no agenda, other than to think freely and creatively to address management problems in an ethical context. As minds are unlocked, doors will open in to new worlds, and fresh thinking will prevail. The process is energising! 

Graham Harman-Baker