Monday, 21 April 2014

R is for Reason

This post continues the thoughts being explored in some of the earlier posts, especially the posts on Q, The Questioning Mind as well the one on M, Mental Education. However, the focus in this post is on Reason, the faculty required for a healthy habit of questioning, seeking answers and making sense of those answers. And it should also be added that developing the faculty of Reason is only one but an important aspect of Mental Education.

What exactly is Reason and why is it important? One of the most important functions of a good education should be to help the learners develop their reasoning faculty. This is important because it is only through our reasoning ability that we can organize our lives in a way to help us move toward our goals. Reason helps us keep a check on the various demands and pulls of other parts of ourselves and shines a guiding light upon them. Only with the help of reason we can see the multiple perspectives that are almost always there in a given situation we are facing in life and make an intelligent choice that is in accordance with the higher ideal guiding our lives.
Reason using the intelligent will for the ordering of the inner and the outer life is undoubtedly the highest developed faculty of man at his present point of evolution....(Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Volume 25, p. 102)
While most of the other faculties we humans have  - the ones involving the use of our senses and emotions and feelings - almost always get carried away by the ongoing action at the moment, it is only reason, our reasoning intelligence which can stand apart from the action and critically examine what is going on and whether something needs to change.
Reason....exists for the sake of knowledge, can prevent itself from being carried away by the action, can stand back from it, intelligently study, accept, refuse, modify, alter, improve, combine and recombine the workings and capacities of the forces in operation, can repress here, indulge there, strive towards an intelligent, intelligible, willed and organised perfection. ( p. 104)
The necessity for a proper development of learners' reasoning ability can't be over-emphasized. But ability to reason, and reason correctly is not something that can be taught from a book. It is facilitated through experience and more experience. Sri Aurobindo has given us some very practical advice on the matter:
The experience of reasoning and its errors should be given to the mind and it should be taught to observe how these work for itself; it should proceed from the example to the rule and from the accumulating harmony of rules to the formal science of the subject, not from the formal science to the rule, and from the rule to the example....The first step is to make the young mind interest itself in drawing inferences from the facts, tracing cause and effect. It should then be led on to notice its successes and its failures and the reason of the success and of the failure; the incorrectness of the fact started from, the haste in drawing conclusions from insufficient facts, the carelessness in accepting a conclusion which is improbable, little supported by the data or open to doubt, the indolence or prejudice which does not wish to consider other possible explanations or conclusions. In this way the mind can be trained to reason as correctly as the fallibility of human logic will allow, minimising the chances of error. (CWSA, Volume 1, p. 409)
This essentially requires educators to come up with creative ways to present their lessons so that learners are presented with many opportunities to exercise their reasoning abilities and sharpen their skills to draw inferences and apply as clear a logic as possible to come up with their conclusions. Certainly, the over-emphasis on rote learning which only helps develop the skills of memorization and recall needs to be very carefully reconsidered and revised. 

But there is a limitation to Reason too.
Reason was the Helper, Reason is the Bar. (Aphorisms)
While Reason is still the highest faculty we humans have, it is not an absolute one. Reason can be and is also used for purposes other than a pure seeking for knowledge. It can be and is used to justify or rationalize all sorts of ideas, theories, biases, preferences and prejudices - individual or collective. History is full of such examples - our personal histories as well as the histories of our societies and nations. Almost every possible oppressive social system or practice that we can think of has been at some point justified or explained or defended using the same faculty of human reason. 
Even the thinking man ordinarily limits his reason to the working out of certain preferred ideas; he ignores or denies all that is not useful to these or does not assist or justify or actually contradicts or seriously modifies them....It is in such limits that man's reason normally acts. He follows most commonly some interest or set of interests; he tramples down or through or ignores or pushes aside all truth of life and existence, truth of ethics, truth of beauty, truth of reason, truth of spirit which conflicts with his chosen opinions and interests; if he recognises these foreign elements, it is nominally, not in practice, or else with a distortion, a glossing which nullifies their consequences, perverts their spirit or whittles down their significance. It is this subjection to the interests, needs, instincts, passions, prejudices, traditional ideas and opinions of the ordinary mind which constitutes the irrationality of human existence. (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Volume 25, p. 107, emphasis added)
Reason can be used to make all sorts of arguments to get what we want. Learners must be shown how to use reason correctly and at the same time appreciate the limitations of reason. 

By experiencing first-hand the limitations of the Reason, learners begin to accept the partial and incomplete nature of all mental analysis and intellectual knowing. They begin to appreciate and value the various other possible perspectives and respect a diversity of viewpoints. They begin to realize that what seem as opposites may be in fact true in their own way, and yet never really completely true. Such a training of the mind that values flexibility and suppleness and plasticity is essential because it keeps us away from any kind of intellectual sectarianism or arrogance.

Because human life and existence is so complex, reason by its inherent nature is unable to explain all that happens and doesn't happen. It gropes and seeks but fails to point clearly at the 'why' of so much that we experience in our lives. Education must help learners develop an appreciation of the fact that there are indeed other faculties beyond reason which may be required to gain further knowledge. Imagination, intuition, insight could be some of those other faculties that education can help develop among learners.

Maybe it is time now to hear again from Ken Robinson...


This post is written for the A-Z Challenge, April 2014. The theme I am exploring is - Putting India back in Indian Education

Click here for the previous post in this series.

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