The Great Connections Seminar

The Great Connections Seminar
Discussing ethics

Monday, February 16, 2009

Integration (and I don't mean the neighborhood type)

What college graduates do with the information they've learned is crucial for their competitive edge, because there is so much world-wide competition. Just one example: tax accountants in the U.S. are competing with highly trained accountants in India, who work for thousands and thousands less, and can now do U.S. tax returns on-line at secure websites.

Contrary to the current protectionist mood, this is a good development, in the long run. More work, done less expensively leaves the customer with money to invest or spend on something else. Ultimately, more jobs and wealth can be created, and everyone becomes richer, even the poorest person in the country. Even the poorest in the U.S. have running water, TV's and telephones.

But it means U.S. workers must become ever more creative and adaptable to keep high-paying jobs.

Broad knowledge and the capability to learn, combined with the ability to deftly integrate new material into one's repertoire, enables a person to be professionaly versatile. Recruiters now even use the word "Versatilist" to describe those who can easily move from one job and field to another, and master them. 

Consequently, it is imperative that education must be about how to think, create, and integrate knowledge in new ways. An excellent liberal arts program develops these qualities in students, even after a lifetime of lectures. This is the factor that many fail to grasp when they rush to specialize at college.

In the 19th and early 20th century, lower schools used classic texts as their standard works. Young students were reading Aristotle, Shakespeare, Voltaire, and Darwin. These profound works open the mind to the great questions of life, excellent reasoning, important ideas that influence contemporary culture, and superior thinking and writing. 

Further, they tend to span subject matter, often examining philosophical, ethical, scientific, and artistic issues in one work. They represent excellent examples of integrated thinking.

Developing broad knowledge aids integration. Before valuable information and ideas can be stored in the mind's subconscious, they have to pass through the conscious mind, which usually can handle only about seven discreet items at any one time (see George A. Miller's 1956 psychological classic "The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information"). If you've ever wondered why you need a list to remember what you have to do, here's the reason, and it's on of the reasons for our limited attentional resources.

Ideas--abstractions--are the primordial human inventions that circumvent this limitation, because ideas incorporate myriad data into a singel audio-visual concrete, a word or symbol. All instances of babies are integrated into the idea of "baby," and you can apply what you know about babies to any individual baby you encounter. Voila! You've saved a lot of time and energy.

Ultimately, the integration of simple ideas like those of colors or types of animals, into more abstract groupings like "mammal" makes the human mind extremely powerful. Imagination and integration work together to produce the torrent that is human creativity. Integration of information into ideas, and actions into skills, is the psychologically economical way to use our limited conscious resources when thinking and solving problems.

The person who is a master of the careful, fact-based integration of knowledge is a highly effective thinker. And integrating facts and ideas from one field of study to another, highly disparate field, is the essence of creativity. More on that in my next post.

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