A Lasssst Thought

Balance Amid Extremes -- Part 2

In brain-storming for this blog, I have found that just the topic of "balance" could carry a blog for years.   We're told to eat a balanced diet, to balance our budget and checkbooks, and to lead a balanced lifestyle. Our government was built on a system of checks and balances; the goddess of justice holds balanced scales in her hand; and wars are raged and diplomats negotiate for a balance of power between nations.


Is balance important?



Apparently, it is.



Yet instead of focusing on the myriad of ways we need balance in our lives and world, for my first posts, I want to look at the importance of balanced study. My introductory post briefly mentioned the economic effects a lack of balance of study in modern education has caused colleges and businesses. When educational systems focused on reading and writing, math and science seemed weak, so educators began to focus on math and science to the detriment of reading and writing. It becomes a vicious cycle of the proverbial pendulum swinging from one emphasis to the other. Without balance between all areas of learning, none actually will be strengthened. 


Value of History


Within the current imbalance towards science, technology, engineering, and math, and even in past movements and trends that favored other subjects, the value of history has been excruciatingly ignored.  The general consensus is that history is in the past and doesn't matter as much as the present or the future. Many feel as Huckleberry Finn and "take no stock in dead people." Those who enjoy the study of history are labeled as out of touch and accused of living in the past. Or, perhaps more dangerously, when a people are not familiar with history, it can be manipulated and rewritten to comply with present and future objectives of those in power.



The truth is, as St. Paul wrote to the Romans in reference to the teachings of the Old Testament, "whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction" (Romans 15:4). Edmund Burke, the British statesman who called for balance in response to the grievances of the American colonies and later wrote in response to the French Revolution, famously rephrased the purpose of history: "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it" (Reflections on the Revolution in France).


History to Emulate


We see today in the headlines a plethora of support for Burke's statement.  However, instead of looking at the failures of history to avoid, let's consider some of the successes of history to emulate, particularly the ideas of a few of the acknowledged greatest minds in history. Although there are hundreds of others worthy of study, for this post there is a short list of three: Leonardo DaVinci, Blaise Pascal, and Benjamin Franklin.



What these three have most in common is that there is not a definitive definition for any of them. Was Leonardo an artist or a scientist , an engineer or an author? Was Pascal a physicist or a philosopher, a mathematician or an apologist? Was Franklin a statesman or a scientist,  an inventor or a journalist? Yes, they were all those and more, but not just one. None of them can neatly fit into one category as modern education would like to fit students (and teachers). 


Renaissance Thinking


We can easily say that although only one of these men actually lived during the Renaissance, each was a "Renaissance man," a man who acquired knowledge and proficiency in more than one field. Today this type of person (Women can be Renaissance thinkers too.) is considered rare, unusual, and difficult to understand, but during the periods of history in which they lived, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, acquiring knowledge and being proficient in numerous fields were expected of anyone of the middle and upper classes and were the goals of education.



It would be unfeasible for me to write even brief biographies of these men when innumerable books, articles, essays, reports, and even blogs can be found about the lives of each. I only hope that the very limited discussion of some of their ideas here will spark interest for you to further research their writings and lives and those of other balanced thinkers for yourself.



Fortunately for posterity, these three made copious notes from which we can learn. Perhaps they can be considered some of the earliest bloggers with a number of tweets still circulating on the internet today. (Thanks to such sites as Brainy Quote.) DaVinci's journals have been studied for centuries to uncover the secrets of his genius. And even recently, books such as How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day by Michael Gelb (1997, 2005) interpret DaVinci to promote copying his methods. The seven steps outlined in Gelb's book can be summarized in two words: observation and balance.


Since we are discussing balance, we'll concentrate there.  Step number five, according to Gelb, is the merger of art and science, or "whole-brain" thinking. The concept of "whole-brain" learning will be examined in a future post, but for now, let's consider what Leonardo himself said.


"To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else."



Evidence that DaVinci followed his own advice is seen throughout his work and even in the fact that he was totally ambidextrous and could write or draw equally well with either hand. He wrote his journals in what seemed to some an unbreakable code but was merely mirror-writing because he could think from any direction. He examined the whole, analyzed the parts, and then could put the pieces back together as they had been or in a new and improved way.



Just as DaVinci's ideas and plans were ahead of his time, so were many of the young Pascal who laid the foundations for modern theories in math and science and could be credited with creating the first digital calculator in 1644. Yet despite his rational thought in science and math, many of the writings for which he is well-known are passionate and emotional treatises on the love of God for man. Although he, a prodigy, was highly regarded for his rational and his spiritual thinking, he did not want to be remembered for either:  "We should not be able to say of a man, 'He is a mathematician,' or 'a preacher,' or 'eloquent'; but that he is 'a gentleman.' That universal quality alone pleases me" (Pensées,  #35).


In the random lists of thoughts Pascal wrote to one day become a volume on apologetics but was unfinished at his death, the ideas of universality and balance run throughout. Pensée 37 may best summarize Pascal's as well as DaVinci's and Franklin's thoughts about study.



"Since we cannot be universal [God] and know all that is to be known of everything, we ought to know a little about everything. For it is far better to know something about everything than to know all about one thing. This universality is best. If we can have both, still better; but if we must choose, we might choose the former."



Franklin would agree. As a young man he spent his hard-earned shillings on books on any topic, taught himself to write well by imitating good writers, and then continued his learning about all subjects throughout his life. He believed, "An investment in knowledge pays the best interest."


In America, he is best-known for his witticisms found in Poor Richard's Almanac and as a statesman, one of only five who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. However, in Europe, his renown remains as a scientist whose experiments led to practical inventions, such as the lightning rod and bifocals, for the betterment of life.


As America's most famous "Renaissance man," Franklin's balance in subject matter was fueled by his continual desire for balance between his natural creativity and his need for reason. Though he wrote that "To cease to think creatively is to cease to live," he also warned that "If  Passion drives, let Reason hold the Reins." Franklin successfully harnessed his creative musings to fit real needs, which in turn, inspired him to more creativity. "Motivation is when your dreams put on work clothes."  



Dreams in work clothes can summarize much of the history of the United States and many more of our greatest thinkers and most successful citizens. Investigation of these could spawn many more posts, but only one will be pursued for our current discussion of the need for balance in education and that will be in the next post.


Teacher Tidbit: Franklin isn't the only "Renaissance man" in American history; there are many others. For example, Oliver Wendall Holmes, the 19th century poet, was actually a medical doctor who was the first to propose to the medical community that doctors wash their hands before seeing a patient so as to prevent the spread of infection. His son, Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. became an associate justice of the Supreme Court.

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