Friday, October 9, 2009

In Praise of Common Sense


Generally, the latest global financial crisis has been attributed to a combination of regulatory failure, inadequate mathematical models and greed. We seem to have been oblivious of another element: tunnel vision. It translates a narrow perspective stemming from concentration on a single idea, opinion, data etc., to the exclusion of others.

Mindsets such as silo mentality, groupthink, bean counting etc., refer to an equally reductive process. Does the financial sector have a monopoly on tunnel vision? Absolutely not. Any system or organisation that inhibits information sharing  and restrains dissent transforms itself into an echo chamber, reduces efficiency and is bound to collapse at some point.

Globalisation is straining our level of consciousness through which we perceive in blacks and whites a world that typically unfolds in grays. The paradox is that while technology integrates and massifies the world like never before, it simultaneously creates fragmentation and boosts demand for more specialised and sophisticated professions. Bearing the "expert" label is not, per se, a curse. But, when it feeds on self-absorption and grows into a media darling, it also loses its relevance, with a potential to hurt badly.

An "expert" is not necessarily dumb though, she may well be the savviest but may have been bullied into a "silo" disconnected from the outside world. As a result, within the same organisation, a consulting firm for instance, members of the same department may be adamantly "bullish" while others in another department may be as adamantly "bearish" on economic prospects.

Too often, we confuse knowledge with intelligence. A four-year-old girl, for example, can be trained to reel off multiples of five up to one thousand. That is probably because she has a very sound memory. Nevertheless, it takes an informed and insightful mind to explain how, say, government officials shelter behind bogus statistics and buzzwords to prove their worth, or to decipher the toxic patterns embedded in IMF/World Bank-inspired policies that make them so backlash-prone.


The bad news is that tunnel vision is not that easy to beat. At best, in the short run, leaders can strive to alleviate its impact by identifying the comfort zones in a bid to somehow unleash cross-sectoral/departmental team spirit and feed-backs. But, we are in the midst of systemic dumbing down. Focus must now be on overhauling the education system so that future generations can cope with challenges to come.

Basically, formal education must enable individuals to switch nimbly from the left or slow brain (analytical) to the right or fast brain (intuitive, creative and contextual) and vice versa. However, we kid ourselves if we trust that merely introducing some hours of "philosophy" courses, for example, will do the trick. In fact, there is no evidence that they help to develop "lateral thinking", "blink", etc. (hot thinker Nassim Taleb even claims “the French cannot think outside the box”); terms coined by various researchers to express sharpened and holistic cognitive skills.

Clearly, exam-oriented education driven by rote learning overemphasises the use of the left or slow brain. If churning out thousands of citizens every year with literal perspective on every encounter and dampened entrepreneurial spirit is not what we desire, we need to urgently revisit school curricula.


They must not only be significantly broader but, in addition, they must be inquiry-based from the very start to ignite both the right or fast and left or slow brains. Interdisciplinary approach to learning is key.

To reduce the risk of being led astray, we must remain wary of leaders from all walks of life who pretend to know more than they actually do. Information must flow freely; it must be filtered and updated regularly too. This is not a case for breeding geniuses, it is about grooming more discerning citizens. A reversion to time-tested common sense is overdue.

By overcoming intellectual and cultural provincialism, we also celebrate pluralism in all its forms, foster collaboration and innovation while paving the way for a drivel–free “modernity”.

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