The human mind seems capable of going in one of two general directions: focussing on the details or allowing quite an expansive openness. That’s clearly a generalisation, but as a basic model of how we approach life it’s an interesting perspective to consider and one explored by E.F. Schumacher in “Small is Beautiful”.
Within the context of education, Schumacher suggested we need some concept of “a hierarchical order” if we hope to make sense of the world and “recognise a meaningful task for [our] life on earth”; especially if you conceive of that task as attaining “a higher degree of realisation of [our] potentialities, a higher level of being … than that which comes to [us] ‘naturally’”.
Essentially, saying that metaphysical models which place us within a larger reality enable us to find a purposeful sense of our position in life; something stripped out of many modern ways of thinking. What we believe about life and how that affects the lives we lead are fascinating – if contentious – topics (see Notes One).
Stepping slightly aside from that, Schumacher then explores the idea that “the nature of our thinking is such that we cannot help thinking in opposites”: “all through our lives we are faced with the task of reconciling opposites which, in logical thought, cannot be reconciled”, requiring us to transcend “the level of being on which we normally find ourselves.”
Simplifying somewhat, convergent problems are then those that are both useful and satisfying in the sense that once resolved “the solution can be written down and passed on to others, who can apply it without needing to reproduce the mental effort necessary to find it.” It’s the premise of Western civilisation, the heart of maths and sciences, and the thinking behind countless hacks, recipes and pre-packaged solutions.
On the other hand, “Life is being kept going by divergent problems which have to be ‘lived’ and are solved only in death”. Here we find realities such as family, relationships, economics, politics, or education; areas of life where, if convergent thinking’s applied, “there would be no more human relations but only mechanical reactions”.
It’s an intriguing proposition to consider: that while the convergent approach serves us well at times, adopting it too broadly might impoverish civilisation by distancing us from complexities of life, morality and emotion. But the reassuring convergence of reading or puzzles can apparently soothe the mind strained and wearied by life’s ongoing, unresolved challenges. Balance appears to be the key.
Life then emerges as this journey of divergent problems which “as it were, force man to strain himself to a level above himself” to find a place where opposites can be overcome or reconciled. Problems without easy answers though, as neat solutions “invariably neglect one of the two opposites” therefore not quite meeting up with reality.
As a picture of life, thought and approaching the challenges of both (Notes Two), this may be fairly reasonable: how we think about different ‘problems’ could well affect our likelihood of resolving them.
Notes and References:
“The Greatest Resource – Education” Chapter Six from “Small is Beautiful. A Study of Economics as if People Mattered” by Dr E. F. Schumacher (Abacus edition, Sphere Books, London) 1974.
Note 1: Writings on Education
Note 1: Power in what we believe
Note 2: David Bohm, thoughts on life
Note 2: Communicating divergent experiences
Note 2: Mindfulness, antidote to life or way of being
Note 2: How do we find a collective vision?
Note 2: Complexity of life
For a recent embodiment of this, Steve Cutts’ animation “Man” explored humanity’s place in nature and the problems we cause, leaving us with that question of how all-encompassing solutions might ever be reached.