“Courage may be the most important gift of all. It is not something we are born with. It is not something that, for the most part, we learn in school. Rather, it is a choice that anyone can make—if they are willing to pay the price. It is courage, perhaps more than any other form of giftedness, that will determine what this world becomes—or does not become.” Robert Sternberg, April, 2022.
Sternberg’s focus on ‘courage’ as a valuable gift is quite fitting! Initiated by it, I will dig into what courage is, why it crucially needs to be incorporated into contemporary discourse, & why we need to nurture it in schools.
People often toss around the phrase ‘dare-devil’ for individuals risking their lives to either rescue victims trapped somewhere, or heroically braving hostile, unpredictable weather conditions, etc. However, the definitions of courage are many and it appears scholars, as well as common people, haven’t reached a consensus or a common view. What appears to be courageous to one may not be so for another from a different culture for instance. O’Byrne et al (2000) point to myriad views and descriptions of courage, but they recognize emerging notions like taking risks, attitudes, facing challenges & defending beliefs. Expanding on their foundational work, Sternberg et al (2007) confirm four necessary components of people’s notion of courage: deliberation, personal fear, noble/good act, & known personal risk. It’s interesting to know that there still remains a long-standing debate over the role of fear in courage. Aristotle regarded courage to be the disposition to act in situations that involved “feeling” fear; while Plato described courage as the knowledge of what is & is not to be feared.
The kind of courage I’m going to delve into- I will call it intellectual courage (IC); It determines how we think, act, & learn. More importantly, I think IC allows us to unlearn what does not/no longer stands the test of reason, at times due to contextual changes that render an originally held stand fallacious. Certainly, more often than not, it’s a greater challenge to unlearn. Below, I use three examples to uncover the role of IC.
24/7 Global Information Stream:
Today, the information-soaked world we live in, abounds in a farrago of facts and myth/fake stories, putting us in a quandary as we try to wrap our heads around the concoction of facts & myth. To add to this concoction, all kinds of affiliations come into play, and sadly, reason takes a back seat to those personal affiliations/agendas. We need IC to objectively examine complex issues, revisit our stand if it doesn’t hold water, be curious & allow the curiosity to pave our path, patiently & boldly sailing through the ambiguity. IC allows us to engage in critical discourse without the fear of having to “submit” to a more plausible argument & supports us in attempting challenging tasks that don’t have a sure-fire way to succeed. Taken together, I think IC supports us to (i) recognize multiple perspectives, (ii) be open-minded, flexible, & ready to boldly say, “I was wrong.” In that admission, dawns new knowledge & perspectives broadened.
Courage & Play:
The courage to take risks supports individuals to experiment and remain undaunted by mistakes while trying something new. Thomas Edison “failed” a thousand times before inventing the light bulb! Of course, not everyone’s path will be laden with a discovery, invention, or creation of a masterpiece, but isn’t courage equally essential for common people to navigate for instance through an issue with multiple viewpoints, haggle it out to find a center, & be ready to change when reason warrants? (Yes, other psychological constructs like self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation also play a role).
We can nurture this kind of freedom and curiosity by providing open-ended activities where kids are encouraged to try new ways even if those ways don’t lead to “expected” outcomes. Playful activities allow children to explore color, clay, or other forms of media and cultivate a risk-taking attitude by virtue of which kids ‘fearlessly’ experiment and learn. The underlying element of ‘play’ lends an embracing attitude to the struggle involved, the possibility of messing up, and having to start all over again. Alas, Art is at the most considered a “talent” when in fact it holds in it great potential to nurture intellectual behaviors like risk-taking/experimenting. Furthermore, research points to a decline in innate curiosity in kids during the early school years. Wonder why?
Testing and assessment culture in schools:
“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.” Psychology Today, 1996.
The culture of rewarding the “right” (& vice versa) may enhance the likelihood that kids learn but also inadvertently teaches some wrong lessons: to view mistakes as judgments on one’s “ability.” When individuals grapple with complex issues, this culture becomes counter-productive by inhibiting them from boldly considering opposing viewpoints.
For the most part, schools are about preparing kids for tests or admissions to colleges. However, as Gardner suggests, schools should expand their scope to building & developing life skills that are crucial to not only making these kids more successful in life but also in making the world a better place. Providing opportunities to think open-mindedly, where in lieu of judging who gets it “right,” the focus is more on nurturing an open-mindedness that allows individuals to negotiate & find a center that can develop IC. I deem courage to be definitely one of those life skills that warrant attention. George Eliot famously said, “falsehood is easy; Truth so difficult.” I think it’s a lack of courage that makes Truth difficult.
With the world facing more and more confounding issues, we need to nurture courage that allows individuals to (re)examine their beliefs and consider opposing viewpoints instead of withdrawing into their selective information bubbles, filtering out whatever stands in contrast to their beliefs while giving credence to what fits their existing notions. O’Byrne et al (2000) recognize ‘defending beliefs’ as one of the emerging notions about courage: I would like to add “giving up” one’s long-standing to what sounds more reasonable as indicative of courage as well. Rightly did Elizabeth Kolbert state, “Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.” Is our capacity to reason meant to win an argument, or to think straight? Unless these discussions go beyond the mere coffee table discussions and become part of the curriculum, the hope to see people coming together is meager.
- Sternberg, R. J. (2022). The Most important Gift of all? The gift of Courage. Roeper Review. 73-81.
- “Interview in Psychology Today,” 1996. Implicit Theories of courage.
- Christopher, Rate., Douglas, Clark, R., Sternberg, Robert. (2007). Implicit Theories of Courage. 2, (2), 80-98. Journal of Positive Psychology.
- Kolbert, Elizabeth. (2017, February 17). Why Facts Don’t Change our Minds. The New Yorker. Retrieved from hhttps://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-don’t-change-our-minds