What is Intellectual Courage?

Compiled and written by Lisa and Jennifer:

This is the third in the “Six Types of Courage” that we will explore in-depth. We hope you’ve already had the chance to read over our page called “The Six Types of Courage” for a brief overview of our definitions.  The examples we give for each type of courage may apply to your children and/or to you please keep in mind, when you are reading this post, that some of these examples may involve taking “baby steps” on your way to intellectual courage!  Every step towards courage is worthwhile and important.

Intellectual Courage

“Nothing in life is to be feared.  It is only to be understood.”— Marie Curie

“The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.”—  John Kenneth Galbraith

“If you believe everything you read, you better not read.”—  Japanese proverb

Intellectual courage means being willing to grapple with difficult or confusing concepts and ask questions, being willing to struggle to gain understanding and risk making mistakes.  Sometimes what we learn challenges previously accepted ideas, or contradicts teachings of family or cultural group.  Intellectual courage will be required more and more in the future, as complex structural problems of the environment, economy, and society challenge conventional problem-solving.  Intellectual courage means being intrinsically motivated to learn and question, rather than extrinsically motivated.  Given the information explosion of recent decades along with easy and indiscriminate access to it, being a critical thinker will only become more important, not less.  Being passive recipients of information, forgetting to track sources or cross-reference data can quickly turn even the brightest minds into moldable mush.  Integrity and authenticity are interwoven with intellectual courage; it means telling the truth no matter how uncomfortable.

For inspiring true stories, ways to recognize and coach intellectual courage in ourselves and our children…READ ON!

History offers great examples of intellectual courage.  When we picture Galileo standing before the Inquisition, insisting that he could not recant the ‘heresy’ of his evidence that we don’t live in a perfect universe, we see intellectual courage in action. 

This fascinating lecture by Dan Gilbert on TED.com indicates how easy it is to deceive ourselves, and how thoroughly we must be willing to question all of our assumptions.  It’s about 35 minutes long and well worth watching; grab a cup of coffee and be prepared to think!

  • asking questions
  • listening to questions
  • working on puzzles and thought problems
  • memorizing long poems
  • studying music or a foreign language
  • applying for and using a library card
  • disagreeing with your own mind
  • seeking out opposing points of view
  • deciding you’d rather have peace of mind than be right
  • reading banned books
  • curiosity
  • taking as long as necessary to learn something, rather than being satisfied with a superficial understanding
  • offering opinions
  • listening to others’ opinions

Lack of intellectual courage looks like:

  • not asking questions
  • not listening to questions — or the answers
  • giving up quickly on new material or new ideas
  • not admitting that you don’t know
  • repeating “facts” without questioning them
  • superstition
  • inability to recognize connections between ideas
  • lack of curiosity about other people, other ideas
  • pretending you don’t know what you really do know, like not opening the bills or test results
  • accepting the first answer

Intellectual courage sounds like:

  • “Can you explain that to me again?”
  • “I’ve changed my mind.”
  • “How do you know that’s true?”
  • “Where can I find more information?”
  • “I get it!”
  • “Wow, that’s really interesting!”
  • “Show me how you did that.”
  • “I never thought of it that way.”
  • “What do you think?”
  • “I wonder if…”
  • “Hmm, that didn’t work out.  Let’s try that problem again.” 
  • “Are we even asking the right questions about this issue?”
  • “What questions would you ask if you were in my shoes?”
  • “I’ve got a great idea!”

Lack of intellectual courage sounds like:

  • “Don’t ask so many questions!”
  • “Don’t be ridiculous!”
  • “I hate tests.”
  • “I hate school.”
  • “I’m terrible at math/spelling/languages/reading/etc.”
  • “We’re just supposed to solve the problem this way.”
  • “Keep your opinions to yourself.”
  • “Why do we have to learn this?”
  • “I’m so stupid.”
  • “Nobody’s interested in what you have to say.”
  • “That’s how we’ve always done it.”
  • “How should I know?”
  • “Reading is a waste of time.”

Grab Some Lion’s Whiskers!
Here are some tips for developing intellectual courage for yourself and your kids:

  • keep reference books handy so you can look things up (yes, we still need actual books)
  • get big maps for your walls and explore them with your kids
  • encourage your children to ask questions (and be patient when they start asking!)
  • pick a topic you’re all interested in and explore it together
  • let your child tell you something interesting (even if you already know it)
  • keep different kinds of puzzles and games available (using words or numbers), especially ones that require creative problem-solving or “out of the box” thinking
  • let your kids catch you reading
  • learn how to say “I don’t know.  Let’s find out.”
  • compete to see how many uses you can find for everyday objects: pencils, paper, tin foil, sugar, money, cotton balls, CDs
  • play memory games in the car to encourage observation and focus
  • take an active interest in what your children are learning and ask them what their opinions are about what they are learning
  • at dinner, ask your family about what they’re reading or ask them for one new (interesting to them) fact that they just learned
  • share trickster tales and stories that celebrate quick-wittedness and fantastic feats

What are your ideas about intellectual courage, your parenting tips to promote it with kids, or your favorite intellectual courage story (fiction or non-fiction)? We’d love to hear from you!

Here are some posts on the blog that are related to intellectual courage: Courage As an Antidote to Fear, Two Parables of Rumi, David and Goliath, Relativity, The Way We Hold Our Babies, 
5-Minute Courage Workout: Thinking Outside the Box,    The Gate of Heaven and the Gate of HellThe Sky is Falling?  Really? ,  The Briar Patch,    Right Brain Workouts for Kids & Parents    
A Mango Tree and a Baby, two storiesCourage Book Review: Three by Idries Shah, A Hurricane is Coming
Here’s more on the types of courage:
What is Physical Courage?
What is Social Courage?
What is Emotional Courage?
What is Moral Courage?
What is Spiritual Courage?

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