Friday, July 6, 2012

Beyond the intellectual mind

Intellectual superiority” is how a business educator would explain why Juan de la Cruz seems unperturbed that we’re economic laggards. Add our parochial bias and impulse to look backward and we have a picture of why we are where we are? The writer never for a moment assumed otherwise; that indeed Juan de la Cruz was intellectually superior than his neighbors – as he covered the region over the decade from the 1980s–90s. Yet, the reality of how these countries were pushing economic development was there for all to see. The airports the writer was flying into were getting far superior than Manila’s. And even the hotels were matching if not overtaking those in Makati. And their overall infrastructure development was moving higher for us to match. In sum, the GDPs of these neighbors were growing ahead of ours. We have elevated poverty for a reason – e.g., we were either sitting pretty or asleep at the switch?

The region’s face ceased to be the writer’s daily reality when he moved to a global role. But the thought that Juan de la Cruz is intellectually superior would remain. In the intervening period, the writer saw how the rest of the world was moving. And instead of reading about “critical and reflective thinking,” for example, he was living in it. Global competition is real and intense. And to allow competition the upper hand could have disastrous consequences. Once it was just corporate America that dreaded the word restructuring. Today the whole world knows it intimately. And it was when the writer was doing restructuring in different parts of the world that he was introduced to that one imperative: to be forward-thinking – there must be a way to preempt disasters! And it was precisely what he shared with his Eastern European friends – as they were gearing up for EU membership – and their receptivity encouraged him to assist them.

Critical and reflective thinking is not a lost art after all. It has remained for the more mature minds a process of thinking, questioning, problem-solving and decision-making – an approach which borders along the original idea of John Dewey. It examines things, events, circumstances and topics. It reflects on issues and practices – local, national, international. It asks not only what happened, but why. As such, critical thinking should not just be relegated to the background.” [Nilo E. Colinares, Ed.D; Educators Speak: REFLECTIVE TEACHING, Manila Bulletin, 3rd Jun 2012.]

The first and the simplest yet the strongest influence on the writer about thinking (in a serious way outside the classroom) came from a Filipino entrepreneur: “You must learn to be inquisitive”! While the writer was then too inexperienced to appreciate the wisdom of the Filipino entrepreneur, today he could recognize why we as a nation and as an economy have unwittingly allowed one disaster after another. We deeply believed that our intellectual superiority would magically arrest our economic underperformance? We can dissect our challenges and come up with solutions but for over half a century they haven’t worked? “Education [is meant to have] prepared [us] for the future life – given [us] command of ourselves; [we] had been trained to have the full and ready use of all [our] capacities.” [John Dewey; On education, Wikipedia.] But it takes the more mature mind to engage in critical thinking – to be thinking, questioning, problem-solving and [doing the right] decision-making, to paraphrase Nilo E. Colinares.

It remains difficult for Juan de la Cruz to call upon his more mature mind and accept certain realities? While Asians generally are uncomfortable with competitiveness Western-style, our neighbors have realized that their economies must be competitive if they are to generate strong national incomes. But we pin our hopes on softer elements like the growing interest of investors in our country. But there is a great distance between interest and actually generating appreciably higher national revenues. For example, beyond aggressive levels of investments we need the vital few industries that we can sustain – i.e., because we have the potential to attain competitive advantage.

And that is why the mind has to come into play – everything starts in the mind. And as the Americans would put it, everything must be on the table. But given our hierarchical culture, parochial bias and tendency to personalize, we can’t seem to put critical elements on the table, effectively cutting ourselves by the knees? We can’t start with the thought that as an underdeveloped economy we can’t be competitive. We must fully participate in and tap what the world has to offer: beyond foreign investments, we need technology, innovation as well as talent, product and market development. We can’t assemble them ourselves – our intellectual superiority notwithstanding!

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