Developing Collective and Cultural Metacognition…?

[700 words]

One of the learning approaches that I think needs to be developed a bit more broadly is the human capacity for metacognition. There needs to be more critical thinking about our own thinking, not just on an individual level, but also collectively. Indeed, it is something that ought to be inculcated as a fundamental value across all cultures. One way to do this would be through teaching, learning and mentoring.

To a significant degree, human cognition, both conscious and unconscious cognition, together with the human behaviors that result from that part of human nature are deeply flawed. Or, to put it more neutrally and more precisely, our cognitive processes and our behaviors can, at times, be nonsensical, counterproductive, and destructive. They can lead us into situations that undermine our health and safety, generate unproductive interpersonal conflicts, provoke ignoble and harmful emotions or ingrain self-destructive habits of body and mind.  Generally speaking, much of what human beings do collectively works against our own individual thriving and our collective survival. There are ways in which we incarnate an evolutionary paradox.  (Click here for an interesting, compelling and somewhat flawed reflection by John Scales Avery on this state of affairs, where Homo sapiens, ostensibly the most advanced and most adaptable organism at the apex of evolutionary processes, seems bent not on survival and persistence, but on planet-wide mass murder-suicide.) Human beings are destroying biodiversity, increasing global warming, poisoning water and air, destabilizing and disrupting the planetary systems that underlie and assure our thriving and our persistence as a species. Why do we do this? Because as a species, we follow our fiercest and most alluring impulses, with little regard for the long term, with disdain for other species and for the planet, our home, out space ship, our habitat.  Our emotional instability and puerility and our biased, erratic and error-prone thinking induce us to persist in following evolutionarily undesirable pathways.

Developing a process of collective metacognition or a way to inculcate deep and self-critical reflection in all human beings, across cultures, so that we become aware of the ways in which our emotions and our mental character undermine the conditions that will help assure our long-term survival. Indeed, let’s figure a way to teach all students to use metacognitive strategies themselves to gain some critical distance on the evolutionarily programmed flaws in our thinking and emotional lives. But also, let’s  teach them to teach others. Let’s teach them to cultivate their own influence, so that they can teach metacognition to others and teach them to develop predispositions and behaviors at a proper critical distance from flawed ways of thinking and acting.

Individually and collectively, we need to be more fully aware of the ways in which the disjunctures between our biological evolution and our social evolution as gregarious, culturally-programmed, status-conscious creatures lead us astray. We need to realize the ways in which our unconscious and automatic reactions or behaviors arise from a mismatch between our biological past and our socio-cultural present. It would be helpful, as we try to construct and manage rational, deliberative, cooperative social arrangements for ourselves and as we function as integral parts of the planet’s complex of ecosystems, if we were to be deeply thoughtful and critically self-aware, if we assured that we were not sliding down slopes of compulsion, bias and disproportionate, massively destructive appetites. We need to develop individual and collective metacognition, to be aware of our our thinking and feelings may be leading us into erroneous and self-destructive choices.

How, though, does one develop and encourage this kind of growth in wisdom and self-mastery through metacognition? How does one inculcate this way of proceeding as a cultural norm? How does one scale up and propagate both the learning and the teaching of metacognitive approaches? Indeed, why haven’t we already come to a universal consensus about the desirability of not giving in to our most foolhardy evolutionary weaknesses? Why don’t we collectively value and teach self-mastery and emotional maturity? Why don’t we act like wise apes, instead of like vicious, greedy, self-serving, bloodthirsty ones who happen to possess and control nuclear weapons and vast economies that pollute, destroy habitats and mechanically drive species to extinction?


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