Many years ago, when I was a college professor, I came across a poem by Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911) that revealed how easily we can fall into habits that keep us from thinking critically and creatively. I shared that poem with my students and included it in the book I was writing at the time, The Art of Thinking. Here it is:
The Calf-Path (1896)
One day through the primeval wood
A calf walked home as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail as all calves do.
Since then three hundred years have fled,
And I infer the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.
The trail was taken up next day,
By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bell-wether sheep
Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him, too,
As good bell-wethers always do.
And from that day, o’er hill and glade.
Through those old woods a path was made.
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged, and turned, and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath,
Because ’twas such a crooked path;
But still they followed—do not laugh—
The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked
Because he wobbled when he walked.
This forest path became a lane,
that bent and turned and turned again;
This crooked lane became a road,
Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.
The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The road became a village street;
And thus, before men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare.
And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half,
Trod in the footsteps of that calf.
Each day a hundred thousand rout
Followed the zigzag calf about
And o’er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led,
By one calf near three centuries dead.
They followed still his crooked way,
And lost one hundred years a day;
For thus such reverence is lent,
To well established precedent.
A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun,
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.
They keep the path a sacred groove,
Along which all their lives they move.
But how the wise old wood gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf.
Ah, many things this tale might teach—
But I am not ordained to preach.
I explained to my students that, like the other travelers that followed the calf’s path, we tend to follow the ways of thinking, speaking, and behaving we observed in our parents and other relatives, our teachers and preachers, friends and acquaintances. The process is perfectly natural. We are not always conscious that we are learning, and even less aware when we repeat what we heard, or act as we saw others act. And the more we follow those “paths,” the more familiar the thoughts and actions become, and the more determined we are to defend them as precious.
Unless people are fortunate enough to have learned to be mentally relaxed and flexible and keep their minds open to new ideas, they are likely to be apprehensive about change. Whatever is familiar seems true and right, and whatever is different seems dangerous. When that happens they are reluctant even to consider new ways of thinking and thus close their minds to discovery, invention, creativity, and insight. To whatever field of study they pursue, from astronomy to zoology—and in no way excluding philosophy and theology—they bring their closed minds.
I stressed with my students that being open to change does not mean embracing every new idea uncritically. After all, some new ideas prove on examination to be worthless or unworkable. Rather, it means being willing to suspend judgment long enough to give every new line of thought, no matter how strange it seems at first, a fair chance to prove itself. When we do that, we make it possible to achieve wisdom.
It saddens me that today many more people than ever are refusing to learn from anyone with different ideas from theirs. As if that were not enough intellectual deprivation, they seek to prevent others from hearing messages they disapprove of. This is especially true in colleges and universities, whose central purpose used to be to promote the opening of minds. Moreover, many professors not only permit such intolerance, they participate in it themselves and do so in the name of tolerance! Such absurdity does not bode well for our country or, indeed, for civilization itself.
Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved.