Mere Reflectors: A Critical Conceptual Examination

To think originally, one must be familiar with previous ideas; otherwise, s/he will be in danger of merely reflecting the ideas of others - even if this is done unintentionally.

Learning January 10, 2019

Ellen White’s challenge to train our “youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought” (Education, p. 11) can be misinterpreted. Often, individuals criticize education’s focus on scholarly sources instead of personal creativity. However, to avoid reflecting other men’s thoughts, students must be aware of what those men – and women – have said.

Many commentators have used this statement to critique education. Of course, graduate education DOES emphasize an understanding of how our ideas are indebted to other scholars who have preceded us. Therefore, when people use this quotation, they are often arguing that students should be encouraged to think freely, independently of other people’s ideas. Why bog them down, it is represented, with slogging through prior papers, articles, books and journals before they can tout their own ideas? Indeed, why require students to study textbooks that simply review the relevant research in a particular academic discipline (e.g., psychology) when their unstudied intuition may contain a wealth of fresh, undiscovered insights?

In this regard, let’s expand our discussion to include a practical view of creativity as something more than mere context-free originality. Most investigators of creativity contend that it depends crucially on previous ideas and discoveries that provide a rich context for divergent thinking. With this in mind, White’s quote is frequently misunderstood. In modern language, she says we are to train students “to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other people’s thought” (True Education, p. 6).

Ironically, APA style, which has become somewhat ubiquitous in the social and behavioral sciences, encourages paraphrasing of other sources rather than quotations, a task that requires a great deal of original thought and not mere reflection of those sources. Ellen White’s admonition, if read within its context, seems to focus primarily on the then in-vogue practice of extensive memorization of especially the classics – often in Latin or at least the original language – whether or not students actually understood what they were reciting. Thus, to represent White’s statement as critical of scholarly research is at least somewhat disingenuous.

When I have encountered this familiar admonition, the speaker usually has an ‘adherence agenda’ for some concepts or ideas, and the thoughts intended for critique are discounted by quoting White’s advice. In this regard, if we truly train our youth to be thinkers, they may come to question (rather than reflect on) the thoughts we most wish them to believe and accept (e.g., the Bible is true; a literal creation week approximately 6,000 years ago; the seventh day is the Sabbath; Jesus is coming again; the dead are asleep). Do critical thinking skills offer advantages that serve to balance such risks?

In fact, in my understanding, it is impossible to contribute original, fresh ideas and insights WITHOUT awareness of what others have already said. To think originally, one must be familiar with previous ideas; otherwise, s/he will be in danger of merely reflecting the ideas of others – even if this is done unintentionally.


Jay L. Brand

Dr. Brand, Professor of Leadership and Higher Education at Andrews University's School of Education, USA. He is a professional writer, editor, and speaker. He has published research on Christianity & cognitive science, the philosophy of science & research methods, APA style, office and workplace ergonomics, collaboration, and creativity & innovation. His current research focuses on organizational development, social network analysis, and interaction & communication.

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