It All Depends on Your Definition

When I teach my course in professional writing at the University of Maryland, I have to stress the importance of students providing their audience with a clear definition of terms. A common definition keeps everyone clear and provides a common understanding for the discussion. This concept is especially important for students to grasp when they are considering an environmental topic, such as sustainability, which can have a very broad meaning and apply to a wide range of situations.

Toad Hall's cabin by the pond
Toad Hall’s cabin by the pond

And if you think about it, our definitions drive much of our thinking about ourselves. I was eating lunch with a colleague the other day who declared, “I’m not creative at all.” When I suggested he broaden his definition and consider some area of his life where he exhibits creativity, his face lit up. “I’m creative in the kitchen. I love experimenting with new combinations of foods and spices,” he told me. Other friends who initially feel that they lack creativity often realize that the beauty in their gardens or the pleasing way they arrange furniture are all aspects of the creative flame that burns in every heart.

And definitions are important for teachers and parents as well, especially when we look at our children and our students. How do we define intelligence? What kind of intelligence do we value as a society? If you consider standardized testing, the main intelligence is related to knowing which answer out of four choices will be correct. But this narrow view of intelligence leaves out all the other ways of thinking about the world where our children and students excel. Music. Art. Sports. Nature. Problem solving.

Here is a poem by Rumi that urges all of us to look at our definition of intelligence with an open heart. We all know how to acknowledge the first kind—acquired knowledge—but we need more practice in treasuring the second kind—our intuition.

Fountain in Ireland
Fountain in Ireland

Two Kinds of Intelligence
by Jalaluddin Rumi

There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired,
as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.

With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information. You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.

There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox. A freshness
in the center of the chest. This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid,
and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
through conduits of plumbing-learning.

This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.

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