Observations, Curiosity, Perceptiveness, and Insights

Onesimus was enslaved and brought to America from his native land of what is now Ghana. He was presented to Cotton Mather as a gift from his congregation. Mather gave Onesimus his name after a slave mentioned in the Bible.

Small pox was rampant in Boston where Mather lived. When Mather asked Onesimus if he ever had small pox, he answered both yes and no. Onesimus then described how in Africa they would take a small amount of small pox and cut the skin and place a drop into the body. This would protect people from getting small pox. Onesimus had a scar from the procedure which he showed Mather.

Mather subsequently advocated for Onesimus’ procedure as a way of promoting his own stature. The elite of Boston were outraged. They couldn’t believe that a slave had the knowledge to prevent the spread of a deadly disease. A local doctor, Zabdiel Boylston was a believer and was successful in inoculating his patients. Dr. Boylston was given credit for pioneering the use of inoculation procedures to prevent the spread of viruses. Two hundred years later, Onesimus was finally given credit and listed as number 52 out of 100 of the Best Bostonians of All Time.

In our society today, we tend to equate formal education as a necessary factor in a person’s success. In reality, our knowledge comes from many sources. In Onesimus’ case, his knowledge of the prevention of small pox came from experience. We can also gain knowledge from our senses. We call this empirical knowledge. In other cases, our knowledge may come from inspiration and reasoning. Memory is another source of knowledge. It’s interesting to note that a formal education can lead to knowledge gained from memory and reasoning but is of limited value for knowledge gained from experience and inspiration.

When we think of how we develop people to be contributors to society, we need to think more holistically. How can we help them gain experience? What does it take to inspire people to expand their insights through curiosity and perceptiveness?

Just imagine a society where one’s personal background and formal education are not determinative of the contributions they can make to society. Would a breakthrough idea from an inner-city youth be any better received today than what Onesimus experienced? Just imagine how we might change the way we think about human development based upon the various kinds of knowledge that are needed? Just imagine what we might do to encourage observation skills, curiosity, perceptiveness, and insight as the main areas of focus in formal education?

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“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”  – Socrates

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