Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Great minds discuss ideas . . . "

"Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people."
— Eleanor Roosevelt
How many of you can read this as simply descriptive of how things are and not judgmental?

Descriptive, say, like "Great athletes compete in the Olympics, average athletes play softball and ski after work, and poor athletes watch television"?

Somehow, "poor athlete" doesn't overlap with a moral assessment the way 'small minds' does in this quote.  I'm trying to figure out why.   Surely we can recognize that people with 'great minds' have some abilities that people with 'small minds' don't have in the same way great athletes can do things average athletes can't.

Yet 'small minds' seems to say much more about who you are as a person, than does 'poor athlete.'  Maybe it's because people with small minds don't know this fact about themselves.  After all, it's just easier to know a good athlete when we see one.  An athlete's ability is much more tangible than a great mind's ability.  We can see someone consistently sink the ball in the basket or run faster than anyone else.  But only in very specific situations do we see that someone's mental ability is tangibly better than our own such as when someone gets the last word in a spelling bee right, or wins a chess tournament or on Jeopardy. Or can fix our computer. 

But these are specialized abilities, almost oddities.  She's very smart, but . . . A great mind is something more than the ability to finish a Sudoku in ten minutes.   We know there are different kinds of intelligence, not just the linguistic/rational/spatial intelligences thought to be captured in IQ tests. Is a great mind one that has many of them?  Actually, Howard Gardner, who developed the concept of multiple intelligences, also has identified five different minds - 
  • The Disciplinary Mind: the mastery of major schools of thought, including science, mathematics, and history, and of at least one professional craft.

  • The Synthesizing Mind: the ability to integrate ideas from different disciplines or spheres into a coherent whole and to communicate that integration to others.

  • The Creating Mind: the capacity to uncover and clarify new problems, questions and phenomena.

  • The Respectful Mind: awareness of and appreciation for differences among human beings and human groups.

  • The Ethical Mind: fulfillment of one's responsibilities as a worker and as a citizen.

Maybe the higher percent one has of all five, the closer one gets to being wise.

Is Eleanor Roosevelt's aphorism insightful or just a snarky put down from an intellectual woman who, because of her wealth and position, was the target of a lot of gossip?

Why is discussing events less important than discussing ideas? And discussing people even less important?  People and events are, it seems to me, the raw data necessary for the ideas of social science and philosophy.

I think we, collectively, need people with a wide variety of skills - people good with their hands, with plants and animals, with machines;  good at music and art, at raising children, at bringing people together,  at taking risks, at avoiding risks.  All these skills are necessary at different times for individual survival and communal prosperity.

One could argue that the progression Roosevelt offers is one of expansion.  At the narrowest level, the focus is people. Putting the individuals into context gets us to events.  And finally we back up further and see those events, not as random or unique, but in a larger context of more enduring ideas about what is good, what is right, what is important, etc. 

Part of me likes the elevation of people who discuss ideas, but not at the expense of people who discuss other things.   One can discuss people, events, and ideas in order to improve the general quality of life or to enhance one's own importance and power over others.

This riff could drift in many different directions.  How do we even know a great mind when we meet one?  How many great minds are there for every thousand people?  What is a great mind even?

Given the anti-intellectualism of some groups today, I think it's important for us to work on understanding what it means to be 'smart.'  In that respect, this post follows up on thoughts I've posted about on elitism.

Our current great political divide compels me to ponder why so many people seem to think they know so much more than they do, and to dismiss people who know far more.  (I'm talking about all folks who are certain about what they know, whether they dropped out of high school or continued on to get a PhD.) All of us need to expand our understanding of why we believe what we believe and how we test our truths.

Of course, Eleanor Roosevelt was probably using 'small minds' in the dictionary sense - narrow-minded; petty; intolerant; mean - and by reinterpreting it literally, I've made an issue out of nothing.


  1. I tend to discuss both ideas and events. I don't like gossiing about people or saying that XY is stupid (although I may think so), because I shall be wrong.

  2. I just wrote something and it got lost in cyberspace! Argh!

    Attitude/intent is everything and I think this is what Mrs. Roosevelt was suggesting.

    We could say, "Great athletes play for the love of the game and play to win, whether they win or lose! Mediocre athletes play to win. Small minded athletes play to win at all costs." You would immediately understand that there are great athletes who never lose sight of what matters, no matter how much money/adulation is involved. If someone loses sight for a bit and acts small minded, it doesn’t mean they are always small minded. . . just as someone who is small minded who plays at looking great for a bit doesn’t mean he is really great. It’s the overall performance that matters.

    You could apply this to politicians. . . “Great politicians are really there for the people and what is best for everyone (including the disenfranchised.) Average politicians do it only for the votes. Typical politicians do it to get re-elected.” (I am really turned off on politics, so I am a bad person to come up with this one. You could do better, I am sure!)

    You cannot discuss ideas and plans without data which tends to include people, but is the data simply data, or is it juicy gossip? Someone like Eleanor Roosevelt or Margaret Sanger would see teen pregnancies as a tragedy and in need of serious brain grease to deal with, in the same light as the daughter of a prominent politician getting knocked up as a tragedy, but proof that it can happen to EVERYONE. To many others with whom ER rubbed elbows, teenaged pregnancies were a problem for the little people and the daughter of a prominent politician getting pregnant was a source for smirks and a trip to a distant relative’s house for six months. It is possible to change the size of one's mind-- one can change.

    I think that attitude/intent is what is behind the thoughts and determines the size of the mind.

  3. To me,
    Great minds discuss ideas = those who study things without prejudice. They study from whatever source, whether it is negative or positive, without listening to only one side of the story. At the end of the day, after a careful research, he/she will come with balance conclusion. Ideas are like intelligence; the more knowledge he/she has, the more he/she should become humble. One must not be prejudice about any knowledge because knowledge is POWER. When you reach to this stage, you see possibilities. We go library and we google about one particular thing, it can be anything. When you read that one particular thing and found an answer from A, for instance. The A says this and that, and then you found another one who talks almost about the same thing as the A did, then you found another, bla..bla bla. You compiled them together, but you are NOT going to swallow it all. You do research further on, until you found what the OPPOSITE are saying/talking, that would be B. The B says this and that, bla bla bla, entirely contra to those in A. You study A & B, and you do research without being bias. THAT is one of an example of a Great Mind; the willingness to know, to find and to learn, and he/she may apply it or convert into it based on his/her study & research once he/she knows that it is better, has no flaws, fabricated or contradiction.

    Average Mind discuss Events = are those who talks about it's own surroundings; the ambiance or the current situation. What people do and be, generally about things; from solid to something we cannot touch and see, more like fiction, desires or an issue.

    Small Mind discuss People = Mainly gossips, not only about people but also listening to the people and take to an account. They look at people and what people do, and from here they define these people and make a conclusion. They study people and believe what the people of their surroundings do is TRUE (or the Truth). These small minds are imbalance; they do not know where they are; they can be lost as they do not have nothing to stand on. They are imbecile and a closed minded. Their vision is what makes them to understand; meaning they don't bother to RESEARCH. These minds is bias, is prejudice and is actually, one who believes that "a wet thread can be straightened". As an example, they believe in something, then they hold on to it since they look around, their ambiance that everyone else is doing it and they believe it is true (or Truth). They can often be called as followers; these minds are not believers, and they will grasp and HOLD to what they believe even though by the fact they have been proven wrong. They can get angry easily too and they would do anything to "straightened a wet thread", because they believe they can do it. Lastly, small minds are not humble; they are stubborn and big headed.

    Nevertheless, small minds has limits too, when great minds will always find a way to make them THINK again, not only logically but something that makes SENSE. When his/her heart is open to this, he/she know that he/she applies this, it would be better. much better as a matter of fact. They know now they should study and do research more, so that prejudice and being bias will burn inside them. They will believe now that words of mouth from people is not enough. If they listen people from left, they should also listen people from the right; knowing both is better. Yet small minds will understand and learn that they have to be Great Minds, in order to be able to obtain facts from VALID SOURCE. Example, small minds will ask a tourist from Italy about places in China; whereas great minds will ask a Chinese to know about places in China.

  4. Joseph, I think you clarified a couple of important points here - without prejudice and the idea of learning. If one talks simply about events - say football - or people - how they dress or act - with bias and without learning, then that probably is a lesser mind. But if one talks about the ideas that give events and people meaning then one can both talk about events and people AND ideas. Thanks for the comment. And a belated thanks to Ropi and Tea.

  5. Shouldnt it be great minds put their ideas to action ? If one would sit there and talk about ideas all day theyre not doing shit for anybody. So you are alll telling me that Jesus Christ was a small minded person in the eyes of Eleanor Roosevelt ?? She didnt do shit for this world compared to him. And also what abouy Ghandi ???? Actions based solely on his care and devotion for the people. You all seem to put yourself Iin a category immediatley. This is such a biased quote its ridiculous !! Our number one problem as a society now a days is the fact everyone wants to live independently but we are not meant to. Everyone looks out for themselves first... Ghandi and Jesus Christ are perfect examples of great minded people. Dont ever call someone small minded... because their one idea they have, could just be the icing on the cake. Ants dont work alone, they live as a colony. We do also but we fight with each othef, kill each other, steal from each other, all to make sure we personally survive. Not thinking once that our "ideas" could negatively affect the colony as a whole. Its pretty pathetic for us humans to take life lessons from ants. But thats exactly where we have put ourselves. A bunch of needy independent unintelligent disgraces to mankind. Smarten up and lets out our ideas to action for once !


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