05/22/2012 03:00 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2012

Insight as the Aim of Education

We are accustomed to think that the aim of education is for each student to accumulate as much knowledge as possible. We argue about what knowledge the student should acquire, and how, and for what purpose, and at what cost, and how to measure the results. But what if there were another aim of education, equally if not more important than the accumulation of knowledge? I suggest that the cultivation of insight represents exactly that.

What is insight? How does it differ from knowledge? Understanding this distinction itself requires a kind of insight. Let's begin with a couple of examples.

In a documentary video of graduating seniors from Harvard University, students are asked in an informal setting to explain the origin of seasons. Why does the earth undergo an annual process of spring, summer, autumn, and winter? With characteristic Ivy League self-confidence, student after student offers the same explanation: Earth's orbit around the sun is not a perfect circle but rather an ellipse, and the seasons correspond to greater and lesser distances from the sun in our annual journey.

This explanation represents an error in knowledge. The seasons are actually a by-product of the fact that Earth is tilted on its axis. The line from north pole to south pole is tilted about 23 degrees from the plane of Earth's orbit around the sun.

Now this information represents knowledge. You can take it on authority, whether it comes from a teacher, or a book, or a blog on Huffington Post. It is factually correct and can be offered to students to replace their incorrect knowledge.

But to have an insight requires another step altogether. Why does the tilt in Earth's axis of rotation have the effect of causing seasons? What is the relationship between the tilt and the result? How does it come about?

In order to answer this question, we must see a whole set of relationships in their mutual interaction: the earth spinning on its axis, the plane of Earth's orbit around the sun, the tilt of the axis relative to the plane, and how these affect the changing amounts of sunlight that fall on the northern and southern hemispheres throughout the year.

Without seeing that set of relationships -- without that insight -- the fact that seasons are caused by the tilt in the axis of rotation is just an arbitrary fact, an item of information with no intrinsic meaning or interest. Insight is what transforms an item of knowledge into a thing of beauty and wonder, replete with the joy of discovery.

Examples of this kind can be multiplied endlessly. In mathematics, students often stumble when they are introduced to negative numbers. We are deeply accustomed to the idea that addition represents increase and subtraction means to get smaller, to diminish. But to subtract a negative numbers means to increase. If we subtract negative two from ten, we get twelve. This result is puzzling to many students.

Here again, the student can acquire the operational rule as a piece of knowledge, accepted on the basis of the authority of the teacher or the book. But to have an insight is to see why the rule works. What is it about a negative number such that subtracting it results in an increase? Sometimes we call this "seeing the truth" of the matter, or having an intuitive sense of it. What it really is, however, is an insight.

This distinction between knowledge and insight is one that we do not usually draw so sharply. The gulf between knowledge and insight has been explored at length, however, by educational philosopher J. Krishnamurti, especially in his dialogues with theoretical physicist David Bohm. An entire strand of the school curriculum based on the cultivation of insight is the subject of a chapter in my book, The Unconditioned Mind.

When insight comes to be recognized as a unique element in the process of education, we will go a long way toward restoring joy and vitality to our educational system. We will be cultivating in our students a powerful capacity, far more powerful than inert knowledge, and one they can employ in every facet of their careers as well as their daily lives.