Thinking outside of boxes has turned itself into trivial nonsense

Dr. Paul Teverow - Professor of History

Dr. Paul Teverow – Professor of History

Dr. Paul Teverow

“Think outside the box” currently holds top place among the clichés I most detest. It’s not simply that it’s been done to death. Instead, the more I’ve heard the annoying phrase repeated in very different settings over the past year or so, the more I’ve become convinced the ideas, such as there is any thought, behind it are profoundly at odds with the basic assumptions on which higher education rests. These ideas also have the potential to undermine a civil and free society.

Of course, I’m making some pretty big claims regarding something that seems pretty trivial. Why the big deal about “the box?” One reason occurred to me only recently. If you’ve lived in Southwest Missouri for more than two years, I’m sure that you’ve heard someone offer “but we’ve always done it this way” as a reason for rejecting your suggestion. (The closely related “that’s not how we do it” or “that’s different,” the latter uttered in a tone of despair or indignation, convey pretty much the same meaning.) Now at first glance, these phrases suggest a mindset that is the polar opposite of “think outside the box.” But, as I’ve come to realize, they’re really two peas in a pod, if I may take the liberty of throwing in my own cliché in order to get that much closer to my minimum word limit. That is, both phrases cleverly shift the focus away from the intended results of one’s efforts. Both invite praise and deflect blame, the one for blindly following tradition, the other for blindly rejecting it. Both, in short, can be wonderful excuses for failure.

In effect, both sentiments also denigrate our capacity as rational beings to make meaningful choices and adaptations from the rich variety of human experience across the ranges of space and time. However, it is precisely because the latter cliché (“think outside the box”) would have us believe we are thinking creatively when we are in fact hardly thinking at all that it poses the greater danger. Let’s face it, “the box” we are invited, nay implored, to transcend usually contains the often-costly lessons of experience, lessons we ignore at our peril. It contains alternatives whose desirability and practicality can actually be assessed against objective criteria. (Note how an antipathy to reflecting upon one’s choices unites the proponents of “think outside the box” with those of “we’ve always done it this way.”) True, my wife and friends have, for good reason, ridiculed my instinctive response of “change is bad, change is evil” to anything that disrupts my normal routine. Yes, “why not try something different?” or “we’re not going to be like everyone else” sometimes have inspired people to devise truly creative solutions. Too often, though, they steer us away from seriously considering what makes some solutions more likely than others to succeed and what costs we are likely to pay for the anticipated benefits.

One of those costs might be freedom. While many of history’s despots and dictators have invoked tradition as the basis of their unchallenged authority, a surprising number (think of Napoleon or maybe a couple of political leaders closer to our own time and place) have amassed power and stifled liberty by promising protection from a new, scary world in which the old rules (a.k.a. “the box”) supposedly no longer apply. They dismiss rules that limit search and seizure, that regulate the reasons for and manner of detention or that prohibit torture, for example, as “quaint.” For them, “think outside the box” becomes another way of saying “think outside the law.” In fact, for them, “think outside the box” denies the very concept of a society based on the rule of law, because the rule of law, by guaranteeing due process to everyone else, inhibits their power to improvise.

So, to return to my original question, those are some reasons for the big deal about “thinking outside the box.” It’s more, I’d like to think, than an emotional investment in familiar routines (“Your father and I paid good money for that box, so you are NOT going to think outside it.”) or the self-interested reaction of a tenured professor against threats to his admittedly comfortable life. Rather, it’s a matter of recognizing that “the box” of experiences, traditions and laws that has passed to us can serve to protect us against our more dangerous impulses. True, sometimes new solutions to new problems can only be found outside it, but we ignore “the box” at our peril.