Thinking out of the box — That’s far out!
“Awesome,” used as a friendly term of approval for almost anything, is a word I hear a lot from young Americans. In the seventies many of us used the expression “far out” in a similar way.
Both expressions wormed their way into the language of young people of their time, as a way of expressing admiring and enthusiastic approval.
But one is based on the emotion “awe” and the other on the concepts of “distance” and “boundary.” I wonder if these differences offer potential insights into differences between the young American mindset of the seventies and that of today’s.
Let’s look at the components of each term.
A typical dictionary definition will say that the core meaning of awe is an emotion that combines feelings of respect and admiration. It is easy to see how the informal use of awesome to express enthusiastic approval is rooted in this core meaning.
But “far out” is not, in the same way, a simple extension of a common word. Rather it was an inventive metaphor (emerging from the youth drug culture of the 60s and 70s) based on “distance” and the notion of some kind of “boundary.” As such it expressed a powerful urge for freedom from restrictions, be they outer and physical or inner and psychological. Hippies not only “thought different” and espoused radical new values. They also often wanted to physically distance themselves from modern society. While some might even have rejected technology to the point of not even approving of typewriters, today’s radicals are perfectly at home with today’s quantum leaps beyond into ever-expanding realms of technology-supported forms of communication.
And let’s not forget that the very first picture of our planet was in 1972, while hippie or quasi-hippie culture was still pretty prevalent. This is truly a far-out picture, and one that may be emblematic of a new age for thousands of years, much as the pyramid can be taken as a symbol or metaphor for our societies over the last few thousand years.
“Awesome” as an expression of approval is rooted in conventional language use. While somewhat inventive in its extension of the use of the core meaning of “awe”, it is less radically inventive than “far out,” and lacks the senses of distance and imprisonment embodied in “far out.”
Perhaps the expression “out of the box” is a descendant of “far out.” Lacking the earlier expression’s idea of distance, it can be seen as related to it by the idea of the prison-like limitations of conventional thinking, the need for creativity, from breaking free of conventional assumptions in approaching problems old and new.
And today, the concept of “boundary” is embraced in psychological counselling, a field which is concerned with helping individuals to free themselves from unhealthy ideas and influences they may have become prisoner to. The following sounds like a good set of general principles for education!