I’m two-thirds of the way through How to Think by Alan Jacobs, and so far I only have one quibble, but it’s a big one, at least for me and my household. Jacobs claims we should give up on saying think for yourself, since thinking is ultimately a collaborative act which can only happen in community. To think for yourself would be to set yourself the challenge of constructing your belief system independently of those things, of the best which has been thought and said. And that’s not how thinking works.
I agree with his point. But that isn’t what I mean by think for yourself and I suspect it isn’t what most people take the phrase to mean. In late August some “scholars and teachers at Princeton, Harvard, and Yale” sent a letter to incoming students which urged them to think for themselves, and since it does a good job of spelling out in simple terms what they think (and I think) the process entails, I’ll quote it at length:
We are scholars and teachers at Princeton, Harvard, and Yale who have some thoughts to share and advice to offer students who are headed off to colleges around the country. Our advice can be distilled to three words:
Think for yourself.
Now, that might sound easy. But you will find—as you may have discovered already in high school—that thinking for yourself can be a challenge. It always demands self-discipline and these days can require courage.
In today’s climate, it’s all-too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture. The danger any student—or faculty member—faces today is falling into the vice of conformism, yielding to groupthink.
At many colleges and universities what John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of public opinion” does more than merely discourage students from dissenting from prevailing views on moral, political, and other types of questions. It leads them to suppose that dominant views are so obviously correct that only a bigot or a crank could question them.
Since no one wants to be, or be thought of as, a bigot or a crank, the easy, lazy way to proceed is simply by falling into line with campus orthodoxies.
Don’t do that. Think for yourself.
Thinking for yourself means questioning dominant ideas even when others insist on their being treated as unquestionable. It means deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions [emphasis mine]—including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize and against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.
“… learn and honestly consider …” is the difficult and dangerous work we’re inclined not to do. Since I agree with Jacobs’s point, I thought about finessing our difference by conceding the phrase to his interpretation and looking for another that tries to get at mine—think things through, thinking: do the work, or some such. But then I started to worry about putting such emphasis on the idea that thinking is a communal act. It seems fairly straightforward (and tempting) to drift from “thinking happens in community” to “let the community do the thinking”, which is exactly not what should be celebrated or urged.
All this word-wrangling on my part is only for the benefit me and my family, along with anyone interested in seeing how we proceed to live out a set of beliefs. While thinking it through I was inspired to jot down a list of qualities that I think lie at the core of a well-formed character, namely:
- knowledge that life doesn’t require us to hold a belief on any given topic, that what John Keats called negative capability is a virtue to be cultivated: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”
- ability to tell the difference between a belief established as true and good in one’s own mind and one simple taken off the shelf
- conviction that one’s held beliefs should be whittled down to just those one has established for oneself
- a habit of approaching situations with only one’s held beliefs, and those held lightly
- a commitment to becoming the best possible example of such a person, visibly so
It occurred to me—not as a flash of insight, but gradually over many years—that if I could only teach my children this, I would no longer have to worry about teaching them the specifics of the good life, since they would be equipped to deal with any claim about its nature that came their way. I think they get it, and as a result I sleep much better at night.