Think for yourself

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.

5 thoughts on “Think for yourself

  1. I did not know about this letter. But something I’ve learned in my decades instructing college students is that the capacity simply to state what the opposing argument is, is a relatively rare skill. (The MBTI people would tell you that ease of doing so is connected to particular personality types.) It’s easy to say “honestly consider the best arguments advanced on both sides” but in my experience, most people can’t even say why people disagree with them, let alone what the substance of the agreement is, and even those who can state the substance of a disagreement often can’t explain why it might be reasonable — even hypothetically — for someone else to hold that opinion. Most people seem to assume that their own opinion is correct by virtue of the fact that they hold it.

  2. Servetus,

    The norm you describe is what makes me follow Jacobs in describing the work as difficult and dangerous, a change in direction that—seriously—I wouldn’t recommend to anyone lightly. Traveling that path will be hard and lonely, and the destination will always be uncertain. Worse, most people will need to equip themselves for the journey from scratch, a monumental undertaking of its own which won’t get much sympathy or support from friends and family. I am only able to urge my kids to pursue it because we raised them to be equal to the task.

    I hesitate to say all that because it makes the choice sound more noble. I don’t think it is. Depending on your context and background, you may spend your entire time grinding along what a friend calls “the ugly part of the learning curve,” investing far more than you experience in benefits, effectively running out of runway before you’re able to take flight. Staying in the hanger is not better than flying, but it is better than crashing and burning.

  3. I don’t know if it’s more noble — it’s the ideal at the basis of the classical liberal arts education, so I didn’t think about it when I started. I went to college and we started reading Plato and after that I just kept on reading. I often think I’m just re-traveling ground that others have traveled but then I try to remember that life isn’t science and I’m not necessarily supposed to be innovating, just figuring out how to live. I do think (and this is the reason I went to college) that I’m just not comfortable knowing or understanding less, and I have issues with embracing an ideology when I notice clear facts that contradict it (and this has been the case with every system of thought I’ve encountered).

  4. Servetus,

    Well said.

    Robert Wright, in his new book on mindfulness meditation, says essentially that he is driven to promote the approach because he thinks it can be incrementally beneficial, i.e. whatever effort the average person puts into being more mindful will yield net benefits—a little effort will be mildly beneficial, more effort will be more so.

    I can imagine a world in which thinking for oneself might be incrementally beneficial—but not the world we find ourselves in. Rather, I can only recommend thinking for oneself to folks who can’t not do it, similar to the idea that the only people who should be encouraged to write are those who simply can’t not write. If you aren’t already inclined to think for yourself, the start-up cost may simply be too high to justify the very uncertain benefits it might eventually yield.

    This may be another point where Jacobs and I differ. He seems to have a sunnier outlook when it comes to encouraging thinking. But I’m not done with his book yet.

  5. It might just be a professional bias on his part. He teaches very intelligent undergraduates. I have been amazed at the difference in the quality of student between elite institutions and (cough) less elite ones. He’s not encountering the rank and file of humanity most days.

    I think the problem of not being able to think for yourself (even for the disinclined) is political. If you can’t, you’ll fall for anything that appears appealing to you on whatever grounds.

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