A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices.
Why Thinking Matters
by Robert Grudin
Copyright © Robert Grudin 2008
Does thinking still make a difference to Americans? Don’t say ‘Yes’ automatically. There are some very powerful indications that thinking has not only been devalued but is actually seen as a kind of nuisance. I look to the Left and am told that thinking is politically incorrect. Unauthorized thinking might hurt somebody’s feelings. I look to the Right and am told that thinking is un-American and irreligious. Improper thought might disrupt a prayer meeting or interfere with an important war. In desperation I flee to the college campus, but there they inform me that thinking is no longer a degree requirement and that in fact it’s considered a questionable career move. And between the Left and the Right and the colleges, there’s little tenable ground. Support for thinking has all but dried up.
It’s quite possible, of course, that we really don’t need thinking any more. After all there’s always spending, trusting, ranting and praying. Computers can probably handle the rest. But before we dismiss thinking altogether, let’s pause a few moments to consider what it has done for us:
A legion of thinkers from Socrates to Simone de Beauvoir labored to free thought from the chains of authority and the crotchets of superstition. Plato taught the basic rules for effective thinking, and Aristotle, following Plato’s lead, set up the disciplines of learning that we follow to this day. Cicero established the thinker as active citizen. Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio introduced the idea of human equality. Desiderius Erasmus taught new ways of unlocking creativity. Niccolò Machiavelli imparted an understanding of political cause and effect. Étienne de la Boétie originated the concept of civil rights. Francis Bacon facilitated that form of self-corrective thinking that became known as modern science. The American Founders legislated rationality as the basis of government. William James instituted pragmatism and pluralistic thinking. Jamesian pragmatism, the idea of pluralistic thinking in response to changing contingencies, threw all the earlier advances into focus and put the finishing touch on the grand program of ideas.
Taken together, these ideas and methods comprise what might be called an instrumentation of thought: a set of implements for engaging, analyzing and articulating the body of experience. Moreover, these ideas comprise a unique moral and political instrumentation: a faculty for achieving Commonwealth. Standards like democracy, liberty, free speech, equality and civil rights are not just ethical goals; they are means of empowering the work force and enriching the marketplace. Together with other technologies, they have made the West the most productive region in history.
Beyond these institutions, moreover, the Western tradition offered a kind of wisdom. This wisdom lay not in the consciousness of a given set of ideas, but rather in the idea of consciousness itself. Western consciousness established the individual as a player to reckon with in the social order. Western consciousness ensured that, even in the worst of times, raw power could not silence the voice of humanity. As Victor Klemperer put it on a page of the diary that he hid from the Nazis, “I shall bear witness.” What lay at the roots of this consciousness was literacy. In a passage that still cuts to the bone, Frederick Douglass describes the birth of his own consciousness as follows:
I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.... Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.
Those who would follow Douglass’ example did not want for material. The literature and art of the West offered an oceanic reserve for the creation and refinement of consciousness.
But, in ways almost too numerous to mention, American culture has been abandoning this intellectual and moral inheritance. Responsibility for this belongs in several quarters: yellow journalism and its debasement of public taste, mass marketers and their cultivation of gross consumerism, demagogues who make ignorance their platform, evangelists who would have us leave the thinking to Jesus. But perhaps the worst offenders are our colleges. Over the past few decades they have dismantled the only program that dependably conveyed the riches of Western learning and the autonomy of critical thinking: the humanities core. In so doing, our colleges have effectively severed the link between our society and the wisdom that made it great. They have abandoned the tradition that gave Klemperer faith, the tradition that set Douglass free.
The reasons for this deracination are readily available from those responsible for it. In a recent ADE publication, Prof. Lawrence Schwartz quotes a Montclair State University report from 1992:
There is the general perception that the structure of the old major no longer meets the challenges of shifting faculty interests, a student constituency undergoing broad sociological change, and an academic discipline in the midst of dramatic conceptual and institutional transformations.
“Shifting faculty interests” and “conceptual... transformations” may be taken as code words for the rise of postmodern studies which, as Schwartz writes, were replacing traditional studies in the English major. And by ‘postmodern,’ we read academically stylish attacks on Western culture under the flag of subjectivity and relativism. Therein lies the problem. The problem is not that faculty interests are shifting; they always shift. The problem is that they are shifting diametrically away from the kind of consciousness that empowered and awakened the West. Does academic freedom confer the power to rob a generation of its intellectual birthright?
This trend has already made its dent on the marketplace. As the humanities become more self-interested and specialized, they lose institutional clout. The void is being filled by monolithic careerism. The professional bottom line in our economy – Executive, Technocrat, Doctor, Lawyer, Journalist, Accountant, Teacher – has been dictating curricular policies, resulting in a concentration on expertise at the expense of intelligence. The humanities are no longer seen as the central body of educational material as, given their emergent character, there was every reason to expect. On the grandest scale possible and as though by careful planning, postmodernism has engineered its own irrelevance.
The timing could hardly have been more dramatic. Savor for a moment the irony that in the 1990's, while Russians and other peoples dismantled the Soviet Union, thus vindicating the consciousness of Orwell and Sakharov, “shifting faculty interests” were working overtime to deprive American students of that very awareness.
But mention of the World at large is a kind of trumpet call, reminding me that, in this brief defense of thinking, there is one more point to be made. The world at large is currently a very dynamic venue, with nations developing at a merry pace and change occurring rapidly – faster even than faculty interests can shift. Because of all this frontier-style activity, there’s massive risk of confusion out there, and good use is actually being made of old-fashioned habits like thinking. There’s quite a vogue, in fact, for a special sort of thinking. Here, for example, are the criteria on which the World Bank is now making loans:
Another good thing to have come from the World Bank recently is Ismail Serageldin's work on the Four Capitals approach to sustainability. The Four Capitals are physical, human, social, and natural capital. The idea here is that we are living on the income from these capitals - the benefits we enjoy are their product - and therefore sustainability entails each generation passing on to the next a stock of these four capitals at least equivalent to that which it received from the previous generation.
What makes Serageldin’s Four Capitals approach a special sort of thinking is that it is flagrantly interdisciplinary. Wealth is no longer resolvable into figures that can be manipulated on a calculator. Wealth is now seen as a cross-cultural entity whose variables include the environment, international relations, public policy and culture. In setting these new criteria the World Bank has upped the intellectual ante in the arena of globalization. Only professionals with the skills needed to speak to complex and multiform phenomena are likely to be controlling monetary policy. Your American MBA in Finance may not stretch quite far enough.
Briefly, a second example. In the New York Times of October 12, 2003, Michael Pollan advanced a compelling argument that linked American overeating (three out of five of us are overweight) with agricultural overproduction. The argument, set forth in careful detail, may be summarized as follows:
1-The Nixon Department of Agriculture terminates a New Deal policy that allowed the American market in grain to self-regulate.
2-Encouraged by new price supports, American farmers produce as much grain as they can.
3-With the market flooded with cheap grain, producers find new ways of converting it into profitable commodities; in particular they pump corn and corn-fed meat into fast foods and junk foods.
4-These fast foods and junk foods are mass-marketed aggressively.
5-High in fats and sugars, they lead to binge eating and drive up American weight.
Pollan’s article is an original contribution to an area of public discourse that was already awash with opinion from doctors, regulators, advocacy groups and journalists. These had produced a substantial body of data and insight, but in general each of their statements came out of a single field of expertise. Pollan saw that no single-field perspective could address so massive an issue. In order to view the problem clearly, he accessed at least five fields of knowledge: agriculture, regulatory history, food production, marketing and consumer psychology. Moreover, he was able to synthesize diverse information from these fields into a coherent narrative, a rational cause-and-effect progression. In so doing he opened a new window of social consciousness.
The kind of cross-disciplinary perspective that made Pollan’s article possible has to become the benchmark for 21st-century thinking. The emerging social, technological and environmental challenges of our times are too multifarious to be solved by mono-disciplinary textbooks. They must be addressed by minds that can move agilely through multiple fields and perspectives. They call for a vision that can tempt chaos to achieve a new synthesis.
How can society encourage this sort of thinking? We can reward it professionally and instill it academically. Given the will, professional reward could be a relatively simple thing, because reform can start from the top down. Corporate CEO’s and college presidents are congenitally friendly to interdisciplinary thinking, because they themselves had to practice some form of it in order to get where they are. A goodly number of them, I expect, could be convinced to found interdisciplinary internet journals, so that synthetic thinking is pumped into the informational bloodstream and becomes recognized as a sign of professional excellence.
Preparing our students to cross disciplines and achieve syntheses is a much trickier business. To confront this challenge we must first acknowledge the relationship between America’s emphasis on myopically specialized skills and the lack of strong Humanities and General Education requirements at American colleges. This said, it figures that we can at once restore a lost asset and meet emerging challenges by rehabilitating the Humanities core program in history and literature. Because they imitate all aspects of human experience, history and literature are indisputably the classic sources of breadth in education and the most credible platforms for cross-disciplinary thinking. This core ought to include a history of the world, a national history, an interdisciplinary course in natural science, an interdisciplinary course in social science and a multi-course program in great books. The teachers who assign these books should be learned in the cultures from which the books sprang.
This program should be anchored by a one-year composition course, taught with emphases on thoughtful reading, aggressive analysis, coherent expression and pluralistic problem-solving. A comp course is the perfect arena for bringing major ideas into contact with current events – of building bridges between thinking and doing. It is also a perfect opportunity for letting students know that, unless they want to limit their lives to spending, trusting, ranting and praying, they must learn and practice critical thinking.
Of course, there are a number of things wrong with thinking. Studies have proven that it’s addictive. Like coffee it keeps you up all night. Like wine it makes you drunk. It’s an aphrodisiac, leading to carnal knowledge with ideas. It ruffles feathers, and I’m afraid it’s not one of the seven habits of effective entrepreneurs. But just in case, I suggest we keep in practice. It may come in handy somewhere down the line.