Learning How To Think vs. Learning To Think For Yourself

Learning how to Think

College-age students have always been a group defined by a fundamental contradiction. As newly minted adults, they are striving to figure how who they are and stake a public claim to their individuality. This, of course, makes them uniquely prone to groupthink and conformity. The easiest path to establishing your unique identity qua society is always to do exactly what the rest of your cohort are doing.

Caitlan Flanagan captures this perfectly (in her provocatively titled Atlantic essay — Colleges Are Lying to Their Students) with this wonderful vignette from the college tour. A vignette that I can attest to — my daughters having churned through this mill shortly before covid.

“If you’ve taken a college tour lately…you may have noticed that at some point — usually as you’re on the death march from the aquatic center to the natural sciences complex — the tour guide will spin smartly on her heel, do the college-tour-guide thing of performatively walking backwards, and let you in on something very important, “What’s different about College X.” she’ll say confidently, “is that our professors don’t teach you what to think. They teach you how to think….

The tour eventually ends, and in a couple of hours, you’re on another college campus, and while you’re marching from the climbing gym to its sophomore-student housing, a different tour guide spins on his heel, speeds up, and lets you in on his school’s secret. “What’s different about College Y,” he says — with what seems to be complete confidence that you haven’t heard such a thing before — “is that our professors don’t teach us what to think; they teach us how to think.”

This is classic. I’m pretty sure I heard this statement — maybe with slightly more variation — on about half the campus tours I attended. Now I have to say that I took it no more seriously than any of the rest of the campus tour spiel you get. Perhaps I was too distracted by the performative walking backwards (which I love). But hey — pretty much everything you hear at these events sounds like it’s produced by an early version of ChatGPT — a mashup of 8th grade writing, multi-level marketing spiels, and progressive sensibilities.

Flanagan uses this as a jumping off point for a fairly straightforward criticism of the growing tendency of our colleges and universities — particularly in their humanities departments — to be ideological factories stamping out adults whose most distinguishing characteristic is the absolute sameness of their opinions.

Flanagan puts it this way:

“In the broadest possible sense, “what’s wrong” with the modern American university is that although it still understands itself to operate under the model established by the 19th-century German university — which emphasized academic freedom, seminars, and laboratories as means of allowing students to discover the truth for themselves — it’s becoming a parody of that model. The professors are going to tell you what to think, and you’re going to backfill that “truth” with research of your own.”

But if Flanagan is spot-on about what students are getting out of college, her understanding of what they should get out of college is surprisingly flawed. What Flanagan says is also pretty conventional — but not only is it wrong — it’s part of what makes our current approach to teaching colleges and universities so poor.

Flanagan says, “The truth of the matter is that no one can teach you how to think; but what they can do is teach you how to think for yourself.” To illustrate this, she tells another great story.

“To the extent that I have learned how to think for myself, it’s because my father taught me. Usually by asking me a single question.

For the love of god, I hated that question…There we’d be, chatting away, when some new subject or other would heave into view, and I’d launch into a long assessment of it. I’d be certain…that I was right. My father would listen, head cocked a little to the side, often smiling a bit…eventually I’d run out of steam and finish up, with some sort of gesture meaning “case closed.”

…And then my father would say…” And what is the best argument of the other side?”

Now I think you could make a plausible case that her father was, in fact, teaching her how to think not just how to think for herself. Forcing yourself to articulate an opposition is often a surprisingly powerful way to improve your thinking — at least partly because of the way our minds work. We often learn what we think by saying it out loud. And the act of forcing ourselves to articulate the alternative will often drive us to consider new and better ideas.

But even if you accept that what her father was doing was teaching her how to think for herself, this is not what college is for. College is (at least in the main) for learning how to think. And Flanagan is quite wrong to claim that nobody can teach us how to do it and even more wrong to assert that it’s something we all know how to do.

This is the great mistake of classic rationalism– the idea that we all have some fixed, magical, rational power embedded within us that must only be freed for us to think for ourselves. There is no such thing. Our minds are largely plastic. We have very few out-of-the-box thinking capabilities when we are born (as any parent should know) and many of the thinking habits we learn in everyday life are shoddy and error-prone. As I’ve written before, we are not rational animals. We are animals that must work to be rational.

Flanagan says this about her tour-guides claims: “Can anyone teach you how to think? Aren’t we all thinking all the time; isn’t the proof of our existence found in our think-think-thinking, one banal thought at the time?”

That may or may not be proof of our existence, but it’s surely right to suggest that nearly everything we think in everyday life is banal. We don’t need to learn how to think very well to muddle through a great deal of life. And because we are all fundamentally lazy, what we don’t need to do, we generally don’t. We learn to think as a series of short-cuts, anecdotal generalizations, misplaced assumptions of authority, and happy groupthink. And, yes, we learn that stuff every day. We learn it at home (unless you, too, had something like Flanagan’s father), we learn it at school, and these days we continue to learn it at college.

Our brains do not come equipped with a bunch of thinking tools. They come equipped with only one basic facility — how to learn. Everything about how to think well must be taught. We learn causality as we learn to control our bodies moving within a physical world. We learn language in constant back-and-forth with our parents.

By the time we’re packed off to kindergarten, we’ve learned a lot of basic thinking tools. But those thinking tools are both limited in power and highly prone to error. Some of the problems are built right into the architecture of our brains. Because we must learn quickly, the neural networks in our brain tend to over-adapt to initial experiences. When Google trains DeepMind, they can afford to adjust the neural network in tiny increments based on each experience because they know it can rapidly go through millions of training cycles. Humans don’t have that luxury. So, we tend to over-rely on initial impressions and accidental experiences. This is built-in to the way we think and it’s a significant problem for our rationality. The first lesson every statistics major learns is that correlation is not causality. It’s hard work to learn this lesson well because to our brains? Correlation pretty much is causality.

Even our most powerful cognitive tool — language — comes with surprising limitations. Most of our thinking takes place beneath the level of language — and the states and exact nature of our thought can never be captured in words. Flanagan’s father isn’t just encouraging her to think for herself, he’s showing her how to take advantage of a limitation in our cognitive processes and turn it into a tool for better thinking.

Our colleges are not useless for training people how to think. Depending on your degree choice, you may well pick up a small but useful set of thinking tools. Every science and mathematics major learns a variety of ways to think mathematically and/or experimentally. These tools are immensely powerful and surprisingly generalizable.

Every engineering and programming student will learn algorithmic thinking — the skill of breaking down a problem and then solving it with simple, clear steps. That’s not about thinking for yourself. It’s about learning how to think.

Data science majors will learn statistical thinking — a set of thinking tools that are not only powerful but incredibly useful in our complex, high-cardinality world. Almost every public policy problem we face requires statistical thinking — and, believe me, our brains don’t do this well out of the box.

Economics majors learn invisible hand explanations (as do evolutionary biologists). These turn out to be some of the best tools for thinking about a wide variety of social processes. You can’t understand modern society if you don’t understand how markets work.

Modern academe is certainly overly specialized. It’s a shame that economics students don’t learn algorithmic thinking and data science students don’t learn invisible hand explanations. Our schools could and should do a much better job of teaching people more than one way to think.

But there’s only one group of students who are likely to emerge from their four-year colleges without learning ANY new thinking tools — liberal arts majors. My degree was in philosophy. I don’t think there is any discipline more important, and I believe in every humanities discipline. I wish far more people would major in humanities than do (though not the way it’s often taught) and done well it is the most important kind of learning there is. Because done well, a liberal arts education is about how to think across a wide variety of tools and disciplines. A good humanities major learns to think like a biologist, astronomer, computer programmer and statistician — learning the basic use of all the powerful and common thinking tools that other disciplines specialize in. Having this varied toolkit turns out to be useful in many walks of life and in the very process of figuring out what kind of life to live.

We learn how to think not by sitting around puzzling, but by applying our mind to subjects that both require and develop specific ways of thinking. A liberal arts major should know how to program a computer not because it’s a job skill but because it is the single best way to learn algorithmic thinking. They should study astronomy because it’s one of the best ways to learn how to think about scale — and our society is filled with problems of scale to which our minds are poorly accustomed and ill-trained by everyday banal experience.

The secret to understanding a liberal education is to realize that while it may indeed be concerned with the squishy concept of getting people to think for themselves, it works by the much more grounded concept of teaching people how to think well in a number of different ways.

That is not what our current humanities departments do. Not only don’t they understand this to be their role, humanities disciplines are increasingly practiced in ways that leave students bereft of actual tools for thinking. So much of modern humanities is a system of language obfuscation designed not to improve thinking but to hide it behind a dense barrier of abstraction. Concepts like power dynamics, intersectionality, and deconstruction do not illuminate, they obscure. They are systems of ideological persuasion not tools for enhanced rationality. And while their specific disciplines fail them, nearly every liberal arts college has abandoned the idea that their students should learn math, science, and social science as part of what they must know. Do our humanities students learn statistical thinking? Algorithmic thinking? Scale thinking? Invisible Hand Explanations? Mathematics? Logic? Do they learn any of the most powerful tools necessary to think well? If we fixed this. If we truly taught our humanities students how to think, then most of the problems with higher education would melt away.

Because I’d flip Flanagan’s point almost completely around. A good teacher can help you learn how to think. But only you can find the internal energy and motivation to think for yourself. It would be ideal if colleges provided a place that encouraged this second journey. It’s what a liberal education is ultimately about. It’s a journey that others may encourage and embody, but it’s not a skill that can really be taught. Yet people who learn how to think well have a strong natural drive to think for themselves. We are fortunate that our minds are constituted such that there is considerable pleasure in thinking powerfully and well. Like any skill, the acquisition is a constant struggle, but the employment of the refined skill is a source of joy.

There’s no denying that our higher education system encourages ideological conformity. It does and that’s certainly a bad thing. But if universities were truly teaching people how to think, producing ideological conformity would be nearly impossible. If we can create in students the tools of thought, we can trust that many of the people who absorb those tools will use them for themselves.

If you teach people to think well, good luck trying to keep them from doing it.


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