Think about it- a Conversation

I believe I can help those who want to think better, but—I need to say it before taking one more step—no, it’s not because I’m an academic. My fellow academics, taken as a group, are just as reluctant to engage in genuine reflection as the less highly educated person in the street. Academics have always been afflicted by unusually high levels of conformity to expectations: one of the chief ways you prove yourself worthy of an academic life is by getting very good grades, and you don’t get very good grades without saying the sorts of things that your professors like to hear.

~Alan Jacobs, How to Think (pp. 23-24)

I read this in bed a few weeks ago. Academics are not immune to peer pressure, Jacobs says. Over the next few days, similar ideas from a variety of authors floated to the surface of my mind. A kind of conversation emerged:

First voice, John Locke

Michael Shermer wrote for the Scientific American about speaking with narrow minded people. I considered here that his advice was sound, but his article seemed too lax on his own atheistic tribe. I brought in John Locke, who said we tend to think and argue in favor of our desires, rather than our reason.

Second voice, Allan Bloom

In what oddly became the most commonly visited post on this site, I reflected on Bernie Sanders’ popularity and his supporters use of the term ‘Revolution’. I mention Allan Bloom:

Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.

~Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, (emphasis mine)

When we remove the voices that challenge us, we should beware the ecology of ideas we’re creating. Locke and Bloom reinforce Jacobs’ concern.

Third voice, Rosaria Butterfield

I remembered a counterpoint to Jacobs. Rosaria Butterfield, wrote on the benefit of university culture. Describing her entrance into the church after conversion:

I miss being in the company of risky and complex thinkers, people who are invested in our culture and who challenge me to think to the edges of my comfort zones. I believed then and I believe now that where everybody thinks the same nobody thinks very much.

~Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert, pg. 7

Butterfield argues that the Academy is a fitting place for the exchange of ideas. See how her statement echoes Bloom? There’s tyranny afoot when other perspectives are edged out. Jacobs, however, says there’s more insularity in the Academy than Butterield acknowledges. Professors aren’t immune to the peer pressure and temptations to desire Locke mentioned.

Maybe Butterfield is issuing a statement of faith in what the university should be.

Finale, Matthew Crawford

Matthew Crawford, the philosopher-turned-motorcycle-mechanic, agrees:

Getting things right requires triangulating with other people. Psychologists therefore would do well to ask whether “metacognition” (thinking critically about your own thinking) is at bottom a social phenomenon. It typically happens in conversation— not idle chitchat, but the kind that aims to get to the bottom of things. I call this an “art” because it requires both tact and doggedness. And I call it a moral accomplishment because to be good at this kind of conversation you have to love the truth more than you love your own current state of understanding. This is, of course, an unusual priority to have, which may help to account for the rarity of real mastery in any pursuit.

~Matthew Crawford, emphasis mine. The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (p. 63).

Rare indeed. This is my favorite kind of reading. Continuing Crawford’s argument, guiding your books into a conversation is indispensable when learning to think. The kind of freedom that emerges is what a liberal arts education is all about. Think about it.

BL

On Cash and College

What is the purpose of a college education in 2016? I recently came across an interesting piece in USA Today by James K.A. Smith, a Christian philosopher who has grabbed my attention in the past year. His article engages proposals that Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton have made regarding the availability of a college education to American citizens. When discussing the veritable behemoth issue of costs, Smith addresses the underlying question so little asked today: why college at all?

college-degree-and-graduation-hat-300x300I’ve reflected previously on the observable tension between promoters of the liberal arts and the devotees of the manual trades. A father of four, I’m a laborer in the construction trades pursuing an undergraduate degree in theology with a psychology minor, so the question has haunted me for some time. Though I’m cash flowing my final year, I’ve still amassed a sizable student loan that begs for justification.

The return on investment for a business degree is more easily seen than a course of study in say, theology. Ahem. I note that this return isn’t guaranteed- a guaranteed financial return for a college degree in any field is surely an illusion today. But it’s not hard to say that most undergraduate theology majors aren’t moving into a lucrative job market.

In my experience, the course of study was worth it, finances notwithstanding. Studying theology in particular and the liberal arts more generally has profoundly shaped the way I view my work. I wasn’t studying theology to get one more qualification on my resume, or to open one more door for a promotion- I wanted knowledge. I needed to make sense of my chaotic (and, as I would learn to call it- idolatrous) inner life. I needed to develop a worldview that brought a sense of unity and coherence. I wanted to change who I was. I wanted to gain access to the history of ideas so that I wouldn’t be a slave to the thinking of the present.

Obviously, I have a lot of things I would have done differently. I wouldn’t have borrowed money when I could have cash flowed the expenses over a longer course of study. C’est la vie. My wife and I have lots of thinking to do about our children’s education. But that should probably come in another post.

So, why college? I’m intrigued by the question and our political discussions on funding and availability assume an answer. What’s yours?

The Most Successful Tyranny: Allan Bloom, Bernie Sanders, and History

Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.

~Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, (emphasis mine)

This paragraph points to what a liberal arts education is all about. Freedom of the mind does not equal intellectual obstinacy- it is a historical awareness that frees us to see our place in the history of ideas. Bloom’s point is easily seen in our political landscape. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has proclaimed that his campaign signals the beginning of a political revolution. Revolution. Maybe our situation warrants this kind of change, but I doubt it.

French Revolution

My guess is that his supporters (comprised mostly of my generation I’m told) don’t have the sense of historical backdrop with which to compare their own political ideology. ‘Radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ are terms that might excite a young movement looking for something to live for, but we need to be able to properly judge whether we’re trading one tyranny (whether real or imagined) for a worse. Bloom says that endeavor will require an education.