Taking the trouble to think well

The publisher’s description of Alan Jacobs’ How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds includes the comment that “Most of us don’t want to think. Thinking is trouble. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits, and it can complicate our relationships with like-minded friends. Finally, thinking is slow, and that’s a problem when our habits of consuming information (mostly online) leave us lost in the spin cycle of social media, partisan bickering, and confirmation bias.”

Those who constantly complain about the political and other confrontations in the social media that often contain nothing more than spouting the ideas of one group of another rather than investigating issues and speaking for oneself will probably agree with the assertion that “Most of us don’t want to think.”

We see the same lack of thinking on many news shows where, instead going out and digging up the facts from multiple sources, some TV anchors prefer to convene panels of so-called experts each of whom weighs in with an opinion based on his/her agenda, political party, favorite think tank, and employer.  These opinions keep the anchor from having to think. The same does for the viewers. Subscribing to a pre-packaged point of view if much easier than formulating one’s own view.

If they’re worth anything, the authors of fiction and nonfiction are forced to think. They have to research all the viewpoints and known facts for nonfiction and they often have to do the same thing for fiction. Fiction, while it’s a story, has to have a basis in truths. Those of us who write like to think; and we like to think that our words will find others who like to think or, at least, others who can be tempted into thinking by a compelling story.

In his article “Let us Think Together” in The Weekly Standard, Chad Wellman writes “In How to Think, Jacobs, a professor in the honors program at Baylor University, offers a straightforward but powerful argument. Knowledge, he suggests, is best understood not as right or justified belief but as a good created by people who think well because of the kind of people they have become.”

I agree. Thinking makes us better. In becoming better (a better person, not somebody who thinks s/he is better than others), we think with more passion, depth and discipline. Thinking, like writing, requires constant practice. Wellman adds that we tend to strongly consider the claims of people we admire because of who they have become. “To believe some claim is also to trust some person,” he writes.

Whether it’s a short story, essay, nonfiction book, or a conversation with a friend or colleague, that trust we feel insofar as the discussion/issue goes comes in part because their words–and who they are–convince us that such trust is justified, that whatever that person is saying and/or writing has been thought out with some diligence–as opposed to some off-the-cuff (and often combative) pronouncement on a Facebook thread about a current issue.

I’m currently reading another one of Jeff Shaara’s civil war novels. I believe the “truths” in these novels because, over time, I see that he has not only done a great deal or research and that he considers accuracy as his first duty, but that he has studied and thought about the facts and personalities so that he can put the battles into a believable context.

As writers, we want readers to see our books that way. This means that, for the most part, our audience is not made up of people who think they are making a difference by blindly accepting biased news reports and hastily made social media responses as gospel. Part of learning to think comes from realizing that we write our own gospel about the ways of the world by listening and reading from those whom we trust and by thinking for awhile about what we gain from that before deciding what it means to us and who we are becoming.

–Malcolm