What does it mean to “learn to think”? Is it a matter of learning some intellectual skills such as reading fluency, logic, and clear expression? Is familiarity with some canonical texts or historical facts required? Perhaps it’s all about correcting certain biases that cloud our judgment? I recently read a thought-provoking essay by psychologist Barry Schwartz, best known for his book The paradox of choice.
Writing a few years ago in Chronicle of Higher Education, Schwartz argued that one of the goals of university education, especially liberal arts education, is to teach students to think. The problem is, Schwartz said, “no one really knows what that means.”
Schwartz offers his own ideas. He is less interested in cognitive abilities than in intellectual virtues.
“All the traits I will be discussing have a fundamental moral dimension,” he says, before arguing about the nine virtues: love of truth; being honest about your own shortcomings; justice; modesty and willingness to ask for help; perseverance; bravery; good listening; vision and empathy; and finally, wisdom, the word Schwartz uses to mean that none of these other virtues become excessive.
You only have to flip the list to see Schwartz’s point of view. Imagine a person with great knowledge and brilliant rationality, but lacking these virtues, indifferent to truth, denying his own mistakes, prejudiced, arrogant, easily discouraged, cowardly, dismissive, narcissistic and prone to all sorts of excesses. . Is it possible to call such a person really able to think? This is definitely not the kind of person you want to put in charge of anything.
“My list was meant to start a conversation, not end it,” Schwartz told me. So I sent the list to some people I respect, both in and around academia, to see what they make of it. The reaction was about the same as mine: almost everyone liked the idea of intellectual merit, and almost everyone had their own ideas about what was missing.
The Cambridge statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter promoted the idea of intellectual diversity, since working on disparate projects was often a source of insight. Hetan Shah, Executive Director of the British Academy, has suggested that this diversity, and in particular the ability to see the connection between different parts of a system, is the most important intellectual virtue. He also advocated a sense of humor: if we can’t play with ideas, even dangerous ideas, we’re missing something.
Dame Frances Cairncross has headed several notable academic institutions. She suggested that if one accepts the premise that intellectual virtues are also moral virtues, then “humanity” will be more important. . . sympathy for the human condition and recognition of human weakness.” She also suggested the virtue of “doing a deed,” noting a line from the Book of Common Prayer, “we left undone the things we should have done.” Fair enough. What would be the value of having all these intellectual virtues if we didn’t use them and instead spent our days munching popcorn and watching TV?
Tom Chatfield, author How to thinkmentioned persuasiveness. What’s the point of thinking clearly if you can’t help anyone else do the same? This is true, although persuasiveness is perhaps the intellectual virtue that most tempts us into the vices of arrogance, prejudice, and an unbalanced attitude to facts.
Nearly everyone mentioned an oversight that I thought about a lot: curiosity. Curiosity was not on Schwartz’s list, except indirectly. But curiosity is one of the central intellectual virtues. Curiosity implies some humility, as it is an acknowledgment that there is something one does not yet understand. Curiosity implies an open mind and a desire to expand oneself. This is a defense against partisanship. If we’re curious, many other intellectual problems solve themselves. As Orson Welles said of moviegoers, “If they’re interested, they understand everything.”
Excellent. Assortment, systems thinking, humanity, humor, the ability to bring things to the end, persuasiveness, curiosity. Other likely merits have been suggested; alas, this reviewer must also show the dignity of brevity.
But one of my correspondents had a very different reaction to Schwartz’s emphasis on overtly moral intellectual virtues—characteristically, the one who was most actively involved in teaching. Marion Turner, professor of English literature at the University of Oxford, candidly stated: “I am not trained to teach students to be good people, and this is not my job.”
This is a fair remark. It’s very nice to make a list of intellectual virtues, but why should we believe that academics can teach students courage, humility, or any other virtue? But if not academicians, then who? Parents? Primary school teacher? Newspaper reviewers? Maybe we should just hope that people will acquire these virtues for themselves? I’m really not sure.
Barry Schwartz is up to something, that’s clear. Facts, logic, quantitative tools, and analytical clarity are all very good, but the art of thinking well requires both virtue and skill. And if we don’t know who will teach these virtues or how to teach them, that explains a lot about the world we now live in.
Written and first published in Financial Times June 10, 2022