Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Anti-Thinking Thanksgiving

We are entering a week that features equal portions of gratitude and uncomfortable dinner conversations. For many Thanksgiving is a mixed bag; we count our blessings and defend our beliefs. Good manners dictate no talk of politics or religion but these days there’s little else. As we say grace some of us will add a silent prayer, “Please God, do not let Uncle Bart start in on Reagan as our greatest president.”

But if we can pay attention through dessert we’ll notice something that should trouble us even more. Increasingly there is a conversational disconnect that goes like this: When asked, “What do you think about such-and-such?” Many people will reply, “Did you see that report on TV last night?” Their response, instead of sharing their own thinking, offers up a source of information. You might imagine this is the unique province of far-right talk radio fans, but no, it’s just as likely to come from followers of NPR and John Stewart.

This loss of genuine thinking shows up in all parts of our lives. In business we’ve traded Peter Drucker’s long discourses on the nuances of management for the abbreviated ideas of The Apprentice. As consumers we’ve substituted marketing for self-examination, letting researchers figure us out, and advertisers tell us what to want.

Did we get tired, or did we just get lazy? Or are we afraid to think?
That may seem an odd question at a time when the new buzzword is “human capital”, but we’re conflicted about being thinkers. We have a history of disdaining intellectuals and preferring the not-so-smart to the smarty-pants. We rely on lots of information rather than on the messiness of thinking, mulling, reconsidering and being confused which are at the heart of a genuine intellectual process. We have a kind of perverse national pride in anti-intellectualism. Even our President’s pretense at being just an ordinary guy—one who went to Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School--is intended to put Americans at ease. And it does.

Thinking takes practice and we are out of shape. But it’s a dangerous time to have weak intellectual muscles. Our current global challenges exist at the intersection of economics, environment, religion and history. The solutions aren’t simple and they’re not technological. However as we face these complex issues we’re moving further from the disciplines that teach people how to think. What we need now is very old school, and that is the Liberal Arts.
I know, I know, the accusation that liberal arts are not practical has some truth, but there is important history in that charge of impracticality.

The ancient Romans had slaves from all over the world. Some of their slaves, like the Greeks, were bright and the Romans controlled them by limiting their education. Romans allowed slaves to be educated in math and engineering so they could build things, and in the arts so they could entertain, but only Roman citizens—free people—could study history, rhetoric or philosophy. It was understood that people who studied these artes liberals would learn to think and so they were the exclusive privilege of the liberi, the free men.
Thinking is hard work. It involves being comfortable with not knowing and that flies in the face of punditry and dinner table debates. But if we want to truly understand what we read on the front page, or be able to sort through both NPR and Rush Limbaugh we have to practice on tough material –literature and philosophy--which might temporarily confuse, but ultimately will reward us.

We may joke that the mantra of the liberal arts major is: “Do you want fries with that?” But the deeper question, when we find ourselves shrinking from difficult ideas, might instead be: “Do you want freedom with that?”

That is somehting to chew on with the turkey and stuffing this week