“How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds” by Alan Jacobs
Reviewed by Mark Hijleh
It’s a venerable idea in liberal arts education: We are interested in teaching students not what to think, but how to think. And the main distinction of Christian liberal arts education is our worldview: We are interested in “thinking Christianly.” In How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of the humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University, aims at this general territory via a different route: Better thinking is available to all, but it is not devoid of elements and values at the heart of Christianity.
Note Jacobs’ subtitle: In a world at odds, good thinking and survival go together—they are not luxuries. For Jacobs, thinking is not the decision itself, but what goes into it: the careful assessment of what is and what might be. Thinking requires listening, but not in what Jacobs calls “Refutation Mode” (where we often find ourselves). Meanwhile, shorthand, metaphor, and myth allow us to function—because we cannot cognitively evaluate every circumstance in daily life—but they can also tempt us away from the hard work of real thinking.
A great deal of that hard work involves social interaction, Jacobs asserts. He is concerned about the combative language and imagery around which contemporary debate is framed. We need to be aware of categorizing those who disagree with us as the Repugnant Cultural Other, effectively denying their personhood. Jacobs thinks we are living in an age in which this is all too easy, but being an authentic member of multiple communities mitigates such tendencies. This is probably why Jacobs has come to a complex position on social media, noting that although communication technologies can significantly impede our ability to think well, people “can also talk back,” and thus the platform need not become an echo chamber.
Beware categorizing those who disagree with you as the “Repugnant Cultural Other,” effectively denying their personhood.
According to Jacobs, we go astray willfully by “a settled determination to avoid thinking.” Thinking can “dig into the foundations of our beliefs” and disrupt the stability of our lives, though ultimately in a good way. Thus Jacobs is suspicious of certain kinds of presumptions and predispositions but by no means against “settled conviction.”
Jacobs is quick to note that being an academic does not guarantee better thinking. But being a teacher (if one goes about it well) forces one into seeing both “all the ways an argument can go right and all the ways one can go wrong.” So this book deftly teaches (rather than tells) us how to think, and especially how to think about thinking. It is a deeply literate and historically informed work, with sources and examples ranging from Terence to John Stuart Mill to C.S. Lewis to Wilt Chamberlain to Leah Libresco Sargeant, and all manner of characters and tidbits in between.
As a prime example, Jacobs summons David Foster Wallace’s review of Bryan Gardner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Jacobs praises Wallace’s concept of the “Democratic Spirit” as “one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others.” This is Jacobs’ answer to the problem of “having an open mind” while maintaining “settled convictions”—or not being ruled by trying to protect the “sunk costs” of maintaining one’s investment in an intellectual position. Wallace’s “Democratic Spirit” transcends this dilemma by reinforcing the fact that we and those with whom we disagree are equally human, subject to error, and thus in need of love.
So, thinking is as much—perhaps more—about character as about rational analysis. Or rather, truly rational thinking involves rightly ordered feelings and dispositions. For Jacobs, it seems that to think well is to love. Going a step further, one may conclude that this is why Jesus is both the greatest thinker and the most loving human as Son of God and Son of Man. The final words of the book’s core are telling and inspiring: “Be brave.”
Mark Hijleh is provost of The King’s College in New York City, New York. This review originally appeared in print in the Spring 2018 issue of Advance, a publication of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the editor.