To Think or Not to Think?

Mike St. Thomas:

“Thinking for yourself” is an anomaly.

Or so argues Alan Jacobs in his recent book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. “Thinking,” he argues, “is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social.” For Jacobs, a cultural critic and professor at Baylor University, thinking well involves navigating the often bumpy terrain of other people’s lives and ideas. We learn through dialogue, and we begin to think as individuals only in relation to the communities which shape us. The Greeks had a word for this process, paideia, and in their view each citizen, educated in this way, distills the habits and vision of the entire community.

What happens to individuals raised not on books and conversation but on an unholy amalgam of YouTube videos, Snapchat streaks, and clickbait? What happens to good thinking when a community threatens every moment to splinter into a thousand shouting tribes? Attempting to make sense of it all often seems like so much wandering in a dark wilderness. Jacobs’s tidy book, as portable as a field manual and only 157 pages long, attempts to lead us out of the briars.

As an academic and a Christian (he is Anglican), Jacobs is uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between some of the most entrenched tribes in our country. He has consciously chosen a modern and diverse range of thinkers to include in this book. Hipsters and evangelicals alike will recognize the cast of How to Think: We encounter Megan Phelps-Roper, whose public departure from the Westboro Baptist Church in 2012 landed her spots on NPR, the New York Times, and, eventually, a TED talk. Shortly thereafter we hear from Roger Scruton, the Anglican intellectual steeped in the classical tradition whose writing often appears in culturally conservative journals. Young Catholic convert and writer Leah Libresco makes an appearance, as do Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ursula K. LeGuin. And this is just in the first two chapters of the book.