Learning how to think well involves hearts as well as minds

What does it mean to “learn how to think”? Is it a matter of learning some intellectual skills such as fluent reading, logic and clear expression? Does it require familiarity with some canonical texts or historical facts? Perhaps it’s all about correcting certain biases that cloud our judgment?

I recently read a thought-provoking essay by the psychologist Barry Schwartz, best known for his book The Paradox of Choice. Writing a few years ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Schwartz argued that one of the goals of a university education, especially a liberal arts education, is to teach students how to think. The trouble is, said Schwartz, “nobody really knows what that means”.

Schwartz proposes his own ideas. He is less interested in cognitive skills than in intellectual virtues. “All the traits I will discuss have a fundamental moral dimension,” he says, before setting out the case for nine virtues: love of truth; honesty about one’s own failings; fair-mindedness; humility and a willingness to seek help; perseverance; courage; good listening; perspective-taking and empathy; and, finally, wisdom — the word Schwartz uses to describe not taking any of these other virtues to excess.

One only has to flip the list to see Schwartz’s point. Imagine a person who is hugely knowledgeable and brilliantly rational, yet who falls short on these virtues, being indifferent to truth, in denial about their own errors, prejudiced, arrogant, easily discouraged, cowardly, dismissive, narcissistic and prone to every kind of excess. Could such a person really be described as knowing how to think? They would certainly not be the kind of person you’d want to put in charge of anything.

“My list was meant to start the conversation, not end it,” Schwartz told me. So I sent his list to some people I respect, both in and adjacent to academia, to see what they made of it. The reaction was much the same as mine: almost everyone liked the idea of intellectual virtues, and almost everyone had their own ideas about what was missing.

The Cambridge statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter raised the idea of intellectual variety, since working on disparate projects was often a source of insight. Hetan Shah, chief executive of the British Academy, suggested that this variety, and in particular the ability to see the connection between different parts of a system, was the most important intellectual virtue. He also argued for a sense of humour: if we can’t play with ideas, even dangerous ideas, we are missing something.

Dame Frances Cairncross has chaired several notable academic institutions. She suggested that if one accepted the premise that intellectual virtues were also moral virtues, a greater one was “humanity . . . a sympathy for the human condition and a recognition of human weakness”.

She also suggested the virtue of “getting stuff done”, noting the line from the Book of Common Prayer, “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done.” True enough. What would be the value of having all these intellectual virtues if we did not exercise them, and instead spent our days munching popcorn and watching TV?

Tom Chatfield, author of How To Think, mentioned persuasiveness. What is the point of thinking clearly if you cannot help anyone else to do likewise? This is fair, although persuasiveness is perhaps the intellectual virtue that most tempts us into the vices of arrogance, partisanship and an unbalanced treatment of the facts.

Almost everyone raised the omission that was much on my mind: curiosity. Curiosity was not on Schwartz’s list, except perhaps by implication. But curiosity is one of the central intellectual virtues. Curiosity implies some humility, since it is an acknowledgment that there is something one doesn’t yet understand.

Curiosity implies open-mindedness and a quest to enlarge oneself. It is protective against partisanship. If we are curious, many other intellectual problems take care of themselves. As Orson Welles put it about the film-going audience: “Once they are interested, they understand anything in the world.”

Very good. Range, systemic thinking, humanity, humour, getting things done, persuasiveness, curiosity. Other plausible virtues were suggested, too; alas, this columnist must also display the virtue of brevity. But one of my correspondents had a sharply different response to Schwartz’s emphasis on explicitly moral intellectual virtues — tellingly, the one most actively involved in teaching. Marion Turner, professor of English literature at Oxford University, put it frankly: “I’m not trained to teach students how to be good people, and that’s not my job.”

It’s a fair point. It is very pleasant to make a list of intellectual virtues, but why should we believe that academics can teach students courage, humility or any other virtue? Yet if not academics, then who? Parents? Primary schoolteachers? Newspaper columnists? Perhaps we should just hope that people acquire these virtues for themselves? I am really not sure.

Barry Schwartz is on to something, that is clear. Facts, logic, quantitative tools and analytical clarity are all very well, but the art of thinking well requires virtues as well as skills. And if we don’t know who will teach those virtues, or how to teach them, that explains a lot about the world in which we now live.

Tim Harford’s new book is “How to Make the World Add Up

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