Saturday, October 4, 2008

Exercising Control over how and what you Think

In the highly interesting 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College David Foster Wallace made some very important observations about the benefits of a college education: "As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience."

Yes, "learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think" and to become "conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to."

He goes on to claim that "if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master," finding that this cliché, like many others, "seems so lame and unexciting on the surface," but "actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger." I am not sure about the last point. But it does appear to me true that he is right in claiming that learning to exercise control over how and what we think is one of the (two or three) most important things a liberal education may provide one with.

Foster Wallace illustrates this point by describing a typical day of a typical adult with all the dreary and meaningless details of a daily commute home and the petty encounters during shopping for one's dinner. He explores several scenarios of usual thinking in such contests. First, our "natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way?" It's all about "number one."

Second, "if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers."

Third, "I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do." In other words, "if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer", etc.

While Foster Wallace does not want to moralize and tell us that we should or ought to think in the last way, he does suggest that a liberal education gives us a choice to think in this way—a way that ultimately leads to what he calls "worship." Because "in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly ... Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings."

The "real world" encourages you to run in the "default mode," but a liberal education frees you from this. In fact, the "really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day."

But do we need a liberal education for this? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Most religious instruction promises (and often provides) more or less the same "freedom," which in the end is a generalization of the "default mode." Let's not worry about me, let's worry about us. Let's not be self-centered, let's be centered on our neighbours just as much as on ourselves.

There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of thinking, but as the alternative way of the "default mode," and the way of choosing "how you construct meaning from experience," it seems to be rather more restrictive than necessary and, in spite of all assurances to the contrary, too moralistic. In the end, it's a loss of nerve ... or so it seems to me.

In any case, a liberal education should not just teach "how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think," it should also provide you with some other alternatives about what to think about, like the meaning of Frost's "The Road Not Taken," Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Kant's system of the categories, or Aristotle's view of happiness. To be sure, that might be difficult on the commute home or in the super market. But is possible. The retreat into the "inner citadel" presupposes not just discipline but also knowledge. Nor is this knowledge restricted to the liberal arts. Thinking about how to improve a proof in mathematics or improving a program or script may have some of the same benefits.

And that's how it is related to note-taking in a fundamental way.

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