Just Think


EUROPEANS are in the habit of thinking. The common man plays with doctrines of utilitarianism or internationalism, the philosopher with egos and absolutes, but everybody thinks about something that seems like the framework and justification of his world.

Americans, by and large, have given up the practice of thinking about the world; even socialism, the quickest and cheapest product of reflective thought, does not retain its philosophical flavor in this country, but becomes an amorphous symbol of discontent in general.

The intellectual difference is most striking between European and American youth. Adolescence is the natural time for the dawning of ideas, if any are going to dawn; it has often been remarked how much more mature are the French élèves de lycée and the German Gymnasiasten than American highschool students of corresponding age. They are idealists or monists or rationalists, theists or atheists, they profess a definite attitude toward the State and the universe. Our children have never heard of rationalism or monism, and their religious thought is a compromise between theology and common sense, rarely breaking with the faith of their fathers, and just as rarely accepting it literally or whole-heartedly — an ambiguous, pragmatic position that scarcely merits the name of ‘thought.’ This is apt to be maintained, in fossilized form, for a lifetime, because no upheavals of pure reason ever disturb it. Why should our children bother their heads about theories and isms? We are perfectly happy without abstract philosophies; we are more comfortable and just as educated as our friends across the sea. Our manner of life is more rapid, varied, and efficient than theirs; that is because we don’t ‘make thoughts our aim,’ don’t draw fine distinctions or build systematic philosophies. We find that we can teach our children everything they need to know without resorting to isms and abstractions, that in fact we can teach them much more easily by omitting the useless theoretical concepts which academicians love.

The process of acquiring knowledge may, indeed, be carried on without any reference to abstract concepts. All the elementary human accomplishments — talking, writing, reckoning sums, memorizing alleged facts of history or of simple scientific causation — are more readily learned through association of words and images, especially images, than through the understanding of any theoretical import. Learning is essentially a process of integrating conditioned reflexes. In fact, the superior speed of association over systematic understanding is so striking that it has even been discovered by educational psychologists, who adopt the pedagogical rule: ‘Teach by concrete instances, not abstract principles; illustrate rather than expound; always begin with practice, not theory.’

The results are astounding. Pupils learn arithmetic, English, geography, civics, chemistry, and a jumble of other subjects almost without effort. They know where cotton is grown, where coal is mined, how to find cubic areas, and how long it takes a man and a half to do the work of two; they can find the specific gravity of anything that does not melt too fast, and turn potatoes blue with iodine, if they are properly conditioned to remember that iodine is to be used, not mercurochrome. They can do algebra, too, though there is always a large proportion of students who hate it because it is abstract and silly. Those who like it enjoy the charades — the so-called ‘examples’ wherein the unknown is to be found.

The success of ‘concrete’ presentation has heightened our disrespect for abstractions. We are not even alarmed at a fact which is becoming increasingly evident — that most persons cannot handle them. But we do notice, with surprise, that Americans do not really like to think. They form opinions on all matters, not only those which they understand; but an opinion is simply a reaction of common sense or feeling, not a product of analysis and insight. Everybody has an opinion on prohibition, patriotism, fundamentalism, marriage; but very few people have a doctrine, or organized system of thought, about any of these matters. The average man does not turn social or religious problems over and over in his mind, seeking new interpretations, new conclusions; at best he may recognize a new argument in favor of his habitual contentions when he happens to run across one. No matter how enterprising and self-assured he may be in dealing with contracts, machines, statistics, stocks, or other familiar things, he is pathetically timid and helpless in handling general ideas, religious, ethical, or metaphysical. A mature and educated man will deliver himself of some tedious Sunday truism with the apologetic comment, ‘That’s the conclusion I’ve come to, in my simple way.’ Intelligent persons who would not sign a lease or a warrant without precisely examining its terms accept their spiritual assets and obligations on whatever authority they can find. They know that they could not themselves analyze, let alone correct, the terms on which they stand with the world.

The reason for this condition is that we cannot think sufficiently to make sense out of the countless facts which we know about the world. Our schools give us neither technique nor practice in thinking — indeed, they are specially designed to eliminate any need of it. Our pedagogical ideal is anti-theoretical; we are interested only in the results of thought, — that is, in beliefs, — not in thought as a process. The results may be those of someone else’s thought, and may be acquired without personal exertion. Thus, after a few generations of painless education, individual thinking is a lost art.


There are people who deplore the way the use of automobiles has reduced our bodily fitness and form; but no one is heard to complain that the history syllabus and the literary synopsis, the summary and the outline, are reducing our logical independence. Since it has become increasingly evident that the modern mind is overfed, unable to analyze and organize all it has acquired, we try to help its weakness by presenting just as much material in predigested form, neatly separated out, all waste removed, all transformations made — in lectures, books, and sermons designed to show the order and connectedness of facts. We replace the ordering and summarizing powers of the mind by bigger and better summaries — stories of mankind, of philosophy, Europe, China, medicine, evolution. We believe our trouble lies in the fact that we have tried to see too many details. Thus we add to our phobia of abstractions a distrust of exact scholarship, but the wisdom our students acquire from orientation courses, surveys, and stories of this and that does not improve their attitude toward life. We have merely fed them big vague facts in place of little clear ones; people feel more educated for this imposing sort of knowledge, but not more able, self-contained, and balanced. In fact, they are apt to be upset if the universe suddenly looms too large, may lose their bearings through the very agencies that promised orientation. A bewildered mind can be helped only by being given instruments of thought — not bigger facts to think about.

Abstract concepts, which we despise so heartily, are the instruments of thought. Concepts are the framework of experience, the principles of understanding. Without them we could not think at all. A certain outfit of concepts, or general ideas, is acquired instinctively by every normal mind, and used unconsciously; this outfit is known as common sense and contains the categories of our everyday reason

— place, time, thing, quality, likeness and difference, and so on. It is sufficient for all ordinary practical purposes. Common sense construes the world for us in a way so familiar that we do not realize it has been construed at all; if we are not reminded of the fact that we are using abstract concepts, we shall use these familiar ones unconsciously.

But for purposes of clearing up our ideas about remoter matters than those of the day’s work, common sense is not sufficient. It presents some problems in too simple a form. There are certain questions which cannot be answered because they are based on misconceptions; sometimes the misconceptions are dictated by tradition, sometimes by common sense, but always they give rise to insoluble puzzles. Now, mental power is essentially the power to rearrange a problem, which has come to a deadlock, in such a way that it presents a different aspect and may be tackled from a new angle. That is the secret of original thinking. It involves understanding of the way the situation was misconceived — a very exact diagnosis of what was confused and wrong, not about the answer, but about the question.

For instance, a certain set of facts in the realm of physics cannot be explained; generations of physicists try to answer the question of how these facts could possibly exist when the laws of motion seem to make them impossible. Some deny the facts, some seek hidden agencies and fail to find any, or resort to other fantastic explanations — until Einstein, with his tremendous power of abstract analysis, asks whether the laws of motion which preclude these facts are themselves correctly conceived. That gives the problem a new slant. But it involves an upheaval in the realm of commonsense concepts, makes us aware of such abstractions as space, time, object, identity, which we had always assumed unconsciously. It requires new concepts, unusual ways of construing the whole universe — the ‘things’ and ‘places’ of common sense give way to a new picture, a different stage for the physical drama. And in this other picture the wicked facts cease from troubling; they have not received special explanation — their explanation is implied in the new system as a whole. They are no longer special problems.

We need not resort to Einstein for examples of questions whose very statement eludes our mental grasp; the philosophical muddles which beset almost everyone are perfect instances. Free will, the beginning of the world, the possibility of knowing truth, the existence of God — these are all problems that cannot be successfully handled in their common-sense mould. Yet they are not inherently mysterious; they merely require unusual conception, more careful and sometimes original statement, to become rational and negotiable.

The success of our ‘concrete’ and ‘practical’ learning process is due to the fact that it never requires conceptual readjustment, but casts all subjects

— science and history, language, even mathematics — into the mould of simple fact. The ease with which our students learn is due to the skillful way in which they are taught, without ever leaving the confines of common sense

— that is, without making the use of concepts a conscious matter at all. That is why they learn without mental strain, and without mental growth. It is also the reason why educated Americans do not think about ultimate problems of the world. The baffling problems of life and death, good and evil, require a mind trained for analyzing facts into general truths. That is the sort of training which our schools completely neglect to give us.

Our children are allowed to learn the most interesting things unphilosophically. Therefore they do not even realize that anything they learn is interesting. History remains an uninspiring jumble of facts as long as we cannot recognize its basic conceptions

— time, change, human nature, chance, design. The discovery and mastery of such concepts should be a result of historic study, quite as much as factual knowledge. We consider all such notions beyond the grasp of the high-school student, but if they are, it is our own fault — we have not given him any familiarity with abstractions, any dexterity in manipulating concepts. He has learned history since the third or fourth grade, but he has not learned to think historically.

The same condition holds for science. Physics is a jumble of cause-and-effect phenomena. Boys are interested in some of its applications; but unless they are destined to become engineers or mechanics, they will forget their experiments (which really were not experiments, as the findings were all predicted in the textbook) when, or if, they outgrow the radio craze. Girls usually dislike physics. They may think household chemistry amusing or useful, until kitchen experience makes its results obvious anyway and the laboratory predictions a vague, useless memory. These boys and girls have learned science, but not to think scientifically. In fact, high-school graduates do not think in any way that sets them apart from the unschooled; they know more, but they do not think differently.


How could the school curriculum remedy this defect in our mental training? How could we prepare our children to handle the facts which their exaggerated education presents to them, and counterbalance the dead weight of their learning?

By nothing less than a new pedagogical principle: by teaching fewer facts, and presenting more ideas. This would require a reform of the curriculum, as many previous experiments have done, but above all it would involve a radical change in our pedagogical ideals. We should have to give up our horror of abstractions, and learn to respect theoretical insight; instead of scoffing at all philosophy as ‘a spectral dance of bloodless categories,’we should exercise ourselves and our pupils in making correct generalizations, in avoiding the common pitfalls of theoretical thought, and acquiring skill and ease in its proper application. Incidentally, this could be done only by teachers of some mental capacity. In Europe it is not unusual to find good books, works of research and scholarship, written by professeurs de lycée and Gymnasiallehrer. Original thinking is not the special privilege of college professors. Children in high school come in contact with teachers who profess a point of view, explore hypotheses, and thus reveal the fact that there are different ways of looking at the same thing, and that some facts are not yet known. Our children do not respond to our constant prodding, ‘Find it out for yourself,’ because they feel that we know the answer and withhold it merely for the sake of discipline. They do not realize that their answer, besides being right or wrong, might be interesting. And their unfamiliarity with all abstract ideas, with implication and logical possibilities, makes them despair of any analysis that has to be carried further than a step or two.

Most fields of high-school study could offer some opportunity for analytic thought; history, for instance, fairly bristles with general problems. What makes a fact historic? Where do historians get their information? How far back does history go? The main purpose of teaching history should be to make the student, realize how many aspects of our present-day world, — peculiarities of the social order, the law, the government, our attitude toward women, toward religion, toward socialism, and so forth, — though they may seem arbitrary and odd in themselves, are perfectly comprehensible as products of our past. He should gradually be brought to see, rather than be told, why the study of history begins with Greece and Rome, not with Columbus.

Physics should make us aware, first of all, of a physical universe, the conception of natural law, the meaning of hypothesis, observation, induction. The fundamental physical facts should be discovered by real observation, not learned and then illustrated. Students should be taught to observe simple phenomena without being told what they are going to see. At least occasionally, in very obvious cases, they should begin by reporting their findings. These should first be noted as peculiarities of matter, then explained by the physical hypotheses. There should be emphasis on the relationship between original observation, hypothesis or constructive imagination, and experiment, or verification.

Algebra, of course, is the special training ground of the reason. At present it is a perfectly useless encumbrance to the average mind, which never even discovers why examples are called ‘examples’ and not ‘puzzles.’ The fact that an example is one possible illustration of a general form, that it illustrates relations rather than requires an answer, probably escapes the teacher as well as the pupil. The pupil is taught that a, b, and c are ‘constants’ and x, y, and z are ‘variables’; all it means to him is that he must ‘solve’ for x, y, and z, and may carry a, b, and c over into the statement, of his solution. Often enough the variables are called the ‘unknowns.’ But what we should really know about algebra is that it is the generalization of arithmetic, not that it reveals the numerical value of unknowns. If the student gains nothing else, at least he should acquire facility in thinking about any number, any other number, the ways of putting numbers together, or operations, and the varieties of combinations which amount to the same thing, which are different descriptions of the same magnitude — equations. The teacher’s chief aim should be to show the value of generalization; to illustrate (a+b)2=a2+2ab+b² by (2+3)²=4+12+9=52=25. Students should learn to solve difficult problems in arithmetic by the quick use of algebraic formulæ; not only to find the numerical value of x’s. The use of brackets — the fundamental technique of formal thinking — could profitably be carried over into scientific classification and literary analysis. Then algebra would really endow the mind with analytic power, incisiveness, and clear judgment.

When our boys and girls enter college, those at least who are enrolled at the better institutions have their first experience of general ideas, conflicting opinions, and rival doctrines. They hear for the first time about ‘sources’ and ‘exploded hypotheses’ and ‘phenomena.’ It is a serious indictment of our educational system that most of them are overwhelmed by the change of mental diet. Most colleges have found it necessary to debar the average freshman from philosophical courses altogether. His mind is absolutely unprepared. The freshman year is becoming more and more a sort of college-preparatory year, devoted to making up the deficiencies of the high-school training. A student who can pass all the entrance examinations, who has three times as much information about algebra, Latin, the Roman republic, and Macbeth as he is ever going to use or enjoy, is not mentally competent to do elementary college work.

High-school children have too flabby a diet — too many minced and predigested things that merely fill them up. That is why so many of them suffer from mental indigestion their first year at college when they are suddenly given more solid food — general ideas, ‘queer’ propositions, incongruous data that call for philosophical orientation. Their minds are as limited, stereotyped, and cautiously arranged as textbooks.

Now it may be that we should hesitate to put such explosive material as social, religious, or metaphysical ideas at the command of our young people, and that a psychoanalyst would even see in this our fear the reason why we tell them so assiduously that abstract concepts, the instruments of free thought, are useless and dull. General ideas, especially to a youthful mind that has just discovered them, are intoxicating; they are apt to lead to absurd actions and demands. In our American social structure, where youth is almost totally unrepressed, where parental dictatorship is decried and rarely practised, strong theoretical motives might prove destructive rather than helpful. It is quite conceivable that the reason why our young people are allowed so much freedom lies in the fact that they are relatively innocuous. Perhaps it would not be good for the world if we changed our educational ideal, and were prepared, as a nation, to take a philosophical attitude toward life. The question, ‘Should children learn to think?’ is more than a mere rhetorical question; we are in the habit of answering it loudly in the affirmative, but there remains a formidable argument for the negative side. For I sincerely believe that if we added to our energy and initiative the habit of theoretical thinking, we should be a dangerous people.