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Summer 2006 -- Malcolm Gladwell's Blink stayed on the bestseller list for months. It defends the merits of making major decisions quickly, based only on intuition, emotion, and other workings of the subconscious. In deliberate contrast, Michael LeGault’s Think! is a dispassionate yet uncompromising defense of conscious, rational thought against the very sort of claims Gladwell advances in Blink.
To LeGault, Blink is merely the latest example of the belief that knowledge can be acquired and applied quickly, without thought or significant effort. More troubling to him, that view is increasingly commonplace, leading him to ask, “Is America losing its ability to think?” Reluctantly, he concludes, “If for argument’s sake, we define thinking as the use of knowledge and reasoning to solve problems and plan and produce favorable outcomes, the answer is, apparently, yes.”
It would be easy to dismiss this claim as alarmist or pessimistic, and to cite the numerous counter-examples offered by the achievements of our nation’s scientists, engineers, businessmen, scholars, and doctors. LeGault acknowledges this early in the book, but argues that such examples do not tell the whole story. In many instances, facing the need to apply abstract knowledge to solve any except the most narrowly defined, task-driven problems, even so-called experts seem increasingly unable to do so. He cites the response to Hurricane Katrina as but one example. Officials knew of the dangers because advance studies specifically investigated the likelihood of a hurricane of this force striking New Orleans, and evaluated the capacity of the levee system under such conditions. They had also developed evacuation and emergency plans for such events. Despite all of this, as the storm developed, public officials at all governmental levels proved unable to relate any of the information that they received to any of these earlier studies or plans, and were thus unable to apply the knowledge previously developed. This proved true even when the officials needed only to order into action the plans that they themselves had prepared for such contingencies.
Lest one think that this phenomenon is limited exclusively to the government or public sector, LeGault offers examples from the automotive, manufacturing, and entertainment industries, from the fields of medicine and psychiatry, from environmental research, and from the behavior of individuals, as well.
Is America losing its ability to think?
In a nation that Tocqueville once described as “the one in which the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed,” the cause of such failures—according to LeGault—is the replacement of rational and empirical methods of acquiring and applying knowledge with intuitive, emotional, subjective, and generally non-rational ones. “Emotion and subjectivity, not critical thinking, have become the overwhelmingly popular method of evaluating our world and making decisions,” he says; if the eighteenth century was the Age of Reason, ours is the Age of Emotion.
This cultural transformation has fostered a profound deterioration in our ability to solve problems of every sort, but particularly those that require us to apply critical, abstract, conceptual thought. It also has led to an equally significant deterioration in our ability to communicate. This is particularly evident in political discussions, which, he notes, have become less and less genuine debates and more and more exercises in loudly stated assertions. People have retreated into emotional, often angry personal universes, because, lacking the genuine self-confidence that only reason brings, they simply feel too threatened to do otherwise. Think! Is therefore unique among recent works of social commentary in that it offers an epistemological rather than systemic explanation for the current state of our culture and institutions.
Think! is organized into three sections: Causes, Inspirations (a brief survey of some of history’s greatest thinkers), and Fixes.
“Causes” is in some ways the weakest part of the book, if only because it does not explore in any detail the nature and history of the various philosophies that have contributed to the problem that the book addresses. The author acknowledges this point, but states in his own defense that his purpose was to discuss the effects of non-rational ideas on our culture and to present ways to correct them, rather than to write a treatise on the cause and history of those ideas. He instead refers the reader to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind for a more comprehensive theoretical explanation for the non-rational ideas that now dominate our culture. Bloom is the one scholar to whom LeGault acknowledges an intellectual debt. That said, LeGault provides a fairly thorough, generally readable discussion of the major manifestations and effects of today’s non-rational ideas, and gives three of them particular attention: the emphasis on social and constructed knowledge, political correctness, and the self-esteem movement as it pertains to education.
LeGault correctly presents the emphasis on social and constructed knowledge, and the desire of individuals to seek consensus (or an agreed-upon narrative) before tackling a particular problem, as a consequence of rejecting objectivity and empiricism. In this context, he cites President Clinton’s memorable line, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” and notes, “Here was a perfect illustration of thoughts straining to conjure reality rather than reality naturally inspiring thought.” Much the same view of reality was at work in the Enron and similar scandals. He argues that if people regard truth as an entirely manufactured quantity, then they reduce personal responsibility and ethical behavior to mere subjective preferences, and thus anything goes. Solving conceptual problems in such an atmosphere becomes very difficult. Once people deny an objective frame of reference and regard everyone’s views as equally valid, then they must establish a consensus before attempting a solution. Instead of thinking about the problem, they must think about the participants. But since truth depends on a correspondence to reality, and not upon consensus, this approach severely restricts genuine, creative, and independent thought. Even in the private sector, it pulls “solutions”down to a least-common-denominator level.
Political correctness further exacerbates these problems, and to illustrate the point, LeGault cites the Larry Summers episode at Harvard. Summers, a liberal supporter of affirmative action and a first-class economist, ultimately was driven from the presidency of Harvard for daring to suggest that women might be underrepresented at the highest levels of science due to innate differences between them and men. Although that claim is certainly debatable, the fact that it could not be openly debated illustrates the degree to which PC attitudes now trump free, rational inquiry, even at the most famous universities in the country. LeGault correctly notes that: “By restricting certain outcomes, PC acts to hamper the process of open, critical questioning and reasoning itself.”
He also takes to task the “self-esteem movement,” particularly in schools. Its basic flaw is that it divorces outcome from effort, and thereby provides children with an entirely unrealistic view of both the nature of reality and their abilities. This undercuts efforts to inculcate knowledge, and any sort of thinking or action that requires more than a Blink-like attention span. LeGault observes that the explosion of behavior-related syndromes (e.g., Attention Deficit Disorder) parallels the rise of non-structured, child-centered teaching methods that emphasize the self-esteem of the child above all else. Such methods create an entirely superficial version of self-esteem, which children realize as soon as they actually have to perform a task that depends on their own mastery and application of knowledge.
If the eighteenth century was the Age of Reason, ours is the Age of Emotion.
Think! ’s middle section, “Inspiration,” consists of a single chapter titled “Great Thinkers,” and provides a welcome reminder of the power and scope of rational, creative thought. The examples include Einstein, Shakespeare, Newton, Copernicus, Darwin, and Edison (who is offered as an example of creative thought applied to specific technological problems). One can object to the choice of Heraclitus over Aristotle (one would think that the man who discovered the laws of logic would have been an obvious example of a great thinker), but not to the generally accurate description of classical, rational Greek thought. The choice of two contemporary scientists, Lynn Margulis and Ed Witten, are defensible within the author’s parameters, particularly as Witten’s seminal work on superstring theory has led many modern physicists to place him with Newton and Einstein.
“Fixes,” the final section of Think!, is in many ways its strongest. The chapter titled “Hearing the Harmony of Reason” presents a compelling explanation of the basic elements of rational thought, and an unflinching defense of reason against postmodernism and its fellow-travelers. LeGault argues from a realist position. He acknowledges the primacy of reality and defends the validity of sensory data as our only source of direct knowledge about that reality. Despite the similarity with Objectivist ideas, LeGault acknowledges no intellectual debt beyond the one previously mentioned, to Allan Bloom. Here he also discusses the nature of logical reasoning and the value of skepticism, which he carefully distinguishes from cynicism.
But LeGault does not simply leave solutions at the level of “Go forth and think.” He reminds us that our expectations, both individually and as a culture, are important. There can be no return to standards and discipline without a desire for them and a recognition of their value. Although he says, “America should have comfortable, guilt-free feelings about its affluence,” he notes that our superabundance of wealth and a largely materialist outlook have in some ways severed the intellectual connection between that wealth and academic standards, work, and behavior. This point has been made by other writers and commentators. But LeGault places it in the context of the family and the developmental requirements of raising intellectually and ethically sound children, thereby returning to some of the themes he discussed earlier in connection with the self-esteem movement in education.
One point that LeGault does not discuss is that the movement away from reason is not strictly a phenomenon of the secular, postmodern Left. Although the secular Left is the most obvious and visible source of most explicitly irrational ideas, the religious Right, and even many elements of mainstream conservatism, is also hostile to, suspicious of, or otherwise inclined to qualify reason—albeit to a lesser degree than the Left and for very different reasons. This matters for a number of reasons, but it is a subject the reader will have to look elsewhere to understand.
That point aside, Think! is a worthwhile, readable and original book. Its tone is consistently dispassionate and it develops its thesis with considerable force, precisely because it avoids the sensationalist and unbalanced tone of other contemporary polemics. But, then, one would expect no less, given its title.