What they don’t teach you at college

Someone just said to me that “writing is hard”. This was an incorrect statement. Writing is easy; thinking is hard.

Thinking is hard but it is very easy to fool ourselves and think thinking easy. When we think about something we are alone in our heads, in a private world. Nobody is there to call us out when we miss a step, converge one line of thought into another that is actually distinct, or take more out of something than is actually in it. The act of thinking too easily slides into that of day-dreaming; we give ourselves a long hard look in a mirror with a face covered in cosmetics and the lighting turned down.

Putting our thoughts on paper is about rinsing our face in cold water and turning on the lights.
Writing is not hard. But our writing is often bad. This is because our thinking turns out to be not nearly so clear as we had wanted to believe. Picking out the flaws in our writing is an indirect but powerful way of correcting our thinking. That is why I say that editing is the ultimate Socratic art: an editor is the midwife of thought.

But this is not an art you are likely to learn at college. You may be taught about theories of history, or molecular physics, media communications or library management, physical anthropology or political science, but you are unlikely to be taught how to think.

And this is not so surprising. From around the 1880s and for about a century, rising social prosperity fueled a massive expansion in higher education. But all the self-illusions of liberal arts colleges notwithstanding, the kind of intensive personal engagement between master and student that one encounters in a Platonic dialogue is simply too costly to be a viable option even in elite universities.

But the end result is depressing for all that. For every year these educational institutes turn out thousands of graduates who can talk the talk, strike a posture, flood your head with jargon, but cannot think through a complicated idea and, consequently, are unlikely to give birth to any truly original thoughts.

Photo credit: ‘Seagull in deep thought’ by Lars Ploughman (cc license).