How to Think About Thinking

By Daniel Taylor

I just finished the first reading assignment: those first 44 pages of  How to Read A Book. I’m relieved and excited–it was interesting, practical, and terse; just the kind of instructional book I like! In the course of completing the assignment, I added three new words to my vocabulary (“desideratum,” “abecedarium“, and “perfidy,” in case you are interested) and had the following Big Thoughts:

  1. Adler and Van Doren define the art of reading as “the process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the readable matter, and with no help from outside, elevates itself by the power of its own operations.” The philosophical implications of this are staggering; I’m not sure I fully grasp them. What does it mean to have a mind that can self improve based on its own efforts? Is this ability merely anatomical: as neurons form new synapses in our brains we are arguably able to process information more efficiently, to a point. But what is the driving force? Those of you who were led to OGB via Barbell Logic know of physical self-improvement from the systematic application of weight to the body, but that is an external force. The force in improving one’s mind is apparently *self-contained*, with the raw material being external (i.e., in the book being read). Is there another system that contains the object of its improvement within itself? What scientific or transcendent implications can be drawn from this unique feature of the mind?
  2. In the chapter on Elementary Reading, the authors mention the nearly miraculous change that occurs as people learn to read: they go, within the span of weeks, from seeing letters and words as symbols to subconsciously seeing them as representations of the described thing. Adler and Van Doren mention this phenomenon as being poorly understood; I would imagine it still is, even 50 years since this edition was first published. As in my first point, what does this mean about who we are, that we are capable of such abstract developments?

For what it’s worth, I offer this reflection: the ability to self-reflect on one’s own learning, to “think about how you think” or improve your thinking as an act of effort, is what we in the education game call metacognition, or self-regulation. I’ve been doing some reading down this line for an unrelated project and have learned so much. If anyone is interested in exploring it more, there is a good article on metacognition from Vanderbilt University here. Practically, metacognition seems to be a broader skill that encompasses the lessons we are learning in How to Read a Book; it could be the subject of a similar book entitled “How to Think About Thinking.” In essence, we must put into practice certain skills or habits of thought (much as Adler and Van Doren prescribe practicing certain skills of reading), to assure we consider our own thoughts as much and as critically as we consider the ideas and assertions of others.

It has burdened me lately how we emphasize teaching our students facts and figures, but a poor job of teaching how to think about those facts and figures in any way other than the prevailing dogma. In effect, our education system is doing for thinking what Adler and Van Doren describe is doing to reading education: focusing only on the rudimentary elements. What is our responsibility to teach beyond that? What are the implications if we do not? Do we equip children to be unthinking cogs in the great machine, but not to be thoughtful, curious men and women of wisdom?