How to Think

by Alan Jacobs

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Last Updated on September 4, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 917

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds is a book by Alan Jacobs. The author of this book is a professor of humanities at Baylor University and has contributed articles to a wide range of national publications, including The Atlantic and Harper's. In this book, he explores a phenomenon that he feels is the root cause of the increasing divisions experienced in American political and cultural discourse. Jacobs suggests that these divisions are not inevitable; rather, they are caused and exacerbated by people's inability to critically evaluate data, facts, and their own personal beliefs. That is, people are no longer "thinking." The following quotes are key contributors to this overall message.

This twofold response perfectly embodies the mental state of the person who has begun to think. She didn't leave the church, she didn't stop picketing; but she drew a line in her own mind that had the inevitable effect of separating her, to some degree, from the community which until that point had given meaning to her whole life.

In this section, Jacobs discusses the Westboro Baptist Church, a forty-member organization notorious for its aggressively homophobic messaging. Claiming that they were simply obeying Biblical commandments, Westboro members—including Megan Phelps-Roper, the church founder's granddaughter—advocate dfor the death penalty for gay people and picketed at funerals and public events with anti-gay signs. However, once Phelps-Roper began to engage with people on Twitter, her belief system slowly changed until she was eventually exiled from the church.

In the quote above, the author highlights the pivotal moment when Phelps-Roper began to "think." Jacobs notes,

First, while she continued to go picketing with other Westboro members, she stopped carrying the signs that read "DEATH PENALTY FOR FAGS."

That is, after she started interacting with people who respectfully challenged her beliefs, she began to examine her beliefs. As she started responding to people who expressed skepticism about her ideas, she started seeing those people as human and realized that their criticisms had merit. In the initial stage, though, she responded to her foray into thinking with fear. She cut off correspondence with the main Twitter user who helped her realize the problem with advocating for the death of all gay people. Jacobs states,

On some level, if not consciously, Phelps-Roper had to have known that the one issue—DEATH PENALTY FOR FAGS—was unlikely to be the end of the story. If Westboro was wrong about that, then what else might they be wrong about? If the answer turned out to be "a lot," then the result could be exile from the only world she had ever known, the only belonging she had ever experienced. So she closed the door from which she perceived the greatest threat.

At that point, though she had begun the act of thinking, she was afraid to continue doing so.

Stories of forbidden knowledge come in many varieties, but in our time this is one of the more common: the tale of a community that provides security in exchange for thought, and the courageous member of that community who, daring to think, sacrifices the security. It's the Enlightenment—whose rallying cry is, Immanuel Kant said, Sapere aude!—dare to think, dare to be wise—writ small and writ in a hundred ways.

In this passage, Jacobs points at a common myth about thinking. Over and over again, Jacobs asserts, we are made to believe by many works of iconic literature (including Lois Lowry's The Giver) that there is a guarantee of an ultimate happiness and fulfillment that comes from leaving a corrosive group and daring to adopt different beliefs than that group. However, Jacobs points out, many times reality is much different:

To think, to dig into the foundations of our beliefs, is a risk, and perhaps a tragic risk. There are no guarantees that it will make us happy or even give us satisfaction.

Therefore, Jacobs explains that choosing to think may lead to sacrifice. Jacobs develops this point by writing,

If you were to find yourself suddenly and completely isolated from your whole social circle because you no longer believe something that all of them believe, you wouldn't be any less lonely because you could mutter to yourself that they weren't real friends after all. You might even come to think that not-real friends are better than no friends at all.

Thinking may lead to isolation and an inconsolable loss of your sense of self.

All of us at various times in our lives believe true things for poor reasons, and false things for good reasons, and that whatever we think we know, whether we’re right or wrong, arises from our interactions with other human beings. Thinking independently, solitarily, "for ourselves," is not an option.

In this section, Jacobs explains that true thinking is really a group effort—that though so-called "independent thinkers" are often lauded in society, true thinking actually starts from social stimuli. Returning to the example of the Westboro Baptist Church member Megan Phelps-Roper, he writes,

Megan Phelps-Roper didn't start "thinking for herself"—she started thinking with different people. To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said.

True thought then, to Jacobs, starts from carefully listening to the views of others, understanding these views, and using this understanding to carefully analyze your own beliefs.

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