Our need for bias

Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct myself in any circumstances, nor what to feel in any relation of life. Reason may play the critic, and correct certain errors afterwards; but if we were to wait for its formal and absolute decisions in the shifting and multifarious combinations of human affairs, the world would stand still.

William Hazlitt, quoted in How to Think (p.86-87), written by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs continues:

“So we need the biases, the emotional predispositions, to relieve that cognitive load. We just want them to be the right ones. As a wise man once said, one of the key tasks of critical reflection is to distinguish the true prejudices by which we understand from the false ones by which we misunderstand.”

Calling our collection of predispositions and biases ‘System 1’ (a term borrowed from Daniel Kahneman), Jacobs argues that our ‘System 1’ thinking can be “changed, trained; it can develop new habits.” He connects this with John Stuart Mill’s insistence that we consider our whole being in this arena- the emotions and the intellect. Jacobs writes: “This is what Mill meant when he spoke of the power of rightly ordered affections to shape the character. Learning to feel as we should is enormously helpful for learning to think as we should.”

This passage evoked so many from Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love that I nearly brought that volume back upstairs. Some of the most splendid moments of my reading life occur when I witness my authors speaking to one another. Often they are echoing one another, or taking a drink further downstream. At other times they are sharpening the argument, flipping the blade to the other side.

These conversations are most easily perceived with the best writers, by the way. Often, the most important conversations span centuries. This interestingly brings me to a concluding comment that Jacobs makes about the role of rightly ordered affections in our thinking. He writes:

“And this is why learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst, is so important. To dwell habitually with people is inevitably to adopt their way of approaching the world, which is a matter not just of ideas but also of practices.”

A Young Man Builds His Library in Hope

A young man builds his library in hope. Each paperback treasure is acquired as an act of aspiration. A library is an image of the man he hopes to be: the canon he constructs is a standard of what he thinks he ought to know. It grows quickly, in unexpected ways, exceeding his attention. But there will always be more time to read, right?
A middle-aged man tends his library with a more sombre aspect. Reshelving a book unfinished is one more failure, a door one closes perhaps never to return. When I put The Noise of Time back on the shelf, I recall all the places Barnes has accompanied me on this adventure. But I see some of his novels still unread and wonder if I’ll ever get back to this corner of the library. In fact, it was Barnes who gave me a word for this: le réveil mortel—the wake-up call of mortality. Who knew tidying your library could be such an existential risk?
At some point you realize: I will die with books unread on my shelf. So be it. The grass withers, the flowers fade, the pages become mildewed and musty. So too will I.   Even those unread books are a sign of aspiration, ambition, hope. I’ll die reading. I trust there are libraries in the kingdom.
~James K.A. Smith, in a lovely post- Mortality and My Library. It reminds me of a similar statement Lewis gave in an address to students:
If I say to you that no one has time to finish, that the longest human life leaves a man, in any branch of learning, a beginner, I shall seem to you to be saying something quite academic and theoretical. You would be surprised if you knew how soon one begins to feel the shortness of the tether: of how many things, even in middle life, we have to say “No time for that,” “Too late now,” and “Not for me.”
This talk was published as Learning in Wartime. Do you feel the shortness of the tether? Like Smith, with God’s help, I will die reading. I’m also going to raise four readers. There is some measure of comfort in knowing that the quest will continue.

On Cash and College

What is the purpose of a college education in 2016? I recently came across an interesting piece in USA Today by James K.A. Smith, a Christian philosopher who has grabbed my attention in the past year. His article engages proposals that Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton have made regarding the availability of a college education to American citizens. When discussing the veritable behemoth issue of costs, Smith addresses the underlying question so little asked today: why college at all?

college-degree-and-graduation-hat-300x300I’ve reflected previously on the observable tension between promoters of the liberal arts and the devotees of the manual trades. A father of four, I’m a laborer in the construction trades pursuing an undergraduate degree in theology with a psychology minor, so the question has haunted me for some time. Though I’m cash flowing my final year, I’ve still amassed a sizable student loan that begs for justification.

The return on investment for a business degree is more easily seen than a course of study in say, theology. Ahem. I note that this return isn’t guaranteed- a guaranteed financial return for a college degree in any field is surely an illusion today. But it’s not hard to say that most undergraduate theology majors aren’t moving into a lucrative job market.

In my experience, the course of study was worth it, finances notwithstanding. Studying theology in particular and the liberal arts more generally has profoundly shaped the way I view my work. I wasn’t studying theology to get one more qualification on my resume, or to open one more door for a promotion- I wanted knowledge. I needed to make sense of my chaotic (and, as I would learn to call it- idolatrous) inner life. I needed to develop a worldview that brought a sense of unity and coherence. I wanted to change who I was. I wanted to gain access to the history of ideas so that I wouldn’t be a slave to the thinking of the present.

Obviously, I have a lot of things I would have done differently. I wouldn’t have borrowed money when I could have cash flowed the expenses over a longer course of study. C’est la vie. My wife and I have lots of thinking to do about our children’s education. But that should probably come in another post.

So, why college? I’m intrigued by the question and our political discussions on funding and availability assume an answer. What’s yours?