Ward Column: Importance of thinking for yourself
It seems that no matter where you turn, someone is giving you their opinion. And that includes what we used to call the news.
Hard news and opinions used to be separate things. Hard news came when Walter Cronkite came on the 6:30 evening news. Opinions were reserved for Sunday afternoon when David Brinkley, George F. Will, and Sam Donaldson gave us their take on things on This Week With David Brinkley.
Those were heady times. We were given information, and we were allowed — not allowed, actually, we were expected — to think for ourselves.
Divergent was a best-selling book, then a movie. It speaks of a time when things go badly downhill, governments fail, and the nation falls into battling factions. There is a line in the book that I like: “They don’t want people to listen, they want people to agree.” I think that sums things up nicely.
And we have to fight against what it sums up.
Mortimer Adler taught at the University of Chicago — a rather tony educational institution that is more difficult to get admitted to than some of the major universities you hear about—where he founded the Great Books program.
His thesis was simple—you can get a pretty good education just by reading and understanding the books on which Western civilization was founded. His educational philosophy was centered on preparing people to think for themselves. He once famously said, “To regard anyone except yourself as responsible for your judgment is to be a slave, not a free man. It is from these facts that the liberal arts acquire their name.”
Charlie Munger hasn’t done too badly. He teamed up with Warren Buffett to found Berkshire Hathaway, a holding company that had you had the foresight to invest in when they took it over in 1964, you would be sitting on easy street today. Munger is famous for his simple, straight-line approach to life.
And he reads. He says: “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren [Buffet] reads — and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”
But he also listens. When he is dealing with someone who doesn’t agree with him, his philosophy is that “I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”
Both Mortimer Adler and Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett were readers. And what is reading but another form of listening? And what is listening but a time for taking in information.
It comes as no surprise that the Bible has a great deal to say about wisdom, and it always includes an approach to listening. It advises us to listen and understand before we speak: “He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is a folly and a shame unto him”. That’s pretty straightforward.
Proverbs17:28 teaches us that sometimes it is better to simply say nothing because “even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.” Just a few verses down the road in Proverbs, Solomon reminds us that “fools have no delight in understanding, but delight in airing their own opinions.”
Back to Charlie Munger for a moment. He thinks that there is nothing wrong with changing your mind. After all, if we accumulate enough knowledge, isn’t is reasonable to expect that at least some of the newly-acquired knowledge will teach us that we’ve been wrong? Munger says, “We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.”
My mother used to tell me that I had two ears and one mouth, so I’d better listen twice as much as I talk. I bet your mother used to tell you the same thing. They were right.
So let’s listen. Let’s consider. Let’s change our minds when our minds need changing. But let’s think for ourselves.
After all, if we aren’t thinking for ourselves, we are giving ourselves over to the thoughts of others. And I’m not sure we are ready to do that.