2005 Academic Convocation

Thinking for Oneself

by Professor Leon Grunberg,
Comparative Sociology

First let me add my congratulations to those being honored today.

When I was asked to give this short talk I of course started to think and worry about what I could say in 12 minutes that would be interesting and make some sort of impression.  But when I asked a few friends who’d attended previous convocations what they remembered about the faculty speeches they’d heard, none of them could remember anything and one colleague, who shall be nameless, was actually sitting up here just a year ago. So realizing the very short shelf life of such speeches, here goes.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why it is so hard to think for oneself. Very few of us, myself included, like to admit that we often don’t think for ourselves,. I think it’s because it’s really quite difficult to do so. It takes tremendous effort and often a good deal of courage. So why is it so hard to think for oneself?

Perhaps one aspect of the difficulty is best captured in this little scene from the Monty Python film, Life of Brian, where a large crowd is gathered outside Brian’s apartment window because they think he is the messiah (for those of you who haven’t seen the film, it’s set about 2000 years ago in the Holy Land). Those in the crowd have  become his followers and repeatedly call out to him to give them a blessing and show them the way.

Brian pleads with them: No, no please listen. I’ve got one or two things to say.

The crowd responds: Tell us, tell us both of them.

Brian says very reasonably: Look you’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals.

The crowd  responds in unison: Yes, we’re all individuals.

Brian insists:  You’re all different.

They respond: Yes, we’re all different.

This little sketch captures a couple of reasons why many of us find it easier not to think for ourselves –we are very willing to look for guidance from some inspirational leader and its fun,  reassuring and empowering to be part of a big crowd which seems to think along the same lines.

But there are other powerful reasons for going along with the prevailing consensus-with the crowd, with a particular orthodoxy or with the conventional wisdom:

1. One is that’s it’s sometimes just easier (whether out of laziness or habit) to accept or use the conventional wisdom – what most others think or say.

  1. George Orwell, in Politics and the English Language, pointed out how often we do this in a different context – when we write.  Using well-worn metaphors or stock phrases rather than struggling to come up with ones we create ourselves. We’ve all done it a thousand times, opting for the easily available line or the latest academic jargon  we can pull out of our back pockets when we need to write a paper or render an opinion in class or Give a Speech! You know like saying how important it is to“think outside the box” and to “ avoid clichés like the plague” and that you should “march to the beat of your own drum.”
  1. We can also see this in many academic disciplines where certain ideas become so widely accepted because they seem so obvious that they become the conventional wisdom and are therefore rarely challenged. I’m sure there are examples in every discipline but I’ll focus on two theories shared by social scientists and which have recently been skewered by Steve Levitt,a clever young economist at the U of Chicago(in a book called Freakonomics-who knew economists could be so hip!). He argues that what parents do makes little difference to their children’s later educational achievement; that for example reading that wonderful children’s book, Goodnight Moon to your kids like many parents and I did, (or what some now do: play Mozart to their kids while they sleep or drill them with flash cards) have almost no impact on the fact that they’re now in auditoriums all over the country getting awards and honors. Rather, what matters is our educational and socio-economic status (who we are), not all that time we spent agonizing over how we should behave with our children. Of course, reading Goodnight Moon or listening to Mozart are enjoyable activities in themselves, but I’m not so sure about the flash cards.

    Or to take another example  from Levitt of a piece of conventional wisdom that I and many others subscribed to: that Crime rates or in particular homicide rates vary with the state of the economy. So I and many others assumed that murders went up quickly in the 1980s when the economy was in trouble but  fell just as quickly in the 1990s when the economy improved. Levitt says no, there is little evidence for that belief and came up with a surprising and in a way quite shocking hypothesis: that in fact it was the legalization of abortion in 1973 and the subsequent decline in the number of unwanted pregnancies that produced the rapid fall in homicide in the 90s, 15 to 20 years later. The point is not that Levitt is necessarily right (scholars will now join the debate), rather that for many years there was little debate and challenge to these ideas.
  2. Sometimes we rely on the opinions of experts, including esteemed academics, because we’ve been trained to.  After all, the reasonable assumption is that they’ve earned their reputations as experts.  So when Thomas Edison said “the radio craze…will die out in time” or Watson, the first Chairman of IBM said back in 1943 “I think there is a world market for about 5 computers” it would have been tempting but a very costly mistake to have believed them.(cheap shots I know, but I couldn’t resist].

    Or to move to a current contentious topic, when some historians and others tell us that the Iraq situation is a replay of World War II( with Saddam Hussein in the role of Hitler and those against the war as Neville Chamberlain-like appeasers) or others say no, it’s a replay of Vietnam( with the draft  on the way and a deadly quagmire as far as the eye can see) it is tempting to believe one or the other set of experts. But that would be a mistake-for all they’ve done is to see the present not for what it is but through  ready made, comfortably fitting and well worn lenses. They miss what is different and unique about each new event. I’m not saying we shouldn’t listen to experts, even occasionally profs!, but that we should strive to be skeptical and to look at things for ourselves whenever we can.

2. Another powerful reason it is hard to think for oneself is because of the lure of orthodoxy – of closed systems of beliefs that claim to have found the right way-the TRUTH.  Orthodoxy, whether religious, political, or academic creates for us a social and intellectual home where we can feel secure, sure of ourselves; where almost everyone we know thinks the same way.  A comfortable echo chamber where the voices we hear sound like our own and reinforce our sense of rightness and righteousness. In this place we form emotional attachments to a set of beliefs or ideas and resist looking at information that could challenge our world view (where, for example, some just watch Fox News and others listen only to NPR). And if, as seems increasingly the case, more and more of us start to separate ourselves into political, religious or academic tribes, each with its own flags and heroes and sacrosanct beliefs, then this is not only dangerous because it cuts off dialogue between these groups, but it makes it that much harder for individuals to be individuals- to be a persons without a tribe. One risks being seen as a heretic, a troublemaker, a dissident, an outsider, and that is not a very comfortable place to be.

But it’s often precisely those individuals who have the courage to reject the appeal and the confines of orthodoxy who have created advances in science, the arts and in politics. And to be fair, there are sometimes rewards of fame, money and  admiration that come along for such individuals, though sometimes very belatedly.

We can all think of our own examples of such courageous folks.

Let me mention a few that I admire.

Orwell still has great influence today. Why is that? In part it’s because there is something authentic and hard earned in his writings. We admire how he got really close to what he wrote about (as he did when he spent time with miners and the unemployed before he wrote, The Road To Wigan Pier, or the time he spent with the homeless and the tramps before writing Down and Out in Paris and London , or when he volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War before writing Homage to Catalonia writing Homage). In each case and in his other books, Orwell told the story without favor, no matter who it upset, and it did upset many, or what cherished set of beliefs it undermined.

Or take the example of the economist Stiglitz who wrote a powerful and influential criticism of the IMF/World Bank and their policies towards developing countries after working inside some of the centers of economic power. He pointed out  in his book, Globalization and Its Discontents, how often decisions were made on the basis of ideology or politics, to defend a particular economic ideology or to protect the interest of certain powerful groups,  rather than dispassionately on the basis of the available evidence.

Or look at the example of Muhammad Yunnis, who pioneered small loans to the poor, mostly women, and set up a bank for that purpose but only after close, daily experience working with poor people in a village in Bangladesh, seeing directly the problems they faced and only then imagining a way to help them. His efforts have been very successful where they have been tried( most recently creating over 100,000 telephone ladies equipped with cell phones who can then sell phone services in villages all over Bangladesh). But he laments how conventional banks, in his words, “continue to practice the same old banking…as if nothing new has happened in the world” and goes on to say, “it will be an uphill task to end poverty in the world unless we create new economic thinking and get rid of the biases in our concepts, institutions, policies and above all the mindsets created by the existing orthodoxy”

Orwell, Stiglitz, Yunnis and many other courageous thinkers have this in common: they approached their subject by getting very close to it and by getting their hands dirty (sorry, I really couldn’t think of a better metaphor). And they looked at it without prejudice.  They weren’t afraid to challenge orthodoxies or upset the conventional wisdom or even to change their minds. While these three are remarkable individuals, we can all try to do what they did in our lives. Get close to things that matter to us and try not to know the answer before we start. Nor should we be afraid to live with some doubt and uncertainty. As that oft quoted physicist, Richard Feynman said, “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing then to have answers which might be wrong”.

So, to end as I began: Remember what Brian said to his followers:

You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals. You’re all different.

Thank you.