1 Thinking for yourself is still a radical act.
2 Thinking for yourself is not a popular activity, though it should be. Every step of real progress in our society has come from it. But in most circles, particularly in places that shape our lives – families, schools and most workplaces – thinking for yourself is regarded with suspicion. Some institutions thwart it on purpose. It can be seen as dangerous.
3 I was reminded of this sad fact at a party when a fellow guest asked me the subject of a book I was planning to write. I told him that it was about how people can help each other to think for themselves. “Oh dear,” he said, “I don’t think much of that; I much prefer people do as they’re told.” I later found out that he is the fourth-generation president of one of the largest oil companies.
4 When was the last organizational vision statement you saw that included the words “… to develop ourselves into a model environment in which everyone at every level can think for themselves”? For that matter, when was the last time somebody asked you, “What do you really think, really?” and then waited for you to answer at length?
5 This dearth should not surprise us. Hardly anyone has been encouraged, much less trained, to think for themselves, and their teachers and parents and bosses weren’t either. And neither were theirs. (We may have learned to revere thinkers like Socrates, but we also learned that the state poisoned him for thinking for himself: not unmitigated encouragement.)
6 Occasionally, however, we do have a teacher or mentor who truly wants us to develop our own thinking. They give us glimpses. When I was 13 years old, I was put into an advanced algebra course. On the first day the teacher, who was maligned by students as a hard teacher because she tried to get them to think, stood in front of the blackboard and said, “On the paper in front of you write the sum of a number.”
7 The entire class of 35 pubescent people just stared at her. She repeated the direction, “Write the sum of a number.”
8 I remember my hand gathering sweat around the pencil. A few heads looked down and their pencils started up. I wondered what in the world they were writing. I saw the girl across the aisle from me lean forward and peer over the shoulder of the boy in front of her who was scribbling something. Then she scratched a figure and immediately covered it with her hand.
9 The teacher paced and rubbed the chalk between her fingers. I wondered what she was about to put on the board. I was now the only one not writing. I leaned back and over my left shoulder whispered to my friend, “What is it?”
10 “Seven,” she whispered back.
11 So I wrote “7” on my paper. I kept my head down, hoping I looked busy and confident.
12 After the agony among us had become tactile, the teacher asked us for our answers. The number 7 was prevalent. She walked slowly over to the board and wrote: “There is no such thing as the sum of a number.”
13 I knew that.
14 Why didn’t you write it?
15 Sarah said it was 7.
16 Why did you ask her?
17 Because – I don’t know.
18 That’s right. From now on, think for yourself.
19 I was too scared around that teacher for the rest of my young life to think very well in her presence. But I took the message with me and gradually examined and valued it. I don’t recommend humiliating people into thinking for themselves as she had. She certainly did not create a Thinking Environment for us. Had she affirmed our intelligence first and spoken about the joy of thinking for ourselves, had she not fanned our fear of her, we would all have learned even more powerfully what it meant to do our thinking. And we might have been able to think well around her too.
20 But at least she introduced the concept into my academic life.