Julian Baggini: What is deep thought?

I think most people are more sceptical than ever. We are learning to test out claims for ourselves
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The Independent Online

How it warms the cerebrum to hear of Education Secretary Michael Gove's desire for "a revival of the art of deep thought". It's not what you expect from a Conservative Party which has historically embodied the national suspicion of intellectualism. But what exactly is the art of deep thought? And can we really expect school reform to deliver it?

The idea that thinking in the modern world is shallowing out has become the received wisdom of the cognoscenti. In a massively connected world, so the story goes, we are bombarded by more and more information but in ever smaller units. The typical graduate has transformed from a patient reader to a twitchy twitterer in one generation.

The chopping-up of brain food into ever-smaller processed bite-sized chunks is also a complaint made about education. At sixth-form level, for instance, students typically study four or five subjects in one year, and then three or four in the next. Grove's remedy is something closer to old-fashioned A-levels, with two years of study on fewer subjects, with examinations at the end.

The obvious response to the attention-deficient culture of the sound-bite is a kind of "slow thought" movement, one which advocates a return to unhurried rumination. In sixth form, for instance, children need a chance not just to learn and regurgitate as quickly and efficiently as possible, but to digest and assimilate their knowledge.

There is something right in this line of thought, but many things wrong with it, too. Most obviously, slower minds are sometimes just that. More importantly, we have to be careful to distinguish between depth of knowledge and depth of thought. Studying fewer subjects for longer certainly gives you more in-depth knowledge, but that alone does not make you a profound thinker. Mastermind is a test of knowledge, not mental dexterity.

Excessive specialisation can even hinder deep thinking, which requires the ability to make connections between different pieces of knowledge. Specialisation tends to limit the mental toolkit, by encouraging overuse of those made especially for the particular job in hand. This is even the case with philosophy, the subject which prides itself on its pre-eminence as a cultivator of critical thinking. Too many philosophers do not understand enough about the social sciences and their methodologies, or how psychological factors can undermine their attempts at objective reasoning.

Truly deep thought requires a certain amount of breadth, too, and this is where many recent developments in education have been positive. People decry "project-based work", but at its best it encourages independent reasoning far better than a three-hour, hoop-jumping exam. If I think of the academic courses that most developed my abilities, I think of my A-level long essay and my undergraduate dissertation, not the many exams I sat.

Even the cacophony of information that surrounds us has the advantage of providing opportunities to find out much more about all sorts of subjects that would previously have been closed to all but experts. And far from simply believing everything they read on the web, I think most people are more sceptical than ever. We are learning to test out claims for ourselves.

But perhaps the clue to the biggest potential error in Gove's thinking is his use of the word "revival", as though deep thought is something that used to be routine and is now lost. Intellectual nostalgia is no less perniciously revisionist than the other varieties. Deep thought requires reinvention, not revival. To the noble traditions of slow thought, we need to add the best the fast-paced information age can offer. We need to balance breadth and depth, so that what is valued is the volume of wisdom in the lake, not just its reach at its deepest point. To do this we must look forwards, backwards and sideways. Gove's ambition is a good one, but it seems he hasn't thought deeply enough about what it really is, or how to achieve it.

Julian Baggini is editor of 'The Philosophers' Magazine'