When and How Do People Learn to Think?

Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order in the sixteenth century, once said: “Give me a child until the age of seven and I will give you the man.”

He exaggerated, but he wasn’t wrong. If the age is changed to seventeen, then–in a certain sense–I would agree. By that age, an individual has automatized a particular method of thinking (or of not thinking), a way that his mind habitually deals with its content. Ayn Rand called it “psycho-epistemology,” and it is a crucial aspect of who we are. It isn’t set in stone by high school graduation, but it’s difficult and rare for adults to make major improvements in their psycho-epistemology.

Now, how do people learn their basic method of thinking? Typically, they do so by generalizing from countless arguments they heard during their formative years, and not by explicit study of epistemology. If the arguments they accepted in their youth were based on vague ideas and frequent appeals to emotion, then that becomes part of their implicit method. If they accepted many rationalistic arguments that merely deduced connections between floating abstractions, then that becomes part of their method. In any case, most people cannot identify the essentials of their method–it is automatic and implicit. And despite the fact that there are often inconsistencies, there is usually a dominant approach that guides an individual’s thinking.

Finally, what subjects are best-suited for developing proper thinking methods in young people? My answer is: Subjects that deal with the external and non-human world, rather than with human consciousness. It is difficult to learn how to think by studying human beings, who are the most complex entities on the planet. The actions of balls rolling down inclined planes, or of colored light refracting through prisms, or of magnets pushing and pulling on other magnets, are much simpler than the actions of people. These topics are complex enough to offer challenges, but straight-forward enough so that the correct conclusions are uncontroversial. Natural science provides excellent content for developing proper thinking methods in young minds.

This is why Tom VanDamme and I started Falling Apple Science Institute. We want to develop real thinkers by presenting middle and high school students with an inductive science curriculum.

One thought on “When and How Do People Learn to Think?

  1. I found that earth science and astronomy were great subjects to study as a teenager. Their tie to direct observations, mathematics, and also to real values (finding natural resources, understanding of the skies, sunlight, and space travel, predicting natural events, etc.) helped me guard against rationalism, the intrinsic view of knowledge, and subjectivism.

    I also found that in a sense, there can be more humanity tied to these subjects, especially if you include their histories, than one might find in many other humanities courses (given the way those are taught today).

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