Liberation and Apprenticeship

All intellectuals must begin as pseudo-intellectuals.

Aaron Haspel

The greatest, most inescapable narrative of our time is the narrative of liberation. For the libertarian, it is the self-made entrepreneur who earns their bread by the sweat of his brow. For the liberal, it is defined in opposition to traditional clannish structures that define the life of those within them in terms of the role they are expected to play, and how they might hope to play it well. Liberation in this latter context is chain-breaking stuff; let me be ME! Don’t tell ME what to think, I must learn to think for myself!

A problem emerges: actual critical thinking is a tradition, with a history. Becoming an effective critical thinking requires, at first, subordination to more experienced people already inculcated in this tradition, who can provide relevant reading material as well as commentary, dialogue, and correction. Before you can master critical thinking, in other words, you must—to some extent—apprentice yourself to those who already have. Or at minimum, are further along the road than you are.

But the narrative of liberation is often at odds with the mechanism of arriving at critical thinking, or what passes for self-reliance and self-rule in a modern community of equals. You cannot start as an equal, because at the outset you can’t even understand what it means to be part of that community.

Liberation that is comfortable within this framework—Mark Weiner’s sort of liberation—works out just fine. But most of the time “thinking for yourself” entails a rejection of all authority, which means the authority of educators. We don’t need no education is a fairly characteristic rallying cry for this strain of the liberation narrative, and it’s ultimately self-destructive.

You cannot know at the outset what the value of membership is, or why you should read the classics or how to do calculus. Adults often think they can reason with the young (“it’s to gain perspective” “it will help you get a good job some day”) but you cannot speed up the process of gaining experience and perspective by providing reasons.

I don’t say all this from a place of “get off my lawn”; I merely want to point out that there are some circumstances in which an ethic of thinking for yourself can actually short circuit your ability to get the necessary training to actually think for yourself in an effective way.

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