by Finito World
The conservative thinker Peter Hitchens begins his book The Cameron Delusion with these words: “Conventional wisdom is almost always wrong. By the time it has become conventional, it has ceased to be wisdom and become cant.’
Hitchens’ brand of conservativism is unfashionable to say the least and he probably wouldn’t have it any other way. The things he’d have to say to be fashionable would be anathema to him.
But what marks Hitchens out from numerous commentators today is the habit of independent thinking: on any subject from the railways to grammar schools and to the Russia-Ukraine war it is always difficult to predict what he will have to say.
That was true also of the last generation of polemicists which included Gore Vidal or Clive James: the pleasure of reading them was in not knowing what they were going to say. The experience must be contrasted with those numerous columnists on both the right and the left where one can easily guess in advance what is to be said. This melancholy truth is also the case with many politicians, as left and right become harder to distinguish from each other, and as each party’s acceptable ideological band narrows.
At time of writing it isn’t clear how Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine will transpire; perhaps it will take decades before we really know. What is clear is that we are witnessing repeated crises and that these seem to represent a failure of independent thinking. It is enough to make one wonder whether we have lost that art altogether.
Why is this? It is partly due to the busyness of our lives. Who nowadays has the time to acquire the skills to really look at a problem – to assess the available information, to delve into it, to decide which information is worth trusting and which isn’t? They are few. And once those skills have been acquired, who then has the time to be up to speed on the controversies of the day – at time of writing, climate change, Russia and Ukraine, inflation and a myriad others.
The answer is that only a select number of intellectuals and semi-retired entrepreneurs have the bandwidth. One might add that students also have time, and it’s this which makes education such an unmissable opportunity. Many people reach middle or old age and wish they’d worked harder at university – enough to call it a cliché. But there are also those who wish, all too belatedly, that they’d acquired a different mode of thinking in their youth.
Of course, this has always been the basic idea behind a university education – that the young are shaped, as it were, while the clay is still moist. But in this era of partisan media, and of received wisdom, it becomes more and more necessary to always ask oneself whether a writer of an article has sufficient information for what they proclaim, and whether they have an agenda. It is also helpful to know – as students of history are taught – what primary sources really say about a topic.
That means that it’s increasingly important to seek out those who hold an opposite opinion to oneself on a topic – and to be suspicious if one can find no dissenters regarding a particular point of view. Above all, one should always be willing to pivot if a powerful argument presents itself to the contrary of something which had seemed certain: there is nothing more retrospectively pleasant than to realise you had the flexibility to let a previous false position upended.
The great economist John Maynard Keynes, presented with an apparent inconsistency in his stated positions on an economic question famously said: “When the facts change, I change my mind.”
If such skills can be learned – and they may have to be forged in opposition to the intellectual climate of today’s universities – then the rewards are enormous. The independent thinker is better able to contribute in an original way in the workplace, and to adapt to shifting markets. Since this is now a scarce skill in society, such candidates tend to be rare, and so they also end up as leaders. The best thing you can do at the outset of your job search is to build that capacity within yourself. It will stand you in excellent stead.