VALATIE, N.Y. — We are in the midst of a week that features equal portions of gratitude and uncomfortable dinner conversations. For many, Thanksgiving is a mixed bag; we count our blessings and defend our beliefs. Good manners dictate no talk of politics or religion, but these days it seems there's little else to discuss.
But if we can pay attention through dessert, we'll notice something that should trouble us even more. Increasingly, instead of sharing original thinking, the talk around the table offers up the opinions of others - from talk show analysts to late-night comedians.
This loss of genuine thinking shows up in all parts of our lives. In business we've traded Peter Drucker's long discourses on the nuances of management for the abbreviated ideas of "The Apprentice." As consumers we've substituted marketing for self-examination, letting researchers figure us out, and advertisers tell us what to want.
Did we get tired, or did we just get too lazy to think? As Americans, we have a history of disdaining intellectuals and preferring the not-so-smart to the smarty-pants. We rely on lots of information rather than on the messiness of mulling, reconsidering, and being confused, which are at the heart of a genuine intellectual process. Even our president's insistence that he's just an ordinary guy - one who went to Andover, Yale, and Harvard Business School - is intended to put Americans at ease. And it does.
Thinking takes practice, and we are out of shape. It's a dangerous time to have weak intellectual muscles. Our current global challenges exist at the intersection of economics, environment, religion, and history. The solutions aren't simple and they're not technological. However, as we face these complex issues we're moving further from the disciplines that teach people how to reason on their own. What we need now is a refresher in the Liberal Arts.
The ancient Romans had slaves from all over the world. Some of their slaves, like the Greeks, were bright, and the Romans controlled them by limiting their education. Romans allowed slaves to be educated in math and engineering so they could build things, and in the arts so they could entertain, but only Roman citizens (free people) could study history, rhetoric, or philosophy - the exclusive privilege of the liberi, the free men.
True thinking is work. It involves being comfortable with not knowing, and that flies in the face of punditry. But if we want to truly understand what we read on the front page, or be able to sort through both NPR and Rush Limbaugh, we have to practice on tough material - such as literature or philosophy - which might temporarily confuse, but will ultimately free us all.
• Diane Cameron is a freelance writer.