The taboo of thinking too hard

If there’s one thing that drives me nuts about this culture, it’s that choosing to actually use one’s mind is often ridiculed.

Don’t believe me? Try casually mentioning in conversation that you’ve been learning, just for fun, ancient Greek or economics. Or try taking a book on differential equations to the beach. Every face will curdle. Some will sympathetically ask, “are you reading that for a class?” The implication is that if it’s not for a class (or some other darn good reason) you have no business reading it. Learning something difficult has no intrinsic value in itself.

Now I understand that not everyone will find interesting the same things that I find interesting. What pains me is the intense reaction against anything not categorized as “easy” or “fun.” The unstated assumption seems to be that mental effort ought to be avoided wherever possible. And that a reasonable person’s long-term goal — once all their pesky educational requirements are finally checked off — should be to think as little as possible. Any effort beyond that gets an eye roll.

Note carefully that being smart isn’t what’s being shamed here; it’s wanting to use those smarts. Being smart is considered desirable, actually, but in a stroke of irony its value is conceived mostly as a way to get out of thinking. “Ah, you’re one of the smart ones. It must be nice to not have to study much.”

And it breeds, and it breeds. In a mad race to the bottom, everyone who expends some amount of mental effort is shamed by those who expend less, until eventually we get a country full of lazy minds who can’t imagine things being any other way.

How did we get here?

I think the ridiculing part can be explained in terms of comparisons. If Joe wants to turn off his brain, then his colleague Betty’s choosing to use hers draws attention to Joe’s choice and by comparison shames it. Joe feels threatened, so he lashes out and condemns Betty for expending what he sees as unnecessary effort. (This is like how everybody disdains the guy at the office who actually works hard, because by doing so he’s making everyone else look bad. His very existence proves that it’s quite possible to get a lot more done than what the average employee is getting done.) Nobody likes to feel shamed, hence the intensity of the reaction.

What I find more confusing is why most Joes want to avoid thinking hard in the first place. Why is this the norm? Is it because thinking requires effort? But why is expending effort undesirable? Lots of things — gardening, craftsmanship, working crossword puzzles — require effort, and they are not similarly ostracized. If someone is building a deck in the hot sun, they are considered normal, and even praiseworthy. Only if they are interested in studying the equations that govern deck-building are they anathema.

Much of my day-to-day teaching activity comes down to attempts to reverse this trend among my students. In order to actually learn, the mind has to be willing to learn; and it’s a lot easier to be willing to learn if you don’t think that learning is something abnormal or repellent to others.

It gets tiring. I try to model by example — boldly insisting, torpedoes be damned, that I will read my Plato and my Mandarin Chinese and enjoy it, by gum. I try to rub off on my students my enthusiasm for subject matter, my tone of voice declaring that this stuff is super cool and worthy of taking the time to understand. But overcoming the near-unanimous voices of a culture dead set against nerdiness is a losing battle.

I’d like to think this phenomenon wasn’t/isn’t true among all times and places, but I don’t really know. I can’t use as evidence the great books produced in other eras, because they were all by definition produced by willing thinkers, who may have been outliers in their time just as I am in mine. Maybe everyone rolled their eyes at Thoreau and Cicero, too, and muttered, “what a nerd!” But maybe it’s something in our society gone wrong. Why, and how to correct it?

(Hopefully this post doesn’t come across as arrogant. I don’t claim my brain is a thousandth as smart as Plato’s or Thoreau’s were. But I do claim — stubbornly, in the face of criticism from many angles — that I want to think as much and as rigorously as my brain is able to, to fathom as much beauty as I can in this world, and to attain whatever heights are within my reach. Why wouldn’t everyone want to do this?)

— S


  1. Ryan Persinger Avatar

    I’m not sure if we are living in a culture deadset against nerdiness I think now is probably the coolest time to be a nerd. Calling someone a nerd isn’t as much of an insult as it used to be. In my experience, if you are called a nerd nowadays it is usually stated in a matter-of-fact sort of way. Regardless, I do think that there is a lot of truth that thinking hard is frowned upon, and I think it stems from a point that you touched on in this post. Most people believe that all learning should be done in a classroom or during academic hours, but they don’t allow their curiosity to extend beyond the classroom. There is a certain apathy towards learning beyond what one might be “forced” to do. No one is being encouraged to learn new things outside of a classroom from a young age, so as each generation grows up some people are seen as “just being smart” and some people are seen as just “not being built for academics”. As you mentioned in your post, you do your utmost to make every topic as interesting as you can and you truly try to convince your students that what they are learning is in fact exciting and cool. This is admirable, and I don’t think you should give up or stop doing that, but I think the lack of desire to be curious about the world around you starts at a younger age, and by the time students reach college it might be too late to make a real difference in this “thinking is bad” mindset.

    1. stephen Avatar

      I think you nailed it when you said “no one is being encouraged to learn new things outside of a classroom from a young age.” This is a big contributor to the trend, I agree. Although it sort of moves the problem one step back… now the question is not “why don’t people want to think hard?” but rather “why don’t people want their children to think hard?”

      – S

  2. Thomas (TJ) Davies Avatar

    I think we all see the shame of learning in our lives. The thing you pointed out that sticks with me is the instant question of motive. People care more about why we want to learn, than what we’re learning, or how we’re learning it. The need to defend learning is part of my theory as to why the average Joe turn’s off their brain.

    My Theory:

    First off, I believe learning is an inherently creative process. Creativity strikes from the very first question: “What should I learn?” Choosing a topic involves analyzing what you’re interested in and whats attainable for you. That creativity continues as you choose how and where to learn this topic. Will you be self taught, go through an online program, attend a university, etc etc. The creativity reaches its peak after you’ve learned the topic. Now its time to apply your knowledge. This is another huge creative en devour as it requires you to figure out where you apply this topic in every day life.

    Second, creativity is inherently vulnerable. Think about the risk of creativity. You propose an idea or solution that cannot be empirically proved as correct. You open up your mind to the world and suggest something that is not fully backed up by a professor or the science surrounding it. If your idea doesn’t pan out, people often make the logical leap that *you* don’t pan out. *You* have bad ideas, *you* don’t fully understand what the problem is, *you* think you know better when you actually don’t. This can be shown in the arts as well. When people make a drawing they don’t think is good they hide or destroy it. People won’t share a song they composed if they think it doesn’t sound as good as a professionals. Obviously there are exceptions to this, but I believe the average person is afraid to be creative, because the average person is willing to shame creativity.

    There is also a subset of people that pursue knowledge as a pathway to elitism. The best way I’ve heard this described is as “cocktail knowledge.” You know enough on a subject to drop names, technical terms, and generally confuse everyone else at a theoretical cocktail party, but don’t have a deep enough understanding of the topic to apply it. For example, consider me saying the sentence “New Orleans is my favorite style of jazz because of how it implements group improvisation.” This immediately tells people that 1). I’m interested in jazz, a very sophisticated genre of music, and 2). I’m well educated of the various jazz styles and favor one (that just so happens to have a cool name and a historically relevant city as its title) because of a technique it features more prevalently than other styles. In reality, however, I actually couldn’t name any “New Orleans” composers. I couldn’t tell you why the city was influential to jazz history, compose a song in the style, or tell you what other sub-genres feature this “group improvisation.” I would be much less likely to say this sentence around jazz musicians because they might know what follow up questions to ask me, but the average Joe will have no choice but to be impressed with my knowledge of the world. People who favor Cocktail Knowledge are worried about being exposed for not knowing as much about a topic as they lead on, and get defensive when challenged. Think about group members who insist something should be done a certain way and refuse to budge, or people who are 100% sure about their political stances and refuse to listen to reason. These people put down the opinions and other with buzz words and loud voices.

    While this is a subset of the learning population, some (myself included), are worried about people thinking they fall into the Cocktail camp. The need to defend learning becomes more difficult because simply being curious about a subject can sound like a path to elitism. The reason for learning has to be more specific, and can’t be something that the person you’re speaking to should be doing (telling a CS student I’m learning JavaScript because I want to make a website might sound like I’m claiming that they’re lazy for not also having that interest, but telling a history student the same thing wouldn’t be an issue). I’m not say that that is true, or the way that things should be, but I do think it is part of the concerns with defending learning.

    1. stephen Avatar

      Great points. I had never thought about the “choice of what to learn ≈ creativity” relationship, but that makes a lot of sense. What we choose to learn is sort of a declaration of who we are, and being open about those choices leaves us vulnerable.

      If I understand your point about elitism correctly, you’re saying that when I (for example) choose to take my linear algebra textbook to the beach, people may think that I don’t really know much about the subject or even want to learn it — I’m just trying to look smart. And so what they’re choosing to shame is my false display of knowledge/interest. Do I have that right?

  3. Paula Dorca Avatar

    Congratulations on your blog professor! I’m so excited to read what you have to say. As a former student I had always enjoyed your lectures and topics discussed in class. I’m certain that I will login in often to get some inspiration and perspective. Good luck on this new adventure.

  4. Alan Dean Avatar

    I have always been a life long learning and promote it for all to this day. I believe this was instilled in me at an early age by my parents. My mother, especially, was very creative and always encouraged my curious nature. My father, being a law enforcement officer, provided an appreciation for being curious in a structured approach. Whether it was buying me toys like models to build, erector sets, or my first analog computer kit or buying encyclopedias to explore many subjects they created an environment for me to explore and learn that was safe. When I traveled for work, I use to get strange looks from engineering colleagues with me on the plane (my go to reading spot) when I had books like The World is Flat or Candide or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man vice the latest technology book. Some scoffed saying it was a waste of time but I pretty much ignored them. Over the years, as maturing baby boomer, I have come to realize for me that it was this early and constant encouragement that created the foundation for my curious nature as a springboard into many realms as I traveled through elementary, middle, and high school. As I went through school, I found I liked many subjects. Looking back the subject I did well in tended to have a few common elements. First they had engaging teachers who taught it with the enthusiasm you describe above in the blog. Second, they were an interactive learning environment not a lecture-regurgitate answers to met an SOL. Third, I realized that the knowledge was all interconnected (sometimes using a different vocabulary) and answers to problems in one area may lie in another. That curiosity foundation also served me well in my career as I was challenged with many obstacles in the technical world I had to navigate and solutions often came from other non-technical fields. So I applaud your lifelong learning efforts and would encourage you to continue expanding the fields of interest.

  5. Jeff Stilger Avatar

    If you asked me, “What is wrong with our society?”, I might answer, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
    You would, of course, agree, “YES — ignorance and apathy!”

  6. Sarah Katherine Hugo Avatar

    The danger in learning is that you must be incredibly introspective while doing so. The values, opinions, experiences of others, and truths that you happen upon in research will inevitably, at some point, challenge your preexisting beliefs, and this can be wildly uncomfortable. We see the evidence of this everywhere in American culture with echo chambers. We like to be in spaces in which we feel safe, encouraged, protected, and comfortable. It’s easy this way, and we never have to consider other ways of thinking if we’re surrounded by what is known to us already.

    One place I see this all the time is in any sort of History class. Each subject in school receives its own set of complaints by students, but History in particular is one that always confounded me. The argument is that what happened 1000 years ago has very little relevance to our lives today and it’s a waste of time to study it, but nothing could be further from the truth. History is fascinating, and it’s largely due to the fact that we can see human perseverance, humility, mercy, ingenuity, industry, dignity, and charity alongside human depravity, weakness, recklessness, greed, and cruelty from the very beginning. We cheer and praise the instances of good, but we tend to shrivel away from, reject, or even deny the instances of wrongdoing, especially when horrific acts have been committed by those we most resemble. Learning about what’s happened in our history forces us to encounter the evil that exists in this world, and it’s so uncomfortable because we see that same evil mirrored in ourselves.

    On a slightly smaller scale, learning a new skill such as reading music or fumbling through a new language requires you to be introspective as well. You discover very quickly if you have the determination to persevere through the difficulty of not immediately achieving perfection. It’s aggravating when, after 20 minutes, you still can’t roll your “R’s” in Spanish, or when your triplets in your right hand sound like dotted eighth notes because your left hand is playing a challenging rhythm in and of itself and you can’t seem to rectify the problem. This form of introspection is all about humility and having what it takes to continue toiling over something that is proving more difficult than you might have hoped.

    I think there is such a negative emphasis placed on learning because people subconsciously fear self-improvement. It takes a significant amount of energy and time. It can also feel like a failure to have weakness or to need to change, when in reality weakness and imperfection are what makes us human.

  7. Veronica Cagle Avatar

    I have to let you know that some friends of mine and I spent a couple of hours discussing this topic and possibly thinking too hard about it!

    I think that you focus a lot on the academic side/topics that people learn. I do believe that there are a lot of topics outside of academics that people put mental effort towards and spend a lot of time learning. You mentioned an intense reaction against anything not categorized as “easy” or “fun”, but I think it’s an intense reaction against something that does not interest that person. I think this is a big part of the problem. I’m sure you have students who do enjoy learning and go out of their way to understand topics on a deeper level. I think this is due, in part, to the fact that they are interested in the topic.

    I also think there could be an issue with the idea that we spent 13 years of our lives moving from classroom to classroom for 7 hours of the day with most classes being those we did not get to choose. We are given lists of classes that we need to take and have to sit in the classroom for a set amount of time. If these are classes students are not interested in, it’s not encouraging them to go home and learn something new when they have this idea in their head that learning is associated with classes they are told to take and having to sit for a period of time while teachers talk at them. I know this isn’t the case for everyone, but I do think a lot of people have this negative idea in their head about learning. College is really the first time we get to choose our own classes and don’t have to be in the same building for 7 hours every day. Sometimes it can be hard to find those topics we are really interested in and it takes time to break out of this idea of being given a checklist of academic requirements and explore topics on our own. I think a lot of people can relate to this, so when you say you have been learning ancient Greek, it is less appealing to most as it sounds like a class they would have to take and are not interested in. There is something more appealing about activities or topics that don’t fall into similar categories related to common school subjects.

    Since I started working, the majority of my day is spent staring at a screen and putting a lot of mental effort into my work. I have said when I get home, I want to turn my brain off, but what I really mean is I want to turn my brain off to work thoughts and anything related to what I work on. I often find that I want to spend my evenings trying new hobbies or activities that I find enjoyable. I still believe I’m learning when trying a new skill, sport, or something similar, it’s just a different type of learning than in the classroom setting. I think people want to put their minds to use and put their mental effort towards things they genuinely enjoy.

    1. stephen Avatar

      Yeah, it’s an interesting point you make about “academic” vs “non-academic” pursuits. And admittedly, I find my own interests are often in technical and often even “bookish” areas that do find a home in academia.

      To push back a bit, though, what actually is the definition of an “academic” topic? Is it “something that’s taught in school?” If so, that actually seems to me a strange boundary to draw. Why do the masses frown upon choosing to self-learn a topic that there happens to be college classes for, while smiling at those who learn things that there aren’t college classes for? If the person isn’t learning it in college anyway, then why would that even matter?

      Your point about “being in school 7 hours a day” is well-taken, though I also find it depressing. It would seem to imply that if society values knowledge in area X, and therefore “forces” its young people to sit through lectures on X during K-12, the result will be that most students will hate X and view it as something to avoid. This makes the whole enterprise of education seem hopeless!

      I also definitely agree with you that people ought to put mental effort towards things they genuinely enjoy. I have more trouble understanding why society seems to approve of a person who puts their mental effort towards baking, but does not approve of one who puts their mental effort towards physics. If each enjoys what they’re choosing to learn, then….?

  8. Bethany Curtis Avatar

    Your writings and some of the comments led my husband and me to have a conversation last night about what learning really is. I think that your musing can come across as though learning is limited to academia. I would argue that for some, learning may be more experiential rather than theoretical. For example, a hobby/interest of mine is baking. Every time I decide to try a new recipe, I am learning something new about baking and expanding my knowledge and expertise in that area. This does require a degree of deep thinking. In fact, even in the workplace when I have someone new join the team, I am encouraging them to learn by fire in addition to reading whatever documentation we have in place. It usually isn’t until we are really practically applying something new that we are solidifying the things we have read about.

    I admire that you try to make every topic you teach into something that is interesting for your students – I think that is ultimately the struggle that we face in a society that is consumed with the concept of needing to be entertained. We aren’t giving ourselves enough time to be bored, to want to learn and expand our knowledge in new areas.

    I will say that I struggle to spend time “being nerdy” given the demands in my season of life as a parent to four young kids and a full time working mom. No, I am not spending my time outside of work reading about the latest in the programming world or learning about the newest trends in AI, nor am I spending my time practicing the Chinese language that I learned in school. My time is spend learning my kids – knowing their traits and personalities, seeing to their needs, helping prepare them to succeed in life to the best of my ability. It doesn’t leave me with a lot of capacity to do much more than what needs to be done for myself and my family – eat right (hopefully), exercise, self-care, keep the house in order, make sure my kids are fed, physically active, understanding their homework, reading something that interests them. As much as I would love to delve into a new and complex learning topic, or for that matter support my kids in learning a new complex topic, there are seasons in life where the extent of my abilities are to make sure everyone has made it to the end of the day with their basic needs met. I think we need to be mindful and support people who are in that position and are just doing the best that they can, too!

    1. stephen Avatar

      Ah yeah, good point. Veronica (above) made somewhat the same distinction about academic vs non-academic, but the theoretical vs experiential dichotomy is another useful framing. And I agree that learning “theoretical things,” whatever they may be, suffers much more societal backlash than learning “practical things” does. I could even see a crazy inventor who’s building all kinds of experimental gizmos in her garage being approved of (even if thought odd) in a way that someone who took a vector calculus book on her picnic would not.

      I definitely resonate with your “season of life” observation! When my own kids were young, everything was way time-consuming and harder, and the luxury of even choosing what I spent time on (to say nothing of choosing something “hard”) was often denied. Thank God for devoted moms like you! All I can tell you from this side of it is: there will indeed be a new “season” someday, in which you have the chance to do a lot of the things you had to sacrifice in this season!

  9. Steven DeVerteuil Avatar

    For me, the joy of learning came after coming to believe in God and realizing that He created all things ~for a reason~. He literally created infinite knowledge and exploration on this Earth just so that we can revel in Him. For me, history was always a “take it or leave it” subject — some topics were cool, but not enough to make me care to just become lost in the knowledge, forgetting about worldly problems. Now I find myself doing deep dives into ancient history, such as the Corinthians, just to get a taste of what life was like back then, and how it was significant in history.

    Knowing that there is absolute truth in Jesus reassures me that there are an endless number of things to learn in this world, and that all of them are a gift from God. Maybe, just maybe, if more people came to know Jesus, they’d realize that being a nerd and learning just for learning’s sake would actually bring you closer to your Creator. On the flip side, imagine if all those who love learning just for learning’s sake but do not believe, came to realize that there is a beautiful reason behind their pursuits.

    1. stephen Avatar

      Great thoughts, thanks for sharing them! I agree with you that the closer I grow to God, the more distant and relatively unimportant my immediate world seems, and a side effect of that is a stronger interest in things not directly related to my day-to-day reality.

  10. Ian Finlayson Avatar

    Great points Stephen!

    I personally think a big part of this comes from how hyper-capitalist our society has become. American work culture’s focus on efficiency and return on investment has permeated the rest of our society. Every decision to learn something is seen through the lens of cost-benefit analysis. And for better or worse learning most things just isn’t worth it in terms of economics. I’ve spent a lot of time learning Spanish but this has had no real impact on my ability to earn a living. From an economic perspective this was a bad investment.

    College has been impacted by this mindset in a big way. To most people, education is no longer about edifying yourself to be a well-rounded person, but rather learning skills that will allow you to land a job. Even people who are progressive educators speak about it this way, talking about “investing” in students’ future, and of course the heavy emphasis on STEM and workforce training is a clear example of this.

    Even in the last decade or so I’ve been teaching I seem to have more students now complaining about having to take gen-eds that have nothing to do with their future career, or even asking how specific course topics will benefit them in industry. They aren’t rude about it, but in their minds the whole point of study is to get that payoff later.

    I don’t know how to go about changing any of this. The capitalist mindset seems to have taken root in an irreversible way, and as long as we view everything through the prisms of costs and benefits I think most people will look at most learning as a waste of time.

    1. stephen Avatar

      Ah! I hadn’t related this to the “cost-benefit” paradigm before, but what you say absolutely makes sense. And alas, your observation about students complaining more and more often about non-major-related courses rings true for me as well.

      Your point about STEM emphasis is interesting as well. “English Lit? What will you do with that degree?” is a very common challenge that those in the humanities have to defend against all the time. Two assumptions underlying the question are (1) that learning something should/must be related to “doing” something later, and (2) that the “doing” must be career-related. (As you say, “hyper-capitalist.”)

      All that said, I do have to watch myself a bit on this, given that the field I teach (computer science) is not open to this “career” criticism. It’s easy for me to say, “aw, c’mon, study what you like! it doesn’t have to be related to a specific job” when all along I have the career part in the bag. I’m sure that it’s harder for educators in other fields to convince students: “go ahead and study Art History, if that’s your first love! The career part will work itself out in the end.” I do definitely believe that, but unfortunately I can better understand students’ reluctance to jump in with both feet in that case.

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