After watching herds of freshmen roam around campus with those incredibly fashionable lanyards attached to their MCards, it occurred to me that I might try my hand at an advice column filled with wisdom I’ve gleaned in my three years at the University. But I didn’t want to scrawl the same old truisms: Take classes you’re interested in. Try new things. Figure out what you’re passionate about and do that thang. Don’t step on the ‘M’ before your first finals or worms will devour your brain! As wise as those statements are, I’m instead going to urge students to ask one of my favorite first date questions, which also happens to be a weird sort of analogy for what I’ve learned at the University: “What are you thinking?”
As obvious a question as that seems to be, I can probably count on one hand the number of times those syllables have been tossed at me. It’s surprising, because there are few, if any, things that are more relevant about a person than their thoughts. At the University we’re regularly accosted by requests that don’t tell the asker much of anything about us: What’s your name? (Most people forget it and ask again at a later date.) How are you? (If you don’t answer with some form of “good,” you had better brace for an awkward silence.)
But the thoughts people are having are often more worth talking about than the forgettable, surface details. Facing this looming question has been one of the hardest and most rewarding challenges I’ve faced in college.
A truthful answer is easy to dodge. What are you thinking? I dunno. End of thought. But life gets a lot more complicated and exciting when you start posing critical questions about people’s thoughts — about beliefs and values.
During my third semester at the University, my philosophy professor assigned a reading that argued the suffering of animals should, based on logic, receive the same consideration we give to human suffering. I was shocked to find I agreed. Just like that, my beliefs about eating meat were torn to shreds, and I went through a brief bout of learning what it’s like to be a vegetarian. Students who don’t have professors and experiences on campus that change their beliefs and force them to see the world in a more complex and enriching way aren’t getting their money’s worth. But for that to happen, you have to be willing to ask what you’re thinking without presupposing that your initial answer is the right one.
When applied to other people, “what are you thinking?” takes on additional significance. It’s very easy for us to live in isolated worlds and relate to others only on our own terms without trying to understand other peoples’ worlds. Millions of years of evolution have made people’s brains very good at recognizing patterns and categorizing things, including people. So, it’s typical human behavior to arrive at an understanding of people by labeling them as this-or-that rather than as unique and complex individuals. I suspect that one of the reasons I’ve rarely been asked what I’m thinking by others is that it’s not altogether common or easy for people to look beyond themselves and genuinely try to see what the world looks like through others’ eyes.
Universities can encourage people to attempt just that. In classrooms, students can learn about topics like the Myer-Briggs typology — a theory of personality based on the idea that people’s brains function very differently on multiple dimensions, resulting in a great deal of diversity in what what people think about and how they think about it. Outside of the classroom, students have plenty of opportunities to meet many sorts of people, choose from about hundreds of organizations, experiment and engage in various social activities of questionable legality. All in all, there are plenty of opportunities on campus to learn about others if you have a genuine interest in who other people are and what they’re thinking.
When I entered as a freshman, I had never been asked to take a hard look at myself and my main mode of thinking. But on campus, I’ve gotten in the habit of asking “what are you thinking?” every day. It makes life much more meaningful and fun, and I encourage other students to do the same (or at least give it a try). The University isn’t a perfect place, but it is a great place to think about thinking.
Brian Flaherty is an associate editorial page editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.