iAt Book Club: “How to Think” Round Table

February 10, 2018
For the next three weeks iAt will host a book club series featuring, “How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds,” by Alan Jacobs. Return to iAt throughout this week and the next two as various voices are added to the series, interact with one another and respond to the book. Series contributors are Myles Werntz, Justin Bailey, Erin Olson, and Mary Nickel.


Title: How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds
Author: Alan Jacobs
Publisher: Currency (October 17, 2017)
Paperback: 160pages
Price: $15.00 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0451499608

I am not sure anyone likes to be categorized or “put in a box.”  When people make assumptions about me and my likes, talents, and dreams based solely on the fact that I am a woman, a wife, a mother, a social worker, or an academic, I get annoyed. While I expect people to recognize my uniqueness, I am not always quick to or even likely to extend that same grace to others. Alan Jacobs in his book How to Think says that we all categorize or “lump” from time to time as a necessary way to triage the overload of information received by our brains on a daily basis. In our fast-paced, information-laden world, we need to be able to quickly sort and categorize what we see and hear and, more often than not, people will get included in this categorization process. We are quick to label someone as liberal or conservative, racist or homophobic, black or white, a “tree hugger” or a capitalist.

According to Jacobs, lumping helps us sort through information quickly, helps us decide what to do; grouping others together can also lead to a certain amount of solidarity among those who are placed together in the same category. So, lumping and categorizing can be good and even necessary at times. But, when it becomes our default and when we’re unable to see the times in which those categories have broken down and need to be reexamined—this is when lumping becomes problematic. Jacobs argues that perhaps then we should switch to splitting—creating new categories—rather than just continuing to blindly add individuals to old ones. This is where thinking comes in. We need to be consistently thinking in order to assess the categories in which we place people, and we should always be willing to take them out of those categories and place them in new ones as needed.

Jacobs, in some ways, seems to underestimate this need to be critical of our categories, and one might walk away from his book recognizing only the ways that “lumping” seems to work in our cognitive favor. Splitting (making a new category for someone who does not fit in an old one) seems to be more helpful than lumping in all situations. But better yet, shouldn’t we be encouraging people to, at least when it comes to other people, seek always to understand and recognize their unique distinctiveness? Although lumping and categorizing can save us time and cognitive space, the cost of doing so seems much too high to be dismissed as something “we all do.”

About the Author
  • Erin Olson serves as Professor of Social Work as well as the director of the MSW program at Dordt University. She also enjoys her many other job descriptors of mom, wife, licensed clinical social worker, and dog-owner, which keep her active and connected to community!