By Peter Pelham, artist ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Pelham, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Postmodern Western culture is marked by individualism. It upholds the value of “thinking for oneself” and embraces the right of private judgment.

But that has not always been the case in America. In his biography of Cotton Mather, Rick Kennedy describes the social thrust of learning in seventeenth-century colonial America, whether in the homes of ministers or in the halls of Harvard. The contrast sheds light on our culture and suggests potential benefits with a more social approach to learning and thinking:

Increase Mather . . . probably advised his son that there had long been philosophers who disparaged [the] rules of social thinking. He could give many examples to his son of theologians and scholars who insisted on thinking for themselves, by themselves. On the other hand, Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch, and Quintilian had taught the necessity of learning the art of social thinking. They asserted that people think best in groups and within long traditions. First things first: an aspiring young scholar needs to learn the social arts of listening and appropriate trust.

. . . [At Harvard v]arious types of logic were taught to students in a multi-year, multi-layered system of classes and textbooks. These logic textbooks were most often titled either Logic or Dialectic, or, sometimes, The Art of Thinking. The Harvard curriculum placed a high value on teaching “reasonableness.” This felicitous term described something both bigger and softer than hard and narrow rationality. Cotton learned at Harvard that knowledge, like politics, was a fellowship.

Cotton learned in his logic classes that a lone and anti-social boy could be a great mathematician, a rational genius, and even a brilliant thinker, but no such boy could be the wise leader of a state or the pastor of a church. The most common analogy used for teaching reasonableness was courtroom jurisprudence: witnesses introduce external information into the court, prosecutors and defenders analyze the information, judges set rules of evidence and certainty, and a jury decides by consensus. Truth rises out of the interaction of many people. Jurisprudence—like the leading of a state, a church, or a family—was too important to leave up to a lone individual thinking rationally.[1]

This may raise questions in some minds about Mather’s role in the Salem witch trials, which was actually far more limited (he actually never attended any of the trials, though he preached at one execution) and much more moderate (he recommended personal care, not execution) than is commonly assumed. And that moderate approach was driven by this very social model of learning, drawing from the past and the aggregate of present witnesses who were known to be of reliable character. Kennedy clears this up in his book, which I have reviewed here.

But again, the point here is to recognize that Mather illustrates the general approach to gaining knowledge and discerning truth from error in seventeenth-century America, one that rested on a social rather than an individualistic model of learning. This social learning model raises cautions for a day when everyone is expected to have an opinion about everything, whether he or she is knowledgeable about a given topic or not (see Alan Jacobs’s striking comments along these same lines).


[1] Rick Kennedy, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather, Library of Religious Biography (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 22.

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