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The Lost Art of Independent Thinking

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Lost Art of Independent Thinking

In Meet Generation Z, I wrote that never before have we had so much access to information and so little wisdom. It would be difficult to forecast the many implications this will have on coming generations, but here is one dynamic that no longer needs imagining:

The lost art of independent thinking.

According to a survey of British university admissions staff, nine out of ten were concerned about students “not being able to think and learn independently.” More than half felt they were “unable to carry out extended writing,” and the same number were “unable to remember facts, possessing a ‘Google It’ mentality.”

In an article on the survey in Times Higher Education, Jeremy Lewis asks, “So what is going on? Why is the most widely connected generation in the history of humankind seemingly so ill-prepared for university social and intellectual life?”

His conclusion is that the “connected” nature of their lives has left them unable to think for themselves. They know how to work the system—such as performing on exams—but do not know how to challenge ideas.

As I first wrote in Serious Times, the inadequacy of not being able to think for one’s self cannot be overstated, particularly as this information is not simply at our demand but under our control. We live in a world where we can see only what we choose to see, hear only what we choose to hear, and read only what we choose to read. 

Through the technology of cyberspace, we have the ability to filter out everything but what we wish to be exposed to, creating what University of Chicago professor Cass Sunstein has called the “Daily Me”—a self-created world where we see only the sports highlights of our favorite team, read only the issues that address our interests and engage only the op-ed pieces with which we agree. The highly lauded personalization of information protects us from exposure to anything that might challenge our thinking or make us uncomfortable. 

Unchecked, we begin to follow only the echo of our own voice. Or, even worse, the voice of someone else. While the media may not tell us what to think, it certainly tells us what to think about

It brings to mind the brutally honest confession of Tony Fadell, one of the minds behind the iPod and iPhone: 

“I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world? Did we really bring a nuclear bomb with information that can—like we see with fake news—blow up people’s brains and reprogram them? Or did we bring light to people who never had information, who can now be empowered?”

The probable answer is “Yes,” which brings about a very specific challenge.

Many in higher education are scrambling madly to respond to the first wave of Generation Z in colleges and universities, concerned about whether they are able to serve a generation that is highly industrious, entrepreneurial, collaborative and connected.

Perhaps they should begin preparing for something else,

… such as teaching them how to think.

James Emery White


James Emery White, Meet Generation Z (Baker).

Jeremy Lewis, “Google it! Students are ‘needy, ill-prepared and reliant on search engines,’” Times Higher Education, July 10, 2017, read online.

James Emery White, Serious Times (IVP).

Cass Sunstein, (Princeton University Press).

Katharine Schwab, “Nest Founder: ‘I Wake Up in Cold Sweats Thinking, What Did We Bring to the World?” Co.Design, July 7, 2017, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The Lost Art of Independent Thinking