The Mostly Dead Art of Critical Thinking


People who know me outside the blogosphere know that I have strong opinions on a lot of subjects that are hotly debated in our political system. I hesitate to express any of them here, not because I’m not confident about establishing and defending my positions, but because I don’t want this little record of my baby’s growing up to get sidetracked with the pettiness that has taken over our public discussion.

Also, because this blog is ultimately for him, it’s less important to me that he knows how I feel about any one issue, and more important that he knows how much I want him to grow up with the ability to look at his environment with a critical eye. My friend Laura recently posted pictures of high school English assignments that she has kept, which started a discussion about how much our group of friends have grown to appreciate our education. We were taught to look beyond the literal word and find the author’s meaning – and when we found multiple meanings, we were taught how to debate and find support for our interpretations.

I’ll never forget the exercise where we were broken into groups, sent to different classrooms, and given Plato’s “The Cave” to read. Our teacher told us that the story was about politics, and we were to build a case to debate how it applied to current events in Washington. When we returned to the main classroom, we started debating, only to be totally confused by the other groups’ arguments. Eventually, the teachers admitted that they had told each group that the story was about something different, and we had all carefully built three (maybe four?) case studies supporting these themes, using the same material that no one had bothered to interpret for ourselves because we had been told what it was about. The point we learned was that if you let someone tell you “the” meaning, you are giving them the power to shape your perception. It’s easy and interesting to have a discussion with someone who has formed an opinion, but debating someone whose opinion has been shaped is like trying to hold a conversation in a foreign language with someone who has only memorized the travel phrases.

It bothers me that people throw around phrases like “do the research,” “anyone with a brain knows,” or similar things that imply that only lazy, unintelligent people could possibly disagree with whoever is speaking’s point of view. And that for every hot button issue, I can predict what people will have to say about it pretty accurately just by asking what news channel they prefer (or vice versa, identify what news channel they watch based on their argument). Doesn’t it get boring to repeat the same five arguments over and over again? Or is it that it’s just too easy to hit like and share, and too hard to think about why you agree with a certain statement?

Shouldn’t our votes be worth more than Post-It note quotes of the people we agree with and vicious ridicule of the people we don’t? Isn’t it possible that our heroes sometimes get it wrong and our villians sometimes get it right? I worry that people no longer look for the context and meaning in what they see and hear, they just wait for someone to tell them what it’s all about. People no longer look for factual sources they can trust, they look for a talking head who says something they want to hear and then let that person tell them what everything else means.

And that, quite frankly, scares me. I hope my baby learns differently from me, and that when he’s ready to go to school he has teachers like I did that don’t drill the “right” answers into his head, but teach him how to find answers for himself. And if he doesn’t, I’ll warn him right now that I will be that parent to totally embarrass him by storming the school demanding better. I just hope I won’t be storming the castle alone.

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