I have had a pretty unique job during most of my adult life. I have been a teacher—for what seems like forever now—but I’ve never really been the sort who wanted my students to become more knowledgeable, which I associate with acquiring information. Instead, I have tried to help them hone skills that promote wisdom or shrewdness. In other words, I haven’t focused on what they should know but on how they should know. “How” one knows is often referred to as thinking.
Most people believe that thinking comes naturally to everyone because we’re all born with brains. It’s true we’re born with this organ, but there is a world of difference between run-of-the-mill thinking and critical thinking (or good thinking), just as there is a world of difference between the sounds made when my untrained fingers hit the keys of a piano and the music produced by a world-class concert pianist when his or her fingers touch the ivory.
There are a million things which interfere with good thinking. At the moment, I don’t have time to get into all these factors. The old saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” explains one of the most important influences on our intellectual development. Most grow up thinking in the same way their parents did and thus believing in the same things too. Our parents are our first models and their influence leaves a deep imprint. To be able to “fall far from the tree” requires that we have to, at some point, question our parents’ way of seeing the world and this takes great courage. In fact, there is no activity in life that requires more bravery than to think critically because to do so one must sometimes say “no” when important others (or maybe even the whole community or world) is saying “yes.” Saying no when others are saying yes can be costly or even dangerous. It’s certainly easier (and more comfortable) to just go with the flow.
I’m thinking a lot about thinking these days because that’s what I do. Plus, it is campaign season in America and that means the news is full of stories about powerful and ambitious people putting their thinking on display in an attempt to get others to vote for them. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll just go ahead and tell you that politicians with the most progressive points of view generally tend to think a lot better—I’m not talking about their ideas, which I also find attractive, but about the methods they use to formulate their ideas and then state them to the public—than do conservatives. Political conservatives—I actually like to call them “regressives”—make a lot of very classical thinking mistakes that many others might not catch because they aren’t trained to look for them the way I am. In fact, regressive politicians often make arguments that simply leave me shaking my head. The fact that so many Americans find such unskilled thinking attractive often makes me despair about the future of the country.
At this point I should probably tell you that I made myself a promise several years ago. I promised to do whatever was necessary to become the best thinker I could possibly become even if this meant that I would ultimately have to embrace very unpopular ideas. In my attempt to constantly improve myself intellectually, I often find myself butting heads with what is called “conventional wisdom,” which is mostly a first-rate oxymoron.
I want to conclude by reiterating something I said in a previous blog. Critical thinking is a way of being. It is a method of living life with great integrity. It is not something I turn on and off at will. It has become the way I conduct myself in this world.