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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why Critical Thinking Matters

In this blog, I try to talk a great deal about usable skills that will help you to live a more self-sufficient life, be more independent, and ultimately be ready to weather the bad and thrive during the good.  I'm gearing up for my summer-long festival of talking about skills like gardening, canning, cooking, and needle arts, but today I want to try to articulate a concern that has been growing for me.

As a country, we are losing our ability to think critically.  And this is truly the only skill that really matters when your goal is independence and flexible response.

I work in and around higher education as one of the vertical specialties of my writing, and it is tempting to point at "kids today" and bemoan their lack of preparation to think critically in college.  Changes in college are indeed playing into this trend, as I will note, but I'm not as concerned about my college students.  I'm concerned about their parents and grandparents.

I recently had a great conversation with a client whose consulting business is built on the ability to harness the appropriate data and then analyze it for patterns and implications.  I realized that, more and more, we are seeing business professionals who not only cannot sort through the nearly infinite supply of data we all have at our fingertips every day (hello, internet!), but who don't even understand why this data is important and why they might need to analyze things themselves and call in help if the information gets too specific to wade through.  What they are missing, I think, is critical thinking ability.

Nowhere was this more evident than during the 2012 election.  Now, I have very strong political opinions that I typically don't share in this blog, but I also have a great deal of respect for those with differing opinions who can articulate and support arguments for their perspective.  And boy, I didn't see much of that from either side of the political aisle in the most recent election.

Politics are contentious.  Our soundbite culture tends to boil complex ideas down into over-simplified but memorable phrases.  I get that.  But this time out, I noticed something even scarier.

Although I have always had very definite political opinions, I have also always tried to read news and opinion written by thinkers and organizations with varying political perspectives.  In college, I called this "opposition research."  At least once a semester (back before the internet made reading news and opinion so easy), I would go to the library and curl up with a pile of magazines from the opposite political perspective than mine. What I typically saw was that different people can interpret the same set of facts in different ways, leading to far different conclusions.  It was instructive for me to learn how others reach passionately-held opinions.

I still do the same thing today.  Pretty much every week, I have a roster of both conservative and liberal web sites that I peruse, and what I see scares me.  It appears that people leading the national discussion on a lot of important issue can't even agree on the basic facts of an issue, let alone justify a conclusion.  It is one of the reasons that the "red vs. blue" division in our country is truly growing deeper than just colors on an election night map.  We are talking about completely different realities.  And that is where I think we really need to go back to critical thinking skills.

As a result of my realization, I have started going back to sources that are as objective as possible when I am considering an issue, and then forming my own opinion.  Because of my work writing and analyzing for a living, I am comfortable reading stacks of raw data, piles of academic papers (which aren't always objective, but are often better than mainstream coverage), and tons of primary source documents.  But most of the population isn't.

We are getting into a phase in education in which everything is linked to job readiness.  More and more, if little Johnny thinks he wants to be a widget-maker, he is taught basic widget in junior high, goes to a special-focus high school that has a pre-widget track, and ultimately majors in widgetology in college.  Meanwhile, he and his parents will reject any hint of a non-widget course, saying that he will "never use that anyway."

So here's my plea:  for the sustainability of the country, for your own independence, and for your children's ability to sort through the mountains of crap out there, by all means study widgets.  But also study history and art and psychology and engineering and medicine, etc.  If you aren't in college or don't want to major in these things, by all means don't.  But pick up a book.  Read something outside your comfort zone.  Look at something from a perspective different from your own.

And ask yourself, what facts did these people need to know?  How did they reach a decision?  What do you need to understand to make better decisions and have better opinions in this area?

Look, I know that it is in vogue right now to link everything to a practical use, so maybe my pleas that having a well-rounded formal or informal education will make you enjoy life more may fall on deaf ears.  But let me suggest this:  those who can think critically, who can separate fact from opinion from fiction, who are prepared to confront different kinds of knowledge, are the ones who survive the longest in this world.  They are the ones who know how to grow their own food if they get nervous about the food supply, they are the ones who can darn a sock in an economic downturn, and they are the ones who make intelligent and passionate decisions in the voting booth.  Your ability to change and adapt depends on your critical thinking.

So get out of here and go pick up some information to challenge you.  You won't be sorry.


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