Critical Thinking in an Unthinking World – How Do YOU Think?


I’ve always irritated people by asking too  many questions — even well past the young child age of soaring curiosity. When I was an older child, someone at church once apologized for me by saying it was my way of getting attention. Maybe that was part of it, but, even without attention, I’m still inquisitive. I look for answers on my own. I think about things on my own. I don’t just seek out answers face to face. Even as a child, I roamed the hills and woods around my home in solitude, thinking, exploring. I know now that what I was seeking was logic. Answers to the deeper questions.

The first time I stepped across the threshold of a library, I knew I had come home. My ambition was to know it inside out and read everything, beginning with A and ending with Z. When, years later, I read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith, I felt I “knew” the main character, Francie Nolan — who had the same feeling I did about libraries, even down to reading A to Zed. Which I never got around to, by the way.

This morning I read an article from “Think Magazine” which discussed, in part, adult responses to the questions of children, in an interview with the world’s foremost authority on logic, Dr. Richard Paul:

Dr. Richard Paul

We kill the child’s curiosity . . . Young children continually ask why. But we soon shut that curiosity down with glib answers, answers to fend off rather than to respond to the logic of the question . . . If we thought deeply about almost any of the answers which we glibly give to children, we would recognize that we don’t really have a satisfactory answer to most of their questions . . . We say what we heard, not what we know. We rarely join the quest with our children. Why does rain fall from the sky? Why is snow cold? What is electricity and how does it go through the wire? Why are people bad? Why does evil exist? Why is there war? Why did my dog have to die? Why do flowers bloom? Do we really have good answers to these questions?”

The quote is from “Think magazine” (April ’’92), in an interview with Director of Research and Professional Development at the Center for Critical Thinking and Chair of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Dr. Richard Paul.

I’ve been guilty of glib with children myself, but not always. Even when I taught adult Sunday Bible classes, I would often remind myself not to give drive-by answers to serious questions. Though the all-present ego craves to respond with lightning quick mental reflexes (which I don’t have, by the way), if I didn’t know the answer to a question I would promise to check it out. But I also asked the class to do some of their own digging and we would compare the results the following week. There was never enough time in a 45-minute class.

Which reminds me that at one time in this country, anyone who could read and basically comprehend the King James Bible, had an education in itself — filled, not only with the words of God through history and poetry and insight into fallen man and his place in the universe, but it is a literary work of art in its own right. And yet, in the very article on NPR this morning, I read about students studying the origins of other faiths. Yet, mine is denied in the classroom. Where’s the logic in that?

Another point Dr. Paul made was that

In every field of knowledge, every answer generates more questions, so that the more we know the more we recognize we don’t know. It is only people who have little knowledge who take their knowledge to be complete and entire.”

That is why I never thought Socrates was being glib when he said, “All I know is that I know nothing.” Although all we know of Socrates is through his student and post-hemlock PR man Plato, I can’t quite see the great philosopher as being tongue-in-cheek with something that important. Anyone who takes learning seriously knows there’s no end to it, and no one can ever “know it all”.

NPR started a series on “Fifty Great Teachers”, beginning with Socrates, which I read this morning and which started this quest for the basics of logic, and which led me, in turn, to the interview with Dr. Paul (via Google, of course).

Dr. Paul also answered another question for me. I have never been a fan of what I’ve always called “crowd thinking”, a mass of miscommunication and downright lying that perpetuate fake news stories and downright hoaxes on the internet and word of mouth. (If you’re interested in the truth of a story, check out the Snopes website.

Dr. Paul calls it “collaborative learning”. Though collaborative (socially interactive learning or learning together), can be a really good thing, Dr. Paul says,

“Collaborative learning is desirable only if grounded in disciplined critical thinking. Without critical thinking, collaborative learning is likely to become collaborative mis-learning. It is collective bad thinking in which the bad thinking being shared becomes validated. Remember, gossip is a form of collaborative learning; peer group indoctrination is a form of collaborative learning; mass hysteria is a form of speed collaborative learning (mass learning of a most undesirable kind). We learn prejudices collaboratively, social hates and fears collaboratively, stereotypes and narrowness of mind, collaboratively. If we don’t put disciplined critical thinking into the heart and soul of the collaboration, we get the mode of collaboration which is antithetical to education, knowledge, and insight.”

I was interested to note that collaborative thinking is a leader in crowd hysteria. That’s when an idea takes root — usually based on gossip or lack of knowledge — and sweeps through the masses like the Johnstown Flood. In high school I was given a demonstration of this, along with an assembly-hall full of other students, when a Cuban speaker began criticizing and disparaging the United States. We were told he had just escaped from Cuba and was seeking asylum in America.

To add to this little drama, there were students “planted” among us who took the first rumblings of wrath and spread the anger to their neighbors. Teachers (mostly big brawny coaches) had to come in and settle everybody down, letting us know this was a demonstration of mass control. Then the speaker stood up again. You could hear a pin drop when he quietly but earnestly said, “This is the type of propaganda we hear everyday in Cuba.”

Now that I’ve shown how important real personal “thinking” is, I will finish with a final quote from Dr. Paul, who tells us why critical thinking is important:

“Intellectual curiosity is not a thing in itself — valuable in itself and for itself. It is valuable because it can lead to knowledge, understanding, and insight; because it can help broaden, deepen, sharpen our minds, making us better, more humane, more richly endowed persons.”