Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Importance of Critical Thinking

When I was a senior in college, my parents and younger sister spent the year in France, leaving me with the house, the car, and the checkbook. It was a pretty sweet deal, except that I had to share the house with some housemates: a Chinese couple, Yang and Jinghong.

They were pretty nice, don't get me wrong. Jinghong was easy to get along with and fun to talk to. But Yang would really get on my nerves sometimes. In particular, he would ignore what I had to say because I was female. I remember one time, Jeff was over for dinner and he asked Jeff where the forks went. Well, Jeff had no clue where the silverware drawer was; I, on the other hand, having lived there all my life, knew exactly where they belonged. So Jeff told him to ask me!

Another thing that Yang did was he tried to boss me around a lot, telling me what to do. Luckily, before they left, my mom had had the foresight to make my dad tell him that I was in charge of the house; otherwise, I think he would have tried to impose a curfew on me or something!

I soon realized that all I had to do was invoke the holy name of My Father to get Yang to go along with whatever I wanted to do. I remember I first figured this out when I was trimming a plant (the hateful papyrus plant, which I learned that year that I was allergic to!), when Yang asked me what I was doing. "I'm pruning this plant," I informed him. "Ohhh, you cannot do that!" he admonished me. "My Father told me to," I said. "Oh. I help you!" he replied.

Yang had a big blind spot. He was blind to the fact that I, a mere woman, might actually have a few good ideas of my own. He was also blinded by his admiration for my dad. Fortunately, my dad's a great guy, but he could have really led Yang off a cliff if he'd so desired.

I've seen similarly mindless devotion to a leader in the people around me. Yang's devotion to the great prophet known as My Father was somewhat amusing and mostly harmless, but it's depressing to see people who just accept whatever the Great Leader tells them, when what they are being told is inconsistent, nonsensical, or just plain untrue, and ends up harming them and their loved ones.

I don't know how people swallow all the rubbish that George W. Bush feeds them (for example). Even Ronald Reagan said, "Trust, but verify." For some reason, the devotees of George W. Bush don't feel the need to verify what their Great Leader tells them, even when what he tells them is inconsistent, nonsensical, or just plain untrue, and ends up harming them and their loved ones.

I prefer to think that such mindless devotion is a product of naiveté and inexperience with critical thinking. Critical thinking is a fundamental skill that I plan to nurture in my son. I've noticed that it's something that continues to develop in me as I gain experience and foresight. Hopefully as they gain in life experience, something will awaken in these mindless devotees of harmful leaders.


M. said...

Please read Bob Altemeyer's "The Authoritarian" available for free here.

"Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian
leaders cook up between themselves. It happens when the followers submit too
much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do
whatever they want--which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and
brutal. In my day, authoritarian fascist and authoritarian communist dictatorships
posed the biggest threats to democracies, and eventually lost to them in wars
both hot and cold. But authoritarianism itself has not disappeared, and I=m going
to present the case in this book that the greatest threat to American democracy
today arises from a militant authoritarianism that has become a cancer upon the

I believe you wouldn't regret the time spent reading this book. I certaintly don't.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

I would also like to believe if only people thought about what they're doing, they'd realize that mindless obedience is bad. I'm not sure, based on my experiences, that it's true, but I wish. I'd also like to believe that the muggers around here are buying medicine for their poor aged grannies.

Joe Jordan said...

Whether math, politics, or business the sucess of any critical thinking process--specifically the cause analysis phase--is dependent on the availability and use of facts about the specific situation. Regretfully, in the absence of facts, we treat inferences, assumptions, and sometimes even guesses as if they are facts with very unfortunate results.

Flicka Mawa said...

I agree, critical thinking is so important. It's not really the type of thing you can be taught in a lesson in school, but you must practice it all the time to improve and even learn, as joe jordan implies, to search out the facts on your own!