Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Critical Thinking Needed!

Originally posted on March 1, 2016

We are given so very many ways to think and so many things to think about. (I’ve chosen to not think about an ever-increasing variety of things that I used to feel obliged to think about, but now I’m focusing a bit.) We’ve also begun to be given more ways to think about the ways we think. I’ve noticed that most people don’t like to think a lot. Sometimes I don’t either. We want answers, formulas, rules from a rule-giver.

There was a story in the Bible where it was still a time when the leaders were just the judges, but not kings. But people wanted the next step up, a king. Samuel, the wise man, warned people that kings could be uncomfortably authoritarian, but they wanted what a king could do, force unity. And with that came a number of advantages which offset the disadvantages.

The world has advanced to a point where we need to take more responsibility. Of course, there are many who say, in effect, let me do the thinking for you. I can think better, I have more access to the facts. Many of them are running for political office.

In the olden days we used to think that aristocrats could think better than commoners, because they could afford what little education there was to be be had. They were peoples “betters”—that was the term used. And “don’t try to be better than you are.” This was before the emergence of the middle classes. Anyway, for three hundred years democracy has been chipping away at that ides.

But as Winston Churchill observed, democracy is the worst form of government, except for anything else. This multiple meaning statement hints directly at what I’m saying. To govern ourselves, our personal as well as communal lives, requires thinking and responsibility. Happily, we have more tools for taking responsibility, and education about the nature of illusion and our susceptibility to them, and how to think straighter, is part of it.

We don’t teach critical thinking widely in early high school because it would encourage kids to question their elders. Demanding belief in the elders and what they believed in was enforced by threat of violence. (Don’t think that spanking is not violence.) For many teachers and other adults, education involved inculcating the accepted “answers” of that culture and age.

Education as inculcation seemed to work for a while when the slope of change was low. Back then grown-ups thought they knew and passing along what was known was thought to be good enough. But as I note, the slope of change has changed and we are teetering between a time when grownups knew and young people know and the truth is that no one knows for sure. (The anthropologist Margaret Mead talked about a shift from “Post-figurative (which reproduce the past) to “configurative” to post-configurative” cultures in her book Culture and Commitment.

This is scary. My class has reinforced a trend in my mind, a trend to which I feel an obligation to witness, that people need to think, to take more responsibility. The good news is that there is more help to be had in thinking, more we can do to teach people to think, quite beyond teaching people to read and write. The bad news is that people don’t want to think and are susceptible to a thousand sources that make their money by offering to think for the people—advertisers, politicians, and others. And people are good at getting mad at those who even hint that they are being sold a bill of goods, at rationalizing their anger at being contemptuous at those who dare think and imply that they should think too. Mind works this way. It has its own inertia. Alas. So I am taking a risk at suggesting you think, though this context is relatively protected, and if you don’t like what I say, just don’t come or brush me off in other ways.

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