Section Three: Ideas
1. Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is a path to intellectual adventure. Though there are dozens of possible approaches, the process can be boiled down to concrete steps. This article offers some starting points for your journey.
Be willing to say “I don’t know”
Some of the most profound thinkers of our time have practiced the art of critical thinking by using two magic phrases: I don’t know and I’m not sure yet.
Those are words many people do not like to hear. We live in times when people are criticized for changing their minds. Our society rewards quick answers and quotable “sound bites”. We’re under considerable pressure to utter the truth in 15 seconds or less.
In such a society, it is a courageous and unusual act to pause, to look, to examine, to be thoughtful, to consider many points of view - and to not know. When a society embraces half-truths in a blind rush for certainty, commitment to uncertainty can move us forward.
This willingness to give up certainty can be hardest to accept when it comes to notions that seem obvious. “Many things are certain,” some people say. “For example, it‟s obvious that two plus two equals four.”
Think again. When we use the base-three number system, two plus two equals 11. A child learning to write numerals might insist that two and two makes 22. And a biologist might joke
that two plus two adds up to a whole lot more than four when we‟re talking about the reproductive life of rabbits.
Even scientific knowledge is not certain. At a moment’s notice, the world can deviate from what we call “laws” of nature. Those laws exist inside our heads - not
in the world. What’s more, modern science tells us many things that contradict everyday certainties. For example, physics presents us with a world where solid objects are made of atoms spinning around in empty space, where matter and energy are two forms of the same thing. Even in mathematics and the “hard” sciences, the greatest advances take place when age-old beliefs are reexamined.
Define your terms
Imagine two people arguing about whether an employer should extend family health care benefits to people who live together but are unmarried. To one person, the word family means a mother, father, and children. The other person applies the word family to any long-term, supportive relationships between people who live together. Chances are, the debate will go nowhere until these people realize they‟re defining the same word in different ways.
Much opinion conflict can be resolved - or at least clarified - when we define our key terms up front. This is especially true with abstract, emotion-laden terms such as freedom, peace, progress , or justices. Blood has been shed over the meaning of these words. It pays for us to define them with care.
Having opinions about issues is natural. When you stop having opinions, you’re probably not breathing anymore. The problem comes when we hold opinions in a way that leads to defensiveness, put-downs, or put-offs.
Going hand in hand with critical thinking is tolerance for attitudes that differ from yours. Consider that many of the ideas we currently accept - democracy, Christianity, voting rights for women, civil rights for people of color - were once
considered the claims of “dangerous” and unpopular minorities. This historical
perspective helps us accept a tenet of critical thinking: what seems outlandish today may become widely accepted a century, a decade, or even a year from now.
Understand before criticizing
When encountering any new viewpoint, we‟re not obligated to agree. Even so, critical
thinking demands that we take the time to understand an idea before rejecting or modifying it. One mark of skilled debaters is that they can sum up the viewpoints they disagree with - often better than the people who hold those viewpoints can.
Strictly speaking, none of us lives in the same world. Our habits, preferences, outlooks, and values are as individual as our fingerprints. Each of them is shaped by our culture, our upbringing, our experiences, and our choices. Speeches, books, articles, works of art, television programs, views expressed in conversation - all come from people who inhabit a different world than yours. Until we’ve lived in another person’s world for a while, it’s ineffective to dismiss her point of view.
This basic principle is central to many professions. Physicians diagnose before they prescribe. Lawyers brief themselves on the opponent‟s case. Effective teachers find out what a student already knows before they guide her to ideas. Skilled salespeople find out what a customer‟s needs are before they present a product.
Effective understanding calls for listening without judgment. To enter another person‟s world , sum up her viewpoint in your own words. If you‟re conversing with that person, keep
revising your summary until she agrees you‟ve stated her position accurately. If you‟re reading an article, write a short summary of it. Then scan the article again, checking to see if your summary is on track.
Many of us find it difficult to fully permit others a point of view that is much different from ours. Instead we can actually celebrate other people‟s opinions, knowing that diversity leads to valuable new ideas.
Watch for hot spots
Notice any anger or discomfort you feel when conversations shift to certain topics. During a presidential election, for instance, politics often becomes a “hot spot”, an area in which defenses rise, assumptions run rampant, and tempers quickly flare. All these things get in the way of thinking thoroughly.
Most of us have hot spots. For some people they include abortion or handgun control. Other people heat up when they talk about the death penalty or world government.
It pays for each of us to discover our special hot spots. We can also make a clear intention to practice critical thinking when we encounter these topics.
To cool down your hot spots, seek out the whole world of ideas. Avoid intellectual ruts. Read magazines and books that challenge the opinions you currently hold. If you consider yourself liberal, pick up the Notional Review. If you are a socialist, sample the Wall Street Journal. Do the same with radio and television programs. Make a point to talk with people who differ from you in education level, race, ethnic group, or political affiliation. And to hone your thinking skills, practice defending an idea you consider outrageous.
Consider the source
Look again at that article on the unfeasibility of cars powered by natural gas; it may have been written by an executive from an oil company. Check out the authority who disputes the connection between smoking and lung cancer; that person might be the president of a tobacco company.
This is not to say that we should dismiss the ideas of people who have a vested interest in their opinions. Rather, we can seek out contrasting viewpoints on these issues.
Seek out alternative views
Imagine Karl Marx, Cesar Chavez, and Donald Trump gathered in one room to choose the most desirable economic system. Picture Gandhi, Winnie Mandela, and General George Patton in a seminar on conflict resolution. Visualize Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, and Mother Theresa in a discussion about how to balance the national budget. When you seek out alternative points of view, such events can take place in your mind‟s arena.
Dozens of viewpoints exist on every critical issue how to reduce crime, end world hunger, prevent war, educate our children, and countless others. In fact, few problems allow for any permanent solution. Each generation produces new
answers, based on current conditions. Our search for answers is a conversation that spans centuries. On each question, many voices are waiting to be heard. You can take advantage of this diversity by seeking out alternative viewpoints
Stripped to its essence, critical thinking means asking and answering questions. If you want to practice this skill, get in the habit of asking powerful questions.
In How to Read a Book , Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren list four questions that sum up the whole task of thinking about another person‟s ideas:
1. What is the writing or speech about as a whole? To answer this question, state the basic theme in one sentence. Then list the major and minor topics covered.
2. What is being said in detail, and how? List the main terms, assertions, arguments. Also, state what problems the writer or speaker is trying to solve.
3. Is it true? Examine the author‟s logic and evidence. Look for missing information, faulty information, incomplete analysis, and errors in reasoning, Also determine which problems the writer or speaker truly solved and which remain unsolved.
4. What of it? After answering the first three questions, prepare to change your thinking or behavior as a result of encountering new ideas
These four questions apply not only to reading but also to any intellectual activity, They get to the heart of critical thinking.
Look for at least three answers
When asking questions, we can let go of the temptation to settle for just one answer. Once you have come up with an answer, say to yourself. Yes, that is one answer. Now what‟s
another? Using this approach can sustain honest inquiry, fuel creativity, and lead to conceptual breakthroughs.
Be prepared: the world is complicated, and critical thinking is a complex business. Some of your answers may contradict each other. Resist the temptation to have all your ideas in a neat, orderly bundle.
Be willing to change your mind
So many discussions generate heat instead of light. Often the people involved come already committed to certain viewpoints - which they have no intention of changing. They might just as well stop talking to each other.
We can avoid this trap by entering discussions with an open mind. When talking to another person, be willing to walk away with a new point of view - even if it‟s the one you brought to
the table. After thinking thoroughly, we can adopt new viewpoints or hold our current viewpoints in a different way.
Lay your cards on the table
Science and uncritical thinking differ in many ways. Uncritical thinkers shield themselves from new information and ideas. In contrast, scientists constantly look for facts that contradict their theories. In fact, science never proves anything once and for all. Scientific theories art tentative and subject to change. Scientists routinely practice critical thinking.
We can follow their example. When talking or writing, we can put all our ideas on the table for examination. We can allow others to freely examine our opinions and beliefs. When doing so, we make room for new ideas that can make a real difference in our lives.
Examine the problem from different points of view
Imagine that two people are standing across from each other. Between them, suspended from the ceiling at eye level, is a ball. One person argues that the ball is red. The other person claims that the ball is green. As they rotate their positions and change their points of view, they see that the ball is actually red on one side and green on the other.
Sometimes new ideas are born when we view the world from a new angle. When early scientists watched the skies, they concluded that the sun revolved around the earth. Later, when we gained the mathematical tools to “stand” in another place, we could clearly see that the earth was revolving around the sun. This change in position not only sparked new thinking, it permanently changed our picture of the universe.
Write about it
Thoughts move randomly at blinding speed. Writing slows that process down. Gaps in logic that slip by us in thought or speech are often exposed when we commit the same ideas to paper. Doing so allows us to see all points of view on an issue more clearly - and therefore to think thoroughly. Writing is an unparalleled way to practice precise, accurate thinking.
Construct a reasonable view
One humorist compared finding the truth to painting a barn door by throwing open cans of paint at it. Few people who throw at the door miss it entirely. Yet no one can really cover the whole door in one toss.
People who express their viewpoints are seeking truth. Yet almost no reasonable person claims to have covered the whole barn door - to have the Whole Truth about anything. Instead, each viewpoint is one approach among many possible approaches. If you don‟t think that any one viewpoint is complete, then it‟s up to you to combine the perspectives on the
issue. In doing so, you choose an original viewpoint. This, like composing a song or painting a picture, is a creative act and an exhilarating exercise in critical thinking.
2. The Function of Critical Thinking
Any organization draws its life from certain assumptions about the way things should be done. Before the institution can change, those assumptions need to be loosened up or reinvented. In many ways, the real location of an institution is inside our heads.
Critical thinking also helps us uncover bias and prejudice. This is a first step toward communicating with people of other races and cultures.
Crises occur when our thinking fails to keep pace with reality. An example is the ecological crisis, which sprang from the assumption that people could pollute the earth, air, and water without long-term consequences. Consider how different our world would be if our leaders had thought like the first woman chief of the Cherokees. Asked about the best advice her elders had given her, she said, “Look forward. Turn what has been done into a better path. If you are a leader, think about the impact of your decision on seven generations into the future.”
Novelist Ernest Hemingway once said that anyone who wanted to be a great writer must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector. That inelegant comment points to a perennial truth: as
critical thinkers, we can be constantly on the lookout for thinking that‟s inaccurate, sloppy, or misleading.
This is a skill that will never go out of style. History offers a continuing story of half-truths, faulty assumptions, and other nonsense once commonly accepted as true:
l Bloodsucking leeches can be used to cure disease.
l Illnesses result from an imbalance in the four vital fluids: blood, phlegm, water, and
l Racial integration of the armed forces will lead to the destruction of soldiers‟ morale.
l Caucasians are inherently more intelligent than people of other races. l Mixing the blood of the races will lead to genetically inferior offspring. l Women are incapable of voting intelligently.
l We will never invent anything smaller than a transistor. ( That was before the computer
l Computers will usher in the age of the paperless office.
In response to such ideas rose the critical thinkers of history. These men and women courageously pointed out that - metaphorically speaking - the emperor had no clothes.
Critical thinking is a path to freedom from half-truths and deception. You have the right to question what you see, hear, and read. Acquiring this ability is one of the major goals of a liberal education.
3. Critical Thinking as Thorough Thinking
For some people, the tern critical thinking has negative connotations, If you prefer, use the
words thorough thinking instead. Both terms point to the same array of activities: sorting out conflicting claims, weighing the evidence for them, letting go of personal biases, and arriving at reasonable views. This adds up to an ongoing conversation, a constant practices process, not a product.
We live in a society that seems to value quick answers and certainty. This is often at odds with effective thinking. Thorough thinking is the ability to examine and reexamine ideas that may seem obvious. Such thinking takes time and the willingness to say three subversive words: I don’t know.
Thorough thinking is also the willingness to change our point of view as we continue to examine a problem. This calls for courage and detachment. Just ask anyone who has given up a cherished point of view in light of new evidence.
Skilled students are thorough thinkers. They distinguish between opinion and fact. They ask powerful questions. They make detailed observations. They uncover assumptions and define their terms. They make assertions carefully, basing them on sound logic and solid evidence. Almost everything that we call knowledge is a
result of these activities. This means that critical thinking and learning are intimately linked.
It‟s been said that human beings art rational creatures. Yet no one is born a thorough thinker. This is a learned skill. Use the suggestions in this chapter to claim the vast, latent thinking powers that are your birthright.
4. Creative People
It all started innocently enough. I had set out to learn what I could about creativity. And there I was: an amateur with a cause and three colleagues: two people from the corporation for Entertainment and Learning, and my wife and coeditor, Judith, who is an educational consultant - all tossed about on a turbulent sea churned by the high-horsepower engines of