Just think: What’s wrong with critical thinking?
I’ve had some interesting dialogs with members of my extended family during the last six months. One of my nephews wrote to me that Barack Obama was the worst president this country has ever had. My response was, “What do you know about Richard Nixon and Watergate?” I could have pointed out other “bad” presidential actions, but Nixon was easy to pounce on because he tolerated, if not instigated, illegal acts while president.
My nephew Larsen is 33 years old, too young to have experienced the Nixon presidency first hand, but hopefully learned something about this episode in American history in public school if not while earning his bachelor’s degree. Larsen wrote back that he didn’t know anything about Watergate, and maybe not about Richard Nixon as president either. My first reaction to his comments was that he didn’t engage in critical thinking; he seemed to be parroting something he’d heard without asking any questions, without thinking much, if at all, about other presidents and their records in office.
Although people over 60 years old mostly remember Mr. Nixon for the Watergate scandal, he also did many good things as president. One small, relatively local example was giving a big section of Mount Adams back to the Yakama tribe. According to the Yakama Nation website, “After more than 100 years of dispute, in 1972 President Nixon by Executive Order 11670 authorized the return of a 21,000 acre portion of Mt. Adams, including the summit, to the Yakama Nation.”
Nixon also encouraged and signed 14 major pieces of legislation protecting the environment including the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. He extended the Clean Air Act, and consolidated several federal agencies into the Environmental Protection Agency so that existing Congressional regulations could be more effectively administered. While some attribute Nixon’s actions as purely political and not altruistic (rivers were on fire, air pollution was stultifying, and lead poisoning was widespread, so protecting the environment was popular while the Vietnam War was not), all the same, Nixon backed and signed major pieces of environmental protection. Instead of only focusing on Nixon’s “mistakes,” to be fair, I must also acknowledge Nixon’s actions that improved well-being for American citizens. In this respect I hope that I am exhibiting critical thinking, looking at Nixon’s record from several angles.
So what is critical thinking? Here is one simple definition: The objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.
That sounds pretty innocuous, so why are people afraid of it? Why did organizations in Washington state some years back fight the idea of including critical thinking in the state’s education curriculum? Why did the Texas Republican Party’s 2012 platform, as reported by the Washington Post, oppose critical thinking in education? Because, according to the Post, “The party opposes the teaching of ‘higher order thinking skills’ because it believes the purpose is to challenge a student’s ‘fixed beliefs’ and undermines ‘parental authority.’”
Yes, critical thinking can undermine the power of authority figures, whether parents, church leaders or government officials. Authority figures don’t want people to think too much or too deeply about issues so that those authority figures can maintain power over us.
One of the oldest lessons about critical thinking is Hans Christian Andersen’s little story about the “Emperor’s New Clothes.” The emperor loved clothes and changed them frequently. A couple scoundrels heard about the emperor’s vanity and proposed to tailor some new clothes for him that were so finely made that they would be invisible to anyone too stupid or incompetent to appreciate them. So the emperor paid the scoundrels a bunch of money, they made the “clothes” and the emperor wore them in a procession in the town. Knowing that only stupid or incompetent people (including the Emperor who was fooling himself) wouldn’t be able to see the fine clothes, the crowd oohed and ahhed. Since nobody was willing to admit his own stupidity and incompetence, they all behaved as the two scoundrels had predicted until a young child, having no ego at stake, just using his own eyes and mind, shouted, “The emperor has no clothes!” In the story, the father takes his child away, reprimanding him for not following the group-think that led all the wise adults to see clothes where there were none.
Because you’ll be reading this on Dec. 21, consider reading Andersen’s story, “The Snow Queen,” published on this day in 1844. It’s an antidote to Andersen’s wry observation of adults’ failure to exercise critical thinking.
Victoria Stoppiello is a north coast freelance writer; she welcomes the winter solstice and the returning of the light; you can reach her at email@example.com.