Critical thinking is---critical
Much of what I write on this blog refers back to history, with the goal of trying to make connections between then and now. Many times after I've written a post of that sort (or any sort, actually), I read a comment that seems especially obtuse, and I'm torn between the thought that the commenter's failure to understand what I've said (forget agreeing with it; we're talking about simple understanding here) represents a problem with critical thinking, and the notion that the commenter actually has a difficulty with reading comprehension.
Then again, it could be both. Or perhaps neither; maybe its just impatience and laziness coupled with hubris: a tendency to barely skim a post or article, think one has understood it, and then proceed to respond and try to refute it without even trying to comprehend the arguments being presented in the first place.
Or, then again, maybe the commenter is just a troll, and the "incomprehension" is feigned, strategic, and purposeful. Trolls get off on provoking all the other commenters (and the blogger, too, if possible) to dance and jump around and to generally wear themselves out in an effort to explain and to answer and to defend. So maybe the commenter has understood all too well what was said, and is just having fun stirring the pot and watching the steam rise as the stew bubbles fast and furiously.
But let's be kind, and assume for the moment that there really is some sort of comprehension problem, at least for many. Which reminds me that I've often thought by far the most important task of education is the teaching of critical thinking. With this skill mastered, students would be set for life, able to assimilate and evaluate new information reliably and to use good judgment in making decisions (including those all-important voting decisions, not to mention composing blog posts and blog comments).
But without the ability to think critically, it really doesn't matter how many facts a person has at his/her fingertips, because the information will be useless as a guide to writing, or to action--or to life itself.
Santayana's old adage, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," often feels all too true (and, I might mention, even those who do remember are often dragged right along with them into that repetition, tragic Cassandras shouting vainly into the wind). But is the failure to "remember" the past a literal one? Are people condemned to repeat history because they don't learn the facts--the dates, the battles, the famous movers and shakers? That's certainly part of it, in many cases.
But it may be more crucial that, even armed with facts, people often seem to lack the ability to put them into context, to evaluate them and the spin different sides give to them, to extract meaning and guide future action by applying them to the present day. And, after all, why else learn history, if not to help us act in the present and the future?
Again, I'm not talking merely about those who disagree with me. I can recognize that there are logical, well-thought-out arguments on the other side, those that don't misrepresent what opponents are saying in the first place. I may not agree with the premises or the conclusions, but I can follow the reasoning. It's distortions and sophistry and failures of logic that bother me the most.
A major part--maybe the major part--of critical thinking is learning to recognize logical fallacies in argument. Why is this not ordinarily taught in school and considered a required subject, as important--if not more so--as history or English, or even reading?
I don't know about you, but I certainly was never even introduced to the topic, despite having received a fairly decent public school education in the honors classes of a New York City high school, and attendance at several major well-known and highly respected universities as both an undergraduate and then a graduate student.
So, what's going on here? Critical thinking seems to be considered mostly the realm of logic studies, which are easily avoided at most universities (see this list of colleges that presently require some sort of critical thinking courses of their students; note that although the University of California system appears to require one such course of all students, in actuality the category is defined so broadly as to be virtually useless).
Some are trying hard to remedy the situation, even at a pre-college level; here's the website of a group called "The National Center for Teaching Thinking" based in Boston, for example. But, quite obviously, we have an awfully long way to go.
So I've got another series contemplated: my plan is to every now and then take one logical fallacy and write about it. First up on the agenda (although not today): the strawman fallacy.
We'll see how far I get with this; I'm learning some of it as I go along, myself. And my tendency towards Blogger Attention Deficit Disorder (BADD, or ideaphoria; I've got ideas for about two hundred different unwritten posts churning around right now, with short notes on most of them) has been known to get in my way.
But I'm trying to do my bit--although, of course, the vast majority of my readers are already critical thinkers, right?
[ADDENDUM: Okay, okay, this is getting a little weird. I wrote most of this post yesterday, was busy earlier today, and just now as I went to post it I happened to check over at Dr. Sanity's, and found this, which I had not seen before.
I guess it was an idea whose time had come, especially for psychobloggers.}