The Need for Critical Thinking
March 20, 2012 4 Comments
In a world of message overabundance, group-thinking emphasis, and easy social media sharing, is critical thinking slowly becoming less important? Or is it a skill that needs to be reemphasized in classrooms and workplaces?
Let’s begin by defining the term: critical thinking is “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.” Critical thinking has been around as long as human beings have, but began to take shape as a formal process in Ancient Greece with the development of the Socratic method.
It has become an essential part of the education process (especially in higher education) and many professions. Critical thinking involves the five components in the diagram to the right: reasoning, evaluating, problem solving, decision making, and analyzing.
The Trend Away from Critical Thinking?
How often do we think critically? The answer in my limited experience: it depends on the situation, but on the whole not as much as we should. With the increase in the number of messages you and I are exposed to each day, we ignore the majority of them, decipher a few, pass along fewer, and actually think about very few (if any at all). We are inundated with the opinions and messages of others.
Too often we take the messages that we do pay attention to and accept them without any second thought or reflection. This often leads to a jumbled, and often inconsistent, worldview. Examples of this include college classrooms, opinion shows on TV, and talks given by politicians, lecturers, and/or religious figures. The content we hear, see, and read from these sources is great and has value because of the experience they have, but on the flip-side, just because they have a PhD after their name doesn’t mean they are always 100% right. It is essential to take at least a small amount of time to reflect on what we take in to see if it lines up with our personal worldview and value system before we automatically accept it. Otherwise, we take the risk of blindly following someone else who’s views may have some critical flaws.
More schools and offices are emphasizing group-oriented work over individual work. Some believe this is an identifying trend among Millennials and the move towards “groupthink” will only continue. However, while I think working in groups definitely has value for educational and social skills, people need to have the ability to work and learn alone in order to develop individual thinking skills and work ethic (introverted tendencies like this have a lot of value even for extroverts. For more on the “power of introverts,” check out this talk at TED by Susan Cain: video). In research done on group dynamics, it has been found that most of the group will usually conform to the views and ideas of the most charismatic or dominant person in the group, whether they actually agree with it or not.
Allow me to share two examples of the move away from individual critical thinking.
The first example comes from the good old Internet. With the increased popularity and use of social media sites, the ability to share content with people all over the world has becoming incredibly easy. All it takes is the click of a “Share” button or the copy-pasting a link to pass along a video, article, picture, or song. Social networks are also beginning to find ways to show you how many of your friends/connections are talking about or sharing certain content (ie Facebook’s news feed). In the past few months, two different videos have “gone viral” on my Facebook news feed, both of which were well-made and had great things to say, but I could tell a lot of my friends were sharing them without either a) thinking critically about what the person in the video had said or b) hadn’t fully done a minimal amount of background research before sharing. The first video was “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” and the second was “Kony 2012.” Again, both videos make great points, but there was a lack of critical thinking by many who posted them.
I could write a whole other blog post about the first video, but Kevin DeYoung already covered many of the points I would have made in this post. As for “Kony 2012,” while it did a great job of raising awareness to many of the atrocities happening in our world today, specifically in Africa, many who shared the video did so without doing a little research on the organization that made it (I also wonder how many people actually watch the whole 30-minute video before sharing or if they just posted it because “17 of your Facebook friends posted a video”). As the video gained popularity, different things came to the surface about Invisible Children, the country of Uganda, and other things both good and bad. While each new article took a different side, it is always important for us to view such things critically. I wholly support the ending of such atrocities, but just because you share a video doesn’t really mean you’ve done anything to help beyond raising awareness.
A Challenge to Think Critically
Secondly, I have a friend who is not a big fan of having to slaughter animals to get meat, however she still enjoys eating meat on a regular basis. When asked about the seeming inconsistency in her beliefs, she was unable to explain how the two things lined up. She wanted livestock to be treated like pets and to not have to be slaughtered, yet she didn’t see that by eating meat with most of her meals was only made possible because meat comes from animals. In addition to eating meat on a regular basis, some of her relatives have been involved with raising lifestock that are eventually sold to become food. Her views regarding the treatment of animals really blossomed during her college years at a school that espouses more progressive/liberal ideals like her view of how lifestock should be treated. So, it could be assumed that she was taught these things in the classroom, accepted them because they “sounded good” but didn’t take time to think critically about the long-term implications, thus creating inconsistency that she is unable to explain. (To prevent any confusion, I am opposed to people who abuse their animals and livestock, but I also realize that in order to be eaten, they must be slaughtered and processed.)
To close this post, I would like to challenge you to think critically about the messages you encounter on a daily basis. First of all, if you notice a lot of people posting a certain piece of content, approach it with a critical thinking mindset. As your Mom probably told you growing up, “if everyone else jumped off a bridge, does that mean you should do it too?”. Always consider the source of the message, the setting in which it was heard, and how it related to your personal worldview and value system. After thinking about it, then you can decide what in the message was true, what was less credible, and how to apply it to your life. Then you can decide whether it is worthy of sharing with others.
Is their a place for group work and collaboration? Most definitely. However, without using critical thinking first, any group collaboration usually becomes meaningless and slows progress rather than advance it. By bringing together a group of critical thinking individuals though, the individuals in the group can take advantage of synergy and take information and put it into action together.
By using critical thinking in your daily life, you can go from being knowledgeable to knowledge-able.
Learn It. Love It. Live It.
[image credit: marsmet tallahassee on Flickr]