February 22, 1990

Critical Thinking

I always voted at my party's call,

And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.

I thought so little, they rewarded me

By making me the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!

W.S.Gilbert, H.M.S.Pinafore

The buzz word(s) in educational circles is "critical thinking". That is what teachers are supposed to teach children to do: think critically. No more rote memorization; we want our kids to THINK!!

Of course, the folks in Sacramento don't really want kids to do that because, if people thought critically, one of the first things that they'd do is abolish the State Department of Education. --But that's a subject for another day.

I am a critical thinker. It's one of the things that I have going for me as a scientist and as a columnist. For most of my life, it caused me nothing but trouble --and it still does. I had trouble with my peers and my teachers; even with those who gave lip service to critical thinking. What all of my fellow students knew, and I seemed blind to, was that my teachers didn't want me to be critical or think critically. They wanted me to agree with them. If I did that, I would get good grades. This was especially true in the social sciences, but it was also true in the hard sciences. If you had an idea that your teacher didn't have, or information that he didn't have, you would be better off keeping it to yourself. Telling him would cause you nothing but trouble; especially if you happened to be right and the teacher wrong.

I had just a few teachers who encouraged critical thinking and would praise a student who had an idea that was different from his own or was different from the rest of the crowd. All the rest disparaged it. This was true at all levels of my education, from elementary through graduate school. It probably hasn't changed much since then because people haven't changed much since then.

What the educational pundits are aiming for, like most everything in American life, is for the APPEARANCE of critical thinking. It is much the same as "credibility" is for a politicians. It is his cheap substitute for "integrity," which is the real thing.

The Japanese are given as an example for our schools to emulate. If ever there was an uncritical culture that is it. There are creative Japanese scientists and thinkers. However, they first have to conform to get through to the higher levels of the education system. Once they get there, then they are allowed to think critically; occasionally.

There are lots of people who think critically. There's just nobody that they can talk to about it. It's not enough to just think critically; you have to have an environment where it can be expressed; and that is relatively rare in all parts of the world and in most schools.

I prize critical thinking and have great respect for someone who can prove me wrong. I don't like being wrong any more than anyone else does; but I make it a point not to "blame the messenger." If I am wrong, it is because I, myself, am wrong; not because someone points it out to me. I would be just as wrong if I didn't know about it. And I vastly prefer being told I'm wrong BEFORE it appears in print. I feel a lot more foolish having everyone know about my mistake but me; when I eventually do find out.

So maybe we should stop the bullgravy about critical thinking and say what we really want. We want kids who will do as they're told and fill the niches that are open for them in business and industry. They have to be able to read an instruction manual and figure out what is wrong with a piece of equipment. It's nice to have someone who will occasionally come up with a better way of doing things --but only occasionally. Having more than just a few people thinking critically can really bolix up our society. For every critical thinker, you need a lot of people who will simply do as they're told. I can think critically only because I have a stupid computer who does what I tell him and doesn't talk back. ???{}#$@%&***

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