Wednesday, June 2, 2010

critical thinking

A lot of years ago, when I worked at a book publisher called Doubleday, I had a co-worker named Susan who came from England. Susan was about four times as smart as any six other people I knew. She would also admit, when drunk, that she wanted to be the first female prime minister of England ... a post I thought she could fill with ease before Margaret Thatcher took those laurels for herself.

Susan and I went out for dinner one night and as we were chatting, she said that one of the problems with American education was that students were not versed in the art of debate -- a skill that was taught in English universities.

"Adam," she said as we both downed what was probably one too many drinks, "I could sit here right now and prove to you that a chocolate milkshake was vanilla. And you'd believe it." Her announcement came as part of a conversation that was simultaneously light-hearted and serious and, since I didn't especially want to feel any dumber than I already did in her presence, I asked her sincerely, not to do so. She was decent enough to comply and it was a perfectly pleasant dinner.

Why is it that critical thinking or critical argumentation gets such a bad name. I think it must be because the people who are called critical thinkers are too often intellectual or emotional half-pints -- strutting their stuff as a means of elevating their status but offering little light to or love for the issue at hand.

I miss people who either love the issue at hand or, boldly and baldly, state their prejudice as regards that issue ... without any hope or fear that others would agree with them. "It's just how I feel," they seem to be saying between the lines. "It's just what I think." And you get the sense that they are keeping a critical eye on their own feelings and thoughts and not trying to become the metaphorical prime minister of England.

Critical thinking ... oh well, "It could be worse," as Mel Brooks observed, "it could be raining."

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