Critical Thinking EXTRA:

The episode on conformation bias ( I know critical thinking fans are waiting for it!) will be out next week. I wanted to take a moment to show how critical thinking can impact our world at the local and national level- the college admissions bribery case got me started thinking…  

Earlier this year a community member expressed some complaints and provided some details during a meeting; the speaker was not sure about the details because they were second hand.  He then added, “Whether it’s true or not…” and went on to discuss what he would like to see in response.   

I was a little surprised that anyone would be willing to admit in a public that they had no evidence to support their claims and even openly suggest that finding the truth is not essential when making a decision.  “Whether it’s true or not”… let us decide and act.  Really?

I didn’t think much more about it until the recent Department of Justice Probe caused the arrest of some prominent Marin County parents who now stand accused (not convicted) of bribery, manipulating materials and other forms of lying to get their children into prestigious universities.  They appear to have operated from the same philosophical perspective as the speaker at our board meeting- that the truth should not be the essential element of sound decision making.  They act instead from the ethical foundation that says perception rather verifiable information should guide us.   

(Interestingly, the reason the accused are entitled to a trial is because our nation as a whole, at least in theory, believes that compelling evidence, getting as close as possible to the truth is necessary before taking serious action… like putting someone in prison.)   

The philosophical difference between our concerned local resident and those who paid vast sums and falsified materials to create the perception that their children were qualified for acceptance into USC, Stanford and Yale is just a matter of scale.  In one case the outcome may be a degree from a prestigious university “earned” in part by dishonesty.  In the other case the result may be some change in little school district that will go unnoticed by the rest of the world.  But the belief system that guides both parties is the same.  

I bring this up because that kind of thinking conflicts with what we want for our children and the local level is the place where we can act. The very first line in our school’s Vision Statement reminds us that we want our children to be “inspired critical thinkers.”  That means that we hold among our highest values the notion that the truth actually does matter and that we have an obligation to support our claims with evidence.   

People who work with me often hear me say, “perception is reality.” It’s one of my most-used phrases, not because I like what it means but because at this time in history it can be dangerous to live and work under the belief that the truth is always more convincing than a firmly held perception or oft-repeated lie.  We see that in politics, in healthcare in the media and the justice system. Unfortunately, it can show up in school as well.  

But school is the place where we have obligated ourselves to seek the truth, to ensure that our children see the truth as important, as the primary ethical element in the way they view the world.  Pursuing the truth can be difficult (at times impossible) and in this modern world we may even be tempted to give up and join the ranks of so many who live as though perception trumps reality. (Pun intended.) From the White House to the finish line at the Tour de France we see a willingness to put on an artificial show in the cynical belief that others will buy what is being sold sight-unseen and that somehow our lives may still prove meaningful and authentic if we simply believe what we want regardless of the facts.  

This is the heart of critical thinking: Accepting that the truth matters.  It implies work and the strength of spirit to persist in a direction that many others are unwilling to follow.  It means being proven wrong from time to time and learning to loosen one’s grip on belief knowing that belief is always subject to new information.  It might mean not going to your first-choice university. This concept underpins modern philosophy and has yielded great advances in science, medicine and social systems.  At this time in history it is critical we don’t forget it and remember to set a daily example for our children.  We can do that by stopping ourselves and each other when we forget to think critically and by holding ourselves accountable when we make errors in reasoning.