Critical Thinking is Hard

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I’m lucky: I grew up in a family where thinking was encouraged. My parents treated me and my brother like we were brilliant, which makes you want to be brilliant, and come up with your own ideas. They liked to talk about stuff, and, while they definitely treated us like kids, they also didn’t really shelter us too much. My mother was always ruining TV shows for me by pointing out the sexist moments in television, from reruns of The Brady Bunch and Star Trek, to Charlie’s Angels, Three’s Company and, well, it was the 70s and 80s, so pretty much all TV shows. But they still let us watch them, as well as R-rated movies which may not have been age-appropriate, and while they told us not to smoke pot, when we found out that they smoked pot, they gave us reasons for why it was okay for them and not us (since they “weren’t going to have any more children,” which seemed to make sense at the time). Another thing they did was encourage us to take responsibility for our own decisions from a fairly young age, which meant that you could stay up until 10 or 11 pm on a school night if you really wanted to, but it’d be your fault when you felt like shit all the next day. One can debate the pros and cons of this method of child-rearing (pro: de-mystifying drug use and other taboo behaviors to the degree that they actually start to seem uncool; encouraging kids to develop strong ethical compass and think through their actions; con: kids are even more weird compared to their peers, and precociously develop anxiety and guilt about their own actions). Nevertheless, it did start me on the road to learning the value of thinking for myself.

I didn’t really come into my own as a critical thinker until junior high, however, when I spent two years in a program for gifted students. First, isolation from my peers at a time when I was supposed to be learning the social skills of adulthood and the bullying that naturally flowed from that taught me to look for other people’s faults as a means of self-defense. That made me critical, if not necessarily thoughtful. But then I also had two years of Mr. Snyder teaching me social studies. Many of us in the gifted program had all of the same teachers for all of our academic subjects two years running. This meant that we got to know those teachers really well, and, in the case of Mr. Snyder, came to greatly admire and be shaped by his worldview. Mr. Snyder wasn’t an obvious candidate for intellectual guru to early adolescents. He wasn’t particularly handsome, and he’d had polio as a child and walked with a prominent limp. But he was funny and charismatic, gave terrific lectures that were like brilliant comedy monologues or TED talks, and knew how to make his students feel smart and special — in part because we had made it into his class, but still. We liked him so much that several of us would get to class early every day so that we could draw cartoons of him on the blackboard with clever word bubble-jokes, and he loved that. Too see him come into the room and look at our clever depictions of him and smile and make jokes right back at us, to feel appreciated for our intelligence and creativity, a sensation could be hard to come by as a suburban New Jersey youngster, was wonderful. The class was a mutual admiration society and a bit of a cult of personality that I think hugely affected all of us who took it.

I learned a lot there, as we studied political systems, geography and the history of the ancient world, among other things. We were assigned projects that were unlike anything you’d typically get in junior high or even high school, a combination of fun, self-driven exploration, and out-of-control amounts of work. We had to make a map of the world that included every single country, city, major mountain range and body of water, using color-coded overlays — something that I would have enjoyed, and sort of did, except that, since I was in 7th grade, I was terrible at judging how long it would take and left it until the last minute, and had to repeatedly re-letter the smudged plastic to make it readable in my 12-year-old handwriting. The following year, when we did separate units on Greece and Rome, we had to either fill in an entire outline that he provided with a paragraph or more on every subject, or do a handful of more creative projects designed to help us probe the topics in more interesting detail. After choosing to do the outline for Greece, thinking it would be easier, and ending up with several pounds of handwritten paper (I could not type) on everything from Sparta to Socrates to Doric columns that was probably 75+ pages long, Mr. Snyder had stared at the pile and admitted to me that he hadn’t really expected anyone to choose that option, that he’d made the outline so absurdly long to encourage people to do the creative projects. I probably got an A more because he didn’t want to read the whole damn thing than anything else, and on Rome, I did the projects, like going to a Roman-Catholic service and writing about it — which I did by interviewing my Catholic friend, Tara, instead of actually going to the service myself — or going to the Met to observe and then expound upon the differences one observed between the Greek and Roman statues — which I did after 15 minutes of taking furious notes on a Sunday when we arrived just as they were getting ready to close. Just because I loved Mr. Snyder didn’t mean that I, like any other kid, wasn’t always trying to get out of doing homework in any way I could.

The thing I learned and remember best, however, was not the facts, but the method. We had a class about political and economic systems — communism, socialism, capitalism, authoritarianism — and the first thing Mr. Snyder did was define these terms for us, explaining that they weren’t what we’d been told they were. Specifically, “communism,” the way it was looked at in the budding Reagan Era of the early 1980s, wasn’t actually communism at all. Real communism was an economic system that someone named Karl Marx had come up with, in which everyone owned everything, nobody was rich or poor or more powerful than anyone else, and that was, in fact, kind of the opposite of what the Soviet Union had become. This somewhat blew my mind. Here was the boogeyman that everyone talked about as the great evil threatening us with destruction — and remember, in the world of an American kid who had trouble sleeping at night because she obsessed with how we were one button push away from nuclear war, that meant genuine annihilation —  and it wasn’t even what it really was. How was this possible? How was everything that we saw on TV and in the newspapers and at the movies just plain wrong? It turned out that, once you delved into it, the evolution of the term “communism” in the popular vernacular was an education in how concepts entered the public consciousness and then were propagated endlessly in the echo chamber of the media and society until they became something else entirely, usually in the service of some political or social end. Sound familiar? It wasn’t the same then as it is now that we have the Wild West known as the Internet, in some ways it was easier to get an entire culture to basically think one incorrect thing rather than many insane things, but the ability to miseducate a huge swath a people without their questioning it? Yes, that existed, and understanding that was a very big deal to me. It meant that you always had to look deeper than the surface of things to be sure you understood the reality, even when it came to what those things were called.

Why doesn’t everyone get taught to think this way? Well, like most things in life, it gets increasingly harder to learn as you get older. The more set in our ways we get, the tougher it becomes to look at ourselves critically (which is essential to critical thinking, because to truly get that you must dissect and assess the viability of ideas, you have to start with your own assumptions), much less change the way our brains function in terms of adopting new ways of doing anything that’s really embedded in there, much less ways of doing everything, which is kind what it means to change the way you think. Plus, it’s in the best interest of those in power to keep the bulk of the human race from doing it. It’s tough to build an army of people who don’t automatically follow orders, or have a religion made up of people who are always questioning the word of God, or build a movement if the followers are continually asking the leaders, “Is that really true?” And so we’ve arrived at this situation where we have so much information out there now to make sense out of, and the bulk of us without the tools to figure out how to do that — and many who reject those tools because they’re told education is just liberal elite brainwashing. Instead, you see a lot of people turn to a kind of twisted, easy version of “critical” “thinking” espoused on the fringes of the left and right, which disposes with the thinking part and instead just espouses wholesale rejection of anything dubbed “establishment” or “mainstream,” no matter how awful the alternative may be (and at this point we know: it’s pretty awful). Add to that the folks who skillfully exploit the overwhelm of information and lack of analytical skills to support their own greed, lust for power and desire to win at all cost, and you end up with an awesome new and different kind of embedded orthodoxy, that encourages us to silo ourselves within “our” (really their) belief systems, walled in with “alternative facts” and media that support them, and defending it all tooth and nail with false equivalencies that encourage us not to critique thoughtfully based on evidence, but to to pick apart every idea that doesn’t fit or even makes us uncomfortable (“Well, every politician lies” was one of the most egregious ones I heard used recently to defend the president). 

And, when it comes right down to it, can you blame people? Thinking is exhausting, especially in this environment, and even human beings with the best intentions manage to ruin everything good anyway. Like, even though my parents didn’t make us believe their ideas, of course they still managed to inculcate in us their most mundane opinions. My father was particularly good at doing this, particularly when it came to eating (yup, Jews), like how fast food and chain restaurants should be avoided not based on nutrition but on lack of flavor (which I guess is why we still ate at White Castle), or how chocolate was really the only kind of acceptable dessert. It’s amazing that, no matter how far I’ve come as an adult, I still find it really hard to shake these ideas — like I saw a conversation on Facebook about how pie was superior to cake, and I just thought, Huh? But there aren’t any good chocolate pies. Another case in point: by the time I was a senior, Mr. Snyder had moved up to the high school, and was teaching an AP history class that I had the option to take. I decided to take economics instead, because I had never studied it, because one of my best friends was taking it, and, on some level I’m sure, to show that I didn’t need the wisdom of this idol of my 7th and 8th grade self, now that I was all of 16. I heard from people who took Snyder’s class that in his first opening monologue of the year he mocked those of his former students who had decided not to take his class — which I think might have just been me. That wasn’t really an appropriate thing for a teacher to do, especially since I was kind of doing what he’d taught us: to move on, do my own thinking and evaluate him critically. But as a human being, it’s hard to be a charismatic leader and just let that go — which is why the world has so many despots, and celebrities, and despotic celebrities. On other hand, my economics class was a terrible waste of time because it turned out that I didn’t like economics and the teacher was boring, so perhaps my premature rejection of Mr. Snyder and my 8th grade way of thinking, just to prove that I could do it, hadn’t been the best decision either. It’s hard not to wonder if I’d be just a slightly better, smarter person today if I’d accepted one more opportunity to take his class.

I’ll never know, but I guess the fact that I’m telling you this story means I haven’t given up on critical thinking. Maybe it’s because self-flagellating comes naturally to me, but these days, more than ever, I try to employ those skills as much as I can, even as it grows increasingly fucking hard. On top of all that media landscape stuff I mentioned a few paragraphs back, I also have this stupid menopause business I mentioned in my last blog post, which just amplifies all of the emotion that drives me as a human to err on the side of insanity, as if there weren’t already enough bad news, and bad “news,” out there driving a person in that direction. There are so many bad actors with so many tools that can be used to manipulate our fear and greed and lust into steamrolling our thinking these days, and all we have to fight back are these little broken piles of poop in our heads. And yet, we all do have them, aka brains, and so we have the ability to use them. And as one of those cynical-on-top-but-at-bottom-idealistic folks who believes we all also have the capacity to change, no matter how hard it might seem, until the day we die, I think we all have the ability to learn how to use them better. And yes, that means you, and your friends, and your kids, and even your cousins in Florida maybe, if we all just try a little harder.

I’m not sure what Mr. Snyder would say about me now, as I try to get people to think about stuff with this blog that almost nobody reads, but considering how many years he spent trying to teach adolescents about Platonic ideals, I’d imagine he’d approve. So in honor of him, and any teacher you’ve had who inspired you to think more, and more better, let’s advocate in 2019 not just for “our values,” but for the value of intelligent thought, even if we have to do it one mind at a time.

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