Critical Thinking is… Critical!

“Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.” — Francis Bacon

Growing up, I loved to go to local stores and see if I could “help out”. This resulted in an assortment of odd jobs at the local grocery store, milk store, and butcher. Incidentally, all three were owned by the same family. Each of three brothers ran their shops a few doors from each other. This is also where I learned that I was colour blind, as one morning I was chastised for filling a bag with yellow beans instead of green beans. Hey, they all looked the same to me so I guessed.

This desire to assist others and to keep busy also lead me into politics at a very early age. I remember, again, asking if I could help out at the election office of our Progressive Conservative candidate, Murray Maynard, during the 1972 federal election. I can’t recall, but I doubt that this was an early rejection of Trudeaumania. I think the fact that the campaign office was sandwiched between the aforementioned shops made me a PC by location, not dogma or affinity.

In any event, what I recall most vividly was that this choice generated quite a bit of discussion around the dinner table. It also was one of my earliest memories of being introduced to healthy debate regarding politics as well as my first taste of critical thinking. Though I am sure my parents at the time were PC supporters, what was most important for them was that I understood what Maynard and PC leader Robert Stanfield stood for, and I could discern the platform differences between them, Trudeau’s Liberals and David Lewis’ New Democrats. I also was introduced to the Rhinoceros Party, the Social Credits, Communist Party, Marxist Leninists, et al. To this day, I love to see the assortment of splinter parties that field candidates in our elections. It’s truly fascinating.

Most importantly, as noted, my parents supported my choice to get involved with politics so that I could become educated on the Canadian political system and also so I could develop my ability to parse political verbiage, discuss it intelligently and make good choices based on logical thinking. Now I don’t recall that these were the exact words my parents used as I set off each day to stuff envelopes or put signs together. Knowing my father, he probably reminded me that there’s a sucker born every day as I headed off into the political trenches. And I am sure my pre-pubescent mind got a kick out of hearing Trudeau say “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Hardly the basis for a political opinion one way of the other, but I was only 11.

In many ways, it was a good thing that I went out of my way to get involved, as I do not recall receiving much of an education in grade school or high school about politics or critical thinking. In fact if anything most of my memories revolve around the exact opposite. Teachers who marked down an essay that didn’t reflect how an issue had been taught. It was very much a history is written by the winners mindset or as Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?” Expressing your own opinion was frowned upon, even when you could cite sources to support your argument. And politics, at least until high school was either taboo or superficially discussed so as not to offend. So Canadian. Unfortunately, a course that I love and have taught, Civics, had not yet been introduced in Ontario.

I know things have changed for the better in this regard, certainly in the Ontario curriculum. But as is often the case it really depends on the teacher. My daughter was extremely fortunate to have had a wonderfully creative and insightful politics teacher in high school. During the 2007 Ontario provincial election, the assignment was for students to get involved with a local candidate and write a paper about the experience. As you can imagine, given my experience and the support of my parents, she was already well-versed in politics though had never really shown much interest in it other than keeping abreast of party platforms. What the project did for her was open up a world of opportunity and personal and professional connections that she mines to this day as a lawyer. Most importantly it enhanced both her critical thinking and communication skills. It has also seen her meet two former premiers, one Prime Minister, and numerous cabinet members and backbenchers from all the major political parties.

As we look around us today, thankfully our political system has not become as divisive as that of our neighbours to the south or those in numerous other countries around the world. And yet, good honest political discourse and the strong critical thinking skills required to engage in such discussions are not as prevalent as they should be. And this is not, as is always the case, just because of faults in our educational system. As usual, there is plenty of blame to pass around.

In Canada, we continue to be fortunate to be able to get reasonably straightforward and non-partisan coverage of news from our national broadcaster, the CBC. As well, though newspapers and magazines have and always will present their work with a particular bias, for the most part, it is done respectfully and accurately. You may not agree with a particular outlet’s take on an issue if it differs from your world view, but at least it is factual and not personal or baseless. That cannot be said of the news media in the US. Of course, there are great outlets both liberal and conservative that present their opinions objectively but more and more this is becoming the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps the biggest problem is the online media that enables anyone to express an opinion in as few as 140 characters and publish it to the world without fact-checking or supporting data. When baseless claims and theories are juxtaposed beside diligent journalism even the most seasoned critical thinkers can be hard-pressed to discern the difference. Just imagine how an uneducated or untrained mind approaches such a disparity.

And yes, schools are to blame, as well. Far too little is done to encourage critical thinking, creative thinking, and strong communication skills. Yes, I know it is entrenched in most curriculum and schools do espouse the importance of the three Cs, but on the ground, there is much work to be done. It really comes down to the school, the principal, and individual teachers. Unfortunately, these skills are not encouraged equally or effectively in all schools, by all leaders, or in every classroom.

Of course, parents play a key role in the critical thinking education of their children. Though it has never been appropriate to let children grow up without the ability to understand the differences inherent in an argument, more than ever parents must ensure that their children understand that there are three sides to every argument. Compromise and discussion teamed with critical thinking enables one to see the world as it is… a very complex multi-faceted and interdependent entity. Individuals who are unable to at the very least understand an opposing argument or opinion and to critically analyze it are clearly at a disadvantage in our ever diverse and interconnected global community. As noted cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once opined, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” It was accurate in the past and even more poignant now. Schools, parents the media – really all of society – have a duty to enhance and hone the critical thinking skills of our children.



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