Gwen Dewar, PhD., asks an important question in her article, ‘The curse of the herd’ (Psychology Today, Jan. 13, 2013): “Is freedom of thought a human right? Do kids have a right to learn about the tools of critical thinking?” Many of us would think of this as a rhetorical question — who wouldn’t want their children to be able to make informed decisions based on critically thinking through the pros and cons of available choices?
Unfortunately, babies don’t come out of their mothers’ wombs knowing how to be critical thinkers; this is a skill children must be introduced to early on in their lives. It must be painstakingly honed, and allowances must be given to children to make mistakes, which is an essential part of the process. When I started studying as an undergraduate student last year at a college in Connecticut, USA, I was apprehensive, to say the least, since I had studied nothing but accounting, auditing, and finance for the past four years, and I did not know anything about the course content and requirements for general college courses. It was a challenge for me to think creatively, when I had not done so in ages. Even more difficult was deciphering the meaning of “thinking critically” — something required of me in every essay and assignment I was being given. I fretted to no end about the limitations that I thought my mind was presenting me with. I approached a professor with my dilemma, who told me that critically thinking simply meant supporting your own thoughts and ideas (on any given subject) with evidence that leaves the reader/listener with no room to question the validity and grounds of your argument.
Professor Tanya Milner-Harlee, part of the English department at Manchester Community College, told her students on the first day of her Introduction to Literature class that she wanted to know what they, the students, thought about literary pieces, when they turned in assignments. “I believe that when we teach students to think critically, they develop valuable analytical skills, which help them no end to make worthwhile decisions, both in their professional and personal lives.”
Sadly though, the inclusion of critical thinking as a required skill, is sorely missing from the bulk of our education system. Supervision by school managements of the progress of the learning process of students is limited to overseeing teachers’ rosters, in which teachers detail the work they plan on completing, and how much of that work has been completed at a given date. Students, in their never-ending race to receive the top mark, strive only to pass tests and exams, not caring whether they actually learn anything in the process.
Rote-learning takes precedence over learning, and the use of constructive research, and the students’ own opinions relating to subject matter in homework assignments, is virtually non-existent. The real problem arises when these same students step into their professional lives, and are expected to make informed decisions, based on their knowledge of the subject, and their own intuition and good sense.
Our society is built on the old-school notion that parents, and the elders of the family, are responsible for making every decision for the “children” of the family, regardless of whether the child is two or 20. Decisions about which school to put the child in, what the child will study once he/she comes of age, what college/university he/she will attend, where he/she will work, when the “child” is old enough to marry, who the “child” will marry, when, and how many children the couple will have … it’s a never-ending cycle. As long as there are elders in the family, the thoughts and ideas of the younger generation are given little leverage.
The longer you let yourself make decisions for your child, the farther away he will get from actually ever learning to think for himself. Studies have shown that children, spontaneous by nature, are less likely to stick to social conformities, compared to adults, who will agree with the majority in an attempt to “fit in”.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his essay, ‘Self-reliance’ (lines which struck me as utterly appropriate for this piece), “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string …Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”