The Lost Art of Critical Thinking

I very rarely, if ever post anything that might be construed as political in nature. I find that those thoughts and opinions are usually best kept to oneself. However, in the current climate of chaos and noise and the constant barrage of talking heads and talking over one another, I was reminded of the numerous conversations I enjoyed with my father. He instilled in me a love of history and the constant thirst for learning that has dominated much of my life. 

“Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived
as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty.” ~ Albert Einstein

As a teacher, I found myself in the unique position of being a mentor to hundreds of students over the course of the fifteen years I taught. Of all the subjects I taught during those years, American History was by far my favorite. As a result, my position as a history teacher was one I took very seriously, constantly seeking new and meaningful ways to teach my students the great importance of looking deeper than the history books, beneath all the clutter, in order to find a truth that does exist. It takes time and focused research, which in this day and age, is becoming a lost art. Still, the impact of seeking, of reading, of being willing to dig deeper, is so very rewarding and necessary if we are to become informed citizens. 

“Knowledge rests not upon truth alone, but upon error also.”
~ Carl Gustav Jung

One of the easiest, and most underused methods available to us all is simply this, learn to perfect the art of distinguishing fact from opinion. In doing so, you become more adept at drawing relevant conclusions, thus arming yourself with one of the most powerful weapons available, knowledge that is earned and not simply given. It’s not hard, but it makes such an important difference. 

A fact is simply this, something that can be proven either true or false. I might say, “the sky is green,” but just by looking up on any given day, you can plainly see that it is not. That the sky is green, therefore, is simply my opinion. If on the other hand I say’ “I have green eyes.” You can look at me and clearly see that my eyes are, in fact, green. See? Simple. If we then apply this to our research, to how we consume the news, or any media for that matter, the bigger picture becomes clearer. Or to put it more succinctly, the truth beneath the noise. 

Try this, the next time you read a news article, take two different color highlighters and highlight all the opinions in one color and all the facts in the other. Then rewrite the story using only the facts. 

“No thief, however skillful, can rob one of knowledge, and that is why knowledge is the best and safest treasure to acquire.” ~ L. Frank Baum

I used to do this with my students regularly. It was amazing how much obsolete filler there was being reported and consumed as fact in our everyday news, at all levels.

Now, armed with the facts, you are in a much better position to determine what is indeed valid and to then form your own opinions about the subject rather than allowing others to do it for you. This in turn, also puts you in a much better position to develop educated opinions, something vastly different and much more powerful than the noise we are constantly subjected to. 

Taking it a step further, you can apply this process to not only consumption of the news and media, but also to consumption of non-fiction, history, any offering that is presented as factually based. Again, it’s the delving into the subject, of questioning its validity and embarking on the quest that is important here. 

“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor
and attended to with diligence.” ~ Abigail Adams

In my own quest for historical knowledge, I have found this to be true. There’s a wealth of beauty and sustaining principles upon which our country is founded. Is it perfect? No. But I firmly believe it strives to be. I’m not talking about politics here, I’m speaking of the rich and meaningful history of our country. The good and the bad. The foundations upon which our Constitution was founded and the amendments that have been added since the Bill of Rights. The foundations that have guided us through decades of growth and progress, through wars and discord, through changing centuries, and a changing world. These are not obsolete, but very much relevant even to this day. 

“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens,
how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

Once you open yourself up to studying and truly learning our history in this manner, I can assure you from personal experience, your thirst for knowledge will continue to increase, while your acceptance of the status quo will constantly diminish. More than just a right, I think it is a responsibility that we, as Americans, as citizens, as voters, are called to do. 

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived,
but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” ~ Maya Angelou
Photo Credit: John Fenwick

So I leave you with one of my favorite Leonardo da Vinci quotes, “It had long come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” 

Strive to be a person of accomplishment in your quest for knowledge as much as you are in other areas of your life. You live in a country that values and protects your right to do so. Embrace it and even more, seek it, for it is in this we all prevail from generation to generation.

Jennifer N. Fenwick, former American History teacher and author | In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle and Four Weeks: A Journey from Darkness

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