There’s no question I think, and I am, but how well do I think?

I remember reading about the idea that if the brain was simple enough to understand it wouldn’t be worth understanding in a book by Jostein Gardner, Norwegian intellectual  and writer who at one time taught philosophy to High School students. I have puzzled over that idea endlessly for in some ways it puts paid to the notion that we can ever truly and fully understand our minds and the ways in which they work.  I welcome and recognise the complexity this suggests but am also aware that the premise that any one theory or even set of theories, upon which all good research must be based, is contestable.

In our post-modern world of no absolutes and no incontrovertible truths these ideas sit well but in the nightmare existence that COVID-19 has brought for people acrosss the globe they bring no comfort and even exacerbate the fear and uncertainty. This is why being able to think well is more important and more necessary than ever. It isn’t enough to have quantities of information, be it scientific, statistical, epidemiological or anything else if it isn’t accompanied with wisdom.

The most satisfactory method of introducing wisdom and of thinking well that I have come across is summed up in the term ‘critical thinking’, the most succinct definition of which is: “the objective and discerning analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement.”  Critical Thinking is not new; its origins are said to arise in a method of debate and deep questioning created by Socrates and even forms a part of  Plato’s early dialogues on the issue of ethics.  Socrates offers the view that knowledge sources external to ourselves cannot necessarily be relied upon as even those in positions of power and authority may not be rational or well-founded.

The skills required to think critically are many and include: observation, analysis, refelection, inference, explanation, problem-solving/solution-finding, decision making , communication and evaluation.  The scientific method is said to lay claim to all of these.  However, there is a problem in that the open, unpredjudiced and, in some ways ,naive asking of questions is not necessarily occurring, be it because of pre-existing assumptions/ knowledge bases and/or emotional and/or social/political bias.

I correspond with someone with whom I used to teach disaffected teenagers in an inner London borough. My friend and ex-colleague, now in her mid eighties lives, in South Africa and is still teaching teenagers a couple of days a week.  Her subject? Critical thinking.  Recently she sent me a summary of the students’ evaluation of their course with her. The young people involved faced incredible political, cultural and environmental uncertainty even before the ‘current COVID-19 crisis but what they have to say about their improved thinking skills is more relevant than ever to all of us. There is a sense that along with their improved vocabulary, expressive, communicative and debating skills, they have a new regard for the power of their own minds and those of others to question, understand and to actively engage with and create new, more positive possibilities.  The words respect, relationship, community, learning and Education all feature frequently.  Maybe one day these young people who have had the opportunity to learn how to think critically will be able to make a world less shaped by partisan interests, knowledge empires and party politics than the one we see and read about on television news programmes and the press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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