As someone who manages a couple of writing centers at Palo Alto College in San Antonio, Texas, USA, I’m often asked, by faculty members of one sort of another, to do writing workshops for students. Exactly one week ago today, I did a critical thinking activity with a class of writers. It’s a workshop I’ve done innumerable times with countless pupils.
Toward the end of the hour, a student raised his hand and said, “I want to tell you that your lesson has given me a headache.” I smiled and facetiously said that that had been my intention.
I came away from the experience reminded that we’re all born with brains, but that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily equipped to think well all the time. In the same way we need to train our muscles and develop stamina to stay physically fit, we need to give our minds the right kind of “exercise” on a regular basis to remain mentally sharp. Plus, the way we think—whether we think skillfully or not—is greatly influenced by how we live our lives. I recently wrote a post about how I’d been doing less reading recently which had negatively affected my ability to think interesting thoughts and write. If we read, travel, have intellectually stimulating conversations on a regular basis, and seek out diverse learning opportunities of all sorts, we’re apt to grow intellectually. Bottomline: Our minds are shaped by the sorts of milieux we create for ourselves and inhabit.
It is often noted that we have a disinformation problem in the world today and that gaslighting and lies spread very quickly on social media. I’d argue that those who spend a great deal of time on these kinds of networks put themselves in harm’s way.
Those who formulate “thoughts” and share their “thinking” on such platforms understand that they have to make a big impact while using minimal language. To achieve this, they rely on the use of memes, gifs, and what rhetoricians call appeals to “pathos” (or emotions). For posts to go viral, they must be sensational in some way. Good thinking, on the other hand, is language intensive. It requires dialogue, debate, and nuance. Good thinking rejects oversimplification and either/or binaries—the sort of “arguments” one finds on social media.
I used to spend lots of time on Twitter, but then, after noticing what social media was doing to me, I closed my account and did the same with Facebook. I realized that Twitter was having a bad influence because I was spending all my time debating and trying to “win” every argument. Often, do be victorious, I was having to stoop to a level that I abhorred in others. In short, I was becoming the thing I least wished to be.
Tragically, social media is blurring the lines between facts and opinions. Being artful, critical thinkers requires that we learn by becoming acquainted with a body of facts about a particular subject. We can then use that learning—that body of facts—to form thoughts or opinions about the topic under discussion. It is absolutely essential to remember that facts are objective and opinions are subjective. An opinion is an assertion that becomes more or less compelling depending on how well or poorly the arguer marshals the facts to support the claim. Claims do not have power on their own. They must be supported by relevant and sufficient objective evidentiary details.
After the last presidential election in the US, it was common for some to claim that Joe Biden had won because he’d cheated. Those making such a claim almost never provided evidence to support this assertion. They were guilty of confusing opinions with facts and thought that merely stating a thing to be true was enough to make it true. We must doggedly demand that those making questionable claims provide relevant, sufficient, and compelling evidence in support of such arguments.
Of course, I could write an entire book about critical thinking and how it works, so I’m not able to fully cover the topic here. For example, there’s the issue of where we get our facts. There is a world of difference between reputable sources and those that traffic in propaganda.
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