We are born into a community. As we grow, we inherit many cultural beliefs from learning the language, being taught by our parents, being influenced by circumstance, and many other variables. If you are an American raised at the end of the 20th century or beginning of the 21st century, you will likely exhibit a culture of capitalism, consumerism, and the American Dream. You will likely view freedom as the ability to pursue whatever makes you happy so long as you don’t harm others. This will likely include the pursuit of a career and possessions. If you disagree with these things but were still raised in 21st century America, it will be because you were either raised in a subculture that has its own idiosyncrasies or you are a critical thinker. Actually, you may be some mix of all of these.
By contrast, if you were born in China in 500 BC in the Zhou Dynasty, your outlook on life will likely be directly related to the economic standing of your family. Speaking of family, you will be less interested in freedom and self-fulfillment than you will be in honoring your family through attaining a successful career. Success will be defined not primarily by how much money you make but by how much the community honors you and therefore by how much they honor your family.
We are inescapably influenced by culture. It is through culture that we learn language, we learn proper and improper social behaviors. Little boys in modern America learn that they shouldn’t steal their sister’s toys and how they should grow up to be industrious tradesmen. Little girls in ancient China grow up learning that they are to be treated as property. Little American girls today are taught to pursue self-fulfillment through career pursuits that are largely individualistic. Little boys in ancient China were taught the value of honor and family. Little boys in America today are largely seen as uncivilized little monsters when they can’t sit still and listen in their elementary school classroom while the little girls do just fine.
Culture influences us, but it does not have to blind us. There are good and bad elements to every culture, but we can only see them if we think critically. It was critical thinking that ended the British and American slave trade. In 19th century England, a small group of Anglican evangelicals dared to challenge their culture by pointing out the hypocrisy of those who called themselves Christians without living for the love of their neighbor or valuing the dignity of all people. They dared to challenge the system, to speak up against some bad practices present in their culture. Thus, they changed the world through critical thinking.
The other option is to adopt everything your community tells you to believe. You read blogs by people who think like you. You watch TV shows that reinforce what you already believe. Your family and friends believe the same things as you, respond to the news in the same way, and are generally carbon copies of you with only minor differences such as career, favorite NFL team, and what city they live in. These are people who blindly follow other people, like sheep. Some have affectionately nicknamed people who lack critical thinking, “sheeple.” Sheeple get angry when people from a different community say something controversial. Sheeple feel offended often and can’t understand why someone would think differently than themselves. Sheeple do not believe or act the way they do based on well grounded logical argumentation. People who blindly follow are leaves on the cultural tides of their community, being driven and tossed by the wind.
Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Will you be content as a leaf on a wave? That is dangerous. Why? Following the tides of culture without thinking critically means that you will fall headfirst into all of the problems that the culture shares. As a modern American, for example, this will likely mean that you will fall into the rut of defining your life by the pursuit of the American dream. You will pursue self-fulfillment through the pursuit of a career that is obtained for money and so long as it isn’t an entirely boring job. You will fill your nights and weekends with fleeting pleasures focused. In short, you will follow the American Dream, which is defined by greed and selfishness. However, if you do not think critically, you will not even be aware of your selfishness. In fact, you will not be aware of your flaws or how to fix them except in a vague sense that leads you only to lie on your bed and wish you were different, leading a life of “quiet desperation” as Henry David Thoreau said.
Maybe this does not describe you. Perhaps your culture is different. Perhaps you have similarities and differences to mainstream American culture. Or, perhaps you have already started thinking critically. The biblical Book of Proverbs speaks to three types of people: the fool, the youth, and the wise person. The wise person loves wisdom and pursues more of it (“philosophy” comes from the Greek for “the love of wisdom”). The youth is the impressionable person who has not yet determined their path. They may lead a life of wisdom or foolishness. Whether or not the “youth” is actually young is beside the point. The point is that, like a child, they may be moulded and can still choose their course in life. The fool, like the wise man, has already chosen his course in life. The fool has chosen to ignore wisdom and pursuit selfish, fleeting pleasures. In doing so, he constantly faces the consequences. Yet, since he is not wise, he does not learn from his consequences but repeats his mistakes, never examining his life.
Will you be a leaf on a wave? Perhaps, through critical thinking, you will be an anchor, holding fast to truths that the culture pushes against. They culture will not like you for getting in their way. The leaf thinks it is free because it is bound by nothing. But it only thinks it is free because it does not realize that it is carried along by cultural tides. The anchor holds firm. Further, some will not only be anchors but will make waves of their own, changing the tides of culture. Not everyone is called to make big waves, though everyone can make small ones.
The question of Socrates is this: Will you examine your life and make it worth living?
What is Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking is the analysis of an issue to form a judgment. It asks not only whether a belief is true but also asks what the justification for the belief is. It evaluates an idea’s supporting reasons and argument in order to accept, reform, or reject its conclusion. Therefore, a “critique” is not necessarily a rejection of an idea but a thoughtful analysis of its supporting argument.
The Wall Street Journal reports that employers find critical thinking skills significantly lacking in prospective employees. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of job descriptions listing critical thinking skills as a requirement has doubled. Employers are seeking employees who can think on their feet, analyze a problem, and propose a solution. Critical thinking is seen by employers as providing the ability to:
Sift reasons from distractions in order to see the real problem.
Examine evidence to support claims.
Re-examine old ways of doing things.
Re-examine how you are thinking in order to think more effectively.
Make use of information to reach new conclusions or re-examine previous ones.
Yet, critical thinking is not first and foremost a job skill, an optional set of acquired traits that are practiced for the purpose of obtaining a decent job. Though it is a skill acquired and improved through practice, critical thinking is primarily for the purpose of improving one’s life and the lives of others. Critical thinking helps the thinker analyze their failures and improve, notice flawed thinking and act more reasonably, spot the problems in their life and the lives of others in order come up with better ways of doing things. Failure is only helpful if a person is willing to think critically about their failures in order to understand why they failed. Failure without analysis is doomed to repeat itself. This is why people often say that history repeats itself. It is because we do not learn from our past by analyzing it to see what was wrong and what can be improved upon.