“There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.” (Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224)
I am proud of my liberal arts education. As much as it prepared me for life as a professional communicator, it also prepared me for adulthood in ways many other people never get the chance to experience. A liberal arts education doesn’t just produce teachers and journalists and historians and scholars, it produces thinkers.
As a student of the arts, I was introduced to a vast array of social, political, historical, cultural, philosophical and theological perspectives. I was expected to examine opposing schools of thought and expose myself to disparate experiences across the whole of human existence. I was required to acknowledge my limited understanding and reach beyond it, to explore outside myself. These lessons translated to life skills, and I was made better for the objectivity that my university education instilled in me. Who wouldn’t be?
The liberal arts approach to learning helped me to develop a willingness to question and challenge my personal perceptions. I discovered that by framing my beliefs and values with a scope much wider than my individual view would ever allow, whatever my conclusions might be, they are informed by the cumulative wealth of fact, historical record, and the collective experience of the greater world, not just one thin slice of it. The result is a justifiable and defensible confidence in my own convictions.
I think most everyone believes they are already engaging in this kind of analysis. Maybe they are, but my experience is that while people generally believe they are regularly exercising their critical thinking muscles, in actuality, they are not. Let’s be honest. If they were, our society would not be in the muck it is today. Sadly, too many have succumbed to the persistent and perpetually self-sustained illusion that our virtual inter-connectivity keeps us informed and involved. But the reality is we really aren’t as connected as we think we are – not to each other, or the big issues that matter to our well-being.
Social media allows people to feel engaged without having to show up, do the work, or give any of it much thought. It encourages reflexive responses. We are too quick to take Talking Heads at face value (especially the orange one), or maybe we don’t, but then neither do we hold them accountable for what they say – even when they lie. Somehow information and propaganda have become indistinguishable from each other, and hard facts are now fluid. We invest our funds and our faith in whoever tells us what we most want to hear, no matter what the real outcome might be.
But that’s not how things work in a functioning republic, at least not for long. Eventually the consequences of abdicating our duty to make informed decisions catches up to us. And yet, even when the consequences are inescapably dire, too many of us are still willing to be blindly led rather than look directly at the facts, draw independent conclusions, and act accordingly. And apparently, given recent election results, we’re okay with that. Except that some of us aren’t.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that I am incapable of turning a blind eye to anything. Believe me, I’ve tried. But in the end I came to accept that how I walk and talk in this world matters. I believe that I am accountable to and for others, and I strive to conduct myself with that thought first and foremost in my mind. To do that, I practice objectivity in my daily life, the same way others practice spiritual or religious tenets. For some of us, objectivity is a core value.
Objectivity is not a state of being or a quality of character. It is not tolerance or neutrality or acceptance. Objectivity is, simply put, a method for evaluating everything you encounter – people, places, ideas, information and events – without bias or prejudgment. It is exhausting, exasperating, and often overwhelming. But it is the only path to truth.
Becoming a critical thinker is only one of the many civic duties in a democratic society, though it might be the most important. Do you practice objectivity? Everyone should, often if not always. If you do, some or all of the steps on my personal checklist will sound familiar. If not, you might want to give some or all of them a try.
A 7-Step Guide to Critical Thinking:
- Seek first to understand – not just to validate your preconceptions and prove yourself right.
- Gather all of the available data, not only the information you’re comfortable with or that which is easily found.
- Challenge the veracity of your sources, no matter how tried and trusted they are.
- Do the tough work of separating fact from opinion and acknowledge the truth of things, even when that truth contradicts what you already believe. Especially then.
- When your conclusions don’t align with those of people you generally respect, wonder why. Re-examine your point of view before dismissing someone else’s.
- Weigh what you learn against what you know, but keep your finger off the scales. Let them tip on their own. One side will usually outweigh the other.
- Then and only then, make up your mind. Whatever course of action you follow from there depends upon what you hope to gain, but at least you’ll know what you’re getting yourself, and others, into.
It’s time for everyone to show up, do the work, and give everything some real thought. Use my guide, or create your own. Share it. Challenge people to follow your lead. Hold yourself and others accountable for the decisions they make and the actions they take. THAT’S how we make America great again.