As I’ve noted in earlier columns, I was rather critical as a youngster. (Some would say I haven’t changed all that much.) My parents and older brother weren’t always thrilled with my perfectionist attitude about, well, pretty much everything when I was growing up.
Fortunately, my family didn’t just sit there and take it. They argued back. Especially my brother, whom our father nicknamed “argumentative Arnie.”
Our back-and-forths were always leavened heavily with jokes and puns, so it’s not like we were always at each other’s throats. It was more of a competition to get the better of the argument.
I think it’s fair to say these family debates probably had a lot to do with the fact that my brother has had a long career as a litigator and I became an editor/publisher.
We both feel strongly about the need to write and speak clearly, and in order to do that well, one needs to think (and argue) clearly, too.
My critical side has been a bit overactive lately thanks to some of the folks who write these days for the daily newspapers.
While they do have a felicity with words and often display a clever sense of humor that I appreciate, to me they also frequently appear to have not thought critically about the topic they are covering and the people they are interviewing.
When you read a news story and feel you’ve gotten only one side of the story, or perhaps only a caricature of the other side, you know something’s amiss.
Of course, it’s not just the writers who are at fault. Their editors are equally responsible.
And the old codger in me wants to chime in here with “and their poor education!” It seems they were not taught much history, much less critical thinking skills.
And perhaps because they have risen as far in the media as they have, they don’t have a sense of humility that whispers into their ear, “Do you really know what you are talking about? Shouldn’t you do a little more research and talk to a few more people before writing about this?”
You will note that I have refrained from identifying any particular topic in this discussion, as my point is a general one that I think applies to multiple writers at many publications.
I’m not saying the Beacon is perfect, and it’s certainly true that we don’t cover breaking news with a less-than-24-hour turnaround. Daily reporters have a completely different (and much more difficult) job than do those of us who write or edit the Beacon, and I respect those who devote themselves to producing newspapers and websites in these times.
Still, it crossed my mind that all writers — indeed, all high school and college students — should be required to take a course in Critical Thinking. I’ve even come up with a game to play in such a class called “Poke a Hole in the Argument.”
I picture the class leader raising a new, often controversial, topic each week and starting by taking a poll: “What is your opinion on topic X?”
Then, the leader assigns thoughtful readings on all sides of the issue, and each day’s class is devoted to an unhampered discussion of one or more of the readings.
Questions to be raised would include: What are the elements of the arguments the writer makes? What is the logic behind those? What additional history or background are they assuming (or omitting)? How would you poke a hole in their argument?
After discussing all the readings, students would be asked to write a clearly reasoned analysis of the subject that looks at all sides and comes down wherever they personally feel most comfortable. Before moving on to another topic, the original poll would be retaken so the class learns if anyone’s mind has been changed by the exercise.
I think there are plenty of topics in the daily papers to fuel a class of this sort for many weeks, and I would like to think the students would come out of it better thinkers, voters and citizens.
I also believe that any students who participated in such a class wouldn’t want to be “protected” from opinions they disagree with (or hold in disdain), the way many college students today seem to feel.
For example, in a national survey of college students conducted last fall, 43 percent agreed with the statement: “Political opinions that I find offensive from fellow students should be reported to school administrators,” and 51 percent agreed that: “There are certain issues that school administrators or professors should prohibit from being debated on campus.”
Rather than banning speakers with different views from campus, critical thinkers would be itching to hear “the other side” and to engage any speaker in debate in a serious and mature fashion.
In both college and law school, I had teachers who used the Socratic method. We deeply questioned arguments from all sides of an issue, analyzed them, and learned how to respond in an articulate, effective manner.
What do you think? Is it time to try to bring back this time-tested method of thinking?
I believe, over time, such an effort might even improve the work of those who take jobs writing for our daily papers.