On thinking critically – or not

Image from The Far Left Side.

At work, some years ago, we had a very interesting session where a consultant from our travel agency came to give an entertaining – but first and foremost informative – talk on cultural differences. One of her anecdotes was from a training course she ran for foreigners moving to Denmark. An American couple, probably in their mid-50s, was at the front row throughout the course. Frequently, the wife would ask her husband “But why do the Danes do (say/think/whatever) like that?” and invariably, the husband would answer “Because they are communists!”

For the record, we’re not. At least only a few of us are – even in times such as now, where we have a social democrat-led government.

And actually, what I want to dive into here, today, is not as much these political labels and differences, but rather the automate response the husband gave. My impression from the story was that no matter what he was told or shown, he would likely to stick to his initial impression.

Let me contrast that with a piece from today’s Politiken, one of the larger Danish newspapers:

“At a time when the market for housing seems to be locked, the agreement on Christiania, which comes into force today, is a good opportunity to pay tribute to alternative homes and alternative ways to live together in community. The housing market, which has stagnated, is based on a family culture that is as locked. Most of us are living very well under the conventions and standards in force. But alternatives contribute both to putting our own lifestyle in perspective and for diversity and inspiration. Challenging our habitual thinking is not only welcome, but a necessary part of our society.”

Welcoming the different lifestyle(s) practiced at Christiania – not because “an authority” says that you should, but because it can make your own life richer, whether it is from the contrast telling you that your own lifestyle is indeed the right one for you or from actually being able to take something from it that improves your life? Valuing it because it is different and because of that makes you reflect, think, analyse and finally conclude for yourself?

You know what? That is something I recognize as a Danish core value.

Let me back that up with a teaching example: At school, probably around the age of 14 or 15, we had an exercise. We got articles from, say, four different newspapers – all of them on the same story. The job was not to find the one that was right and the three that was wrong – but to compare the four articles, identify the differences, look at the newspapers in terms of what their editorial viewpoints were and how that would likely have an impact on how they’d write such a story and what they wanted their readers to get out of it.

Valuable learning: All news you are presented for have a bias of some sort – whether it is making you believe something or making you buy something, if only more of the same channel’s offerings. And you should take that into account before you make up your mind about the news you see, read or hear.

Again, time for a contrast. Recently, the Republican Party in the state of Texas has published their platform. In this rather long document there quite a number of things that I cannot possibly agree with, despite being slightly on the right-hand side of the aisle over here. But the most profound clash of opinion is this:

“We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

In my mind, deliberately working against critical thinking can only have one objective: preserving a status quo of some sort, no matter what the cost to your country and its citizens. Putting a “ban” on critical thinking is the same as saying: Only look to this one place to get your information, only look to this school of thought for any thinking that you may want to do – and, actually, better not to think that you may want to do any.

And you know what?

All progress, all development, all movement towards a better standard of living will stop.

This is not something I say lightly or grasp out of thin air. In his book “The Quest for Truth”, Norwegian writer Eirik Newth has done a brilliant analysis of science, ideas and philosophy through the ages from Socrates in ancient Greece to today. His main demonstration and conclusion: Every single time in history dogmatic thinking has gotten the upper hand, progress has stopped and populations have sunk into destitution.

In the Middle Ages, Europe’s powers were based on dogmatic Christianity – and Europe experienced dark, dreary times of disease and poverty while the Middle East were flourishing and continuing developments in architecture, medicine, arts as they had for centuries. Later, with the Renaissance, Europe woke from slumber, started to think – and developed rapidly. And along the way, dogmatic thinking engulfed the Middle East – and today, many of these countries only make a decent living due to vast national resources. Harsh words, maybe – and certainly skirting through centuries of history on an all too superficial way – but I do believe in the conclusion: Think critically – or stagnate into the quagmire.

I firmly believe that the Texas Republicans – and anybody else who cherish thoughts that controlling right and wrong and trying to be the power that decides what people needs to believe in – can do nothing better than to remember the words of one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson:

“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government”


“Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.”

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