Tuesday, April 12, 2011

PhD 1.2: Critical Thinking – Things to Remember

Becoming a critical thinker is an important part of getting an advanced degree. For those of us who have made the decision to invest enormous time and money into getting an advanced degree, we have also necessarily taken on the responsibility to challenge the assumptions that prop up truth claims, to consider alternative ways to approaching a question, to carry skepticism with us as a means by which to shake out that which does not ring true.

In short, we should not neglect the lessons we are learning. We have the privilege of getting to learn this stuff and we had better use it. At the same time, we had better use it well. Here are a few things to remember while exercising critical thinking skills:

Skepticism: Medicine or poison: It is important that we do not simply swallow whole any idea just because we like it, it is popular, or it happens to support a part of political or religious agenda we happen to align with. carrying a healthy skepticism with us wherever we go is good. But we must make sure it is healthy skepticism. Healthy skepticism is good medicine. It keeps us honest. It keeps other people honest. A skeptical question or stance in a conversation can really prompt growth, creativity, and new insights.

However, unhealthy skepticism does damage. Unhealthy skepticism is used as a tool to destroy things. This occurs when it is used to dismantle something with which a person does not agree just because they do not agree with it or like it. When skepticism is elevated over the value of another person, then it becomes unhealthy. Sometimes unhealthy skepticism is leveraged against people in the name of truth and honesty, when it is really an attempt at conversion. Ironically, when it is unhealthy, it is the most dishonest thing to do. It is applied only to which an individual does not agree with and is not applied with the same emphasis to that the person embraces.

Wisdom crush: Knowing how much to use critical thinking skills, when to use them, how to use them, why to use them and so forth all falls under the category of wisdom, not knowledge. We must strive to gain a wisdom that matches our intellect. The extent that we fail to do this is the extent to which we become dangerous to this world. Science brought us the atomic bomb and must must never for get this. Wisdom is a guide that tells us when the use of our skills will be constructive or destructive, helpful or hurtful, kind or mean. There is no virtue in the skills themselves. There is only virtue in the constructive use of them. 

Humility: The reward for the good use of critical thinking is that you got to be helpful, had the opportunity to pursue truth, were given the privilege of helping make this world a better place. That is all. There is no need for exaltation or congratulations. Those may appear, but they are not to be expected. We must not be in this for ourselves. When something good happens as a result of the use of our skills, we must be gracious and grateful that we had the chance to make a positive difference.

There is a lurking and sinister thing called pride that wants to jump in and lay claim to a corner of your soul. We want to be seen as valuable, important, smart, and even indispensible. There is something within me that wants to “finally get the respect I deserve.” There is a sense of entitlement that wants to creep in. “I worked hard for this and deserve some privileges.”

The tricky thing is that I will probably get some privileges, respect, and admiration when I have used my skills well. That is not the point. The point is the extent to which I need them, crave them, lust after them, or seek to extract them from society is an indicator of my depth of character. Pursuing a genuine humility will result in not caring about rewards other than the reward of getting to do what you love to do.

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