Greetings Gentle Reader. On November 14th I am to have open-heart surgery. I am not sure when I will be able to write and post again. As soon as I am able I will do so. I invite you to continue to invest in your own searching and seeking and I also invite you to commit to nurturing more than depleting your P.I.E.S.

Few are guilty but all are responsible. –A. J. Heschel

I concluded PART IV with a question: What are some of the components of thinking critically?  This morning, as I conclude our brief exploration of ‘Critical Thinking,’ I will continue to respond to this question.

Challenging Context.  We must seek to become aware of how ‘context’ forms, informs, supports, hinders and blocks our ability to think critically.  We can help ourselves by striving to emerge, name and evaluate our uncritically integrated deep tacit assumptions.  These assumptions shape our habitual perceptions, our ability to ‘seek to understand,’ and our capacity to interpret ‘input.’  Those who think critically become aware that practices, structures, and actions (by us or by the other) are never context-free (nor value free).  Context, Culture and Sub-Cultures influence, for good or ill, our ability to think critically.  Sub-Cultures are particularly powerful when it comes to forming and informing contexts. 

In our country we are in an ‘off-year election cycle.’  The importance of context and sub-cultures is blatantly revealed to us during this time.  It is not our critical thinking capacity that is appealed to during this time.  What is appealed to, is our emotional connection to our sub-cultures, to our ‘Tribe’ and to the contexts that frame them.  Thus, ‘attack’ ads rule and appear in every context imaginable. 

Alternatives.  Critical thinkers develop the capacity to imagine and explore alternatives.  In order to do this we must, at minimum, hold an attitude that reflects that ‘I am open to the possibility of being influenced.’  If I am rooted in ‘surety’ then I will not be open to imagining or exploring alternatives. 

Critical thinkers seek to become aware of the context and how it shapes (forms-informs) what our sub-culture(s) deem to be ‘normal.’  The sub-culture(s) and the contexts that support the sub-culture(s) are approached skeptically.  This capacity to emerge alternatives is challenging for the simple reason that our sub-culture(s) might shun us in response to our seeking and searching. 

Reflection.  Exploring context and emerging alternatives requires us to develop our capacity for reflective skepticism.  When I am emerged in reflective skepticism I am seeking, searching, inquiring, challenging, imagining alternatives while holding an attitude that I might be influenced by what emerges.  I seek to ‘consider.’  This means that I strive not to immediately accept nor immediately reject.  In order to engage in reflective skepticism I must have the support of another person or two or three. 

I remember having a number of conversations with a business owner.  He had approached me with the intention of developing more fully his capacity for thinking critically.  We spent many hours together over a number of months.  As we began what turned out to be our final conversation he told me that he could not continue.  He was visibly shaken.  He had become aware that if he continued to think critically that he could imagine himself making decisions that his ‘peers’ would find offensive (he then named three of these decisions).  He could not imagine surviving the shunning and criticism that would rain down upon him from his ‘peers.’  With great sadness he thanked me.  We concluded our session and I never saw him again.  The power of the sub-culture was truly demonstrated that morning. 

Conclusion.  ‘Critical Thinking’ is a ‘lived-activity.’  We all engage in this activity AND we can all develop more fully our capacity to engage in thinking critically.  Consider, that today, more than ever before in history, thinking critically is at the heart of what it means to be a ‘mature person;’ especially a mature person who is a citizen in a democracy.  ‘Critical Thinking,’ then, is also a ‘crucial-activity.’ 

The enemy of life is indifference. –Elie Wiesel

To refuse to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral. –Robert K. Greenleaf

Good morning, Gentle Reader.  Last time I left us with a question: What are some of the components of thinking critically?  This morning I will begin to respond to this question.

There are a number of components.  I will offer us four of them to consider and this morning we will focus on one of them.  

‘Assumption-Finding’ is Central.  Discerning, emerging, naming and challenging our assumptions, especially our deep tacit assumptions is central and critical if we are going to develop or develop more fully our capacity for thinking critically.  Our assumptions, especially our deep tacit assumptions, underlie, support, inform, form and guide our ideas, beliefs, values, stereotypes, prejudices, and actions.  We take these for granted; we ‘assume’ they are ‘valid’ and hence that they are ‘normal.’ 

As critical thinkers we are challenged to examine their validity, their ‘being normal,’ and their accuracy.  This, of course, is no easy charge.  We find many ways to resist any or all of the steps it takes us to emerge and engage them.  We are, to put it simply, ‘Professional Resisters’ when it comes to focusing on our own assumptions, especially when it comes to our deep tacit assumptions.  A main reason – if not ‘the’ main reason – we resist is that our very identity is at stake (actually, it is not but it certainly feels this way to us and we react as if our identity is at stake for in some way we have become our assumptions). 

Most of us seem to know that our ‘assumptions’ are…well…they are our ‘assumptions.’  They are not ‘reality.’  Yet, when pressed, or challenged, our ‘assumptions’ are defended as if they are, indeed, ‘reality.’  We humans are truly living paradoxes.  Our assumptions frame our relationships – and frame those we will ‘allow in’ and those we will seek to ‘keep out’ (think: the ‘stranger’ we fear because we ‘assume’ he/she will harm us.  An Ex-President is an expert when it comes to using his and our assumptions to keep the ‘stranger’ at bay). 

Each political party is rooted in many deep tacit assumptions and each seeks to recruit members based upon these assumptions.  The ‘Independent Voter’ is supposed to be ‘free of being seduced’ by the assumptions of either party; but this is another assumption that seems not to be true today. 

Critical Thinkers are open to letting go of and replacing assumptions that might now be ‘invalid’ (think: ‘All Republicans are rich and white and fear-full of all non-whites.’ Or: ‘All Democrats want to tax and spend us to death.’).  This raises another powerful rationale for keeping our assumptions: We do not want to be shunned or expelled from our ‘community/’tribe.’  The worst thing that can happen to us is to be isolated – thus, communal assumptions are powerful assumptions used to hold onto members, and recruit new members. 

By the by, Gentle Reader, discerning, emerging, naming and challenging our assumptions, especially our deep tacit assumptions does not mean that we ‘have to give them up.’  On the other hand, if we are going to develop, or develop more fully, our critical thinking skills/capacitiesthis process is a crucial process.  It is also a life-long process. 

This process, in itself can be meaning-full and help-full.  This process can also be enhanced by integrating it with the next three components. 

We convince by our presence. –Walt Whitman

If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then, we are set up for the next charlatan (political or religious) who comes ambling along. –Carl Sagan

As a reminder, Gentle Reader, in PART II, I offered us two questions; this morning we will continue with our exploration.  Here are the two questions: How do we go about recognizing critical thinking?  What characteristics might we look for; characteristics, if present, reveal to us a critical thinker? 

Emotive & Rational.  ‘Thinking critically’ is too often viewed/experienced as a rational activity; the belief is that emotions hinder or cloud thinking critically.  Consider, however, Gentle Reader, that we are primarily emotive beings.  Consider: How many times have you responded emotionally or made a choice or took an action that was rooted in ‘emotion-first’ and only afterwards did you construct a ‘rationale’ for your feeling or choice or action?

Consider that asking critical questions about our previously held values, ideas, behaviors, principles and assumptions is, at minimum, anxiety-producing and at maximum is extremely emotionally disturbing.  Yet if we are going to ‘change’ or ‘transform’ emerging, framing, asking and responding to these types of questions is crucial.   

When I ask critical questions I might become fear-full of the consequences that might emerge.  The range of consequences (intended and unintended) is broad; consider this short list: a viable alternative might emerge, resistance might surface, resentment might flower, confusion might…well, confusion might confuse.  We might also, however, experience, joy, release (from being stuck), relief, or even exhilaration as we break through to new ways of looking at our worlds (think: personal, relational, work, religious, philosophic and/or political). 

More than 45 years ago, Lowell, my mentor at the time, was sitting with me and I was telling him how fear-full I was.  I was contemplating a life-changing move, a move I knew I needed to make and I could not ‘find’ the courage amidst the fear.  Lowell invited me to close my eyes and image ‘my’ fear.  Once I had done this he invited me to approach ‘my’ fear and embrace it.  Then Lowell invited me to look over ‘my’ fear’s shoulder and I would see courage, patiently waiting to be called forth.  Once I had embraced my fear and beheld my courage Lowell then invited me into a deep searching conversation.  The emotive preceded the rational.

During these many years since when I have had the privilege of serving the police, the military, fire-fighters and other first-responders this story always resonated with them for in times of ‘need’ they had to embrace their fear and find and call forth the courage that resided behind the fear.  They, too, said that acknowledging and in a sense ‘embracing’ their fear(s) allowed them to perceive the courage that they then called forth.  As one fire-fighter remarked: I entered the burning building full of fear, trembling and courage; we all went in together.  I still love that image.

As we abandon our assumptions, prejudices, stereotypes, ‘sureties,’ beliefs that are hindering or depleting our development we do experience a sense of liberation.  As we wake up and become aware that we have the power (power = one’s ability to act rooted in moral integrity) to change, we are emotionally charged in a positive way (mostly, it seems). 

Consider that thinking critically and denying or ignoring or dismissing emotions puts the thinker in harm’s way.

So now, Gentle Reader, you might ask: What are some of the components of thinking critically?    

An expert is someone who has stopped thinking critically because he knows. –Frank Lloyd Wright

Simply disabling specific critical thinking skills is all that is necessary for the god virus to take control of a person. –Darrel Ray

As a reminder, Gentle Reader, in PART II, I offered us two questions; this morning we will continue with our exploration.  Here are the two questions: How do we go about recognizing critical thinking?  What characteristics might we look for; characteristics, if present, reveal to us a critical thinker? 

Context-Focused.  Context is crucial.  Because ‘contexts’ vary, the indicators that reveal whether or not a person is thinking critically varies; minimally or enormously.  For some, the process appears to be almost exclusively rooted in an internal process. For example, more often than not, I process internally.  I reveal my internal process via my writing or via deep searching-conversations.  For others critical thinking will manifest itself externally.  For example, my daughter, Rebecca, processes externally via a combination of actions and verbal engagement. 

The ‘context’ helps to frame – or powerfully frames – the critical thinking process. The ‘tension’ occurs when the ‘internal processor’ has to work with the ‘external processor.’  I liken it to a ‘dance’ where at times one ‘takes the lead’ and at other times the other ‘takes the lead,’ The ‘Dance’ is a simple, not simplistic metaphor. 

Triggering Events.  Positive and Negative Events can be the ‘triggers.’  An event, from ‘important’ to ‘traumatic’ often opens a pathway to critical thinking.  The person begins to question, for example, his/her previously trusted assumptions about how the world works.  The person might well begin to care-fully scrutinize his/her previously unquestioned ways of thinking and living. 

This awareness does not bring comfort or solace; one indicator that a person is thinking critically is that he/she is disturbed by what is revealed.  Two years ago in June, my son-in-law, Gregg had a massive heart attack.  As he was recovering we had a few conversations about the opportunities a ‘second bite of the apple’ was presenting him.  The journey – inward and external – has been challenging.  And Gregg continues to heal in a number of ways.

The triggering event might also be a ‘peak experience event’ – think: falling in love, graduating, achieving a long sought goal.  We begin to wonder if our old assumptions about our roles, personalities, and abilities were completely accurate.  I remember my son Nathan calling me after he had been accepted in a graduate degree program (this graduate school took only one graduate student a year in Nathan’s discipline; he had applied four years in a row).  I did my undergraduate work at this university.  Nathan wanted to know if I had done anything to help him get accepted.  I assured him that I had not done a thing.  There was a pause and Nathan began to cry.  After a short time he said, ‘Dad, do you mean that I did this on my own?’  I replied, ‘Absolutely son, YOU did it.’  The following three years were truly life-changing for him.  His often stated, ‘I don’ know if I can do this’ became, ‘This is a challenge AND I can do this.’  He spent three years exploring and developing his critical thinking skills and capacities. 

Emotive & Rational. [To be continued…]

The most fundamental attack on freedom and democracy is the attack on critical thinking skills. –Travis Nichols