Ages 13+
The Critical Mind

Ages 13+
The Critical Mind

7. The Critical Mind

Summary:

Genuine critical thinking requires background knowledge. Parents should help their children acquire broad and deep knowledge so they have the confidence and ability to call sources into question and avoid an unreflective acceptance of authority.

General knowledge is also a powerful tool for staying critical and skeptical in the face of this influx of information. It allows one to reconcile information and to check whether new data seems consistent with what they already know.

For example, if one were trying to evaluate arguments about how to address the recession caused by the 2008 global financial crisis, it would be useful to know the history of efforts to boost economic growth through government spending, especially those undertaken during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Citizens versed in this history will be far better equipped to evaluate and criticize the proposals put forward by politicians and economists in their own time.

Having general knowledge also means that one does not hold even the most reliable sources sacred, knowing that careful thought often undermines received wisdom.

For example, Einstein’s theory of general relativity called Newton’s law of universal gravitation into question, even though Newton’s law had apparently been confirmed by a wealth of experiments and observations. Einstein’s general knowledge and his independent way of thinking allowed him to postulate that gravity was not simply a force but a warping of space-time in the vicinity of stars. Since then, independent observational astronomical predictions have always supported the theory of general relativity.

Treating certain sources as sacred can be as dangerous as uncritically accepting everything that comes from the internet or elsewhere. The same phenomenon is involved when religious texts are interpreted as legitimizing violence or intolerance.

The interpretation—as well as the cultural, social, geographical, and historical contextualization—of a piece of information is indispensable to the formation of a critical mind. But critical thinking is difficult. It takes training, as well as background knowledge, to determine the reliability of a source, and this determination can never be definitive or certain.

These examples show that if we are responsible for educating adolescents on the verification of sources, we must be careful not to give permanent, definitive credit to any piece of information or knowledge, even if it comes from a seemingly very reliable source. Critical thinking, provided that it does not lead to permanent doubt or paranoia, is truly a way of life, facilitating progress and freedom.

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Case Study 6