8. Critical Thinking and Social Life
Critical thinking is a positive social norm, but it requires the support of background knowledge and genuine reasoning skills. Without them, critical thinking can become an illusion. Parents should balance their encouragement of children’s argumentative skills and self-expression with an emphasis on intellectual rigor.
Taking account of social norms and peer groups
No child grows up in a vacuum. As they develop, children internalize many of the norms and ways of thinking that are dominant in their families, social lives, schools, and society more broadly. Parents should be aware of the positive and negative influences these different spheres can have on their children, and they should know what they can do to expose their children to norms that will foster healthy and independent thinking.
It seems that the right, even the responsibility, to think for oneself and to exercise one’s critical faculties has become increasingly tied to notions of dignity and individuality. More and more we see factors that have historically determined who has the “right” to be critical—age, origin, gender, level of general knowledge, or other implicit hierarchies—fade in importance.
Thus, it is becoming more and more common for students (with disconcerting self-assurance) to correct their teachers on aspects of history or other issues that are matters of fact. This raises some important questions, notably regarding the role of the educator, the goals of education, and the relationships between generations.
Our society encourages critical thinking from a very early age. We have insisted on the fact that, for young children, although intellectual rigor is difficult to attain, it is crucial to develop self-esteem and self-affirmation. But we have also seen that from around the age of eight, it is necessary to move towards teaching them basic reasoning skills.
The risk of making the “right to critical thinking” a social norm from a young age is that we lower intellectual standards. If the encouragement of children to think critically is not paired with intellectual progress in other areas, critical thinking is rendered a mere simulation of free thought and expression. This is as true for children as it is for teenagers or adults.
The entire population may feel truly free and have high self-esteem. However, if the intellectual rigor that comes with arguing, debating, and reasoning, is missing from children’s intellectual and social education, the people will be easily manipulated. Giving our children the freedom to exercise their critical faculties must be paired with the demand for intellectual rigor and linguistic mastery, without which “critical thinking” would offer the mere illusion of liberty.
Striking a balance:
For parents today, it is a matter of striking a balance between fostering critical thought from an early age, in spite of gaps in knowledge and logic, and developing our children’s cognitive faculties and knowledge base. Without these faculties of listening, attention, comprehension, expression, argument, and deduction, critical thinking is an illusion, a pseudo-democratic farce, which can lead to a society plagued by ignorance and vulnerable to barbarism.
On the other hand, we cannot simply slip back into old social conventions whereby children were told to simply keep quiet and learn their lessons passively. The only thing this approach ensures is that the child won’t become a troublemaker.
What is needed is an approach that harmonize advances in philosophy and psychology, which consider children as fully fledged individuals, on the one hand, with an understanding of the intellectual immaturity of this child, on the other.
Disagreeing in a civilized manner, in the end, allows us to agree on what matters most.
With the help of an affectionate, attentive, but also sometimes restrictive and guiding parent—who is at once intellectually stimulating, indulgent, and patient with the child’s needs—early development of self-affirmation and critical thinking becomes compatible with growing intellectual aptitude.
This intellectual aptitude is crucial to a healthy social life as well. People lacking this intellectual maturity cannot even disagree with each other productively; they lack the ability to discuss subjects worthy of critical interest, as well as the social and cognitive skills of listening, argument, and logical deduction. Disagreeing in a civilized manner, in the end, allows us to agree on what matters most.
Case in Point
Consider this discussion between two eight year olds.
– “I saw a show on TV yesterday that proved that aliens really exist. Tons of people have seen them, and they’ve found marks left by flying saucers in the desert!”
– “But there’s no real evidence. Those clues and eyewitness accounts weren’t very specific. Different witnesses described the aliens in very different ways—some said they were little green men, while others said they were big with glowing eyes. And the marks from UFOs could have been formed by strong winds.”
– “Oh, so you think you’re smarter than the scientists on TV, is that it?”
One child declares that a TV show they saw proves the existence of aliens. He or she takes it for granted that what we see on TV is true. The second is educated into a norm that calls claims into question and demands evidence. The first child doesn’t understand the second, because, to him or her, seeing it on TV is proof enough. From this point onward, the discussion can only go in circles. In this case, different social or family norms are incompatible.
Case Study 7