It’s Not About the Answers (part 2 of 2)

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

So, critical thinking is more about asking good questions and less about having all of the answers. As stated in my previous article, the “School of Hard Knocks” may gain you considerable experience, but it often does little to develop critical thinking. Rather, it can insulate you into one particular point of view: yours.

This isolation can be intellectually dangerous.

I was inspired to write this two-part blog entry because of two events that happened recently. The first, which I addressed in part one, was a political candidate’s assertion that her education had come from the “School of Hard Knocks.” The second event was the appearance, yet again, of an e-mail hoax. The e-mail, forwarded to me by a 75-year old relative, stated that the planet Mars would appear “as large as the full moon” at the end of August 2010. In other words, the e-mail declared that the night sky would have the equivalent of two full moons. The family member who forwarded the announcement added that this was “something to think about.” This family member, who is perfectly delightful and fun to be around, has, by virtue of her age, accumulated a treasure trove of experiences. She has lived in Europe and in various locations around the United States. However, the critical thinking skills she has acquired throughout her life often have not served her very well. In fact, she is known to forward warnings about a myriad of potential threats to life and computers only to discover that these, too, are hoaxes.

So, what’s going on here?

I recall the flurry of Communication research that was done after the famous 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Orson Welles, the producer/director/participant of the radio program, had announced at the beginning of the broadcast that the audience was about to hear a dramatic play. The program was also listed in the newspaper’s regular schedule of radio programs, much like television programs are listed today. Actually, the play was an episode of the weekly series “Mercury Theatre.” Yet, about one million people panicked and believed that Martians had invaded the Earth.

The overwhelming majority of those who panicked had tuned in late and did not hear the announcement that the program was a play. However, there was one other factor that was a common thread among those who feared for their lives: their level of education. The majority of those who succumbed to fear had a high school education or less. In fact, the percentage of those who became afraid decreased as the level of education increased. Why? The answer lies in their inability to draw on critical thinking that has been honed by knowledge outside of their own points of view.

Does this mean that all persons who have not pursued education beyond high school are doomed to live in fear? Of course not. It also does not mean that the level of education is a reflection of intelligence. What it does mean is that research has shown that there is a correlation between education and the ability to think critically.

Higher education takes you into realms of the unknown, the unfamiliar. As you broaden your realm of knowledge, you also broaden your perspectives of understanding. This, in turn, leads you to ask questions in pursuit of both clarity and answers.

It is this seeking of knowledge that is a wonderful inherent quality of being human. We are a curious species. We need to know. In that search for knowledge, we end up addressing what we do not know. The more we learn the more we realize that what we do not know is considerable. Sometimes people are afraid to go beyond their own comfort zone of knowledge, believing that what they know is sufficient. It can be. However, it also can be a narrow view of the world that isolates you into intellectual tunnel vision. Education gives you the confidence to embrace all that you do not know. It is through this realization that questions are born and critical thinking becomes a lifelong tool of intellectual inquiry.


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