We are witnessing the growth of a remarkable consensus that the
achievement of basic literacy ... is not a sufficient goal....
[Elementary and secondary school] graduates must not only be literate;
they must also be competent thinkers. (1)
IN 1967, AT THE AGE OF 17, after a serious injury that resulted from my own carelessness, I began to realize that much of what happens in my life is not a matter of destiny or fate. I am largely responsible for my patterns of evaluation and behavior. Certainly I cannot control all the events in my life, but I believe that I can influence many of them.
The Professional Person
My injury required a long recuperation that allowed me to think deeply about how to improve my thinking so I could avoid unnecessary mishaps. I decided to develop a logic-oriented way of life that was based partly on the popular Star Trek character, Spock. (2) I called it my "professional person" idea after it occurred to me that birds are better at being birds than people are at being people. Birds generally live up to their potential by building proper nests, finding food, and caring for their chicks to promote survival of the species. However, many humans, despite their tremendous potential for constructive, cooperative, and survival-oriented behavior, seemed to be falling far short of living successfully as rational beings.
The most important thing I did to cultivate this new orientation was to become aware of my own thinking and acting. I wanted to behave more intelligently, so I began to change my patterns of thought and action that seemed irrational, impulsive, and unlikely to bring good results. I tried to learn from my mistakes and the mistakes of others. I did not want to aimlessly stumble into adulthood, which is the fate of many teenagers who become premature parents, victims of addiction, etc. I preferred to cultivate a safe, healthy, and happy lifestyle. I felt responsible for shaping myself into the kind of person I wanted to be. As much as possible, I wanted to select the direction my life would take in my journey into the future. For me, rationality was the key to achieving these goals. So, at age 17, I began to develop my own style of "critical thinking" for the sake of a better life. There are many different styles, but here is a general definition: Critical thinking is "responsible and reflective thinking that is focused upon deciding what to believe or do." (3) It also "provides standards and criteria for gaining, assessing, and using information." (4)
The Value of Critical Thinking
Why is critical thinking important? One answer is that citizens in a democracy need to be rational, educated people who are skillful decision makers when voting or serving on a jury. Sustaining and improving our democratic way of life requires that we be active and informed citizens. S.I. Hayakawa wrote that "the task of the citizen today, to an unprecedented degree, is to distinguish sense from nonsense, confronted as we are by the greatest deluge of words that human beings have ever faced." (5) Along similar lines, Piaget maintained that "... [one] goal of education is to form minds which can be critical, can verify, and not accept everything they are offered. The great danger today is of slogans, collective opinions, ready-made trends of thoughts. We have to be able to resist individually, to criticize, to distinguish between what is proven and what is not." (6)
Critical thinking is important for yet another reason. From childhood onward, life repeatedly challenges us to cope with situations and problems that are not identical to those we dealt with in the past. If life were just a series of the same problems emerging over and over, one could mindlessly apply old solutions that worked before. But in a complex world that is constantly changing, we don't have that luxury. To increase our coping ability we need critical thinking skills to cultivate flexibility and creativity in our decision making and problem solving. …