"[T]eachers… determine whether or not the population will progress intellectually or remain stationary."
I was born somewhere in Los Angeles in February of 1990. Since that day I have worked hard to remain creative and honest in all of my ventures. Eventually I would like to become a D.V.M. and own my own home. While I enjoy creative writing, I do not do it very often. My life and my autobiography are best described as works in progress.
My Evolution As a Critical Thinker
Most people subscribe only to instant gratification, and do not possess the persistence required to be a critical thinker: “to see things the way they are.”
From my studies, I have found many definitions applied to critical thinking and even more attributes assigned to a critical thinker. As best as I can tell, a critical thinker is a person who uses knowledge accumulated from past experiences and education to make informed judgments before making important decisions or developing beliefs. Although this definition describes the most basic traits of a critical thinker, many people may fall short of being critical thinkers if they lack the conviction and do not exercise the necessary diligence to ask questions consistently. The questions to ask are not simple and have a greater purpose than gathering initial information; rather they are posed after a person feels that he or she has come to a solid conclusion concerning whatever is being studied. The questions critical thinkers ask themselves after a conclusion is made are meant to serve as a “checks and balances” system. What many people either fail to realize or choose to ignore is that the amount of knowledge and information available is not finite, and therefore no conclusion should ever be final or absolute. As the information at our fingertips grows and is augmented, a true critical thinker must take this new material into account and apply it to his or her previous conclusion. For every piece of new evidence the conclusion is reexamined, and if the conclusion can stand up to this new information, it may remain unchanged; if not, it must be adjusted to parallel the new evidence. As I previously stated, there is no limit to the intellectual discoveries being made and the infinite amount of knowledge that gradually becomes available; therefore, a critical thinker’s work is never done. Applying your life to a study that is never ending is a daunting undertaking and requires bravery. In J.D. Salinger’s short story “Teddy,” the title character says: "Most people don't want to see things the way they are.” Most people subscribe only to instant gratification, and do not possess the persistence required to be a critical thinker: “to see things the way they are.”
The term “critical thinking” was first introduced to me during Ms. Behar’s second grade class. She said the words, but never actually defined what they meant or entailed. In all fairness, even if she had, I doubt my seven-year-old self would have been able to comprehend and apply this concept to my daily life. Perhaps understanding this fact, Ms. Behar presented to the class the concept of above-the-surface observations and below-the-surface observations. When making above-the-surface observations, we were required to memorize and regurgitate facts from whatever story we were reading at the time. When making below-the-surface observations, we were asked to use our reasoning skills to make inferences about what we read and then support our interpretations using the information provided for us. As I became more adept at explaining and supporting my observations, I found myself improving in other areas of study. I was unknowingly applying my skills as a critical thinker to entry-level science, math, and history by forming opinions based on what I read. I did not realize, at the time, how my proficiency as an apprentice critical thinker could be used a tool for success in my life outside of school as well, but I enjoyed the benefits of having a teacher who was able to build upon lessons taught in class without being present at all times.
As I progressed through school my growth as a critical thinker seemed to plateau. It would be easy to place the blame on disinterested instructors who preferred to do the thinking for their students rather than allow them to stumble upon the discoveries themselves, but in the interest of fairness, I will also label puberty as a guilty party. My skills as a student, which I used to employ readily, deteriorated, and I did the minimum amount of work required to receive passing grades in my classes. Being told what to think and investing in the opinions of others without exploring the possibilities for yourself cripples the mind, like hanging heavy ornaments on a growing sapling. Although this period of my life did not appear to improve my skills as a critical thinker, I actually learned a valuable lesson that colored my thinking in the future. I learned that the ability to think critically must be exercised like any muscle, and if left unattended for too long, it will atrophy. I was attending class and memorizing what was going to be on tests, but none of what I learned became a permanent part of my knowledge. I also learned that without thoroughly applying myself to the study of the subject material my understanding would be flimsy and incomplete. These observations were not realized at the time, and only became apparent once I entered high school and my lessons on critical thinking continued.
My first two years as a high school student seemed no different than my unchallenging years in middle school. As time progressed, my study skills became worse, and I lost interest in education. In my junior year I became acquainted with the teacher who would not only escort me back to the educational path I had strayed from, but who would also somehow condense almost four years of guidance pertaining to critical thinking abilities into six months. Ms. Aclufi was a teacher of biology, not English, and one of the most frustrating women I had ever had the pleasure to meet. Upon the conclusion of the fall semester, having done just enough work to earn a grade of “B-”, she happily awarded me with a “D". When I questioned her about my grade, she simply replied that she knew I could do better and that she would not be changing my grade until I met her expectations. Her belief that I could ascend past my current skill level parallels Socrates' statement to Euthyphro in the Platonic dialogue of the same name: “…I make no doubt that you will prove the truth of your words.” Ms. Aclufi and Socrates were two teachers attempting to guide their unwilling pupils to a well that not only holds knowledge, but also wisdom. At the risk of being accused of being both prideful and a brown-noser, I am happy to say that I absorbed the lesson that Euthyphro ran away from. Ms. Aclufi taught me how to solve homework problems by accessing all of the resources available, and she encouraged me to practice these skills in all aspects of life, providing me with a limitless source of tests to challenge my critical thinking skills.
I later found out that Ms. Aclufi was a doctor who had sacrificed a life of prestige to teach biology to teenagers whose only reason for being in the class was to satisfy a graduation requirement. She returned to the foundations of learning to educate others in an attempt to share what she had learned. Again she reminds me of Socrates in her actions. In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Socrates states: “The business of…the founders of the state will be to compel the best minds to attain that knowledge which we have already shown to be the greatest of all.” In this regard, teachers are the heads of society as they determine whether or not the population will progress intellectually or remain stationary.
During my college career I have worked to become creative, analytical and capable of drawing reasonable and testable conclusions. I continue to strive to ask as many questions as necessary until I feel that I completely understand a problem or a situation. The next challenge I have to overcome is to remove from my thinking that there is a possibility of attaining an absolute understanding of anything. I have sometimes attempted to welcome others, usually young teenagers, to experience the full benefits of critical thinking. I do not present my thoughts to them as lessons in critical thinking. Instead, I explain to them what critical thinking is by presenting a type of lifestyle that will make them contributing members of society. I encourage them to make their own learning discoveries while trying not to be too overbearing and possibly coloring their thoughts about education in a negative way. Some of the children have taken my suggestions and are flourishing; others prefer to remain as they are. I do not feel that I have failed them. As Morpheus says in the movie Matrix: “But I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it."