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Critical Thinking in 21st Century America Essay

The intellectual roots of critical thinking date back to the teachings of Socrates, who discovered a method of analytical questioning; known today as “Socratic questioning,” establishing that one could not rationally justify their assured claims to knowledge. Socrates established that people cannot depend upon those in “authority” to have sound knowledge and insight. He demonstrated that individuals may have power and high position and yet be deeply confused and irrational.

He established the importance of asking questions and thinking deeply before we accept an idea as worthy of belief. Socrates stressed the significance of seeking evidence, closely examining reasoning and assumptions, analyzing basic concepts, and tracing out implications not only of what is said but of what is done. This, I believe, is essential to living a successful and knowledgeable life; question everything and everyone.

I strongly agree with Socrates’ idea that we cannot depend upon an individual of higher power to have all-encompassing knowledge and insight solely based on their status. The use of certain words, in just the right way, is enough to make some individuals believe just about anything; most successful lawyers have built their entire careers simply by knowing what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. Although I feel that critical thinking is a necessity throughout life, along with analyzing and questioning everything; I also feel that it is not something that is simply learned.

Today, in our contemporary 21st century American society, we are certainly allowed to be and/or trained to be critical thinkers, but it is only certain individuals who will use critical thought to its highest ability to expand their knowledge and open up the mind. These individuals, sometimes rare, have the ability to reflectively question common beliefs and justifications, and use this to carefully distinguish those beliefs that are reasonable and logical from those which lack acceptable evidence or rational foundation to justify a certain belief.

Socrates’ practice was followed by many great critical thinkers, such as Plato, Aristotle, and the Greek skeptics, all of whom emphasized that things are often very different from what they appear to be and that only the trained mind is prepared to see through the way things look to us on the surface, misleading appearances, to the way they really are beneath the surface, the deeper realities of life.

Critical thinking, amongst many other definitions, is the ability to understand and apply, to infer and to meaningfully investigate given information; the skills needed to see equivalents, comprehend connections, identify problems, and develop justifiable explanations. It identifies bias, and a bias is not necessarily bad; it is simply a preferred way of looking at things. However, critical thinking does not necessarily benefit everyone; it can alter relationships, change attitudes, and cause family and friends to part ways.

In light of our readings, many of the individuals we have discussed stress the need for a critical society, but additionally stress that it is not always beneficial, especially for those susceptible to nonsense. John Stuart Mill feared conformism among society as a whole, he saw this as a uniformity which enforced narrow-minded views and illogical rules on those individuals more open-minded and educated.

A few years back while researching religion for a paper, I came across Mill’s idea of “hell belief,” where he argues that the belief in hell is made inconsistently both strong and weak by a total system failure in critical thinking; that hell belief is incompatible with the belief that God is good. He explains that the same mind set that enables them to accept a theory involving these contradictions prevents them from seeing the logical consequences of the theory. Mill’s ideas of “hell belief” are very similar to those of my own.

Many, if not most, people are introduced and expected to abide by a certain religion by the time they speak their first words. Naturally, more often than not, religion and religious values are the first thing that many are taught; however religion allows little, or no room, for critical thinking. Many people carry their religious beliefs and values throughout life, where critical thinkers challenge and question it; they find the stuff that doesn’t quite make sense and demand to know where the logic lies and why exactly they’re supposed to life by these ideas.

In Mill’s ideas, people come to believe in it and manage to stay sane about it for the same reason, a lack of critical thinking. In our readings, we see that Bertrand Russell emphasizes the importance of open and free analysis, and the critical need to create education systems that raise open-minded pursuit of knowledge and cautions the dangers inherent in rigid ideologies.

I agree with Russell and believe that children should be taught to think critically as soon as they start their education because as adults it is almost impossible to learn, it is not simply a skill you can up and decide you want to possess.

If more schools implemented a system that encourages children to keep an open mind and consistently put certain ideas and theories to the test, they would be better prepared for future education, encouraged to socialize with their peers even if they’re not from the same religious or ethnic background, and overall be well prepared for life itself; the habit of questioning everything leads to the development of well-rounded knowledge.

When referencing the answers that many of us strive for, Russell explains that if philosophy cannot answer all of our questions, it at least holds the power of asking questions which increase the interest of the world, and show the strangeness and phenomenon lying just below the surface even in the simplest things of everyday life. He identifies a need for a theory of knowledge that will merge what appears to be from what really is, as well as the importance to practice knowledge responsibly.

Russell explains to us that in order to make statements or hold beliefs about knowledge, we must be able to substantiate that our knowledge is accurate to reality. Although uncertainty and doubt are Descartes’ enemy, he wanted to use doubt as a tool or weapon to combat uncertainty. What, if anything, could not be doubted after subjecting all of his knowledge to the acid wash of doubt. The one thing that Descartes concluded could not be doubted was that he was doubting. There has to be an “I” who is thinking. Descartes’ famous dictum, Cogito Ergo Sum, means “I think therefore I am”.


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