Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | November 24, 2009

Grateful for 10-year-old’s inspiring critical thinking

“Critical thinking is a mystery to me. What is it?” ~ Fred Oliveri, letter to the Morgan Hill Times editor about one of my columns

I write frequently about critical thinking. I do so because fostering this skill is integral to the survival of core American principles. Without it, we’re swayed by outrageous claims, fallacious arguments and seductive half-truths promoted by greedy, power-hungry fear-mongers. This Thanksgiving week, I’m grateful that Oliveri provided me another opportunity to write about an important topic.

Critical thinking is “… the careful, deliberate determination of whether we should accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim, and the degree of confidence with which we accept or reject it.” (Brooke Noel Moore and Richard Parker in Critical Thinking)

In his article “An Introduction to Critical Thinking,” Texas Citizens for Science president Steven Schafersman wrote, “A person who thinks critically can ask appropriate questions, gather relevant information, … sort through this information, reason logically … and come to reliable and trustworthy conclusions about the world that enable one to live and act successfully in it.”

I find that examples are helpful in understanding difficult concepts. Let’s consider 10-year-old Will Phillips, a fifth-grader from West Fork, Ark. Phillips, like most elementary students, rotely recited the Pledge of Allegiance in his classrooms for years.

Unlike most elementary students, Phillips thought critically about the Pledge’s assertions and was troubled by its claim that America has “liberty and justice for all.” Phillips knows that homosexual couples cannot marry, so he rejected the “liberty and justice for all” claim as untrue.

Then Phillips did something about it. He’s only 10, so can’t vote for politicians who might pass laws permitting same-sex marriage. Phillips wants to be a lawyer, but even though he skipped the fourth grade, he’s not yet ready for law school and the bar exam, so he can’t argue cases before judges who might strike down same-sex marriage bans as the violations of the Constitution’s equal protection clause that they are.

But he did find one concrete action that he could take: Refuse to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. When his class stands for the Pledge, Phillips stays in his seat, even as his teacher repeatedly tried to persuade him to conform.

It’s a courageous thing for anyone to do, but especially for a 10-year-old fifth-grader in the deep south. Since his decision, Phillips has endured predictable, juvenile homophobic taunts, but he isn’t backing down.

“I think that [gay people] should have the rights that all people should and I’m not going to swear that they do,” Phillips told CNN, adding that he won’t recite the Pledge until there’s “truly liberty and justice for all,” which “entails everyone being able to marry.”

After his decision, Phillips undoubtedly heard many fallacies (errors in reasoning) like the appeal to common practice, appeal to popularity, appeal to ridicule and ad hominem fallacies, but he has identified them as invalid arguments and refused to be swayed by them.

Phillips illustrates the steps of critical thinking in one heartening story. He questioned an assertion, gathered facts, logically analyzed the assertion, identified and rejected fallacies, rendered judgment on the claim, and took action based on that judgment.

Critical thinking can — and should — be applied to any issue: legalization of medical marijuana, continuation of super-majority requirements for budget passage, disclosure of public employee salaries, influence of religion on public policy, choice of gubernatorial candidate, which, if any, religion to follow, and on and on.

However, even if everyone used critical thinking to analyze every issue, it wouldn’t mean that peace and unanimity would suddenly break out. But it would clarify that when issues are logically analyzed based on facts and free from fallacies, any disagreements that remain usually result from differing priorities.

For example, I disagree with a fellow critical thinker about whether public employee salaries ought to be public information. He and I both gathered and analyzed facts and dismissed fallacies, yet we disagree: I believe public employee salaries ought to be public, he believes they shouldn’t. Why? I prioritize transparency in government over privacy; his priorities are the opposite. The California Supreme Court prioritized transparency over privacy when it ruled on this matter. As a taxpayer and citizen, I’m thankful for that.

This Thanksgiving, I’m especially grateful for Will Phillips’  simple, inspiring, courageous example of critical thinking in action.

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” ~ John F. Kennedy

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