Improve TU #28: Critical thinking skills a vital life lesson

Students need to take the time to think through the facts before flinging themselves into an unfounded opinion.

Few things in life are as uncomfortable as someone who is sure that their opinion, founded on few facts and little contemplation, is better than your informed and studied opinion.

As college kids, we’ve all seen this happen. We study a subject intensively, we grapple with its real-world implications in our spare time through internships or volunteering and we spend our time talking through it with other well-informed people. And then it happens. Someone wants to talk to you about this thing you know so much about. You’re thrilled! You know this! You have great ideas, and maybe not all of them are perfect, but you’re prepared!

And then the person is obstinate, and uninformed, and worst yet — they can’t imagine or acknowledge the depths of their ignorance. They won’t accept that the premise of this conversation is flawed: they believe they are equipped to start a disagreement based on what they already know.

There are all sorts of issues that feed into this problem. It stems, in part, from the insidious echo chambers we’ve locked ourselves into, wherein we only hear one side of the argument unless we make a true effort to hunt down other opinions. It comes from a culture that has made ignorance a sin that we cannot set aside our pride long enough to admit to. And most of all, it comes from a lack of critical thinking and reading skills.

We’re pressed for time and flooded with information. The Internet has only added to the overwhelming amount of information we are expected to wade through. And so we do the best we can. We skim, check URLs for credibility and move on. The issue is that so many people skim too much, trust too easily and wildly oversimplify what they’ve gathered.

It’s not enough to read a headline of a news article if you expect anyone having a conversation with you to take your opinion seriously. You have to know your facts and understand context. Why is this an issue at all? Why do people not agree with your stance? If something were genuinely simple, everyone would agree about the issue. You have to understand the opposition to have an informed opinion.

It’s not enough to see where an article or a paper or an argument came from. You have to understand what surrounds it. Is the newspaper liberal or conservative? Does the website you’re on fact-check? How reliable is it? Where did they get their information?

All of these things take time, I understand. But we have something of a cultural blind spot when it comes to opinions. We have the tendency to believe that everyone is equally entitled to their opinion, and everyone’s should be treated as equally valid. Opinions are not all equal, though. Opinions can be bigoted, short-sighted and misinformed. It falls to all of us to check ourselves, to weigh the merit of our opinions and know when to admit that we need to know more about a subject. We need to base that criteria on what we know, and what we know should be informed by critical thinking.

Take some time to seriously interrogate your own beliefs on the things you feel strongly about. What are the foundations of your beliefs? What assumptions have you made, and can you support those assumptions with facts? Stop assuming that everything you know is true. A skim of an article isn’t the same as an in-depth reading any more than a conversation spent crafting your rebuttals is a learning experience. They’re both ways of only internalizing what you already wanted to hear, not evaluating the other’s opinions or facts on their own terms.

We come to college to learn. So often, what we learn is more than what’s on the page. It’s how to evaluate facts or create frames of reference. Most importantly, we should all learn how to think critically, and admit when we’ve arrived at conclusions too hastily.

Post Author: Raven Fawcett