In the 1991 movie Defending Your Life, advertising executive Daniel Miller (played by Albert Brooks) dies tragically and arrives in the “afterlife,” where he must face trial and defend his lifelong fears in order to “move on” to the next phase of existence—or be sent back to Earth to do it all over again. Daniel is especially motivated because he meets and falls for an also-deceased woman named Julia, played by Meryl Streep, who lived an amazing life and is clearly going to be advancing.
Daniel’s “defense attorney,” Bob Diamond (played by Rip Torn), explains that people from Earth use so little of their brains (only 3-5 percent) that they spend most of their lives functioning on the basis of their fears. “When you use more than five percent of your brain, you don’t want to be on Earth, believe me,” says Diamond. If the court determines that Daniel has conquered his fears, he will be able to use more of his brain and thus experience more of what the universe has to offer, right alongside his beloved Julia.
Our brains, as situations within our country and world demonstrate, appear to be quite underutilized. I’m not sure if the current threshold is as low as 5 percent, but I believe that skillful, lifelong learning and ongoing brain development help to seed the cultivation of our key thinking capabilities. The higher the quality of our thinking, the more likely we are to not only get things done but get the right things done.
What is “Critical Thinking?”
Critical thinking is the disciplined art of ensuring that you use the best thinking you are capable of in any set of circumstances. When a person is under-developed in his or her critical thinking, they tend to make reactionary decisions based upon assumptions or emotions. When enough such under-developed individuals gather en masse, the impact can significantly alter political, economic, and cultural foundations.
“Everyone thinks; it is our nature to do so,” write Richard Paul and Linda Elder in their book The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking. “But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or downright prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.”
Paul and Elder offer a series of questions clustered within categories, which can be routinely practiced to help cultivate more critical thinking and effectively problem solve:
- Clarity. Could you elaborate further? Could you give me an example? Could you illustrate what you mean?
- Accuracy. How could we check on that? How could we find out if that is true? How could we verify or test that?
- Precision. Could you be more specific? Could you give me more details? Could you be more exact?
- Relevance. How does that relate to the problem? How does that bear on the question? How does that help us with the issue?
- Depth. What factors make this a difficult problem? What are some of the complexities of this question? What are some of the difficulties we need to deal with?
- Breadth. Do we need to look at this from another perspective? Do we need to consider another point of view? Do we need to look at this in other ways?
- Logic. Does all this make sense together? Does your first paragraph fit in with your last? Does what you say follow from the evidence?
- Significance. Is this the most important problem to consider? Is this the central idea to focus on? Which of these facts are most important?
- Fairness. Do I have any vested interest in this issue? Am I sympathetically representing the viewpoints of others?
Can you imagine the positive outcomes if members of the media, politicians, and regular folks engaged in this kind of banter with each other, rather than continuing to talk and shout at one another? Just imagine what these approaches could do for decreasing bias, sexism, harassment, and violence.
Critical thinking shows up as a necessity every day, in every kind of role imaginable. But according to Paul and Elder, the majority of people are unaware of the “degree to which they have uncritically internalized the dominant prejudices of their society or culture.” They call this condition being “culture bound,” an innate tendency to select positive descriptions of ourselves and negative ones of those who appear to think or act differently than we do.
The famous writer Mark Twain offered a key suggestion for how to expand one’s thinking capacity and world view: Get the hell out of Dodge. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on those accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Each of us owes it to our own self-worth and dignity to find ways to constantly develop our critical thinking skills, and we owe it to women and humanity in general to equip and encourage others to do so as well. There’s simply no other way we’ll ever achieve a healthy, respectful debate on our most pressing problems and find the solutions to address the