Critical Thinking vs. Wishful Thinking

Dr. Hurd: I absolutely loved what you said in your article about “confidence, but no competence.”

I’d like to add, though, that the reason parents don’t teach their kids about the tools to gain that competence is simply because … they don’t really understand them, either.

I see many previous generations having “done” something … because they believed they had to. They couldn’t explain why (and believe me, at a much younger age, I asked older folks many times…and I got nothing but a run-around that would make President Obama blush; no joke), they just did. It was supposedly just, “What you were supposed to do, because you were.”

If the previous generations can’t explain to the proceeding generations why what’s being done is necessary to be done, then what we all see is those future generations living by the ideology that the previous generations believed, but didn’t want to admit.

Perfect example: Why did the Baby Boomer generation turn on to the Hippie Movement and revolt against the “man” when their parents seemed so incredibly patriotic? Maybe because deep down their parents weren’t very patriotic, they just claimed they were–to their kids and to themselves, and it wasn’t questioned.

Again, fantastic piece; I agree with you all the way.

Dr. Hurd replies:

In my newly released book, BAD THERAPY GOOD THERAPY, I made the distinction between “do as I say” dogmatism and “do as you feel” subjectivism. You’re talking about the first, and you’re so right that

this leads to one of two things: Either mindless rebellion (as in the 1960s student movements), or subservience, with one generation to the next not thinking about how wrong many unchallenged assumptions are.

The antidote to all of this is critical thinking. Good teachers can — at least theoretically — be hired to teach the skills of critical thinking to children, but parents must above all foster and provide the leadership for it. I don’t care whether a particular parent has a Ph.D. in chemistry or an M.D., or barely has a high school degree. Everyone has the capacity for critical thinking within his or her context of knowledge. Critical thinking means objective analysis, logic and reason. It means NOT blindly accepting vaguely held, unidentified assumptions, and it means NOT refusing to accept something as true just because everyone else seems to accept it as true.

Critical thinkers are self-aware about the content of their own minds, and always willing to identify and challenge their underlying or “hidden” assumptions.

Critical thinking is independent, by definition. It’s not subjective and emotion-driven, but it’s not “by-the-book” either. If you conclude something is true that happens to be conventional and a majority happens to agree, then fine. You still concluded it with your own independent, thinking and reasoning mind. You understand the reasons and arguments in favor of the conclusion that others might also accept. By that same method, you can determine when a majority are off course, or guilty of sloppy or erroneous thinking.

Parents have to be the leader on this issue. The way to be the leader is to live your life as a critical thinker, something you should be doing even without children. The other way to be the leader is to coach and guide your children through whatever critical thinking they’re capable of. You take the time to find out what they’re capable of by having intelligent discussions with them about anything at all of concern to them. It could be events in a book, on a television show, in the neighborhood, at the school, or within the family. Every conversation about anything is a potential opportunity to demonstrate critical thinking. Critical thinking is not lecturing. It’s logical, factual, and sometimes even common sensical analysis. “Here’s my answer to the question, and here are my reasons. What do you think?”

A good therapist, as I write in my book, thinks along with the therapy client. This is different from thinking FOR the client. The same applies to your relationship with your child. If your child, at a given stage of mental development, is honestly unable to grasp the essentials of a certain subject, then of course you do this for him. You decide, for example, where you’re going to live and whether you can afford a particular purchase. But always be open to the possibility that your child is capable of at least a certain amount of thinking on any subject, including a subject about which he still won’t be making any final decisions. When possible, let him make his own decisions even when — gasp! — he’s plainly wrong. (Most American parents cannot stand to let their children be wrong. This is why so many children grow up into these helpless and entitled adults.) When it’s physically safe, let your child make mistakes and learn from them. Critically think with him along the way. Reason with him, and think it all out along with him. Don’t talk down to your child; think along with him, as much as he’s able.

I understand what you’re saying in your comments. Not all parents do this. It’s truly sad. When I look at what passes for intellectual, moral, social and political “leadership” in this country, I recognize that these are the choices of people — of grown adults — who truly are lost and clueless when it comes to critical thinking. There would be no President Obama nor a President Bush, nor a President Romney or President Gingrich, in a culture where people engaged in even a little bit of critical thinking about political matters. In politics, most people are engaging in wishful thinking, not critical thinking, which is why most of us keep hiring idiots and liars to lead us. The same applies in the realm of what passes for moral and spiritual leadership, whether in the “do as I say” dogmatic context of traditional church, or the “do as you feel” subjectivism of the so-called self-help movement, including but not limited to all things Oprah.

The real battle in society, and within any individual soul, is the battle between wishful thinking and critical thinking. Critical thinking does not always lead to the truth, but it provides the means for correction while getting to the truth. And it helps you face and identify the truth, once there. Wishful thinking gives up on the concept of objective truth altogether, and replaces it with the nonsense that permeates our entire culture, from individual households and minds, to the President, to most of our celebrities and academic leaders, and everything in between.

America may go down as a civilization that got so much done, but that ultimately lacked a regard for the rational mind — and paid a terrible price for it. It’s the same for an individual, regardless of the civilization he happens to live in. If he thinks critically, he’ll flourish to the greatest degree possible in that society. If he doesn’t think critically, the greatest civilization in the world, while doing him some material good, will not do a thing for his mind, his intellect, emotions or soul.