By Tim Hayes

The young man, fresh from earning a bachelor’s degree in musical theater, found himself auditioning for a small troupe in New York City advertising itself as a company of actors performing skits and songs for school assemblies.

Thrilled with the opportunity and ecstatic to have been accepted into the traveling troubadours, he soon found himself in a place he had not anticipated. The group motored all over the five boroughs in a van, consistent with every stereotype of “starving artists” you’d ever heard. But part of this band’s standard operating procedure also included regular and routine drug use.

And while this young performer may have had his share of partying in college, this took things to a whole other level. He knew he had to ask the internal tough, core questions, like: Why are these people doing this? Where could this lead? Is the risk worth the reward? Do I have the balls to stick around? Do I have the balls to leave?

He hung on for a couple of days then left the troupe, left New York City, and left a lot of his dreams of a career in theater behind. He knew what had to be done when confronted with an unexpected and uncomfortable situation.

Why? Because he knew to think critically. To weigh all sides of a situation then filter that information according to his own standards of truth, instinct, and values. To think for himself.

That seems to be more and more of a lost art these days. How can so many people live quite contentedly, swallowing whatever other people tell them, not taking the time or making the effort to evaluate and sift and make judgments for themselves? Research has some explanations. (1)

How about indoctrination? When an individual is surrounded and constantly fed a one-sided view on things like personal beliefs or politics, it stifles critical thinking. Anyone who survives on an exclusive and steady diet of MSNBC, Fox News, Mother Jones, or Rush Limbaugh could fall into this trap. A healthy skepticism goes a long way.

It could be a lack of intelligence, or maybe more accurately, a lack of curiosity. According to the Media Awareness Network, “Critical thinking is about how to think, not what to think” and requires “curiosity, open-mindedness, skepticism, and persistence.” You have to value your own worth. You have to give a crap about yourself first, in other words.

Then there’s intransigence. Even an extremely intelligent person will not think critically if unwilling to venture outside his or her own opinions. If you are not humble, you will avoid examining alternate opinions for fear of being proven wrong. Pride goeth before the fall, after all.

Here’s my take on improving the level of critical thinking. It comes down to one word: READ. And I mean reading meaningful writing, the kind you need to spend some time with. Not the drivel, half-baked theories, and foreign bots propaganda that pollute social media platforms. Put the damn phone down and pick up a book. Store up riches in your own mind. They never go away, in fact they only become more valuable if fed properly.

For example, a 2014 study found that kids who read “Harry Potter” are less likely to hold prejudices toward minority groups and are more apt to display greater levels of empathy, because Harry often aligns himself with groups being persecuted. (2)

A study published in Science found that reading literary fiction with complex, developed themes and characters allows readers to adopt perspectives they might otherwise not consider; and “it seems that (Harry Potter author J.K.) Rowling might get at the beautiful, sobering mess of life in a way that could have a meaningful impact on children’s collective character.”  (3)

A professor specializing in the works of Charles Dickens said, “We read Dickens because his perception and investigation of the human psyche is deep, precise, and illuminating, and because he tells us things about ourselves by portraying personality traits and habits that might seem all too familiar. His messages about poverty and charity have travelled through decades, and we can learn from the experiences of his characters almost as easily as we can learn from our own experiences.” (4)

No one person has all the answers. No one person has ever been qualified to exclusively tell other people what’s best for them. No one person has ever been able to infiltrate another’s mind or heart or perspective or feelings or prejudices or hopes.

You control your thinking, or at least you should. And the quality of that thinking can only be enriched and made more sound by expanding your mind. That’s done by observing and modeling those attributes of others – parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, leaders – you find admirable.

But a deeper, more fruitful way comes by reading classic literature and history. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it requires a commitment on your part. But the investment pays dividends for a lifetime, because through reading you create the time to think about why characters behave as they do. How they deal with the consequences of their decisions. Which ones you would most like to emulate – and most important – why.

Our nation feels like it’s quivering at the seams right now. Tensions are high, divisions have become more raw. It might be a loud, long summer with lots of ragged edges exposed.

That’s why we need to reclaim, resuscitate, and resoundingly celebrate critical thinking. I have intentionally signed up for updates from various opposing viewpoints, in order to see what drives the thinking from across the whole spectrum. What appears can be both illuminating and sickening, highly valuable and worse than worthless. But the value comes in getting at least a taste of what each side is for, and is up against. And then I make up my own mind about it all.

But blindly following the loudest voice – regardless from which direction it comes – may not be the wisest choice. And far too many people are more than willing to merrily dance to any Pied Piper who tells them only what they want to believe. It’s so much easier to not think.

“Most people would rather die than think, and many of them do,” said Bertram Russell, a British author and philosopher. It doesn’t need to be this way. Don’t “die” to your own values, your own self-worth, your own freedom.

We can be better people and create a better society. Strengthen your own ability to reason by reading and observing. Then trust your own compass to make an informed choice. One that you can live with when looking at that person in the mirror. Broaden your perspective and think for yourself. It’s our only collective hope.

You may be wondering how that young performer learned to think so critically and make such a momentous – and ultimately correct – decision?  His Mom read to him at night when he was a little boy, sparking a love of the classics. His brain took it from there.


Copyright 2020 Timothy P. Hayes