Tried to get this published also.
Those who would ban critical thinking in any form are making a huge mistake. If they believe they are protecting the youth of America from some evil force, they are doing just the opposite. Freedom in the fullest sense means that one must be able to act authentically, to create and own one’s actions. Cognitively, it means escaping from stories, based on the past, that run most of our lives. Only then can one call what they are doing their own—the autonomy that underlies freedom.
The idea of critical thinking arose when thinkers figured out that most of what we do in life was controlled by what was already learned, even if it did not fit the circumstances. Story is a metaphor expressing the way the brain weaves together facts gleaned from the past to design and produce actions taken in the present. But if the story doesn’t match present circumstances, the actions may not turn out as planned and may, also, produce unintended consequences, side-effects, as some call them.
Addiction is the result of such story-telling. Addiction starts with a story, hidden in the brain’s folds, that alcohol or some drug will cure some pain or solve a nagging problem. Perhaps it will provide immediate relief, but the problem will recur because the drug doesn’t address the underlying causes. The cycle repeats until the side-effects grow to destroy the body. Addiction can be addressed in two different ways. One is to supply a substitute, for example, methadone, that produces some desired effects, but without the harmful consequences. The other is to expose the story that has been controlling the addictive behavior—the core of programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Alanon. The theory behind these programs is that once someone exposes and understands what started and maintained the use, it becomes possible to control the habit.
This process is the essence of critical thinking. It begins with the exposure of notions held about the world that lead to unwanted results. Critical thinking taught widely in professional settings as ways to attack problems that do not respond to normal responses. Normality is a metaphor for actions arising from the stories stored in the brain.
Now change the setting to societal instead of individual actions. On the whole, a society behaves like a person, acting on norms that run all institutions, ranging from the family to the nation. These norms or stories are no different from those that run individual lives. They can and do produce unintended consequences that affect the health of the institution. Inequality and inequity are just such results, at the national level. Some part of these effects may be traced to deliberate acts in the past, but which have become embedded in the underlying norms.
Critical theory argues that critical thinking is essential in dealing with persistent societal problems. Like AA, it is a process that brings the story causing persistent problems to light so that its root causes can be addressed. Forms of it are important in business and other professions. Rewriting stories reflecting ideas and material things no longer appropriate in today’s world is particularly important. Without critical thinking, we would still be doing things we did in the Dark Ages and other periods in the distant past. Although we hold dear most of the ideas that are embedded in the Constitution, critical thinking has expunged those that have not withstood the test of time. It is always behind landmark laws and judicial decisions that have moved our nation forward.
It is ironic that its application is fought by many who would demand, otherwise, that their children learn to think critically. A further irony was noted above—libertarian concepts of freedom rest on the ability to be able to think for oneself. Arguments for book banning are no different. Books are windows on the world that open up the mind and set the stage for rewriting the stories holding us captive. Unless one can escape from stories written in the past and act creatively and autonomously in the present, there really is no self to be free.