The Most Important Thing School Never Taught You

Humans. The major advantage we have - over every other species - is our ability to think rationally. It has allowed us to build cities, cars, and computers. It has allowed us to bend nature to our will.

The quality with which we think determines the quality of our future. It’s undeniable, quality thinkers are critical thinkers.

In my last essay, you may have seen that - after the first 2 years of college - 45% of students showed no gains in critical thinking. 45%! That’s almost half. It’s frightening because the same system that made our cities so powerful, school, is now becoming a system of indoctrination for our young.

Indoctrination (n): the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.

The quality of our future is defined by the quality of our thinkers. The quality of our thinkers is determined by their abilities to think critically. Before we can dive deeper into critical thinking, we need to discuss rational thinking.


What is rational thinking?


A perfectly rational being, which doesn’t exist, makes decisions purely based on logic, data, and empirical evidence. Let’s assume that it’s the highest form of conscious thought. Critical thinking can be seen as a necessary step towards perfectly rational thinking. 


What is Critical Thinking?


I like to define critical thinking as a personality trait instead of a skill. It’s a commitment towards truth and self-directed thinking. 

Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It’s a habit of someone committed to the highest levels of thinking
— Linda Elder & Richard Paul

A critical thinker thinks offensively. They take active ownership of their learning and understanding. Just as a bodybuilder finds a natural habitat in the gym, the critical thinker finds enjoyment in mental strain. They know a tough mental workout will strengthen their ability to think rationally.

A passive thinker thinks defensively. How can I fit in? What will make people accept me? What will help me pass this test? They avoid mental strain and outsource the difficult thinking to others. They default on the opinion of experts, instead of forming their own.

A critical thinker thinks in terms of systems but a passive thinker thinks in terms of goals. The passive thinker asks, “what will get me an A on this essay?” The critical thinker asks, “what are the traits of an excellent essay?” The end result for both is the same: a perfect grade. On the surface, the two paths seem the same but they’re not. The critical thinker forms a system that can reproduce the same result in multiple situations for various people but the passive thinker achieves the result in a specific scenario. 

The passive thinker is focused on outputs while the critical thinker is focused on inputs. This is a very subtle but important difference in character.


Why is Critical Thinking Important? 


Let’s consider two key types of understanding:

Intuitional: this is an immediate understanding of an idea, or the recognition of a pattern, based on past experiences.

Rational: this is an understanding achieved through conscious reasoning. 

In situations where we lack the intuition, critical thinking can help us make more rational and justified decisions. Critical thinkers have improved empathy which makes them better leaders and teammates than those who don’t think critically.

Empathy (n): the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

Critical thinkers are also more creative than passive thinkers. 


The Benefits of Critical Thinking


Decision making. Critical thinkers are less likely to make sudden judgments without a clear understanding of the information at hand. As a result, they are less likely to make irrational and emotional decisions or be manipulated by others.

Empathy. Critical thinkers know that there are multiple ways to view the world. They understand that we all have our own unique view of the world. They avoid judging others until they have attempted to step into their shoes and try to understand how they see the world. This ability helps them diffuse tense situations and aids in persuasion. It’s an essential skill for any great leader or teammate. 

Deep learning. When they don’t know something, critical thinkers admit they don’t know. They only speak on topics that they have actively studied for themselves. In a 2007 commencement speech, Charlie Munger made a beautiful distinction between the two kinds of knowledge in the world:

I frequently tell the story of Max Planck when he won the Nobel prize and went around Germany giving lectures on quantum mechanics, and the chauffeur gradually memorized the lecture and he said, “would you mind professor Planck just, it’s so boring staying on our routines, would you mind if I gave the lecture this time and you just sat in front with my chauffeur’s hat?” And Planck said sure.

And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics after which a physics professor stood up in the rear and asked a perfectly ghastly question and the chauffeur said, “well I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question, I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.”

Well the reason I tell that story is not entirely to celebrate the quick wittiness of the protagonist.

In this world we have two kinds of knowledge, one is Planck knowledge, the people who really know, they paid the dues they have the aptitude.

Then we got chauffeur knowledge, they have learned to prattle the talk. They have a big head of hair, they have a fine temper in the voice, they make a hell of an impression, but in the end they’ve got chauffeur knowledge… I think I’ve just described practically every politician in the United States.

Planck is the quintessential critical thinker while the chauffeur is a passive learner. Planck learned deeply while the chauffeur skimmed the surface.

Creativity. Without critical thinking, creativity would not exist. If creativity is the creation of something original, then critical thinking is a crucial part of the recipe. Critical thinkers refuse to blindly accept the ideas and values of others which results in the generation of new ideas. 


How Do You Become a Critical Thinker?


This is the trillion dollar question. I should reiterate that I am talking about critical thinking in the sense that it is a personality trait and not a skill. The tendency to think critically about the world emerges from having the proper character traits. I think the following traits serve as an appropriate starting point:

...open and fair-mindedness, inquisitiveness, flexibility, a propensity to seek reason, a desire to be well-informed, and a respect for and willingness to entertain diverse viewpoints.
— Emily Lai, Pearson Assessments 

There is no quick hack to becoming a critical thinker BUT there are some habits that one can build to alter their character in the right direction. 

Read a lot, and read widely. Exposing yourself to unique points of view is a good way to spark constant curiosity and to stay open-minded. Well-read people understand that there are always multiple ways to look at a problem and multiple lenses with which to view the world.

Don’t jump to conclusions. A good critical thinker has built up the habit of not jumping to conclusions, especially in the absence of data. They only make a judgment once they’ve studied a topic in some depth and can justify their position with sound reasoning. 

Create systems, not goals. For example, creating a system, habit, or ritual that promotes writing everyday is more effective than setting the goal of writing an essay a week. A system can be measured, refined, and optimized. A goal cannot. I can work on the inputs of my system to create better quality and quantity of outputs. A goal only focuses on the output. To improve the quality of my writing, I created a checklist that I can run through after completing each essay. Every time I use my system, I create better essays. With every essay I finish, I go back and refine my system. It’s a feedback loop that can be measured and improved. 

Argue with yourself. Great thinkers routinely and intelligently try to counter their own arguments. They go back and forth until only the most rational, and strongest argument exists based on the knowledge they have. This is also the mission of any good scientist. The scientist tries to prove themselves wrong, not right. When they continually fail to do so, it’s very likely that only the truth remains.

Change your opinion. Be unattached to information. Have the willingness to change an opinion in the face of better data.

Write. Writing is thinking. The better we get at writing, the better we get at thinking. Writing also helps us separate what we actually know from what we think we know. This quote beautifully summarizes the power of writing:

The most important skill is the ability to write. There is little difference between writing and thinking (at least verbal thinking) — so, to write is to think. To think is to avoid obstacles and capitalize on opportunity. To think is to set things straight. To think is to convince and explain. 

What you write, you remember. What you merely recognize, you are merely familiar with. Multiple choice tests generally reward recognition memory, which is much shallower than recall memory (which writing facilitates). If you write something, then you know it well enough to talk about it, so you can then speak — even publicly. 

To write well, you need first to know what you are talking about. Thus, you have to do your research. To do that, you have to know how to read, what to read, and where to find it. Then you have to be able to generate information, so that your writing is creative, and edit it, so that you separate the wheat from the chaff. Then you have to be able to organize your argument, at the level of the word, the sentence, the paragraph and the essay itself. If you can do that, you can organize your thoughts and, in consequence, your brain. Then you can help organize other brains, and other structures. 

If you can write, you have power.
— Jordan B. Peterson

Writing is one of the ultimate meta-skills: a skill that allows you to develop other skills. Like Jordan said, writing leads to better thinking, communication, reading, and researching skills. 

Seek adversity. This one is controversial but I believe it's the most powerful. The main reason schools fail to teach critical thinking is because they don't create the optimal environment to foster the correct character traits. Schools are overly standardized and structured. The rules are very rigid. Once students understand the rules, school becomes a game. Once they’ve established a game strategy that works, they can play the game very passively and get by. Most students quickly learn the bare minimum amount of effort required to get a job, and then they have no incentive to work harder and to think actively. However, if you take them out of that game - if you break the immersion - they are now forced to think critically. In adversity, they learn to create new rules and break old ones. They have to because it’s either do or die. 

The shift from a passive thinker to an active thinker is very subtle on the surface because it happens internally. It requires internal conviction: a strong belief in oneself. Regardless of how many tips I give someone to become a critical thinker, it ultimately has to come from a deep desire within. Most great women and men have gone through adversity. Why? Because adversity generates a lot of internal conviction. This internal conviction drives them, and constantly shifts them into active modes of thinking. Instead of living defensively, they attack life with ferocity. They know they will die one day, time is running out. They don’t know when that day will come so they attack life. They race against death because they have a purpose to fulfill.


The Tendency to Think Critically


I like to think of critical thinking as a tendency and not a skill. Great thinkers constantly tend towards critical thinking in their daily lives. If school doesn’t teach students critical thinking, where are people learning it? Life. Adversity. Books. The internet. These people become critical thinkers despite school, not because of it. They learn it because they have to. I believe that, one day, schools will catch up and do a better job of fostering this environment but, thankfully, we always have the power to put ourselves in a position to learn it. I’d like to leave you with this quote:

I want to oppose the idea that the school has to teach directly that special knowledge and those accomplishments which one has to use later directly in life. The demands of life are much too manifold to let such a specialized training in school appear possible [...] The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgement should always be placed foremost.
— Albert Einstein
 
 

Sources

1. Critical thinking study.

2. Critical thinking definition

3. Traits of a critical thinker were borrowed from this research report.

4. Charlie Munger story.

5. Jordan B Peterson quote

6. Definitions from Google top result.