One of Loyola’s central themes is that of critical thinking – how it should be practiced in an academic environment and applied for the improvement of the human condition. In my classes, I stress nine concepts which I believe engaged people must use. They serve as my “nine-step process” toward deeper understanding.
1. Trade-offs: For every action we take, there will be a tradeoff. When we restore beaches in front of beachfront homes, we make some people very happy. But, there is only so much money, so what lost funding so that the beach could be replaced? Education? Health care? Highways?
2. Unintended consequences: When we leveed the river to protect ourselves from flooding, we did not intend that, 70 years later, we would be flooded from the Gulf of Mexico as the sediment-deprived coast continued to sink.
3. Unforeseen events: Somewhat allied to unintended consequences is this topic. A common failing in our society is the art of planning – long-range thinking and effective forecasting. We must be better at using our experience to predict long-term results of our actions. The problem is, it is rarely done. We tend to plan activities with the primary target being short-term gains.
4. Value of being able to connect the dots: It is a maxim of critical thinking that one must have the ability to understand relationships and interactions among components of an issue. It took decades for citizens to accept that a loss of coastal wetlands weakens our economy, and that, in our region, the weakened economy adversely impacts the quality of our culture, and that it is basically the culture of our region that drives tourism, and so forth and so on. Connecting the dots has value.
5. Hidden values: Some events and things have obvious value, but others do not. In the not-so-distant past, who knew that the “worthless wetlands” of our coast (at one time selling at five cents per acre) were actually supporting the largest fishery in the continental United States?
6. Our political process: Most Americans accept that we have the best political system in the world – and we may. But, it is not exceptionally effective. Many will say that “America has forgotten New Orleans.” I doubt that. On any given day, there are still thousands of Americans in our city working to restore the needs of her people. No, Americans have not forgotten us. The failing is in our form of representative government. The first rule of politics is . . . to get re-elected. Congressmen are not rewarded with re-election by sending money to noble projects. They are re-elected by sending money home to their districts. Funny how that works. Americans typically want to help New Orleans, but their congressional focus is on helping their districts.
7. Enlightened and capable leadership: There is not a lot to say about this self-evident topic. We can’t expect anything of note from unenlightened or incapable leaders, but it is clear that we keep electing them. Until the population demands (and elects) leaders who think and act critically as they seek solutions to challenges, those of us who dream of a better existence for all will be continually disappointed.
8. What we should expect of ourselves: Critically thinking people understand that they must not transfer important decisions or actions to others. Margaret Meade clearly understood that the actions of one person can change the world. Too many people in our society expect others to make decisions and carry out good works. This is an unworkable position. Bill Clinton’s book, Giving, discusses the capacity of each and every human to make a positive impact on the surrounding social environment. It doesn’t take money, it requires motivation to do good works.
9. Social justice: This is the cornerstone of a Jesuit education, and the key to a better, sustainable society. Of the thousand or so possible definitions for social justice, the common denominator is that people treat other people justly, and that this practice be transferred and applied to all transactions.
10. _____________. This blank is provided for your technique. Please be sure to apply it widely, and share with me so I can incorporate your thinking.
Critical thinking is a lifestyle, not a slogan. Professors should apply it; students should demand it.