CRITICAL THINKING

It’s not as if I didn’t have a chance.  Our family had enough reading material in the house to keep the most zealous bookworm occupied.   Magazines?   My parents subscribed to Time, Life, Colliers, Ladies Home Journal, National Geographic, and Reader’s Digest.  We subscribed to the Edmonton Journal, hung in there until the Edmonton Bulletin died (pre-1951), and had the Star Weekly delivered every Wednesday.   On my own I bought Sport magazine, the Hockey News, Sports Illustrated (post 1953), Mad magazine and – although a lifetime of mechanical ineptitude would refute it – Popular Mechanics. My mother belonged to the Book-of-the-month club and my father was an afficionado of  the crime genre, especially Erle Stanley Gardner ( and his seven noms-de-plume). We had a set of Encyclopedia Americana and its ancillary collection “Lands-and-People”.  We were ocasional users of the school and town libraries.  As if that wasn’t enough, my father subscribed to Hansard, the daily transcript of everything being said in the House of Commons.    A more boring publication you couldn’t find anywhere this side of a parts list for a dirigible.   I don’t know what my father got out of reading Hansard;  it wasn’t like anyone in town was lining up to hear what their favorite MP was saying.   The only good thing was that he didn’t lecture me on why it would be useful to read Hansard.

You’d think with all that literature and reading material, we’d be a fairly discerning family.   We definitely knew a lot of “stuff” and were “current”, as they say.   But we were anything but discerning.

Sixty years later, I look back on all that absorption of news about the world we lived in and shake my head.   I can’t speak for my brothers but I know I never did develop any real critical thinking skills, despite my mother being an accomplished realist.   All those magazines and books never pushed me to think about things differently from the accepted wisdom of the day.   I bought into the myths of America and the western World (which really meant the British Empire, that old Neilson map showing all the colonies in red).

Might I have explored my world a little more keenly? Or was I simply lacking a curiosity gene?  This was small town Alberta and there was no internet, no history of dynamic town hall meetings, and little tolerance for singular unconventional behavior.    If there were any original thinkers – and there were – they were generally marginalized and  dismissed as untrustworthy or, worse,  “touched in the head”.    Our family discussions, while on many occasions very impassioned, never veered off a conventional path – goodness is its own reward, right will triumph in the end, our “side” was always the “good side”, you can become anything you want if you try hard enough.   We never questioned these beliefs.  We questioned religion but never God.   We questioned political integrity but never the system under which it operated.   We questioned the depictions of the world by Hollywood but never the underlying assumption that we were good and the “white hats” would win.

I remember my first ventures into the world of classic literature – Twain, Dickens, Kafka, and Tolstoy – and thinking how morally messy and complicated their worlds were.  But, rather than examine how it applied to my world, I concluded they came from very different places and different times and my world was just fine, thank you, and pretty much existed the way Time Magazine said it did. I knew some darker truths were out there but until I experienced them firsthand, I would continue looking at life with rose-colored glasses.

I wonder why I so meekly accepted what we were taught. After all, we were the sixties generation and had begun our rebelling in the late fifties, throwing off the musty lingering vestiges of the Victorian age  and asking a great many questions.   But it seems those questions were, for the most part, neither penetrating nor frequent.  It may sound a bit incongruous, but despite being born during WW2 and despite living in a town that trained the Canadian Army for Korea, I led a fairly sheltered life – no famines, no serious ailments, no catastrophes befalling the community or the province or the country. This may have contributed to my complacency.  It did seem our concerns rarely went beyond sports, girls, and size of fins on the new cars.

It wasn’t as if my peer group didn’t have its cynical side; we could satirize a solemn high mass  or a coronation and had no trouble seeing through most politicians.  But something kept us from questioning the whole framework of our society.  If we saw much of the bullshit that was being peddled by governments and corporations,  we did not go the next logical step and question why so little of it was ever acted upon.  And how were two such wonderful countries, Canada and the U.S., created while we remained ignorant of so much of the pain and corruption that went into this creation and the bitter struggle waged by its citizens to share in the wealth?  Was there a line we were afraid to cross?

If I had been taught to employ critical thinking skills when I was young rather than mastering the art of regurgitating, what might I have seen?   Would I have seen the insanity of American foreign policy in Central America or Canada’s folly with residential schools and the shady admission of Newfoundland into confederation?   Would I have seen how ethno-centric our history was, how firmly it was set in the assumption that America was simply a chunk of deserted land waiting to be divvied up by settlers and developers?  That Geronimo and Louis Riel were the bad guys?  I never questioned McCarthyism, the Rosenbergs, or Kim Philby although I knew that each story was incomplete.

The first shock I remember was Viet Nam.  I began by echoing the “domino” theory and only slowly moved to doubting and eventually opposing.  But I’m not sure I wasn’t simply following public opinion.   By the time I might have thought I was exercising some critical thinking skills, opposition was widespread.   Hard to score one for critical thinking.

Conventional wisdom tells us to “stand up for ourselves” when we see something we truly question. The nobility of the sentiment has remained powerful throughout my life.  But I never really ever “stood up”, in spite of having a strong aversion to authority. I was part of a social fabric and had no wish to tear it apart.   Maybe I was worried about seriously questioning things for fear I would be branded a chronic malcontent (My aversion to authority pretty much guaranteed this label anyway), or becoming marginalized myself just for believing in something unpopular.  And, standing up to protest had its dangers – arrest, ridicule, isolation, and even death.   If nothing else, I was certainly aware at a fairly young age the courage it often took to “stand up for yourself”.

In any case, we live in vastly different times now, largely because of the internet and the cell phone.   Everybody “stands up” even if it is anonymously.   It would be interesting to imagine the Warren Report being scrutinized in this age of social media.   We know the internet is a cesspool of nutty theories, unabashed hatreds, and careless intellectual meanderings but it’s also a source of unconventional and contrary thinking. If nothing else, it has shone a critical light on the management of news as practiced by the mainstream media.

In the final analysis, we’re all “products” of our society and if I can see a lot of falsehood now that I’m older, I don’t suppose it’s any different from the wisdom gained by my forefathers as they aged, internet or no internet.  I can smile at the old German proverb, “So soon old, so late smart”.  I know that history is a tale told by the victors and that tale is almost always a sanitized version of whatever brutal methods were used to win.  I know truth is elusive and there are many sides to every story.  But  . . . .

If I had been given better critical thinking skills, would it have mattered?  And what, really, are critical thinking skills anyway?  Is it merely a puffed-up phrase for using your head? I might have felt better about understanding the imperfect world in which I lived, but could it have made a difference?  One of the pieces of wisdom I did acquire over the years is that the distance between the thought and the deed is often immense.   I’m afraid that’s my most critical thought.

Robert Alan Davidson

(May, 2016)

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