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The dying art of critical thinking?

When we set up the Dragonfly Collective, we were clear we wanted it to allow both ourselves and others to think differently, and to see the world from different perspectives. That’s partly where the name ‘dragonfly’ came from, and still guides our work today.

Just the other day we were reminded by a friend from Australia about why dragonflies are unique. Dragonflies lead, transform, embrace diversity and difference and have the ability to see multiple perspectives simultaneously.

Unfortunately, this way of seeing and thinking, and embracing diversity and difference seem to be in critical decline across the world. Instead, nationalism, fundamentalism, sameness, nativism, sexism and parochialism all shape a single view of the world, supported by lies and the demise of ‘truthfulness’ in public life.

More often than not, a single view of the world is an ugly one . . . we don’t need to rehearse the events of the past twelve months to evidence that! Embracing multiple perspectives is for ‘nowhere’ people as Teresa May eloquently put it: ‘citizens of the world are citizens of nowhere’.

Thinking differently or thinking critically appears to be systematically discouraged.

Alarmingly so it would appear from an article in The Wall Street Journal (Many Colleges Fail to Teach Thinking, June 6 2017) that reports the results of an annual test used across 200 universities and colleges in the US to measure how much better graduates are at thinking critically after their four years at university.

The results showed that “at some of the most prestigious flagship universities the average graduate shows little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years”. Graduates who scored basic or below basic, (more than 50% of the total), are described as not being able to “distinguish the validity of evidence and its purpose” or “determine the truth and validity of an argument”.

The Economist provides a bleaker picture with analysis that shows once people have determined a way of thinking, they feed their beliefs with news and books and papers that confirm what they already believe – “all these reinforce one another, and increasingly progressives and conservatives simply do not know each other”.

This behavior is not necessarily new. History is full of institutions and governments prescribing what their ‘citizens’ can and cannot read. Ask Christians how many of them have read the Koran. The same question can be asked of those of all faiths and none. How many ardent critics of faith-based communities have taken time to read the relevant sacred texts?

Opening ourselves up to other ways of seeing doesn’t mean we accept everything we see. For example, no matter how hard we try, we cannot seem to openly embrace the thinking behind one of the best selling politically conservative books by Dinesh D’Souza: The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left.

But we can use the tools of critical thinking to look at both our own assumptions and the assumptions of others.

We can encourage ourselves and others to enjoy the challenge of looking at the world from several points of view and then making a decision based on an analysis that is informed by two simple questions – why are things the way they are and whose interest does that serve.

If the answer is always overwhelmingly our own interests, then perhaps it is time to think again.

Prior to the Brexit decision, we had no real understanding of why anyone would vote leave and still don’t. But the view of Yanis Varoufakis provided a window into a rational reason about what was needed and still needs repairing in the European Union – an uncomfortable provocation for us given our commitment to open and inclusive communities as ‘citizens of nowhere’. It informed and modified our view, but not our vote. Exploring the ways others interpret the world, and learning from that, is all part of what it means to think.

And it is not just at the macro level where we tend to adopt sameness and the safety of our ways of living and working. The workplace, institutions and organisations large and small across all sectors repeatedly utter those same dangerous words in the face of innovation or change: ‘don’t mess with it, that’s the way we’ve always done it around here’.

So what is the solution? How do we get people to think critically about who they are and what they believe in?

We agitate, we question. And we do not stop attempting to see multiple perspectives simultaneously. We take a view and then we work for change. It’s an ethical responsibility for people and planet.

As Varoufakis says: “progressives should never respect current trends . . . we must dare to dream . . . dare to dream and then work damned hard towards realizing that dream”.

And that is a bit like a dragonfly. They don’t respect the majority view that you can only fly in one direction, and they take a view of the world from every angle, transforming themselves in the process.

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