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Mares: Critical Thinking

For 20 years, my license plate read THINK as an injunction to both my students and the general public.

My mission was to turn high school students into intellectuals - defined as those at home with ideas – and I maintained that the key to being an intellectual is learning how to think critically about all aspects of an issue. Maturity would not so much bring certitude as the ability to live with ambiguity and complexity – because while many questions may be clear, most answers are murky.

Thinking has always been hard work. And now, with daily, even hourly assaults upon objective truth, it's harder still. It requires curiosity and tolerance of others' ideas, patience to follow or develop arguments, and acknowledging, probably privately, that we can be wrong. It may also mean deferring judgment.

In debate, it’s necessary to see the other side and avoid the tricks of dishonest argument, such as attacks on the person, not the idea, guilt by association, stereotyping and sloganeering.

We held mock trials in European history. We followed a four stage analysis in Art Appreciation, where students first objectively described an object, then what it was made of, and then what the artist might have had in mind. Only then could they be subjective and say if they liked it or not.

In an essay explaining why he "marched for science" on Science Day, Dr. Harry Chen, former Vermont Health Commissioner, advocated for becoming an activist – whether we’re comfortable or not, trained for it or not, because it is “vital in our country at this point.” He advised spelling out “in plain language what the science says, even when it may not be popular. Be transparent with any potential conflicts we may have, and shine a light on potential conflicts and sources of support behind those on the other side of issues,” concluding, “clearly acknowledge but do not overemphasize areas of uncertainty.”

Good advice, especially when daily White House briefings begin to sound like an exchange between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in "Through the Looking Glass."

Humpty Dumpty rather scornfully insists that when he uses a word, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

Alice responds "The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things."

To which Humpty Dumpty replies, "The question is which is to be master - that's all."

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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