By my lovely friend.....Hailey Holm
Imagine a plate of warm and fluffy blueberry pancakes, glistening with maple syrup and begging to be eaten. Now imagine a piece of stale, moldy toast hastily jammed into the toaster oven and pulled out blackened around the edges. There’s no question as to which breakfast option would be the most desirable. Let’s say many prestigious people started eating moldy toast each morning claiming it to cure every ailment from the common cold to cancer. Would the choice be any different? Maybe moldy toast does cure cancer. The point is by choosing to conform the individual is choosing to let someone else make his or her decisions, whether that be about breakfast or something more significant. Authors Brian Merrill (1998), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1841), Harold J. Morowitz (1980), Mark Twain (1923), and Aldous Huxley (1958) write about conforming, along with the dangers of conforming they also discuss how to think critically, which may or may not lead to satisfaction and happiness.
Conforming is easy, convenient, and even praiseworthy in our society. Opinions and behaviors are ready-made, which certainly makes thinking a far less time-consuming and energy-absorbing activity. Mark Twain confirms that there are those who’d rather conform than study. In his essay “Corn-pone Opinions,” he says, “We get our notions and habits and opinions from outside influences, we do not have to study them out” (Twain, 1923, p. 2). Religion, politics, dieting, and fashion are some of the many social facets in which people follow the crowd. Politicians often conform for convenience, and for the vote of course. They have to fit a specific mold or have a broad view of thinking in order to get the most votes. Twain quotes what he heard from a friend: “A man is not independent, and cannot afford views which might interfere with his bread and butter. If he would prosper, he must train with the majority” (Twain, 1923, p. 2). In fact, some politicians remarkably believe in everything at once, that way everyone will love them. Regarding politicians, Twain said, “Can’t bear to be in disfavor . . . wants to be smiled upon, wants to be welcome, wants to hear the precious words, ‘He’s on the right track!’” (1923, p. 3). The desire for praise, convenience, and ease is not a bad thing, but when it compromises thinking critically and acting on what we know, it is not only bad, it is dangerous.
Consider Hitler’s dictatorship in Nazi Germany. His tyranny, however short-lived, was disgustingly successful; Huxley describes Hitler's tactics:
To make them more masslike, more homogeneously subhuman, he assembled them, by the thousands, and the tens of thousands, in vast halls and arenas, where individuals could lose their personal identity, even their elementary humanity, and be merged with the crowd. (Huxley, 1958, p. 3)
It wasn’t his skill with words that determined Hitler’s success; it was the lack of rational thought among crowds of people. Hitler was a great orator who spoke to the masses. He knew that in great aggregations people aren’t driven by reason; they are driven by emotion. He manipulated the crowd’s feelings and weaknesses because he knew what would and wouldn’t appeal to them. By distorting people’s individuality, he was able to subject millions of people to his corrupt will (Huxley, 1958, p. 3). When in a large group of people, individuals quite often lose identity, and they think as a crowd. “The crowd-intoxicated individual escapes from responsibility, intelligence, and morality into a kind of frantic animal mindlessness” (Merrill, 1998, p. 2). Critical thinking is the antidote for “crowd-intoxication.”
Critical thinking, in simple words, is the pursuit of truth. In Brian Merrill’s essay, “The Examined Life,” he writes of the Socratic Method, a method for discovering truth. A critical thinker questions without fear of being wrong, considers other’s point of view, and pursues moral virtues. Merrill indicates that chasing after actuality naturally leads to good action (Merrill, 1998, p. 2). The opinions of other people can build on our partial knowledge and either change our views or make us more convinced of our own convictions. Merrill says, “Socrates pursues truth by sifting his own and other people’s minds” (1998, p. 2). According to the Socratic Method, we should take the beliefs of others just as seriously as our own, test them out, and see if they are true (Merrill, 1998, p. 2). The Socratic Method also touches on the importance of asking questions, which Merrill illustrates by giving this graphic description of Socrates: “He asks questions, drawing out his interlocutor’s thoughts as a midwife draws out an infant, slowly, methodically, often painfully” (Merrill, 1998, p. 2). Those who wish to pursue the truth learn that asking questions is the gateway to critical thinking.
In “Drinking Hemlock and Other Nutritional Matters,” Morowitz discusses a fancy name for critical thinking: epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. Epistemology is inquiring how knowledge has been obtained and questioning the validity of facts. Some think that teaching young people epistemology would be a nuisance. “Epistemology is, after all, a dangerous subject. If we start to question the validity of statements, then the teachers themselves come under question” (Morowitz, 1980, p. 2). Teaching young people how to think for themselves is more important than teaching them to memorize textbook pages that will most likely be forgotten during a summer break. Memorization and learning from textbooks are good things, but critical thinking should be, at the very least, a basic principle taught at elementary stages of education. It should eventually become instinctual.
A genuine person does not conform for the benefit of others, but conforms to what he/she knows to be true (Emerson, 1841, p. 2). When one is constantly questioning what he/she knows, it’s likely their opinions might change over time. Take, for example, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s stance on abortion. He made a dramatic change in his pledge to never waiver on a woman’s right to choose; instead, he pledged to preserve the sanctity of life. In an interview on the subject he said, “I didn’t hide from that change of heart . . . I recognize it’s a change” (Russert, 2007). People look down upon inconsistency; in “Self Reliance” Emerson says, “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do . . . Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today” (Emerson, 1841, p. 5). Knowledge evolves over time, with individuals changing according to whatever new truths they discover.
Students should never be afraid to question facts, statistics, cultural beliefs, or even ideas that are rooted deep. They should feel free to express ideas; even if the idea they are exploring is that moldy toast will cure cancer. Emerson encourages to trust in genius, saying, “Great men have always done so and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart” (Emerson, 1841, p. 2). Critical thinking takes effort, diligence, bravery, and time; so why do it? According to Aldous Huxley (1958), “The kingdom of heaven is in the mind of a person” (p. 4). Once individuals are able to master true independent thought, they will have a satisfaction that can never be obtained by the approval they get from other people. They will be ensured peace of mind once they become accustomed to trusting their own genius.
Thinking critically is looking beyond the obvious to pursue the truth. Questioning, the major activity in critical thinking, leads to discovery and prevents the dangers of conforming and “crowd-intoxication.” When individuals choose not to conform, they are instead choosing to think, take control of personal choices, and, ultimately, take control of their lives. After all, life is about so much more than choosing between blueberry pancakes and moldy toast.