(I’m posting this whole article because I know that most people won’t want to register just to read it…)
Posted on Sat, May. 22, 2004
Advice to the graduate: Be a healthy skeptic
It’s the character trait essential for becoming a thinking adult
Special to The Observer
Almost 30 years ago today I graduated from high school. I was third in my class, which isn’t particularly impressive in a class of 50. The valedictorian and salutatorian were students more gifted and hardworking than I was, and I don’t remember feeling envious of their accomplishments. I was, however, irked that they had the chance to make speeches to the other graduates and the guests while I had to sit mutely in the audience.
The 2004 graduates will probably hear some of the same messages that I heard – to go forth with confidence, to persevere in the face of adversity, to do their best in all things — good messages, certainly, but not the one I would deliver if I had the chance to stand before them and their parents. Instead, my graduation speech would be a call to embrace the character trait essential for becoming a thinking adult. I would tell every graduate to become a healthy skeptic.
A healthy skeptic is someone who rejects easy certainty and intellectual laziness, who actively questions what he sees and hears and doesn’t let anyone usurp his mind. All of us are skeptical about people we distrust — we question the accuracy of their data and their motives for sharing it. A healthy skeptic also examines what he learns from his friends and from others who seem to reflect his world view. Even more difficult, the healthy skeptic questions himself, not just what he knows and how he knows, but why he believes what he believes.
Imagine a world of healthy skeptics. We would continue to look at our enemies with a jaundiced eye, surely, but we would be cautious about simplifying their actions into sound bites such as “they hate us because they hate freedom.” When I heard President Bush say this recently about the Iraqi insurgents, my heart sank. What exactly does that mean, that someone hates an abstraction such as freedom? Could some of the Iraqis attacking our troops be motivated by religious fanaticism? Could some of them be fighting because the presence of foreign troops is an offense to their sense of sovereignty? Are some of the insurgents criminals fomenting chaos so that they can profit economically, or could other fighters be interested in carving out a fiefdom of loyalists who will support them in the future after the coalition forces leave them to face each other? Wouldn’t we be better off rejecting an easy certainty — “they hate freedom” — and adapting our strategies to deal with a more complex situation?
In a world of skeptics, politics wouldn’t trump science. The FDA wouldn’t bow to pressure to ignore the recommendations of their scientific panel to make emergency contraceptives easier rather than harder to get. The environmentalists who worry about global warming wouldn’t be scoffed at by lawmakers who accept campaign contributions from polluters. Treasury Department whistle blowers and terrorist experts wouldn’t be squelched or fired. Plagiarized documents touting weapons of mass destruction would undergo genuine scrutiny instead of being used to bolster a particular agenda.
Dissent would be valued as an essential part of sorting out the truth. Discussions would be more raucous debate and less rubber stamping. Censorship would cease to be a concern because people who examine many points of view before drawing conclusions neither want nor need to be protected from information. If we made up our own minds after looking long and hard and skeptically, talk radio would be defunct and political pundits would be out of work.
A world of healthy skeptics would be a world where the charismatic Osama bin Ladens and Charlie Mansons would have little power or influence.
Fraud would be harder to perpetrate on people who refused to be gullible. Liars would be found out sooner.
Lovers might hesitate longer before getting married.
Teachers would stop trying to indoctrinate students. Students would hold themselves more accountable.
Most importantly, we would never have a moment when, asked if we could think of any mistakes we might have made, we would draw a blank.
On the last test that I gave my seniors, I realized that they have become healthy skeptics without hearing any graduation speech from me. In one question I asked them to reflect on their growth this year. What have they learned? How have they changed? What are they taking with them as they leave the nine-month gestation of their senior year?
“I learned to read and write more critically,” one student wrote, “but mostly I learned how to think.”
Several students wrote that they had learned to listen with an open mind.
“I learned to listen more and talk less.”
“I learned that everyone is ignorant, but mostly I’ve learned that I am, too.”
“I’ve always wondered about that saying that the more you learn, the less you know. Now I understand what that means.”
“I know why you have `the unexamined life is not worth living’ on your bulletin board. It’s what you really wanted us to learn.”
It is indeed.
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