Universal intellectual standards for Critical Thinking

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  • Essence of relevance (Part 4)

[For the 9-part series intended to help appreciate the discipline of critical thinking, this is the 4th topic in succession after: Clarity, Accuracy, and Precision. Those three topics and the others to ensue in the series were gleaned from the thoughts of Richard Paul and Linda Elder, on how to “Learn the Tools the Best Thinkers Use”.]

Relevance dispels bias, naivete

The authors have noted that to any discussion or question at issue, it is possible for a statement to be “clear, accurate, and precise, but not relevant”. Relevance provides the guard rails to alert one to avoid drifting off course in everyday discussions, meetings, arguments, etc.

Often, in interactions with others, some may have a hidden incentive to rally discussions off track in their favour. When visibly off tangent, the culprits would need to be called out or alerted to stay on course no matter how emotional or intense they sound – which some invariably do, through the cunning use of bullying tactics.

Others may be acting out from naivete; they may clearly be lacking in the intellectual discipline to focus on the relevant issue at hand. Alas, it’s worth noting that naivete, bias, spins and distortions – all affect the quality of the thinking process and derange decision making processes.

Relevance as therapy

An idea is relevant when it is “directly connected with and bears on the issue at hand”. In assessing thinking for relevance, the following pertinent questions may be asked: How is this idea related to the question we are asking? How does this fact bear on the issue? How is this fact related to the other fact? How does a question relate to examples at hand?

The ability to stay focused and weed out boggling distractions is the domain of the critical thinker. Appreciating the need and the ability to ask relevant questions are truly therapeutic. They help to heal one from the poverty of mind by the constant upgrading of one’s thinking processes.

Further, such questions help to control impulsivity as they assist in managing one’s thoughts: that is, to ponder before blurting out; to remain calm and unperturbed; and to proceed carefully by sorting out what is pertinent and what is to be cast off in any particular instance.

Making critical decisions among competing relevant considerations may be figuratively linked to the three sides of a coin: the heads and tails offered the pros and cons; the rim provided the critical focus in considering an appropriate decision for the context.

Achieving one’s full potential is an everyday affair and is assisted remarkably through critical thinking. To remain fixated denies the best of what one can truly be. The idea is to glean the bigger picture; not miss the forest for the trees; and, for every strategy, to know the relevant tactics to use to get there.

Relevant leadership by example

The iconic Singaporean prime minister – Lee Kuan Yew (1923 – 2015) – visited Ghana in January 1964, and on leaving, expressed disappointment in how the education system focused on theories, and not on relevance. He “wondered why a country so dependent on agriculture should have its brightest and best do Classics – Latin and Greek.”

Choose what is most relevant for your country

On religion, he said, “If their brightest and best gave up the fight and sought refuge in a monastery [the] road to recovery would be long and difficult.” He questioned what would happen to both Ghana and Nigeria – supposed to be “the brightest hopes of Africa” – when the leaders shy away from relevance in decision making.

When one ponders the maxim that “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources”, it becomes clear that he application of critical thinking in leadership roles is no joke, especially for countries that could not afford to rest on their oars.

Today – from 1964 when Lee first made his observation – it begs one to reflect on the differences in the quality of life between a nation state like Singapore – even without a hinterland – and Ghana and Nigeria with massive land, gold, and abundant oil. It’s clearly on exhibition the deprivation caused by the lack of relevance in thinking no matter the natural endowment.

Relevant practical solutions

In examining how Lee thinks, I remember once reading an interview in which he was asked what relevant strategic paradigms he used in his approach to change Singapore from a third world into a first.

He prefaced his response by saying to the effect that, “The final corroboration of logic and reasoning comes when they become practical realities. The acid test is in performance, not [political] promises.” The millions of poor people everywhere don’t give a toss about theories. They want a better life. They want a more equal and just society.

He then said that good sense and good economics require that relevant and practical solutions are sought to resolve the problems of growth and development. And that his life was “not guided by philosophy or theories. I get things done and leave others to extract the principles from my successful solutions.”

He even cast off some famous ancient western philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Socrates – by saying he was not guided by them; instead – in the genuine desire to improve the lot of your people – you have to believe mostly in the things that are relevant.

Ignoring the most established boundaries, Lee scooped out from the heap of possibilities what was most relevant for the new city state to come into its own and thrive. It took a master thinker and doer to cross those hurdles.

Email: anishaffar@gmail.com

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