If I have counted correctly, this is my 390th column written for The Signal. For several years now I have been privileged to put my opinions in print, and enter them into the marketplace of ideas.
As I sit at my computer writing, it occurs to me that seldom do I give a thought to how my opinions land on the hearts and minds of those who read them. It isn’t that I don’t care about what others think, because I do. In fact, that’s essentially why I write: to influence the thoughts of others.
But I am always mindful that this is an opinion column. I am not writing a research paper, or a legal brief. This isn’t a sermon or some other proclamation designed to present arguments backed up by careful attention to authoritative sources. And while opinion columns may influence thought, change minds, and even stimulate action on the part of the readers, they still only represent the opinions of the author, presented without the benefit of supporting documentation, authority, or precedent.
So what is the purpose of opinion? Simply put, it is to get people thinking in ways that will foster conversations that matter. It once was the case that, from the earliest age, children were taught critical thinking skills. They were taught according to the classical educational model: grammar, logic, rhetoric, together known as the trivium. Grammar, as the word suggests, pertained to the elementary things of any subject. If it were language, grammar consisted of learning the letters, the way words were put together, sentence structure, etc. If the subject were math it meant learning the numbers, their relationships, and the basic structure of mathematics.
Next came logic. This section took what was learned in grammar and put it to use. It taught the way the elemental things could be put together to solve problems and was the primary place that critical thinking came into play. Certain uses of the basics just wouldn’t work, and in logic these inconsistencies were recognized and addressed. In so doing, students were taught not only to know, but also to think critically about how what they knew was to be used. They also learned to recognize those patterns that just didn’t work. These were considered against logic, and reckoned as foolish and even dangerous. The last section of the trivium was rhetoric. In this stage of learning the students were instructed on how to take the grammar and the logic and use them to teach or persuade others.
My interest here is in the middle section of logic. Because we have moved away from this classical model of early instruction many are unable to formulate logical thought patterns, and even less able to critique the thought patterns of others. This puts them at risk of accepting and adopting harmful ideas and conclusions. They simply lack the discernment mechanism that can be so helpful in spotting error, refuting it, and turning more profitably to those ideas that are internally consistent, or logical.
One of the few places left where we can practice critical thinking is the marketplace of opinion. Fortunately, we have many arenas for this. Talk radio is a great example. I view it as a good learning experience to listen to the pundits on both sides of the intellectual battle in order to sharpen my ability to discern truth from error. Do their arguments really stand up? Are they substituting robust language, sentiment, and emotion for real evidence and logical conclusions? Does their conclusion follow from their arguments? Are they being irenic and properly representing their opponents? All of these used to be questions posed to school children as they were carefully taught to think logically.
Today our schools have gone down another path and whole generations are being loosed on society with little or no ability to take in arguments, synthesize their substance, recognize their weaknesses, and discern what is truthful from what is masquerading as such. It is little wonder that our political process has deteriorated into a contest of sound bites and photo opps. We’re quickly losing our ability as a society to think critically, to evaluate truth claims, and recognize when we’re being lied to.
This column is but one grain of sand on the seashore attempting to offer opinions that can serve as an exercise in critical thinking, regardless of whether you agree with me. That’s not the point. What matters is that you think, and you discern, and you do so logically. What matters is that we start thinking deeply about what truth really looks like, and how we believe life should be lived. If we don’t, I’m afraid we’ll wake up someday and wonder just how nonsense and error became the staples of public discourse.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.