Sunday, November 8, 2009

Skepticism: The Critical Commodity

In the world some of us grew up in, obedience and conformity were the rule. Questioning authority was a sin. Was that the way it really should have been?

As it turns out, obedience and conformity are necessary when the only sustenance being offered one's intellect is wrapped in dogma. Anything less is insubordinate. Rather than eagerly engaging a child when he or she invokes his instinct to question everything, those who value conformity over skepticism will instead say, "Because I am your mother, and I said so." Putting aside the fact that one's parents have decades of experience with life and, as a rule, know better than a child what is best for him or her, great pains should nonetheless be taken to indulge a child's inquisitiveness to the greater end that its natural sense of skepticism be cultivated rather than quashed. Critical thinking is not just for grown-ups.

This kind of free thinking, however, is anathema to god-driven ideology. Recalling the Jesuit master who proclaimed that as long as he had the attention of a child for the first seven years of life or thereabouts, his mind forever after belonged to him, the nefarious nature of compulsory religious education of the young is brazenly exposed.

How best then to pass down accumulated wisdom if not via the rigidity of dogmatism? When a child is told to repeat, "five times five equals twenty-five" one hundred times, odds are he will assimilate this truism. Why not the same methodology for learning about life? Compel one to memorize The Ten Commandments and he may well trust that these, too, are based on a truthfulness worthy of ritualization.

A much better approach is to instill values, and values are best shared by example. But isn't conformity a value? Yes, but the essential aspect of conformity as a value is that it functions only when not held up as a value of dimensions so nearly absolute it serves as little more than an end unto itself. Conformity at the expense of one's uniqueness is abhorrently dysfunctional.

A natural skeptic questions vigorously even those whom, and that which, he is predisposed to agree with. Being of the liberal political persuasion, I might be inclined to go along with a public health care option, but I am highly skeptical when the president claims his plan will more than pay for itself over the life of the bill. Likewise, when a conservative denounces a government health care option—for reasons other than the inane—I am immediately suspicious of my own instinct to dismiss him. If skepticism is a worthy value for one, it should be just as worthy a value for the other.

An unquestioning faith in anything, whether religious or secular, is not a value worthy of passing on to those whose intellects we are charged with nurturing. Rather it is an invitation to denigrate that which should be cherished: an independent and inquisitive mind.

In the pursuit of knowledge, skepticism most surely is—the critical commodity.

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