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This will take some critical thinking

BACK in the dark ages when I started college, students didn't register for classes by computer.

At Virginia Tech, we were directed to a large gymnasium bordering the fabled drillfield.

We would stand in long, slow lines in front of tables where staff members wrote our names by hand on signup sheets. The goal was to get the classes we needed to tick off the core curriculum requirements.

In my first attempt as a freshman, I scored a shortcut that came with a little embarrassment.

In the hectic days prior, I had suffered a minor stomach ailment, probably a case of the jitters. I dealt with it by not eating.

So standing still in that hot gym, I grew dizzy and crumpled onto the floor.

The crowd parted and people rushed to my aid. Soon I was seated behind the registration tables with a cool drink, and a staff member was rushing to fill my class card. Then they sent me off to the clinic.

The doctor was unperturbed. He explained that fainting was a natural response for someone standing still in a hot gym with an empty stomach.

The next time class registration rolled around, something occurred that didn't require me to become a public spectacle but had an even more fortunate outcome.

The university was bursting at the seams, and too many of us needed introductory social science courses. Someone decided that philosophy, normally viewed as one of the humanities, could be counted as a social science.

Philosophy? Those signup sheets were hardly full.             

Remembering the "D" I had made on one of my first writing assignments — to argue a point — I signed up for a beginning logic class.

I had stumbled into what was to become the most valuable aspect of my education. I continued as an English major but developed a fascination for logic, moved on to other philosophy courses and ended up with a minor in that discipline.

I have forgotten much of the Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer I studied, but I retain the principles of reasoning. That's because I have used them daily in my career as a newspaper writer and editor.

Other fields also require critical thinking. The Law School Admission Test, for example, "is designed to assess reading comprehension, logical and verbal reasoning proficiencies," says Wikipedia.

While I feel lucky to have stumbled into philosophy courses, I realize now that they simply took me further down a path I was already on.  

Critical thinking skills must be the goal of education. The plumber or electrician is going to be faced with new dilemmas daily, and the successful practitioner can think his way through.

The current emphasis on standardized test scores in public schools has many people rightly worried that critical thinking skills are being left in the dust.  

However, the testing frenzy resulted from the realization that too many kids were being passed along without learning to read or do simple math.

How can a student learn to think critically without those building blocks?

A few years ago I met a man who ran a storage business. We chatted as I prepared to pay for my unit. I complimented him on his pristine facilities, and he began to tell me how he had developed his business.

He had been booted from school in adolescence. He could not learn to read no matter how hard he tried. Apparently he suffered from severe dyslexia when it was neither recognized nor treated.

Instead of resigning himself to a down-and-out life, he applied his keen mind to the task of compensating. His business revealed that he had ended up with impressive reasoning skills.

His handicap had been outweighed by intelligence and determination.

We can't expect that of every kid. Some struggle for reasons worse than dyslexia.

A friend who teaches kindergarten describes the children who arrive in her classroom in a low-income part of the city.

A few display the effects of good parenting. Far more have never been taught even to sit still and listen, and some are wildly out of control.

Can she set these little jumping beans on the long path to a productive life?  

It's a challenge that requires critical thinking from those who would produce critical thinkers.

Friend is editor and publisher of the Daily Mail. She may be reached at 348-5124 or nanyaf@dailymail.com.


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