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A Thought for Today

by Terrell Tebbetts                  

Colleges talk a lot about developing students’ abilities in “critical thinking.” They don’t mean they give students a “critical attitude” on life, making them fault-finders. Not at all. They teach students to think matters through, exploring unstated and unexamined assumptions. My dad, a chemistry graduate of Missouri’s Central Methodist College, had a short way of explaining critical thinking. He said it was the ability to see the difference between others’ “good reasons” and the “real reasons” others rarely state. Critical thinking is certainly an important ability for citizens, who have the responsibility to consider ballot proposals and candidates. It’s doubly important for those in responsible positions in business, government, and the church. But it’s not an end in itself, and we err if we act as if it is. The French writer Voltaire, one of the great critical thinkers of all time, makes this clear in his famous little fable Candide. In his story he does a little critical thinking about critical thinking itself. Here’s how he does it. After sending his title character Candide, a naïve young man, all around the world and landing him in Venice, he has Candide grow convinced that no one ever finds lasting happiness. Then Candide hears of a local man named Lord Pococurante who’s renowned for his wealth and intelligence. Believing that, if anyone has found happiness, such a man must have, Candide visits Pococurante. He leaves disappointed again. Pococurante has a great library with all the classics—Homer, Virgil, Milton, and more. He finds only “weariness” in them. He has great paintings by masters like Raphael. He “prizes them very little.” He finds concerts “tiresome.” He calls science books “rubbish.” In short, Pococurante spends his time “criticizing everything.” And he finds no pleasure in anything. Pococurante has made critical thinking an end in itself. Voltaire implies it must be not an end but a means—a means toward a satisfying end. He goes on to show what that end can be. Candide settles on a little farm. At first, while a faithful servant does all the work, Candide and his intellectual friends continue their “philosophical discussions” fueled by critical thinking. And they’re bored to death. Then they visit a nearby family farm. These farmers don’t sit around philosophizing. They work. And they’re happy. Returning to their own farm, Candide and his friends take on new tasks—one cooking, one sewing, one laundering, one carpentering. They use their gifts to satisfy themselves and to be “of some service” to others. And they find that the enemies of happiness—“weariness, vice, and want”—disappear. That must be one end of critical thinking—to find what is true not just theoretically but personally, to find what our real gifts are and how we can use them productively in the world, to be of use. In Candide’s words, critical thinking should help us “cultivate our garden.” Terrell Tebbetts is the Martha Heasley Cox Chair in American Literature at Lyon College. He can be reached at