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Critical Thinking

The Blog



Critical Thinking

Scott Alexander

It is a crisis of over-simplification.  In the day and age when we can barely take the time to read the headlines before we start commenting, the ability to critically evaluate a situation is becoming forgotten. We read the headline, send out a tweet, join into the cacophony of outrage on facebook – and that’s just waiting for our toast to pop up!  Then there’s the marketing opportunities – schools, politicians, thought leaders, hell, the leader of the free world!

So let’s dive a little deeper into the “why” of the Ahmed Mohamed situation.  How did we get here?

Racism – this is the easy answer but it isn’t the whole answer. Yes, someone named Mohamed brought a box of wires and a timer to school.  In my day, we all carried knives to school.  In my parents’ days, they brought their guns to school for shooting club. But today, if you have a certain look, a certain name, you are a suspect.

Fear – we live in a time when fear sells.  It sells tv time.  It sells products.  It sells elections.  It all started when the politicians and tv programmers realized that a fearful situation garnered our attention.  Fear is closely tied to our primal survival instincts.  So politicians realized that if “safety” is involved then everyone was more willing to accept their ideas – even if they are un-constitutional.  And TV programmers realized that we could build an entire 24 Hour news cycle around fearful innuendos. And everyone bought it.

Policy – God knows we don’t want to have anyone make a judgement call because then someone is liable and will have to pay.  So we create policies.  The problem is that, in every situation, no matter how thick the policy manual is, someone has to make a number of judgement calls. But instead of training people to hone their judgement, we train them to come up with better policies. 

A suspicious package (a box) means we enact the emergency policies: we cordon off a “blast area”, we put local schools on lockdown, we send the media, we send the swat team, we send the bomb squad.  And then we realize it was a box that was blown there by the wind.  Everyone is kept on edge.  Parents can’t get to their kids because we want to “keep them safe”.  Parents are scared.  Kids are scared.  

We create zero tolerance policies.  We now have rational, smart, educated human beings in positions of authority who say things like, “I know this looks dumb, but my hands are tied – we have a zero tolerance policy.” And that’s in response to a 6 year old who has a plastic knife in her lunchbag to cut up her apple for lunch.

So a child with a certain name and skin color brings a certain type of device into a school.  It evokes fear as we’ve been trained to do.  We enact our policies and call the “professionals” as we’ve been trained to do.  They follow their policies to “ensure safety” as they’ve been trained to do.  Then, the people who have created this culture and want the attention use the situation to garner the spotlight with their outrage that people are acting like this.  They use this opportunity to cry racism (or whatever PC buzzword), sow even more dissent amongst the people and perpetuate the culture.

So how do we fix this and change our trajectory?

Let’s accept the fact that Freedom and Danger are two sides of the same coin.  Your pet has traded freedom for safety.  We cannot do the same.

Let’s train people to be leaders, to hone their judgement, to make decisions.  And let’s celebrate and promote those people – not policy writers and policy followers.

Let’s recognize that culture is more important than policy.

How does this make a difference?  Let’s play it out.  Ahmed Mohamed takes his clock to school.  The principal, a person of integrity, has created a culture where the curriculum is less important than the caliber of people who implement it, where relationship is the basis of learning.  Ahmed shows his teacher who praises him for his initiative.  The teacher, who has spent time getting to know the students, knows Ahmed well enough to know that fear of the device is not the correct call.  But the teacher wants to be sure.  So the teacher hangs onto the device and quietly asks the principal to call an expert to examine the device.  The expert arrives at school and, free of any “extreme safety policies”, examines the device and quickly realizes (because he/she is really an expert) that it’s just a clock.  Ahmed has no idea of any of this and just simply feels proud of his accomplishment.

I realize that we’ve been trained to distrust judgement and to fear the homemade bomb.  And the above scenario creates risk. 

But if you think about it, risk is everywhere: knives in your kitchen, gas in your pipes and your car, pollution, water quality, animals, planes could crash into your home, identity theft.  Heck, we all get into our cars and drive fast enough to die at any time – and we do it every day; by choice.  Which means we’ve used our judgement to assess the risk to ourselves and our families.

If we learn judgement and we pass this on to our kids, isn’t that the best way to reduce risk?  We can’t just give them a list of everything that can be harmful but we can teach them to exercise judgement and then they can keep themselves safe.

And if we use our judgement when we listen to (or turn off) the “news” don’t we start to think a little more critically?  And in doing so, don’t we perpetuate our own judgement?

When someone tries to rob you, do you want everyone around to follow policy and call the police? Or do you want one of them to make a judgement call and grab the assailant?

If judgement is preferable in crisis, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that judgement is preferable at all times?

Think about it…..



Scott Alexander is a published author, a coach to entrepreneurs and senior executives, an accomplished speaker, and a strategy/leadership consultant.