Wandering in the Echo Chamber

Most of my best learning experiences have been by accident rather than intention. I’ve stumbled and struggled my way into some of the most valuable things I’ve learned. I’m more intuitive than intentional in my learning process and see learning as a developmental process more than acquiring knowledge or wisdom.

Are you more of an intentional or intuitive learner and thinker? Do things come easy for you or are you more of a learner-by-doing person? I guess I envy those who are more intentional thinkers and learners. They seem to understand things easier than me.

I always seem to struggle to learn. I’m more of a doer than a pure thinker. Why do I share this? Critical thinking and thinking for oneself seem to be lost skills in our current social climate. I may not be a pure thinker or intellectual, but I do like to think for myself. As a teacher, I encourage others—students or fellow believers in a Bible study—to think for themselves.

Some may consider critical or analytical thinking skills reserved for bright people. As if those cookies are on the top shelf, and it is too high for us ordinary folk. But that’s a deception or a misnomer. I can’t tell you how I know this and don’t care how it may be. I just know it is not true. I’ve seen too many people without higher education prove this true.

Critical thinking is not just for the privileged few or highly educated. Critical thinking skills are accessible, whether a person has a high or average IQ and whether they are intuitive or intentional in their thought process. And of course, regardless of race, ethnicity, cultural background, or socioeconomic status. I saw this most clearly while teaching overseas, where most education was based on rote memorization and copying others. (More on this later.)

Early on, I was challenged to think critically. But it wasn’t by choice. It was a means of survival. In fact, it became a defense mechanism of sorts while growing up in a dysfunctional family. My family heritage is dysfunctional on both sides going back a few generations—probably true for many if not most of us.

I saw things that didn’t add up in my young mind. Actions often didn’t fit the words I heard from my parents, and expectations of me were high early on. As an only child, I attended more than a few adult gatherings and was expected to act like an adult. This meant I was to follow the conversations of adults while keeping quiet.

Our family dinner conversations were often contentious and loud but in a nice way. Well, sort of. I had to learn to think critically because I needed to be able to defend what I said. Most everything said was analyzed or attacked. As I came of age in the early ’60s, this quasi-homeschooling benefited me. I didn’t just do or think what all my friends or classmates did. 

Although I got caught up in many of those days’ turmoil, I questioned a lot of what I heard and saw. I did not get involved in many protests in the ’60s, but I had strong feelings about many of the issues of that era. At one anti-war protest on our college campus, I realized the main “speakers” (protestors) were just as arrogant and opinionated as those they protested against. They seemed to be more concerned about gaining power rather than bringing change. 

As I write this, in the back of my mind I hear the folk-rock song from 1966, For What It’s Worth, by Buffalo Springfield.

There are battle lines being drawn
And nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong…

A thousand people in the street (ooh-ooh-ooh)
Singin’ songs and a-carryin’ signs (ooh-ooh-ooh)
Mostly say “Hooray for our side” (ooh-ooh-ooh)

Back then, a lot of the protest seemed like the protest we see now—repetition of thoughts and sayings within the echo chamber of whatever side people have chosen.

Thankfully, I heard and listened to my conscience enough times to keep me from running with the crowd in whatever direction they went, challenging what I heard regardless of which side said what. I still do this. Sometimes it gets me into trouble with others. But I’d rather respond than just react. I’d rather think for myself than surrender myself to the echo chamber.

This was embedded in my wife and me as we served together in various ministries, as foster parents, the ministry we established overseas for abandoned babies and abused girls, and the Bible school I helped establish and direct. But many around us didn’t understand our direction, they just went with the cultural flow of the time.

Perhaps we all need to ask ourselves occasionally—Are we going with the flow or swimming against the current? The opening credits video of the popular TV series, The Chosen, illustrates this question. Thankfully, Susan and I didn’t go with the flow or echo what the prevailing current of our culture said, and I’m glad we didn’t. But it cost us at times. It costs us the approval of others.

Our management and leadership approach may seem too relational for some people to accept. But people followed and worked alongside us because we respected and valued them. I know my teaching approach and style are not typical. It’s far more interactive and discussion-based than an academic lecture. This proved more valuable than I could ever imagine.

I taught young people who had never developed critical thinking skills. English was a second or third language for them, but I could only teach in English and used a very Western approach for studying the Bible. Some of my students were from tribal cultures and had limited educational backgrounds, so they struggled the most in our classes. 

But an amazing thing happened. They all learned. As they became more proficient in English and learned to read and study systematically, they became critical thinkers. I believe this is due to the more rigid structure of English and the analytical study process we used.

I could be a tough teacher. One graduating class called me their Mentor-Tormentor. I challenged them to read out loud, think for themselves, and put things in their own words. I wouldn’t let them copy or regurgitate what they heard from others or read in commentaries. The most amazing thing to me was how much they grew in understanding between their first and second year of studies. They even surprised themselves and the guest teachers who came.

The simple truth is this—anyone can develop critical thinking skills. I’ve even seen this with people who have learning disabilities and challenges. No, not everyone will attain a Ph.D. but do we all need Ph.D.s? I think not. But we all would benefit from learning to think critically rather than wander in the echo chamber of someone else’s thoughts. 

This was the example Jesus set. He challenged His disciples to discern the truth and think for themselves instead of blindly following the prominent religious leaders. In Matthew 15, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and teachers of the law, then tells the crowd a parable, but the disciples don’t understand it. When Peter asks Him to explain it, Jesus responds, “Are you still so dull?” (Matt 15:16 NIV84). 

We see this illustrated again in Matthew 16:5-12, where Jesus warns the disciples to be wary of the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” He doesn’t explain this warning to them but challenges them to remember two miraculous events involving bread. Then Jesus repeats His warning, and they realize what He meant.

Jesus challenged and expected His followers to think for themselves and go against their culture’s flow. They did, and the world was “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). When we follow the call to be followers of Jesus, the challenge and expectation remain for each of us, especially those who are leaders.

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