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Food for Thought, Thought for Action!

Critical thinking can improve quality of life

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August 27, 2008
By A. Gaffar Peang Meth
Guam Pacific Daily News

At 64, I am still learning every day, and as an educator, I will always champion students’ right to a quality education. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”

My focus on critical thinking relies on the Foundation for Critical Thinking as a primary source. The foundation describes critical thinking as “a core social value” and “a requirement for economic and social survival” in the 21st century. It’s a “mode of thinking about any subject, content or problem in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it, and asks “essential questions” to deal with what is “necessary, relevant, and indispensable to a matter at hand.

Those who have read my columns know that I am prone to warning against the usual traps that befall humans, such as denial, blaming, gossiping, arrogance, among others. And I usually end up returning to thinking as the key to one’s future, and to “living in goodness” as a basis of society.

I applaud the non-partisan Cambodian non-governmental organization in Phnom Penh, the Youth Resource Development Program, www.yrdp.org, which provides non-formal education to third-level college students (high school graduates in special cases), on “critical and analytical thinking skills” necessary to become “committed citizens” and “active members of society.”

Founded in 1992 and formalized as an NGO in 1999, the program is located in Khan Tuol Kork, Cambodia. It says students come to its program “by word of mouth,” and pay no tuition.

YRDP defines as its mission, “to strengthen Cambodian youth by developing their social conscience and awareness and by encouraging them to take responsibility for their own future, the future of their own family, their society and their country.” It describes its program goal “to empower youth and strengthen their life skills, critical and analytical thinking … to raise self-confidence, foster a sense of responsibility and enable youth to participate actively in building a culture of peace, justice and the sustainable development of Cambodia.”

Some readers say peace is “a state of mind,” but the generally accepted human aspirations for contentment, good health, and a level of economic self-sufficiency can’t be attained in a world of chaos and disorder where the strong devours the weak. It follows that unless there’s justice, there’s no peace. Without that foundation, economic development can be little more than a mirage.

For YRDP, “implementing critical thinking in daily life” is the way to “improve quality life.” And so, YRDP offers training courses in two parts: the required “core skills” concentrate on personal development (“The future of your country and the quality of your life depend on the quality of your thinking; if you want to change your life, change your thinking”) and specific skills include a range of courses participants can select.

“As human beings, … we cannot avoid conflict or problems, … but we are able to manage and solve them, … as a step to building peace,” according to the course description on conflict and resolution. In its “active non-violence” course, YRDP aims to provide “skills, strategies, and lessons” by examining the “successful experiences” of people such as Mahatma Gandhi, Moha Ghossananda, Aung San Suu Kyi, “to encourage youth to find effective solutions for promoting peace, justice and development.”

Among other training courses, YRDP offers leadership and good governance, values within society (“What could we change in Khmer culture to bring better peace and justice in Khmer society?”), democracy and governmental systems.

The “participatory and experiential methods of learning” (field practice) by students are used for each course; facilitators and trainers are university graduates trained in critical thinking and participatory education methods.

The program acknowledges that more than 30 years of warfare has befallen the Cambodian people and has hampered the nascent efforts to create and enforce “law, social justice, accountability, participatory decision-making, transparency and equality.”

Most Cambodian people do not well understand the application of democracy,” and “there are many barriers” that include “threats, killings and arrests,” a situation that “scares people from implementing their rights, and affects young people in speaking out about their concerns and needs.”

YRDP sees its training course on democracy and governmental system as one that will “enable young people to learn to be good citizens in a democratic society through exercising their rights in appropriate ways.”

This relatively young NGO is doing the Khmer nation a great service by stimulating the youth to engage in higher level thinking as they work to achieve peace, justice, and development in a country whose citizens have longed for progress for decades.

California’s Foundation of Critical Thinking and Cambodia’s YRDP may be many miles apart, but they share similar vision and philosophies.

The Foundation posits, “a mind with no questions” is intellectually dead as it doesn’t proceed and doesn’t process. It counsels, “keep asking new questions” to arrive at the “vast panorama of possible answers” from which to choose.

The power of ideas to foment change and achieve a “good” society should not be discounted.

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years.

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