01/02/2014 11:24 am ET Updated Mar 03, 2014

A Year of Critical Thinking in a Distracted World


As we catapult into 2014, perhaps the most important ballad we should play is "Where has all the critical thinking gone?"

Considerable academic research demonstrates that with the advent and explosion of social media, most of us use this powerful tool to cocoon ourselves in our existing and unchallenged view of the world including social, political, policy, economic, religious and intellectual biases. The blogs we follow, the websites we seek, and the news sources upon which we rely provide us with the proof points we need for the instant succor that reassures us that we are on the right course. This past year, the views we formed on Obamacare, foreign policy in Syria, the debt ceiling, record highs in the capital markets, data privacy, and host of other monumentally significant issues were, in the majority, based on a simple distillation provided to us vicariously by online opinion elites, the Daily Show, our favorite cable "news" program, or a range of other choices that provide modest and contextualized information with a lot of interpretation.

Now, of course, there are those that use the information autobahn including Google to explore new ideas and to challenge personnel biases and assumptions, but for too few of us. The obvious cost of outsourcing our own homework is that we develop limited, incomplete and many times quixotic views on matters that will shape generations to come. On a more subtle level, we impair our problem solving skills, diminish meaningful advocacy in the court of public opinion, and perhaps most important, deprive ourselves of the data base we each need to hold our political, corporate and social leaders accountable to facts.

Not all is lost, however. We need only look to the precincts of academia and particularly law schools for a "MindWatchers" program near you. In our class at Northwestern Law School, the students run through dozens of live exercises in which they either must defend or prosecute issues that force them to digest all of the facts on both sides of a high profile issue or legal proceeding. For example, we use the Citizens United case, which energized Super Pacs, as a vehicle to delve deep into campaign finance without using Wikipedia. Similarly, we use the litigation and regulatory initiatives resulting from the financial crisis to build the capability and muscle memory that enables students to sift through complexity without relying exclusively on the "Inside Job," "Too Big to Fail," or any of the other neatly manicured points of view that have, albeit ironically, commercialized one of the largest economic crises in modern history.

While the negotiability of resolutions is a challenge to be sure, doubling down on critical thinking, more rigorous fact-finding, and independent homework is an investment that will outperform all else in 2014 -- guaranteed!