West Metro Critical Thinking Club

STILLWATER — As Americans debate the role of inflammatory political rhetoric and the ability of misinformation to incite violence, one local group is keeping its focus on the facts.

Civil discourse, adherence to reason and evidence, and equal participation are always on the agenda at meetings of the Critical Thinking Club, a group founded by Stillwater resident Lee Salisbury. 

The idea for the club struck him about 11 years ago when Salisbury was in the woods cutting buckthorn.

“I was at a time in my life when I was rather frustrated with people who were liberals and people who were conservatives, and religious and non-religious, and it occurred to me there aren’t cases on all sides,” he said. “An epiphany occurred to me — it’s not what you think, it’s how you think.”

Salisbury, now an atheist who spent 14 years as an evangelical minister and 25 years in commercial real estate banking, got together with a couple of friends, George Kane and Bob Korn, and held the first meeting of the St. Paul Critical Thinking Club in January 2000. That group grew by word-of-mouth and in 2007 it decided to start a club in Stillwater, so Salisbury enlisted a neighbor, Bob Lepp, to seek out meeting space at FamilyMeans. Soon Dale McGowan, a charter member of the St. Paul group who taught critical thinking at the College of St. Catherine, started a club in the Minnetonka area. Salisbury has since assumed leadership of that club as well, so he attends monthly meetings of all three groups.

“We try to have a format that encourages everybody to participate. I’ve often said this is not like church where you go hear somebody give a talk and then shake hands and say thank you and walk out … or like civic clubs where you hear a speech. We want topics that challenge people to think, and we want a vigorous yet civil critique of the presentation and of the topic and the material presented — what is the evidence for the presentation, the validity of the evidence, and so on?”

Salisbury said there are no dues, no fees and no registration required — and coming to one meeting makes one a member. 

Presentations are made by members of the club. Topics — the more controversial, the better — are emailed out in advance so attendees are encouraged to do preliminary research if they wish. “We’re always looking to the members to say ‘Now who’s going to speak next month, the following month, and so on.’” The speaker’s presentation usually lasts about 45 minutes to an hour, then the club breaks up into tables of six or eight people. Each is given a sheet of paper with a question or comment meant to spark about 15 minutes worth of discussion on an aspect of the presentation. Then someone from each table gives a review of their discussion, followed by a general question-and-answer time for the speaker. 

At the most recent meeting Jan. 10, participants heard Dick Taylor, a student of the economy and 30-year teacher of economics in the Minneapolis Public School System, speak on the topic “1945-2007: Historical Roots of the Great Recession.” The focus was on events leading to the recession rather than the recession itself.

Members tend to be well-read individuals in their 50s or older, though there are members in their 30s and 40s. The club always welcomes new members, but with attendance averaging 30 or 40 at a meeting, the clubs aren’t out recruiting, Salisbury said.

“The idea is to get people to participate and not just sit there like a bump on a log and say nothing. They’re bound to hear things they don’t agree with. If somebody’s making a presentation and their facts are lax or inadequate, it needs to be pointed out. People are challenged to think about things in a new way.”

Topics range from science, politics and religion, to cultural issues. One of the group’s biggest draws was a talk on whether belief in God is compatible with critical thinking, he recalled. Other topics have dealt with the economy and taxation, the role of pornography in causing abuse, historical roots of the great recession, underachieving males, and whether Jesus was a historical person. 

Though he has no formal training in critical thinking, Salisbury’s career in mortgage banking relied heavily on logic and reason, determining whether commercial projects should be financed and how, he said. Now retired, he has done freelance writing and public speaking on topics like humanism, atheism and politics. The lack of critical thinking in today’s world is what prompted him to form the clubs.

“It’s an idea that developed out of my frustration with people and the way they become ideologues, and pursue ways of thinking which reject the facts,” he explained. 

The Stillwater Critical Thinking Club meets the second Monday of each month at 7 p.m. at FamilyMeans, 1875 Northwestern Ave. in Stillwater. The St. Paul Club meets the second Sunday at 10 a.m. for breakfast buffet at the Kelly Inn, and the West Metro Club meets the fourth Saturday at 10 a.m. Contact Salisbury at lee2690@hotmail.com.

Critical thinking is a critical skill for young workers these days.

What that means, though—and how to measure it—is less clear. Employers complain that colleges are not producing graduates who can solve problems and connect the dots on complex issues, but bosses stumble when pressed to describe exactly what skills make critical thinkers. That leaves job seekers wondering what employers really want and, once on the job, unsure of whether they’re supposed to follow the rules or break them.

Mentions of critical thinking in job postings have doubled since 2009, according to an analysis by career-search site Indeed.com. The site, which combs job ads from several sources, found last week that more than 21,000 health-care and 6,700 management postings contained some reference to the skill.

“It’s one of those words—like diversity was, like big data is—where everyone talks about it but there are 50 different ways to define it,” says Dan Black, Americas director of recruiting at the accounting firm and consultancy EY.

Brittany Holloway, a music-business major who graduated last spring from New York University, says critical thinking appeared in so many postings during her job search that it, along with traits like “detail-oriented” and “organized,” was nearly meaningless. Only in interviews could she tell what a company meant when it sought those traits.

Ms. Holloway, who now works as a content-review and fraud specialist at Brooklyn-based digital-music distributor TuneCore, defines the skill as “forming your own opinion from a variety of different sources.”

Ms. Holloway, 21 years old, says her current job requires her to think critically when screening music releases before they’re sent to digital stores like Apple Inc.’s iTunes.

Behavioral interview prompts, such as “Talk about how you handled working with a difficult person,” help EY bosses assess critical-thinking skills, says Mr. Black. (His definition: “The ability to work with data, to accumulate it, analyze it [and] synthesize it, in order to make balanced assessments and smart decisions.”)

In late-round interviews, candidates must show how they would tackle business problems, such as whether it makes more sense for a company to make or buy a product, and why.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. asks investment-banking and sales-and-trading candidates to assess company valuations and stock pitches and then to explain how they arrived at their conclusions.

By the end of one of those exercises, “the candidates should have displayed whether they possess critical thinking,” says Michael Desmarais, global head of recruiting for the bank.

Critical thinking may be similar to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous threshold for obscenity: You know it when you see it, says Jerry Houser, associate dean and director of career services at Willamette University in Salem, Ore.

When recruiters tell Mr. Houser they want students with problem-solving skills, “that usually has something to do with critical thinking,” he says. His office encourages students to prepare stories to illustrate their critical-thinking prowess, detailing, for example, the steps a club president took to improve attendance at weekly meetings.

Colleges’ capacity to mold thinkers has been a topic of heated debate. Richard Arum, co-author of “Academically Adrift” and “Aspiring Adults Adrift” as well as an NYU sociology professor, is a prominent critic of how schools are faring on that front.

“Schools have institutionally supported and encouraged [a] retreat from academic standards and rigor,” he says, adding that he thinks colleges have allowed students to focus on their social lives at the expense of academic pursuits.

According to research detailed in those books, students rarely study on their own for more than an hour a day, and most don’t write in-depth papers that require sustained analysis.

For their part, students seem to think they are ready for the office. But their future bosses tend to disagree. A Harris Interactive survey of 2,001 U.S. college students and 1,000 hiring managers last fall found that 69% of students felt they were “very or completely prepared” for problem-solving tasks in the workplace, while fewer than half of the employers agreed.

Judy Nagengast, CEO of Continental Inc., an Anderson, Ind., staffing firm, says she has come across young graduates who “can memorize and they can regurgitate” but who struggle to turn book learning into problem solving at work.

Ms. Nagengast says she grew frustrated with young accountants who didn’t understand the importance of accuracy on tax forms and filed “B-minus financial statements.” She wants and needs to recruit young workers, though, and she is testing the waters with a fresh graduate who’s handling the firm’s compliance with the Affordable Care Act.

Linda Elder, an educational psychologist and the president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, which promotes educational reform, says employers really want well-trained problem solvers and not critical thinkers, especially in the lower ranks. Critical thinkers, she says, tend to challenge the status quo, which isn’t always what a boss is after.

At Goldman, “we don’t expect new hires to propose changes to our chairman or board on a firm-wide strategy level on Day One,” says Mr. Desmarais. But the bank’s entry-level hires are expected to do more than just fulfill orders, he adds. “We do encourage our junior people to recommend changes.”

Write to Melissa Korn at melissa.korn@wsj.com

Some Definitions of Critical Thinking

  • “The ability to cross-examine evidence and logical argument. To sift through all the noise.”
    -Richard Arum, New York University sociology professor
  • “Thinking about your thinking, while you’re thinking, in order to improve your thinking.”
    -Linda Elder, educational psychologist; president, Foundation for Critical Thinking
  • “Do they make use of information that’s available in their journey to arrive at a conclusion or decision? How do they make use of that?”
    -Michael Desmarais, global head of recruiting, Goldman Sachs Group

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