I’m an amateur Civil War buff. Since I was a kid, I’ve been enamored with the War Between the States. I’ve read tons of books on the subject, consumed endless hours of films and documentaries. For the first time in my life, this summer I got the opportunity to visit one of the biggest battlefields: Gettysburg.
In planning our trip to this pivotal war site, my wife and I did a lot of research so that we could be prepped and ready to take in all of the history. None of this research prepared us for how massive the geography of the battlefield was. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the expanse of the fields and hills of Seminary and Cemetery ridge, where thousands of young men fought to the death to defend their principles. But amidst the vast expanse, I was looking for one specific place on Little Round Top.
The war itself took place over three days, starting on July 1st, 1863. Confederate General Robert E. Lee had so much early success over the the Federal battalions commanded by a revolving door of United States generals, that he decided he would invade their home turf, and whoop the Yanks there. Once he accomplished this he planned to march on Washington, D.C. and demand that the Federals surrender, thus ending the war.
On the first day of battle, his gamble appeared to be paying off. He forced the Yankees to retreat through the sleepy little town, seeking the refuge of the high ground to the south along Cemetery ridge and Big and Little Round Tops. The next day, July 2nd, the fighting continued to largely favor the Confederates. They had forced the Union lines to contract, forming a fishhook-shaped line, with the eye of the hook nestled on top of Little Round Top. Here is where both armies knew that the Blues were most vulnerable. Scrambling to address this dangerous gap, US General Hancock dispatched a small brigade of troops from Maine commanded by a fella named Colonel Joshua Chamberlain.
Funny thing about Colonel Chamberlain. Just six short months before he was asked to defend the Union’s left flank “at every hazard“, he was a faculty member at Bowdoin College in Maine teaching rhetoric and literature. He wasn’t a professionally trained soldier. On July 2nd, when faced with an onslaught from a marauding band of Alabama infantrymen, Chamberlain had minimal ammunition and a depleted regiment. He quickly assessed the situation, and ordered that his troops fix their bayonet knives to their rifles and charge at an angle; this move was later known as the swinging gate. It completely took the attacking force by surprise, and immediately ended the Confederacy’s advantages on that day.
This move, ordered by a man who had the problem solving skills he learned in his liberal arts tutelage, allowed the Union army to fight the third and last day of the battle, ultimately prevailing in Gettysburg and turning the tide of the war.
The term “critical thinking” can encompass quite a bit, but for our purposes here, let’s work with a very basic definition where it is the ability to evaluate and analyze an issue or situation in order to form a judgment. Not everyone can do this. There are lots of people in the world who are able to follow a set of specific ordered instructions, but don’t give much thought to why they are performing these actions, much less how they could be improved, their impact or where they align with a person’s moral compass. In short, some people don’t ask questions. They do what they’re told, and they’re generally not the ones you call upon to solve problems.
We may never know for sure the exact thought process followed by Colonel Chamberlain, but the skills he used to repulse the Confederates at Little Round Top certainly mirror the same skills he might have imparted upon his students while he taught them to critically analyze literature and write persuasively. Despite having little or no formal military training (that we know of), Chamberlain was able to survey the current situation, put it in the larger context of the previous days of fighting, apply the given geographical and resource limitations and arrive at a maneuver which to that point had never been attempted.
These same critical thinking skills are just some of what The LAMP teaches every day. Students in our programs often have to solve problems around making a specific edit, remixing media from multiple sources or deciding whether a piece of information is actually information or just a well-disguised opinion. They have to evaluate the resources they have at hand, including time constraints and their own abilities. They have to consider how a piece of media relates to an entire whole, and then actually communicate their ideas and make solid, logical arguments. This is harder than it might sound, but it’s necessary for a society of free-thinking, problem-solving and communicative people.
It was during my summer vacation as I looked out from atop Little Round Top – on the site where so many brave men gave their lives for their beliefs – when it occurred to me that I was physically standing on the spot where critical thinking saved the United States of America. Just over 150 years later, critical thinking is no less important.