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SNEDEKER: Common Core standards emphasize importance of critical thinking

Critical thinking.

Few skills are more powerful, but, even in 21st century America, it’s an aptitude not easily acquired — often for the same reason that pioneering Italian scientist Galileo Galilei was nearly put to death by the Roman Inquisition nearly 400 years ago. Galileo’s crime? Critical thinking.

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Galileo promoted novel cosmic theories that not only challenged but threatened to vaporize then-prevailing religious and philosophical-scientific dogma.

This is relevant in South Dakota now, as the state’s citizens mull the Common Core, a national program that aims to enhance student success in mathematics and English language arts. The inherent logic systems in math and literature are potent tools in critical thinking, but not everyone wants their children to have unbridled access to these wonders, which can have an unsettling, random tendency to turn youth away from their parents’ foundational ideas in many spheres of thought. Fortunately, the majority in the Legislature seems to appreciate the overriding importance of cultivating these skills in students and has generally backed Common Core curricula and testing for the state’s schools despite blowback from opponents.

In 1616, Galileo traveled to Rome to try to convince the Catholic Church hierarchy not to ban a theory raised a century earlier by Polish Renaissance mathematician and astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus’ heliocentrism held that the Earth orbited the sun and not vice versa. The idea hadn’t caught on with intellectuals and was vehemently opposed by the church. But Galileo was passionately convinced it was true, despite the geocentrism (Earth is the center of universe; the sun orbits it) that religious canon and old-fashioned natural philosophy had insisted on for ages.

This dogma was and continues to be supported by numerous references in scripture, such as Psalm 93:1 and 96:10, and 1 Chronicles 16:30, including the passage “ … the world is fi rmly established, it cannot be moved.” Similarly, Psalm 104:5 says, “ … the Lord set the Earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Ecclesiastes1:5 states, “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place.” These passages were the weapons wielded by the Catholic clergy to bludgeon Galileo and his theory.

Irrelevant to Galileo’s unhappy fate, all of these biblical scenarios are clearly impossible.

Galileo and Copernicus before him used mathematics, scientifi c observation and critical thinking (robust questioning of revealed wisdom) to reveal that certain central “truths” of their age were nonsense. Their shared theory of our solar system would ultimately unleash staggering advances in scientific knowledge that are actually speeding up today, much as our universe is. But intellectual bigotry and willful ignorance kept the idea imprisoned in darkness and impotent for eons.

Galileo had been threatened with torture if he didn’t recant this solar theory, but he refused. In July 1633, he was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” and sentenced to house arrest, which continued until his death in 1642. His writings were banned for 76 years.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, and issued a declaration acknowledging the errors committed by the Catholic tribunal that judged him.

Albert Einstein called Galileo the father of modern science, and physicist Stephen Hawking said modern science is likely more indebted to the Italian polymath than anybody else.

Acceptance of heliocentrism as fact was an essential factor in man’s current ability to travel to other worlds in our solar system, and, in fact, a tiny man-made spacecraft recently drifted past the far edge of our sun system and headed into the dark eternity beyond.

If ever there were a vindication of critical thinking, this is it.

-Write to Rick Snedeker at