Have you ever thought about thinking? If you’re in North America, you’re likely wondering why I ask, but this isn’t a trick question. Whenever I work in developing countries, I am reminded about the privilege of free thinking – and that it’s not available in every country.  It’s nearly impossible to understand this until you experience mindsets that have been shaped in controlling environments.

I first discovered this while working in Eastern Europe over a decade ago.  The mindsets of people in former Soviet States, particularly those of the older generation, had little experience in freedom of thought. Younger generations were more entrepreneurial, yet it still seemed difficult for them to dream of success in the shadow of communism.

Fast forward to my current trip to Egypt, a country filled with wonderful hospitality and genuine kindness (quite contrary to the stereotypes many Americans put on the Middle East). There is a great deal of interest in learning and improving the agricultural technical school system (ATS), which is modeled after U.S. agriculture education and FFA. Dr. Kirk Heinze of Greening of the Great Lakes radio show and I are providing agricultural communications training for a second year through a USAID project.

Speaking and writing skills are the topics for our three-day workshop. These ATS teachers, while college educated, have likely never had a writing class or formal training in speaking. They’ve done a wonderful job participating in our applied learning exercises and show a great deal of talent. Yet, our assignment of integrating the speaking and writing materials into their lesson plans was a real challenge.

The Egyptian MUCIA officer explained that this assignment will likely be life changing for the teachers because they are not accustomed to thinking and communication skills are revolutionary. Egyptians operate in a tightly controled environment (except for their driving). As a result, many teachers are not accustomed to creating, adapting or integrating new material.   I’m excited to see what the teachers present tomorrow, but even more excited to see the results in a year or two when the students develop these skill sets.

As you go about your business today, I challenge you to pause every time you employ the freedom to think. It’s not a right – it is a privilege. The freedom to formulate a plan, the freedom to dream, and the freedom to correct misinformation – are a privilege.  In a era of declining critical thinking skills in America, I wonder if we’re losing the privilege to think freely. Isn’t it time we change that?

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