No two snowflakes, I’ve always been told, are the same. Far be it from me to question the collective wisdom of our species, but I wonder how this fact is ever confirmed. I suppose I’ve personally swallowed a good deal of the evidence over time. Snowflakes melt and we can’t get them all under the microscope, can we? This year has been a winter of more than usual snow around here. During our most recent storm I stared out the window and tried to count. Billions of snowflakes collected in my yard alone, and no microscope-bearing statistician was anywhere to be seen. I like the idea of each flake being unique, but I know it’s a theory impossible to falsify, and I wonder if it’s accurate.
I’ve been thinking a lot about critical thinking. At its base, critical thinking is about asking questions and learning reputable places to find answers. Not “fake news” or “alternative facts”—these are tools in the Devil’s workbox—but evidence-based information. Primary education, it seems, is about learning to read, and write, and handle numbers. It is about learning who we are and who we’ve been. About the way that science helps us understand this old world. Higher education, as it’s generally conceived, used to be about learning critical thinking. That was before colleges became mere trade schools, catering mainly to careers with high earning potential so that alumni would give more money back to the college. Where will we learn critical thinking? No two are the same, right?
Instead, knowledge and hearsay become very similar things. I used to tell my students not to take my word for it. Just because I can legitimately put the word “doctor” in front of my name doesn’t mean I know everything. Yes, I am an expert but even experts aren’t exempt from the test. So, as more snow starts to fall, I think about all the many, many places I’ve heard that no two flakes are the same. I think of the astronomical number of snowflakes that have fallen this year alone. The number of years before we ever evolved on this planet. In ice ages and even during human-initiated global warming. And I realize nobody’s done the actual work of comparing every single snowflake to every other one. Tradition is like that accumulating snow, building on past layers until great glaciers form. And who, I wonder, would argue with a glacier?