By Zora Mulligan ’98

zora-mulliganDuring my time as a student at Drury, I had the good fortune of working as the assistant to the assistant in Dean Stephen Good’s office. It’s hard to imagine a better campus job—flexible hours, interesting work, and I didn’t have to wear a hair net. I also learned a lot from Dean Good—and just as much from his assistant, Bonnie Wilcox. That experience, together with all I learned in the classroom and through extracurricular activities, put me on the path to where I’ve ended up.

After I left Drury, I earned a master’s degree in higher education administration and graduated from law school. I went on to serve as the general counsel and legislative liaison for the Missouri Department of Higher Education and eventually to the job I have now, the executive director of the Missouri Community College Association.

Dean Good wasn’t the kind of boss who spent a lot of time making small talk with his student worker. He was always pleasant and supportive, but he spent most of the day in meetings or reading quietly. Much of what I knew about his priorities I discerned from the volume of material I photocopied and filed. There was one topic, though, that he demonstrated his interest in through both conversations with me and by accumulating files and files full of documents: critical thinking.

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Throughout the four years I worked in his office, Dean Good periodically asked if I was learning anything—a question he meant to be funny, but he really wanted to know if I was learning to think critically. As a first-year college student, I had no idea what critical thinking was. I went to high school in a time when facts were facts. Columbus discovered America, and five centuries of glorious American progress and prosperity followed. Pluto was (of course) a planet. Sure there were some rough stretches—the Depression was bad, and Vietnam was controversial. These were also presented as facts, not as ideas to consider or judgments to assess. Dean Good was the first person to introduce me to the idea that really good thinkers do more than memorize facts—they think critically about their world. They synthesize information from a variety of sources, weigh the credibility and relevance of each piece of information and develop an ever-evolving framework that helps them make sense of their own actions, the motivations and behaviors of others, and the world.

Today I spend much of my working life in the state Capitol, lobbying on behalf of community colleges. The ability to think critically is a crucial skill in that world, where the single most important thing to remember is that things are seldom what they seem. Good lobbyists know the history of each issue, the hidden forces behind it, and the motivations of each issue’s supporters and opponents. Good lobbyists collect information through thousands of conversations and observations, and through reading, watching and listening. They use that information to develop a comprehensive theory about what is happening—and how to influence what happens next.

I liked most of my classes, but three classes in particular provided me with some basic critical thinking tools I still use today: Dr. Valerie Eastman’s Psychology 101, Dr. Charles Ess’ Logic and Dr. Mike Matthews’ dreaded Statistics.
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I double-majored in political science and psychology, so I took plenty of psych classes, but the piece of information that I still use on a daily basis came in Psych 101. The class introduces students to each branch of psychology. At the time, I really just memorized the similarities and differences between each, but years later I found myself thinking about one of the branches: Carl Rogers’ Person-Centered Approach. It’s a complex set of theories, but the simplified version that stayed with me says that the important thing about understanding a person’s behavior isn’t the world as it actually is —it’s understanding the world as seen through that person’s eyes. In a job where I am constantly seeking to understand motivations and predict behavior, this is an extremely helpful lens.

In 1994 you could take Logic to fulfill your math requirement at Drury. Logic is the cornerstone of critical thinking. It was tremendously helpful in law school, and I still find myself saying, “Well . . . that’s not necessarily true.” The Capitol is most definitely not a place where logic rules, but at least I can identify and attempt to unwind a fallacious argument when I see one.

People use statistics to support all kinds of arguments, so it’s very useful to know enough about data to ask good questions. This is where the statistics class I took proves to be very helpful. Although I certainly can’t do an analysis of variance any more (and barely could in college), at least I remember enough about sample size, the median and the mean to understand most of the studies floating around the Capitol.

Taken together, these and my other classes gave me the skills I needed to think critically—to, as Dean Good would have said, learn something.

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