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Chapter 8. Design Your Life

"The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgment should always be placed foremost, not the acquisition of specialized knowledge."

- Albert Einstein

Fate or Freedom: Which Do You Choose?

Many people talk about their lives as if the events in them were pre-determined, as if some force in the universe had issued a timeless decree by which the order of all things (including their lives) was prescribed and all events controlled by inevitable necessity. If you think about your life as a pre-determined product of forces over which you have no control, then you lose any chance of controlling your life.

The Very Idea of Freedom

The idea of designing one's life is a product of two insights: 1) there is a significant difference between life as it is typically lived and life as it might be lived; and 2) by deliberately changing our thinking, we can live in a manner closer to our ideal than if we uncritically allow our thinking to be shaped by the forces acting on us.

Lifelong learners are skilled thinkers who recognize the different roles that learning can play in life. There is a large difference between being passive as a learner and being active. In a passive learner's life, the only end is that of establishing habits that "work," that enable the individual to "get by." Passive learning tends toward "stagnation," for once I find something that enables me to get by, I then, as a passive learner, lack the motivation to change. What I seek in my learning is confirmation in my present beliefs, in my present judgments, and in my present behavior patterns. I seek a way of defending my status quo.

Test the Idea
To What Extent Are You a Passive Learner?

Think back upon the learning experiences you have had in your life, as well as the opportunities for learning you have had. Answer the following questions: To what extent would you say you have been a passive learner? To what extent have you actively sought out opportunities for learning? To what extent have you taken responsibility for your own learning? To what extent do you see learning as something that happens to you rather than something you make happen? To what extent do you see value in learning?

In the life of a critical thinker, active learning is a tool for continually bridging the gap between what is and what could be. We then recognize the role that learning plays in our lives: establishing habits of continual improvement, of always reaching for the next level of skill, ability, and insight. Critical thinkers are lifelong learners and take charge of their experience, their learning, and the patterned behavior that defines their lives. They, in essence, "design" how they think and feel, and hence lay the foundation for how they live. They recognize that their thinking will shape their emotions and that their emotions impact their thinking. They use this recognition as a tool in self-deliberation (Figure 8.1).

Figure 8.1. Thinking is the key to all knowledge.


Lifelong learners design their lives by becoming clear as to what their goals, problems, and options are. They think through their decisions. They give careful consideration to their options. They give explicit priorities to goals. They do not simply react to immediate imperatives, the predictable and unpredictable distractions that occur in all of our lives. They create their own imperatives by bringing their foremost goals into the center of their thoughts and actions, and create their own calendar of actions.

Though our choices are always limited, we all have a much larger range of choices than we generally recognize to be so.

Recognizing the Dual Logic of Experience

For most people, experience is understood as something that "happens to them," not something they create for themselves. But experience is something over which we can all, in principle, exercise significant control. Consider the nature of experience. Experience is a reciprocal relationship between two factors: an objective factor and a subjective one.

The objective dimension of experience is that part of it that we did not generate. It consists in what happens outside our skin, so to speak, in the world about us. Many things happen in the physical and social world over which we have no control. Some we "experience." We have no direct control over what others think, feel, and do. We cannot enter into the minds of people and change them directly. We cannot directly modify the physical or social environment in which we live and act. There are many factors that limit our choices.

But all of the objective factors in our experience must nevertheless be given a meaning, an interpretation. They must become part of our inner life. It is only through this act on our part that a happening or event becomes an "experience." For example, there is much that happens around us that we do not notice and, hence, never becomes part of our experience. Our mind acts as a screen that records and gives a meaning to only a part of what happens around us. The mind ignores the rest. Furthermore, part of the meaning we give an experience is determined by what we decide is important and what is not important. These are crucial decisions of the mind. They exercise immense influence upon our well being. For example, it is our minds that decide what is in our interest or against it, what we should rejoice in and what we should fear, what will help and what hurt us. Unfortunately, our minds often fail us in these matters.

Self-Deception, Insight, and Analyzed Experiences

The human mind, whatever its conscious good will, is subject to powerful, self-deceptive, unconscious egocentricity of mind. A major obstacle to developing intellectual virtues is the presence in the human egocentric mind of what Freud has called "defense mechanisms." Each represents a way to falsify, distort, misconceive, twist, or deny reality. In the distinction between a critically analyzed experience and an unanalyzed one, we can see the opposition between insight and self-deception.

As suggested above, we rarely subject our experience to critical analysis. We seldom take our experiences apart to judge their truth value. We rarely sort the "lived" integrated experience into its component parts, raw data versus our inner processing of the data, or ask ourselves how the interests, goals, and desires we brought to those data shaped and structured that interpretation. Similarly, we rarely consider the possibility that our interpretation (and, hence, our experience) might be selective, biased, or misleading.

This is not to say that our unanalyzed experiences lack meaning or significance. Quite the contrary, in some sense we assess all that we experience. We routinely catalogue experiences in accord with our egocentric fears, desires, prejudices, stereotypes, caricatures, hopes, dreams, and assorted irrational drives. We shouldn't assume a priori that our rational side controls the shaping of our experience. Our unanalyzed experiences are some combination of rational and irrational thoughts and actions. Only through critical analysis can we hope to isolate and reduce the irrational dimensions of our experience. The ability to do so grows as we analyze more and more of our experience.

Facing Contradictions and Inconsistencies

Of course, more important than the sheer number of analyzed experiences is their quality and significance. This quality and significance depends on how much our analyses enable us to face our own inconsistencies and contradictions. What links the experiences, as analyzed products of the mind, is insight. Every critically analyzed experience to some extent produces some insight into who we are. To become more rational, it is not enough to give meaning to our experience. Many experiences are more or less charged with irrational meanings. Stereotypes, prejudices, narrow-mindedness, delusions, and illusions of various kinds are sometimes rampant in our thinking.

The process of developing insights is part and parcel of separating experiences into their rational and irrational dimensions, those forming meta-experiences, i.e., higher-order experiences. These meta-experiences become important benchmarks and guides for future thought. They make possible modes of thinking and maneuvers in thinking closed to the irrational mind. Through them we learn to talk insightfully about our experience. Our first-order experiences are no longer sacred. They are materials of the mind that the mind evaluates.

I can reason well in domains in which I am prejudiced - hence, eventually, reason my way out of prejudices - only if I develop benchmarks for such reasoning. Of course, when I am prejudiced it will seem to me that I am not, and similarly, it will seem to me that those who are not prejudiced (as I am) are prejudiced. (To a prejudiced person, an unprejudiced person seems prejudiced.)

I will come to this insight only insofar as I have analyzed experiences in which I was intensely convinced I was correct only to find, after a series of challenges, re-considerations, and new reasoning, that my previous conviction was, in fact, prejudiced. I must take this experience apart in my mind, understand its elements and how they fit together (how I became prejudiced; how I inwardly experienced that prejudice; how intensely that prejudice seemed true and insightful; how I progressively broke that prejudice down through serious consideration of opposing lines of reasoning; how I slowly came to new assumptions, new information, and ultimately new conceptualizations).

Only when one gains analyzed experiences of working and reasoning one's way out of prejudice can one gain the insight essential to self-honesty. Generally, to develop essential insights, we must create a collection of analyzed experiences that represent to us intuitive models, not only of the pitfalls of our own previous thinking and experiencing, but also processes for reasoning our way out of or around them. These model experiences must be charged with meaning for us. We cannot be indifferent to them. We must sustain them in our minds by our sense of their importance as they sustain and guide us in our thinking.

In analyzing experiences we should ask at least three questions:

  1. What are the raw facts? What is the most neutral description of the situation?

  2. What interests, attitudes, desires, or concerns do I bring to the situation?

  3. How am I conceptualizing or interpreting the situation in light of my point of view? How else might it be interpreted?

We must also explore the interrelationships of these parts: How did my point of view, values, desires, etc, affect what I noticed about the situation? How did they prevent me from noticing other things? How would I have interpreted the situation had I noticed those other things? How did my point of view, desires, etc, affect my interpretation? How should I interpret the situation?

Test the Idea
Asking Important Questions in Context

Think back upon a recent experience you had. This could have been a meeting you attended or headed. It could have been a discussion you had with your spouse, child, or parent. Answer these questions as you revisit that experience in your mind:

  1. What were the raw facts in the situation? What is the most neutral description of the situation?

  2. What interests, attitudes, desires, or concerns did you bring to the situation?

  3. How did you conceptualize or interpret the situation in light of your point of view? How else might it have been interpreted?

Of course, not all experiences are direct and firsthand. Many come to us vicariously, through the mass media. Such experiences, such influences, are crucial to understanding the uncriticalness of much of our thinking.

Social Forces, the Mass Media, and Our Experience

There are powerful social forces that act through the mass media to influence the "meanings" we give to things. The news media, for one, exert significant influence on how we conceptualize the world. They affect the meanings we give to events across the globe - in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, etc. They affect the meanings we give to events close to us. They shape our world view. They tell us, in effect, who to trust and who to fear, what gives us security and what threatens us, who to admire and who to scorn, what is significant in our lives and what is insignificant. They create friend and enemy, tell us what our problems are and, typically, tell us how to solve our problems. They imply what is criminal behavior and what is not. They influence what we think about capital punishment, the police, prisons, prisoners, punishments, social workers, poverty, welfare, the medical system, schools, etc. They influence what we consider normal and healthy sexuality and what we consider perverted. They imply when violence is necessary and praise-worthy and when it is inappropriate and to be condemned. Much of this mass media influence upon us is one-sided, superficial, and misleading - when not out-and-out false.

Billions are spent to create, shape, and influence this process. The consequences for the well being of people are enormous. We cannot be critical thinkers and accept the influence that the mass media continually fosters. Whether our viewpoint is conservative or liberal; right, middle, or left; Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Agnostic, or atheist - we need to resist mass media influence in our lives. We must decide for ourselves what we think, feel, and want. We cannot do this while under the thrall of the mass media. We must "experience" the world in terms that we ourselves create. We must seek out alternative views. We must find sources that go beyond our national media. We must read widely. We must think broadly.

Of course, it is not enough to know this in the abstract. One must know actively how to correct for it. We must learn how not to be drawn into media-engineered experiences, how to see through them, how to avoid the manner in which they insinuate images into our minds, how they seek to use us where we are most vulnerable, to foster internal confirmation of what is propaganda.

Success in life is best fostered through life-long learning, but an uncritical use of the media in the learning process engenders in us a great deal of activated ignorance, prejudice, misconception, half-truth, and over-simplification. It feeds upon our infantile egocentrism and or uncritical socio-centrism.

To counteract the influence of the mainstream media over our lives, we should seek information from news sources outside of the mainstream, sources such as The Nation, and Counterpoint.

Test the Idea
Thinking About the Influence of the Media on Our Thinking

Try to locate articles in the newspaper where it appears that the news media is attempting to influence your views as a reader and is using a distorted view to do so. You might do this by looking for an article depicting as ethically wrong a practice that is merely a social convention. Then try to locate articles or books from sources outside of the mainstream that would shed light on how it makes best sense to view the situation.

Reading Backwards

One of the most powerful ways to open our minds to alternative experiences, and thus to counteract the influence of social conditioning and the mass media, is to read "backward." That is, to read books printed in the past: 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 300 years ago, 400 years ago, 500 years ago, 700 years ago, 800 years ago, even 2000 years ago, and more. This provides us with a unique perspective and the ability to step outside of the presuppositions and ideologies of the present day. When we read only in the present, no matter how widely, we are apt to absorb widely shared misconceptions taught and believed today as the truth.

Below is a sampling of the authors of books that we believe enable us to re-think the present. Each has insights that deepen and widen the thinking of the critical reader:

  1. (over 2000 years ago) The writings of Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes

  2. 1200s (over 800 years ago) The writings of Thomas Aquinas and Dante

  3. 1300s (over 700 years ago) The writings of Boccaccio and Chaucer

  4. 1400s (over 500 years ago) The writings of Eramus and Francis Bacon

  5. 1500s (over 400 years ago) The writings of Machiavelli, Cellini, Cervantes, and Montaigne

  6. 1600s (over 300 years ago) The writings of John Milton, Pascal, John Dryden, John Locke, and Joseph Addison

  7. 1700s (over 200 years ago) The writings of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Pope, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, Samuel Johnson, Daniel Defoe, Goethe, Rousseau, and William Blake

  8. 1800s (over 100 years ago) The writings of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, John Henry Newman, Leo Tolstoy, The Brontes, Frank Norris, Thomas Hardy, Emile Durkheim, Edmond Rostand, and Oscar Wilde

  9. 1900s (the last 100 years) The writings of Ambrose Bierce, Gustavus Myers, H.L. Mencken, William Graham Sumner, W.H. Auden, Bertolt Brecht, Joseph Conrad, Max Weber, Aldous Huxley, Franz Kafka, Sinclair Lewis, Henry James, Bernard Shaw, Jean-Paul Sartre, Virginia Woolf, William Appleman Williams, Arnold Toynbee, C. Wright Mills, Albert Camus, Willa Cather, Bertrand Russell, Karl Mannheim, Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Simone De Beauvoir, Winston Churchill, William J. Lederer, Vance Packard, Eric Hoffer, Erving Goffman, Philip Agee, John Steinbeck, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William Faulkner, Talcott Parsons, Jean Piaget, Lester Thurow, Robert Reich, Robert Heilbroner, Noam Chomsky, Jacques Barzun, Ralph Nader, Margaret Mead, Bronislaw Malinowski, Karl Popper, Robert Merton, Peter Berger, Milton Friedman, and J. Bronowski

If we learn to read backward, we will begin to recognize some of the stereotypes and misconceptions of the present. We will develop a better sense of what is universal and what is relative; what is essential and what is arbitrary. We will also recognize how arbitrary many of our social values are, as well as how likely we are to have misconceptions that are not apparent to us - just as those in the past had misconceptions that were not apparent to them.

For example, reading widely in the past creates multiple perspectives in the mind that enable one to better understand the complexities of the present. Critical reading creates a lens through which we come to better understand the role in history in our lives, even the role in history of critical thinking itself.

For example, thinking historically we discover that though the idea of critical thinking is old, there has apparently never been a society that taught critical thinking as a basic social value. To the present, critical thinking is being taught only to a minority of citizens, and even then usually in a one-sided way. Critical thinking tends to be taken no further than the skill of attacking and defending ideas, or more usually, the skill of attacking ideas inconsistent with the status quo and defending it in turn. Very often, critical thinking has been indistinguishable from "sophistry," the ability to manipulate people into thinking that the reigning ideology was always "correct and complete." Typically, only a small minority learns and uses critical thinking to question a ruling ideology. We can see this if we scan the history of critical thought.

One of the first thinkers in the history of critical thought is that of Socrates, a Greek teacher from some 2400 years ago. Socrates discovered a method of questioning that, when applied to the leaders of his day, convinced him that most of them could not rationally justify their claims to knowledge. They arrogantly answered his initial questions, but could not intelligibly justify what they thought they knew. For this public exposure of the superficial thinking of authorities, Socrates was rewarded with execution.

Socrates concluded, like Plato and Aristotle after him, that humans typically have no more than a superficial understanding of themselves and their surroundings. This view was expressed by many thinkers over the next 2400 years - including Francis Bacon, Descartes, Pascal, John Stuart Mill, Sigmund Freud, and William Graham Sumner.

It was not until some 1400 years after Socrates that the notion of questioning beliefs became acceptable - albeit only at the university and only under the direction of authorities therein. Of course, in the Renaissance (15th and 16th Centuries), a number of scholars in Europe began to think critically about religion, art, society, human nature, law, and freedom. They proceeded with the assumption that most of the domains of human life were in need of searching analysis and critique. Among these scholars were Colet, Erasmus, and More in England. They followed up on the insight of the ancient Greek thinkers.

Francis Bacon (England) explicitly analyzed the way the human mind, in its normal state, is entrapped by ignorance, prejudice, self-deception, and vested interest. He recognized explicitly that the mind should not be left to its natural tendencies. In his book The Advancement of Learning, he argued for the importance of studying the world empirically. He laid the foundation for modern science with his emphasis on the information-gathering processes. He also called attention to the fact that most people, if left to their own devices, develop bad habits of thought (which he called "idols") that lead them to believe what is unworthy of belief. He called attention to "Idols of the Tribe" (the ways our mind naturally tends to trick itself), "Idols of the Cave" (our tendency to see things from our own individual, and often distorted, perspective), "Idols of the Market-Place" (the ways we misuse concepts in our associations with others), and "Idols of the Theater" (our tendency to become trapped in conventional and dogmatic systems of thought). His book could be considered one of the earliest texts in critical thinking, for his agenda was very much the traditional agenda of critical thinking.

Some fifty years later in France, Descartes wrote what might be called the second text in critical thinking, Rules for the Direction of the Mind. In it, Descartes argued for the need for a special systematic disciplining of the mind to guide it in thinking. He articulated and defended the need in thinking for clarity and precision. He developed a method of critical thought based on the principle of systematic doubt. He emphasized the need to base thinking on well reasoned foundational assumptions. Every part of thinking, he argued, should be questioned, doubted, and tested.

In the same time period, Sir Thomas More developed a model of a new social order, Utopia, in which every domain of the present world was subject to critique. His implicit thesis was that established social systems are in need of radical analysis and critique. The critical thinking of these Renaissance and post-Renaissance scholars opened the way for the emergence of science and for the development of democracy, human rights, and freedom for thought.

In the Italian Renaissance, Hobbes and Locke displayed the same confidence in the critical mind of the thinker that we find in Machiavelli. Neither accepted the traditional picture of things dominant in the thinking of their day. Neither accepted as necessarily rational that which was considered "normal" in their culture. Both looked to the critical mind to open up new vistas of learning. Hobbes adopted a naturalistic view of the world in which everything was to be explained by evidence and reasoning. Locke defended a common sense analysis of everyday life and thought. He laid the theoretical foundation for critical thinking about basic human rights and the responsibilities of all governments to submit to the reasoned criticism of thoughtful citizens.

It was in this spirit of intellectual freedom and critical thought that people such as Robert Boyle (in the 17th Century) and Sir Isaac Newton (in the 17th and 18th Century) did their work. In his Sceptical Chymist, Boyle severely criticized the chemical theory that had preceded him. Newton, in turn, developed a far-reaching framework of thought that roundly criticized the traditionally accepted view of the world. He extended the critical thought of such minds as Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. After Boyle and Newton, it was recognized by those who reflected seriously on the natural world that egocentric views must be abandoned in favor of views based entirely on carefully gathered evidence and sound reasoning.

Another significant contribution to critical thinking was made by the thinkers of the French Enlightenment: Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot. They all began with the premise that the human mind, when disciplined by reason, is better able to figure out the nature of the social and political world. What is more, for these thinkers, reason must turn inward upon itself, in order to determine weaknesses and strengths of thought. They valued disciplined intellectual exchange, in which all views had to be submitted to serious analysis and critique. They believed that all authority must submit in one way or another to the scrutiny of reasonable critical questioning.

Eighteenth Century thinkers extended our conception of critical thought even further, developing our sense of the power of critical thought and of its tools. Applied to the problem of economics, it produced Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. In the same year, applied to the traditional concept of loyalty to the king, it produced the Declaration of Independence. Applied to reason itself, it produced Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

In the 19th Century, critical thought was extended even further into the domain of human social life by Comte, Spencer, and Max Weber. Applied to the problems of capitalism, it produced the searching social and economic critique of Karl Marx. Applied to social decision-making and power, it produced a deep analysis of bureaucratic thinking and its tendency to dominate large organizations in such a way as to undermine their original purposes (Max Weber). Applied to the history of human culture and the basis of biological life, it led to Darwin's Descent of Man. Applied to the unconscious mind, it is reflected in the works of Sigmund Freud. Applied to cultures, it led to the establishment of the field of Anthropological studies. Applied to language, it led to the field of Linguistics and to many profound analyses of the functions of symbols and language in human life.

In the 20th Century, our understanding of the power and nature of critical thinking has emerged in increasingly more explicit formulations. In 1906, William Graham Sumner published a ground-breaking study of the foundations of sociology and anthropology, Folkways (Sumner, reprint, 1940), in which he documented the tendency of the human mind to think sociocentrically and the parallel tendency for schools to serve the (uncritical) function of social indoctrination:

"Schools make persons all on one pattern, orthodoxy. School education, unless it is regulated by the best knowledge and good sense, will produce men and women who are all of one pattern, as if turned in a lathe... An orthodoxy is produced in regard to all the great doctrines of life. It consists of the most worn and commonplace opinions which are common in the masses. The popular opinions always contain broad fallacies, half-truths, and glib generalizations."

At the same time, Sumner recognized the deep need for critical thinking in life and in education:

"Criticism is the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not. The critical faculty is a product of education and training. It is a mental habit and power. It is a prime condition of human welfare that men and women should be trained in it. It is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition, and misapprehension of ourselves and our earthly circumstances. Education is good just so far as it produces well-developed critical faculty....A teacher of any subject who insists on accuracy and a rational control of all processes and methods, and who holds everything open to unlimited verification and revision is cultivating that method as a habit in the pupils. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded...They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence...They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices...Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens."

John Dewey agreed. From his work, we have increased our sense of the pragmatic basis of human thought (its instrumental nature), and especially its grounding in actual human purposes, goals, and objectives. From the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, we have increased our awareness not only of the importance of concepts in human thought, but also of the need to analyze concepts and assess their power and limitations within particular contexts and expressed first in "natural" (rather than "technical") languages. From the work of Piaget, we have increased our awareness of the egocentric and sociocentric tendencies of human thought and of the special need to develop critical thought that is able to reason within multiple standpoints, and to be raised to the level of "conscious realization."

From the work of such scholars as C. Wright Mills, we have increased awareness of the manner in which democratic institutions are undermined and social exploitation takes place in mass societies. From the contribution of depth-psychology and other researchers, we have learned how easily the human mind is self-deceived, how easily it unconsciously constructs illusions and delusions, how easily it rationalizes and stereotypes, projects, and scapegoats. From the work of Irving Goffman and others, we have an increased awareness of how "social definitions" can dominate the mental life of individuals in a society. From the work of many sociologists, we have increased awareness of how the "normal" socialization process serves to perpetuate the existing society - its ideology, roles, norms, and values - however inconsistent these might be with a society's announced picture of itself. From the work of economists like Robert Heilbronner, we have increased awareness of how unbridled economic forces influenced by vested interest groups may act so as to undermine or negate economic, political, and ethical values as well as human rights.

From the massive contribution of all the physical and natural sciences, we have learned the power of information and the importance of gathering information with great care and precision, and with sensitivity to its potential inaccuracy, distortion, or misuse.

To conclude, a scanning of the history of critical thought heightens our awareness of the power and necessity of critical thinking as well as of its rarity in human experience. Nowhere is there, as far as we can see, a developed community of critical thinkers. No society systematically teaches it to its young. Every society teaches its view of the world as the TRUTH, and invests a good deal of effort into justifying itself to itself. The only community of critical thinkers, to date, exists across cultures and disciplines, across ethnic groups and orientations, across belief systems and life-style agendas.

Test the Idea
Committing Yourself to Reading Backward

Try to commit yourself to reading one book per month that is on our "reading backward" author list, or books by other highly reputable authors from different periods in history. Choose books that represent differing perspectives, differing ways of looking at the world. Should you make such a commitment, as time passes you will experience considerable development in your ability to see things from multiple perspectives and your worldview will significantly broaden.

Implications for the Design of Your Life

If we become committed to designing our own lives, and recognize that, in doing so, we are resisting social forces, and, to greater or lessor extent, acting outside of the expected behavior patterns of the social groups of which we are a member, we also learn to keep some of our thinking private. We learn that others must undergo their own evolution, their own development as critical thinkers and that we cannot give to others the products of our thinking, when it is unorthodox, without their going through a process similar to the one we experienced.

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