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Critical thinking is not enough

| August 19, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Michael S. Roth

Without fail, my courses attract students who have been encouraged in ‘critical thinking’, which often means that they have gotten rewarded for showing that they can find ‘mistakes’ in somebody else’s work.

For example, every year somebody triumphantly points out that Jean-Jacques Rousseau1 is undermining his own argument when he attacks the arts and sciences, or that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for self-reliance2 is, in effect, a call for reliance on him. I take a deep breath and ask students to envisage that the authors had already considered the questions they are raising. Instead of trying to find mistakes in the texts, I suggest we take the point of view that the authors created these apparent ‘contradictions’ to get readers like us to ponder more productive questions. How do we think about education and politics, for example, or how can we stand on our own feet while being open to inspiration from the world around us? Sure, there’s a certain satisfaction in being critical of our authors, but is it not more interesting to put ourselves in a frame of mind to find inspiration from them?

What does ‘being critical’ mean?

Our best college students are really good at being critical. Being smart, for many, means being critical. Having strong critical skills shows that you will not be easily fooled; it is a sign of sophistication these days, especially when coupled with an acknowledgement of one’s own ‘privilege’. The combination of resistance to influence and deflection of responsibility by confessing to one’s advantages is a sure sign of one’s ability to negotiate the politics of learning on campus. But this ability will not take you very far beyond the university. Taking things apart, or taking people down, can provide the satisfactions of cynicism. But these are paltry pleasures.

Being critical: more than unmasking errors

While the skill at unmasking error, or simple intellectual oneupmanship, is not without value, we should be wary of creating a class of self-satisfied debunkers – or, to use a currently fashionable word on campus, people who like to ‘trouble’ ideas. In overdeveloping the capacity to show how texts, institutions or people fail to accomplish what they set out to do, we may be depriving students of the capacity to learn as much as possible from what they study. In a campus culture in which being smart often means being a critical unmasker, our students may become too good at showing how things can’t possibly make sense. This decreases their capacity to find or create meaning and direction from the books, music and experiments they encounter in the classroom.

Debunking depletes us

If we heap rewards on those adept at taking things down, once outside the university, our students are likely to try to score points by displaying the critical prowess for which they were rewarded in school. But these points often come at their own expense. As debunkers, they contribute to a cultural climate that has little tolerance for finding or making meaning – a culture whose intellectuals and cultural commentators get ‘liked’ by showing that somebody else just can’t be believed. But this cynicism is no achievement – no matter how many retweets it receives.

Liberal education in America has long been characterised by the intertwining of two traditions: of critical inquiry in pursuit of truth, and exuberant performance in pursuit of excellence. In the last half century, emphasis on inquiry has been dominant, but it has been inquiry often modelled on the ability to expose error and undermine belief. The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in ongoing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements. Of course, critical reflection is fundamental to teaching and scholarship, but fetishising disbelief as a sign of intelligence has contributed to depleting our cultural resources. Creative work, in whatever field, depends upon commitment, the energy of participation, and the capacity to absorb ourselves in works of literature, art and science.

Absorption a profound source of inspiration

Absorption is an endangered species of cultural life as technological surfing increasingly moulds our receptive capacities. In my film and philosophy class, for example, I have to insist that students put their devices away while watching movies that don’t immediately engage their senses with explosions, sex or gag lines. At first, they see this as some old guy’s failure to grasp their well-practised capacity for multitasking, but eventually most relearn how to give themselves to an emotional and intellectual experience that can be deeply engaging partly because it does not pander to their most superficial habits of attention. I usually watch the movies with them (though I’ve seen them more than a dozen times), and together we share in an experience that then becomes the subject of reflection, interpretation and analysis. We even forget our phones and tablets when we encounter these unexpected sources of inspiration.

Liberal learning depends on absorption in compelling work as a way of opening ourselves up to various forms of life in which we might actively participate. When we learn to read or look or listen intensively, we are not just becoming adept at uncovering yet more examples of the duplicities of culture and society. We are partially overcoming our own blindness, as William James3 put it long ago, by trying to understand something from another’s point of view. More than developing techniques of problem solving, we are learning to activate potential, and often to instigate new possibilities.

Liberal education not about limits

Of course, hard-nosed critical thinking may help in these endeavours, but it also may be a way we learn to protect ourselves from the risky acknowledgement and insight that absorption can offer. As students and as teachers, we sometimes crave that protection, because without it we risk being open to changing who we are. We risk seeing a different way of living less as somebody else’s privilege that should be taken away, and more as a possibility we might be able to explore. Liberal education must not limit itself to critical thinking and problem solving; it must also embrace participation and the capacity to create opportunity. Liberal education today takes us beyond the university to pragmatic lifelong learning that finds inspiration from unexpected sources while increasing our capacity to understand the world, contribute to it and reshape ourselves.

1. See, for example: Doyle, M.E. and Smith, M.K. (2007) “Jean-Jacques Rousseau on nature, wholeness and education”. Available at:
2. Emerson, R.W. (1993) Self-Reliance and Other Essays. New York: Dover Thrift Editions.
3. See, for example:

Category: Spring 2014

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