Sunday, July 30, 2017

On Critical Thinking and Writing

My writing workshop has doubled in length from two hours to four and now includes a major component of critical thinking.  This was supposed to be covered by a philosophy professor who had to drop out at the last moment.

So what do I hope my students learn in the brief time we have together?

Ask any teacher and she will tell you students lack critical thinking skills.  With writing, these skills are the most under-utilized in our students’ lives.  More importantly, society does not encourage deep reflection, thinking of a critical nature, or reading in a variety of genres and texts.  Students reflect what society values in education.  Right now, the ability to use technology and make money seem to be top priorities, not becoming a better person or coming to understand the human condition, much less the global concerns for environment and life.  It is a shallow and superficial age.

Critical thinking involves a headache.  That’s my experience.  It actually hurts to think that hard, but to do less is self-limiting and narcissistic.  Like working out one’s muscles, the pain is good.  It should, and does, keep us running.  Education is a pursuit; we are chasing intelligence, the ability to think for ourselves and see through the bullshit of our politicians and their corporate minders.  I’d like to say our fundamental humanistic beliefs have never been more devalued, but such devaluation and brutality have been pretty consistent throughout human history.  What has changed is our distraction level.  We are deep into our gadgets and digital domains and meanwhile, the world keeps moving on and we are only vaguely aware of the shifting ground beneath our feet.

How does one think critically?  Well, first start by surrendering, as much as possible, our biases and then study the issue as objectively as possible.  It is true that subjectivity is human nature and no one can mount a truly objective evaluation, but we can try.  One way is to read the opposition.  One should always read both sides of the issue.  Who stands to benefit?  Who reaps financial rewards (“follow the money”)?

I like visual tools such as charts or a white board.  Make a list of possible actions, like lowering emission standards on the American car industry, something that has been done in recent years.  Across from the list of actions, make a list of the consequences.  So lowering emission standards will increase the cost of the vehicle for consumers thereby affecting the economy.  Batteries and alternative fuels may raise the cost of maintaining a car.  Make a third column of overall benefits to the world and its people.  Ultimately, to reduce emissions means more expensive car costs, but it pays off in environmental benefits like controlling global warming and reducing air pollution.  When the good outweighs the negative, we have an answer.

There is also the old standby, the pros and cons list.  However, we must be careful because in this age, the truth is often not the truth, and there are a lot of red herrings out there.  Banning people from certain countries of the world from immigrating to the U.S. does not protect us from terrorists.  It is also not the American way of doing things.  So to make a pros and cons list about immigration that places keeping out terrorists in the pro side is a fallacy of sorts.

What we find with critical thinking is that in the end, after all the analysis, there may not be a clear answer.  However it is in the rumination about issues that gives strength to such thinking.  We have higher order thinking skills and that sets us apart from animals.  Mulling over choices, ways of behaving, formations of laws, positions on legislation and elected officials, these are the requirements of a working human brain.  We simply must do this.  Otherwise, to fail to think is to abdicate our intellect and surrender our free thinking to become automatons.

We are also wary of this because of what we have seen on television:  screaming heads going at each other night after night.  The point of an argument is not to scream.  Something is lost when we attack the opposition with names and personal affronts.  We debate the issues, and we may never agree.  That is the American way:  everyone has a right to an informed opinion, but we may not reach a consensus on every given issue.  We reserve the right to agree to disagree as the clich√© goes.

To think critically means to examine every line of thought on a particular issue in our society.  We examine each premise and consequence and caveat and come to our own conclusions.  It is not wrong to question things; I am often surprised at how often other teachers and administrators think this way.  They are afraid of the questions, of being questioned.  Education and a developing intellect thrive on questions.  Authority is no protection against questioning, and to question our laws and institutions and those in authority will not destroy them.  To know why we believe the way we do makes our beliefs and self-confidence stronger.  Like vitamins, critical thinking is good for us.  Political and sociological arguments are necessary in democracy.  The ancient Greeks were adamant that a citizen participate in democracy, otherwise the whole enterprise falters.

So critical thinking boils down to observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation, and meta-cognition (thinking about your thinking!).  And as soon as one works through this checklist, it is lather, rinse, repeat.  We are always coming to new possibilities, new information, more enlightening data.  We must always leave room to reconsider.  The human intellect is always growing—a few poets like William Blake said it was a tree growing in our brains, like a burgeoning cancer.  Intellect is not cancerous unless it is used for destruction of life.  There is also moral and ethical thinking.  These are not separate categories—often to think critically involves thinking morally and ethically.

Descartes said, in rough translation, “I think, therefore I am.”  It is a popular quote, but the root of it is the negative:  if I do not think, if I do not seize the opportunity to think, I cease to be a human being.  Brains come with responsibilities.  That is what it means to be human and it has been so from the start.  What tree did Adam and Eve eat from in the Garden of Eden?  The tree of knowledge.  What knowledge did they gain from this fruit?  They were alive, but would someday die.  They were naked and needed clothes because nakedness was shameful and others could use that nakedness to encroach on one’s ability to walk through life unmolested or avoid assault.  As some theologians have said, Adam and Eve, by eating the fruit, came to know some of what God knew.  We learned we could create life, we could end life, we could love others, we could destroy others.

In the end, it is not a stretch to teach writing with critical thinking because they are necessary to each other.  If one doesn’t think, one cannot write, or write well, for that matter.  Consider the world, its people, its spirituality, its gravity and breath.  Only when we listen and consider can we find the through-line of thought leading to right action.  Only then can we be truly engaged in the daily wonder of life and creation.

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