I reject critical thinking

book fort.

It is finals season, and my life plods along as usual. I am staring down a great many Christmas parties, but no all-nighters; I take the GRE this Sunday, but I’ve been preparing for weeks. It is a strange feeling, and I almost (almost) miss the weird rush of a combined panic over due dates and pleasure from uninterrupted hours immersed in ideas. I might build myself a small book fort anyway.

But I planned it this way. A year off is not so long, but now I can legitimately say that academia and its rhythms are not the only thing I’ve ever known. And, as I expected, this has had some unexpected consequences.

In college, all my exams and assignments were writing projects: analysis, criticism, construction of an argument, identifying assumptions and premises to defend or attack other writers’ arguments and conclusions. I am thankful and proud that my teachers taught and assessed these skills; they are the fundamental tools of any scholar who wants to be taken seriously, published, or hired. However, my training in this way of reading and thinking has its pitfalls.

You receive a 30-page article to read and write a response to, due in two days. You begin reading, pencil in hand. You are looking for buzzwords, keywords, exaggerations. You note unaddressed counterarguments in the margins. You make lines and question marks where conclusions don’t necessarily follow premises. You underline pithy phrases and conclusions with which you agree. And then you begin to construct your response: the places and premises where you agree, and why; the conclusions and assumptions you don’t like, and why. Any emotional response must be subsumed into the rigorous framework of your analysis, subject to the same logical dissection.

Or you are working on a long research paper, hunched behind your book fort, and you flip to a promising source’s table of contents, look for a relevant chapter, and begin reading two-thirds of the way through the book, stopping to make notes and collect quotes, trying to remember to note page numbers. You’re interested in the book’s other chapters, but on this deadline your task is to mine the most relevant information and move on.

You are required to agree or disagree with everything you read, watch, or hear, and to know why. This is critical thinking, one of the foundational goals of your liberal arts education. And it will serve you well on the Internet, where every blogger is begging for a response and commenters pull every opinion (and each other) apart.

Now, though, six months after graduation, I am only just remembering how to read a book. How to linger on a delicious-sounding sentence without rushing, without skimming for topic sentences and main argument points. How to begin with openness, trust even, rather than brandishing a pencil and an arsenal of Latin labels for fallacies. I am remembering the delight of simply listening before I speak, formulate a counterargument, or point out overstatements. Even in reading the Bible – (I am truly ashamed of this) – I have only recently relearned how to pray and listen, dwell in the words and pray, pray and seek as I read.

Reading – I had forgotten – is an encounter with another person, and to do it well takes humility. A good reader must be a good listener, walking with the author through the twists and turns he or she chooses to take. Even when you know an argument will need to be made, empathy must come first; it is deeply, even violently prideful to ignore the human being behind a position simply because he or she is wrong.

So I am glad, for a season, to be out of the artificial world of “pure” ideas, where the order of December is inhuman workloads that turn everyone… inhuman. The “real world” has reminded me that critical thinking is a second-order skill – the really important thing is just to listen.

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  1. Awesome. FB-shared!

  2. Jacqueline in Atlanta

     /  December 4, 2012

    “When you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun.
    Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.”

    “Out there things can happen, and frequently do,
    To people as brainy and footsy as you.
    And when things start to happen, don’t worry, don’t stew.
    Just go right along, you’ll start happening too!”

    from Oh The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Suess

    Put away your highlighter and your red marker, too
    Read what you want and when you are through
    You will get a warm fuzzy and shout out with glee
    “Nothing’s better than a book paired with chocolate and coffee!”

    from Mommie


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