Thursday, April 5, 2012

Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

This is the kind of book that those smarty-pants YouTube commenters read, absorb and then regurgitate without grasping the concept that it’s supposed to make you a better critical thinker, not a wise-ass.

Nevertheless, I wish more people would read and internalize what M. Neil Browne and Stuart M. Keeley advocate in “Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking,” – most especially their “Final Word” at the end of the book:
As a parting shot, we want to encourage you to engage with issues. Critical thinking is not a sterile hobby, reserved only for classrooms, for taking exams, or for showing off your mental cleverness. It provides a basis for a partnership for action among the reasonable. Beliefs are wonderful, but their payoff is in our subsequent behavior. After you have found the best answer to a question, act on that answer. Make your critical thinking the basis for the creation of an identity of which you can be proud. Put it to work for yourself and for the community in which you find yourself.
Remember, the payoff of becoming a better critical thinker is in our subsequent behavior. I kinda like the sound of that. Reminds me of something CS Lewis once wrote:
As the author of the Theologia Germanica says, we may come to love knowledge -- our
knowing -- more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar's life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.
Unfortunately, critical thinking takes time. And in our time-obsessed culture, we just don’t have the patience for it. Even when our sitting president (whom I voted for) urges the press corps just to report what he or his administration says without bothering to look “at the other side” because the other side is stupid or out of touch or dead wrong or whatever reason, I see clearly that something is dead wrong with our obsession with time. My goals: Read this book again several times over, learn how to become a critical thinker, and then s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Or at least replace any quick wise-assery with nonsequiturs, which aren’t all that helpful to the conversation but at least get out that urge to participate without thinking in a more harmless fashion.

All joking aside, this book is a wonderful guide for anyone (student, journalist, blogger, YouTube commenter) who wants to move beyond the quick to really get the tools to become a better, more critical thinker. I’m hoping that there are a few good thinkers among the Obama press corps who listened to what he said and said, “Wait, whut?” and then went on doing their own critical thinking, occasionally dismissing the “other side” because, yes, they are full of hooey, but occasionally reminding himself or herself that the world is rarely black and white, that there are almost always more than two alternatives and that even sitting presidents of the United States can fall victim to any of the common logical fallacies Browne and Keeley outline in their book, or, at worst, one of the classic blunders Vizzini talks about:

Funny I should bring Vizzini up: Browne and Keeley talk a lot about looking at our own values, assessing their own strengths and weaknesses and how we can better use what we believe (or adjust what we believe) as we embark on the critical thinking path. Vizzini obviously believed that the Man in Black would rely on his great physical strength to overcome the poison and thus thought his intellect was superior – not knowing that the Man in the Black had gamed the system by using his brains to augment his physical strength by building up an immunity to iocane powder.

Same values differential going on here, between Satchel the dog and Bucky the cat:

Satchel is obviously more interested in getting Rob a gift he knows he wants, while Bucky, blinded by his own values and selfishness, can’t see how Satchel’s beliefs are worth a hill of beans. A good critical thinker Bucky is not. (Satchel isn’t all that smart, either, but he obviously believes in friendship through buying a wanted gift much more than Bucky does.)

Why am I reading this book? In a few weeks, I’ll be teaching a class that centers on it, so I’d better know it inside and out. And I want to become a better teacher by way of helping my students think more critically, so I’ve got to do some learning myself.

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