Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

critical-creating thinking banner 2015by Paul Lynch, Associate Professor, English

The question we’ve been asked is straightforward: what do critical and creative thinking look like in your discipline? Mine is rhetoric, and in rhetoric I’m not sure there’s much distinction between critical and creative thinking. There is no way to engage in one without engaging in the other.

To think creatively in rhetoric is to see both a need and an opportunity for change, which is also a pretty good definition of thinking critically. And if a student can think through a situation critically enough to recognize that need and opportunity, then they are already thinking creatively enough about what the change might look like.

Before I go on too far with this argument, though, I want to say a word about “critical thinking,” liberal education’s most popular justification. Why should student take courses in the humanities? What is the purpose of the liberal arts? What is their “value added”? Again and again, the answer is “critical thinking.” So popular is this refrain that I fear it has become a floating signifier whose meaning can be stretched to fit nearly any situation. Everyone is for critical thinking and no one is against it, which suggests that invoking critical thinking does not actually require very much critical thinking.

If this sounds confrontational, well, I intend it to sound confrontational, because I think the uncritical teaching of critical thinking can do a lot of damage. I frequently see the harm in the teaching of rhetoric, a subfield of both English and communication. In English, rhetoric often handles the teaching of composition, particularly the first-year writing course. In those courses, it’s common to equate “critical thinking” with a kind of critique in which students are taught to “see through” messages that are allegedly trying to appeal to them in some nefarious way. You’ll often see a version of this lesson: the teacher projects some advertisement on the video monitor, and then asks the students to critique it.

The results are almost always the same. Students do a great job of thinking critically about the advertisement: they can pick apart all the unethical appeals and ugly assumptions. They know that the ad is often trying to appeal to the worst parts of human beings (our need to fit in at any price; our need to conform to some shallow ideal of excellence; our need to be perfect). But then ask them whether they purchase or own the products advertised, and you get a different story. Very often, students (and their teachers) know better, yet by the stuff anyway. That observation, by the way, should not be taken as some tired analysis of millennials, who are certainly no more or less susceptible to advertisement than are the Boomers and Gen-Xers who came before them. Rather, my point is to say that it’s very easy and very tempting for all us to think that critique is enough, as though seeing through a lie is the same thing as telling a truth.

Worse, when we teach that critical thinking requires seeing “through” or “past” something, we teach the dangerous lesson that being persuaded is tantamount to being manipulated. This outcome suggests that persuasion itself is the problem, that rhetoric is machination, and that changing one’s mind is a sign of weakness. Taken carelessly to this extreme, critical thinking becomes a way to inoculate oneself against complexity and uncertainty, the central values of liberal education.

I would rather begin with creative thinking, which, in rhetoric, would ask students to articulate their commitments and try to persuade others to share them. This is why our first-year writing course now includes an advocacy project, in which students research a problem and articulate a feasible solution. At first glance, such a project, which asks students to take a clear position, might seem to violate the ideals I’ve just articulated. Instead of complexity and uncertainty, aren’t we asking for assertion and finality? But key to the project is that students must craft their arguments for actual audiences, real-live people that they can identify and name (not their instructors, who are so often the default audiences for academic work). Confronting a tangible audience forces students to consider the needs and values of others and to try to see things from their perspective. This encounter, even if happens only in the students’ imaginations, invites complexity and uncertainty, since what seems like a good argument to one audience may not seem like a good argument to another.

Just a few days ago, I received evidence of critical thinking by way of an email from one of my students, who asked this question: “I have been doing research on my topic…is it too late to change my mind?” This student has already gotten the most important lesson of a liberal education. Yet it emerges not because we’re asking students simply to critique, but to create (claims, appeals, and messages), and, ultimately, to find a position to which they can commit. I suggest that our students will best learn what to reject—and God knows there is a lot out there worth rejecting—by learning what to accept. They’ll learn how to say no by first learning how to say yes.

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, fall contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does critical thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?

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