As a university professor, I have many responsibilities to my students, but teaching critical thinking is by far the most important. However, recent social trends in higher education have made teaching this crucial skill much harder than it would perhaps otherwise be. Indeed, given all that we stand to lose (everything from the respect of our colleagues to our positions) teaching critical thinking may not be worth the trouble.
One can only hope that, not too many years from now, we will look back on this period as one of the most bizarre, counterproductive and unapologetically tribal in the history of higher education. I would describe the last ten years as the decade of the aggrieved, a time when virtuous and well-meaning academics, university administrations and colleges became obsessed with Social Justice. The problem isn’t social justice per se, of course. The aim for a just society is one all humans with a social conscience share and is a legitimate object of study for scholars. The problem is the often uncritical approach to the subject in the service of a particular theoretical conception of social justice. This approach has had deleterious effects on the humanities and social sciences, and the current, quasi scholarly approaches to grievance are affecting our ability to critically engage difficult subjects and one another in the pursuit of truth
I haven’t always felt this way. In the past, I was much more likely to offer students an array of analytic opportunities to guard against intellectual homogenization and to help them develop a greater awareness of the breadth and scope of lingual-rhetorical function and inquiry beyond their specialization. For, while our classes may prepare students academically, they do not necessarily prepare them for life outside the academy, which is far more heterogeneous than many of our disciplines would suggest. Of course, no discipline is without its blind spots, but as the skill that undergirds all disciplines and, indeed, the institution of higher education itself, critical thinking should not be one of them.
I used to offer an extra credit assignment designed to promote critical thinking. Here are my instructions:
For the first extra credit opportunity, explain the meaning of the following sentence:
“Blood is the rose of mysterious union.”
What does the sentence mean and how does it achieve its effect(s)? Hint: The closer your interpretation is to the actual words, the more accurate and convincing your interpretation/answer will be. Don’t overthink it. Keep your feet on the ground.
The example is a lyric from The Doors’ song “Peace Frog” and I chose it because it challenges students to grapple with what it means to “stay with the text.” While there are a host of speculative answers to the question, the assignment requires students to think outside their personal associations and support their answers with evidence from the text. Without that requirement, the exercise would amount to little more than a linguistic free for all.
I had to really think about what is going on in this lyric, so I know how tempting it is to resort to subjective interpretations. I’ve had students in my intermediate writing class say it refers to everything from family ties to war to violence and marriage, possibilities that are usually prefaced by “I guess” or “maybe” or “I feel” or “I don’t know” or some combination of tentative qualifiers. In other words, when faced with their uncertainty about the lyric, and without recourse to any other cognitive strategy, students do the only thing they can, which is to speculate. Speculation in itself isn’t the problem; the problem is when speculation does not lead anywhere of objective value, to anything we can agree on and share, on the basis of the evidence. To emphasize, I write students’ interpretations and qualifiers on the board so that we can see how wildly different they are. After about ten minutes, I stop and ask the students to imagine that each of these interpretations is a variable in a mathematical equation. “What would be the sum?” I ask.
A student suggests that the lyric’s meaning is different for each person, and that only the author knows for sure what it means. “So what you’re saying is that we can’t know what the lyric means apart from our own subjective interpretations?” The student nods her head. I ask the class if that’s the consensus. When no one indicates otherwise, I walk over to the board and draw a massive circle around all their ideas and next to the circle I write an = sign, and after that I write “I don’t know.” And then I ask, “So where does that leave us? Is there nothing more to say? Nothing more to know? Nothing on which we can agree?” Silence. We’ve come to a dead end. I ask them what they would do if this were an actual dead end: “I would flip a bitch and find some other way to get where I needed to go,” a student says. “Ok,” I say. “So let’s make a U-turn and ask a different question: If what we have offered so far are personal or subjective interpretations, what might an objective interpretation involve?”
Again, silence, so I offer this: what if the lyric refers to something that is happening within the lyric itself? In other words, what if the “mysterious union” refers to the fact that the blood and the rose are simultaneously distinct and the same. How can blood be blood and a rose and vice versa? Through the mysterious union of metaphor. This interpretation comes as something of a surprise given all the imaginative and subjective possibilities invited by the opaqueness of the lyric, but it is the most supportable and most commonly overlooked interpretation. Baffling, fascinating and disappointing, the outcome of this exercise represents one of the greatest pedagogical disconnects I have encountered in twenty-five years of teaching. But it also prompted me to reflect. What happened? How had students so completely missed the mark? Were my instructions unclear?
While at first I was troubled by my students’ responses, after some reflection I realized that I was missing the point of my own exercise, which was to get students to grapple with an unfamiliar analytic opportunity. Had they grappled with it? Yes, they had. By this definition, then, the exercise was a success because it did indeed force students to think about language in new ways. But the result of that grappling, namely, the fact that their thinking was so consistently unsupported by the text, raises some interesting questions about pedagogy, cognition and communication. I am especially curious about why students’ interpretations were subjective and, by most definitions, uncritical. The Foundation for Critical Thinking (TFCT) defines critical thinking this way:
Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one’s group’s, vested interest. As such it is typically intellectually flawed, however pragmatically successful it might be. When grounded in fairmindedness and intellectual integrity, it is typically of a higher order intellectually, though subject to the charge of “idealism” by those habituated to its selfish use … In its exemplary form, [critical thinking] is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth and fairness (emphasis added).
Compare the TFCT’s definition with this evolutionary explanation taken from the abstract of the article “Thinking Twice: Two Minds in One Brain”:
Humans have two distinct minds within their brains: one intuitive and the other reflective. The intuitive mind is old, evolved early, and shares many of its features with animal cognition. It is the source of emotion and intuitions, and reflects both the habits acquired in our lifetime and the adaptive behaviours evolved by ancient ancestors. The reflective mind, by contrast, is recently evolved and distinctively human: It enables us to think in abstract and hypothetical ways about the world around us and to calculate the future consequences of our actions. The evolution of the new, reflective mind is linked with the development of language and the very large forebrains that distinguish humans from other species; it has also given us our unique human form of intelligence. On occasions though, our two minds can come into conflict, and when this happens, the old mind often wins.
According to these two passages, the main difference between old mind thinking and new mind thinking is that the former is mostly automatic, self-interested and subjective, whereas the latter is mostly not. These evolved differences could help explain why uncritical thinking is ubiquitous and exceedingly difficult to overcome. Evolutionary psychologists refer to old mind thinking as System 1 thinking, or thinking generated by the so-called reptilian part of our brain (the basal ganglia), which has been hard at work for the last ten million years. System 2 thinking, by contrast, is generated by the more recently evolved parts of the brain, whose higher order processing coincides with the emergence of language around 100,000 years ago. Thus, even though the basic model of our brains has been evolving for over ten million years, we’ve only been capable of thinking abstractly, hypothetically and objectively for the last 100,000 years, a flash in the pan in evolutionary terms.
We are certainly capable of non-subjective and critical thought, but it is new to us: we are not predisposed to it. Rather, we are predisposed to think selfishly and tribally, just as we have for most of our evolution. No wonder the TFCT notes that “the development of critical thinking skills and dispositions is a lifelong endeavor,” and that when our old and new minds come into conflict, the old mind often wins. Pedagogically, culturally and biologically, we’ve got our work cut out for us. Not because we are thinking any more subjectively than humans did in the past, but because the expression of that subjectivity, and the insistence that it be treated as a surrogate for rational, objective thought and legitimate knowledge, have become more tribal and more prevalent within higher education.
In the contest between upholding my pedagogical ideals and my instinct to protect me and mine from danger, instinct usually wins and it probably always will. However, compared to the teachers who are now entering the academy, I’ve been relatively free to pursue truth as I’ve seen fit. All but the last four or five years of my twenty-five years in higher education have been characterized, not by the absence of subjectivity in general, but by the absence of that kind of subjectivity that now seems to have as its goal the redressing of social grievances. It’s a good idea, badly executed. In contrast to higher order thinking, this expression of subjectivity is not, ironically, “grounded in fairmindedness and intellectual integrity.” It is, instead, another example of System 1 thinking, the underlying purpose of which is to champion one’s own self-interests at the expense or to the exclusion of the other.
At least that is how it appears. And how could it not—given that the conflict is almost exclusively framed as between privileged and unprivileged, oppressor and oppressed, and a number of other opposing formulations? Thoughtful people agree that there is an equity problem. I question how constructive the current approach to addressing it is. It certainly doesn’t feel constructive. It feels threatening; it feels System 1, which, if the goal is to bring people together around a common cause, probably isn’t the wisest, most effective approach. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, fairness and respect. I don’t think anyone in the academy would argue otherwise. So why, in spite of this overwhelming consensus, does everything feel so dangerous in discussions of how best to achieve that goal? Could it be because the counter-narrative has many of the same limitations as the narrative it seeks to replace?
The stories we tell may themselves be obstacles to critical thinking. I was recently teaching an upper division writing class that had nothing curricular to do with social justice. I offered the extra credit assignment I described above. About fifteen students took a crack at it. All their responses were almost entirely subjective and unsupported by the text. But one response took subjectivity to a whole new level. After spending over an entire, single-spaced page rambling about the meaning of Jim Morrison’s lyric, including making references to equally indeterminate information the student had found online as well as to how blood and roses figure in the student’s own culture, the student concluded by saying that, because the lyric may refer to sexual assault, it could trigger a rape survivor. To say that the comment gave me pause would be an understatement.
I’ve had too many students who have written about sexual assault. My first response to them has been empathy: sadness, anger, concern and gratitude that they felt supported enough to share such a terrible experience with me and their classmates. But my response to the student who suggested that I might have triggered and, presumably, harmed a hypothetical rape survivor? I was first terrified. And then I was incredulous. But the terror I felt (the old mind) at the thought of being accused of harm won out, so, rather than engaging the student about the assignment and perhaps determining if this hypothetical rape survivor needed some help, I gave the student full points, commended the effort and tried to put the experience behind me, which, I later realized, did us both a disservice.
These students’ different approaches to sexual assault (and my reactions to them) illustrate the importance of rhetorical awareness and of considering how the words we use contribute to or undermine the change we want to see in the world. We all want a world in which we feel safe from violence no matter who we are. But clearly there are differences in how we attempt to achieve that outcome. The very act of writing about any difficult subject, and then freely and openly sharing it with others, suggests a willingness on the part of the writers to lay themselves bare and to use that vulnerability as an opportunity to connect with others emotionally and intellectually. But the student’s comment about triggers works according to just the opposite logic: its purpose is not to evoke compassion and to connect; its purpose is to leverage power over the oppressor.
Thus the comment is adversarial, if only because someone has to pull that trigger. And that someone, in this case, was me, even though there was no objective evidence to support the student’s interpretation. And even if there were evidence that the lyric was about sexual assault, would that really have been a reason to malign me? Under any other circumstance, I would have felt free to dialog with the student about the difference between objectivity and subjectivity. I would have pointed out that, because one could make the trigger argument with virtually anything, it poses certain problems in terms of testing ideas and trying to arrive at truth, if by truth we mean truth that not only considers one’s own subjective experience, but objective reality as well, including the reality of words. But the student’s comment put me on the defensive; it spoke to the old mind. And the old mind said to me: Shut. Your. Mouth.
While subjectivity is real and important, it’s not a reliable and effective tool for addressing the problems we face. We already have difficulty agreeing on what’s objective (in the science of climate change, for instance), so what chance do we have of seeing eye to eye if we allow the old, tribal mind to decide what matters? My experience suggests the folly of trigger warnings and other watchwords and narratives that privilege emotion and subjectivity over reason and objectivity. That this shift has occurred at all within the academy, let alone been given such tremendous importance and pursued with such an almost religious fervor that few dare to even question it, is both alarming and baffling. In my own field of Writing and Rhetoric Studies, subjective or emotional appeals, “use emotion in place of reason in order to attempt to win the argument. It is a type of manipulation used in place of valid logic.”
And yet university professors and students are expected to not only anticipate what might evoke unwanted emotions or reactions in others, but to allow those emotions to supersede higher order thinking and dictate not only which subjects may be discussed, but how. We ignore these edicts at our peril.
My colleague in psychology uses exposure therapy to treat veterans with PTSD and he reports great success. Exposure therapy is not unique to psychology departments. If we are lucky, most of us probably experience some measure of therapeutic benefit through our exposure to what ails us every day of our lives. I certainly know that writing this essay has been helpful, but this isn’t just about me. This is about how we interact with students, colleagues, the broader university community and the world. It’s about how we tackle pressing and complex problems; and about the work we do, and the risks we are encouraged to take, and our individual and collective efforts to be better. As long as we continue to subordinate reason and objectivity to our own selfish needs and create an environment of fear, the old mind will reign, higher education will cease to be higher, and we will not achieve our potential as teachers, learners and human beings.