Mission critical thinking: Preparing students and ourselves for catastrophic times

Most liberal arts professors have known for years that the greatest good we can do for many of our students probably isn’t to immerse them in the advanced esoterica of our particular disciplines but to help develop their critical reading, writing and thinking skills. In the disastrous age of MAGA, I have begun to more fully appreciate this lesson: Part of my job is to help prepare students to locate and respond to catastrophic social, political, and ethical problems, only some of which we are now even able to fully imagine.

“Critical thinking,” that darling term we educators have been kissing and cuddling for decades, no longer cuts it when we face the full horror and possibility of what we are collectively facing. In past decades, “critical” has signaled ways of thinking, reading, and writing that occur from a questioning and investigative mode, a disinterested evaluation of facts, logical relationships between claims, and the biases of all concerned, including oneself. This is all to the good, especially the importance of challenging claims that happen to suit one’s preexisting expectations or preferences. Certainly, we would all be much better off if “critical thinking” of this sort could dislodge the irrational mob-think and craven consumerist claptrap that passes for much of current social and political discourse.

Teaching critical analysis as a fairly narrowly cognitive approach is evidently not enough, though. What we need is a reclamation of “critical” that is bolder, more dramatic, and far more socially and emotionally urgent than any we may have ever before used. In short, we must train students and ourselves to function as intellectual and psychological EMTs, prepared to move into the disaster zone with the skills, judgment, and nerve necessary for both triage and long-term, sustainable healing and repair. We need proactive, brave, pliable first responders who are also long-term strategic solution-seekers capable of evaluating and rearrange the big picture. The “critical thinking” values that must underlie our teaching work today are “critical” in the sense of “mission critical” and of “critical condition.” The symbol for this might include a pen and inkwell, but also a blood red armband and a sturdy multi-tool.

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This more urgent, red-alert version of critical thinking obviously must include much of what has always mattered about this traditional skillset, including close reading, basic logic, the analysis of evidence, and evaluation of perspective. But it must place greater explicit emphasis on qualities of individual motivation, self-care and character development, including the cultivation of:
– a healthy combination of confidence, humility, self-efficacy and self-reflection
– an unwavering commitment to empathy and compassion that does not slide into paternalistic pity or overwhelmed quietism
– a bias toward positive, productive action in the service of deep communal values, including for example, participatory democracy and racial equality
– an ability to make tough, real-world decisions in the face of incomplete information and general uncertainty
– the courage to go against the grain, to swim upstream from groupthink while still respecting the legitimate needs of the community

Even this cursory, general list serves as a cautionary guide for me: As a feminist philosopher, I have for decades emphasized a cognitively based, moderate notion of critical thinking that has reflected both a (perhaps naive) confidence in human reason and a (legitimate) concern about alienating students. I have, then, often ended up focusing on tweaking reading, writing and thinking skills, careful not to be “too normative” or “too directive” with respect to the social and emotional values surrounding these supposedly “neutral” cognitive standards. I haven’t avoided real world issues — this would not even possible in the courses I teach — but I have sometimes highlighted the intellectual “toolbox” aspect of critical thinking in order to sidestep the messier social and ethical facets that give cognitive values sense and power.

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For better and worse, I know that I am not the only instructor who has been dancing carefully among the demanding arms of cognitive, emotional, social and ethical competence. Unfortunately, there is extraordinary pressure on professors to treat students like desperately needed, precious, fickle, customers. Further, the long, determined march from tenured to contingent faculty has eroded the secure ground from which some faculty can be expected to engage in difficult dialogues. It is surely no accident that the academic freedom necessary to engage in authentically holistic critical thinking has been hacked away by conservative extremists at the very time it is most urgently needed. Regardless, we can no longer afford any semblance of the fantasy that liberal arts professors are debate coaches meant to lead students through “what if” puzzles to achieve oblique insights or incrementally improved logical skills. The most privileged of professors, at least, surely, might rethink our relationship to “critical thinking.”

So, though I still push my students to wrestle constructively, directly and intellectually with texts — this humanistic work matters! — I engage with them in ever more practical, particular, personal, and socially urgent terms. And I am more prepared than ever to acknowledge my astonishing ignorance, because, like so many well trained, smart professors, I have been caught off guard by the scale and doggedness of the retrograde cruelty and naked greed of conservative extremists. And so I commit as much to the pedagogical power of empathy, ethical sensitivity, and self-empowerment as to more specifically cognitive values. This isn’t a self-esteem based pedagogical gimmick, but, instead, a matter of necessity: It will take the empowered, compassionate, creative strategizing of all of us — young and old — to MacGyver our way out of this mess.

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