Critical Critical Thinking

We need all the help we can get these days with our critical thinking. Propaganda is everywhere. Over-thinking has its problems, I know. Analysis paralysis is a thing, I feel it. Like every day. But on all kinds of levels I think that the opposite problem is more common these days with the 24-hour infotainment cycle and misinformation that people willingly take in or are bombarded by alongside whatever website they visit. Oh, for the halcyon days when the worst part of the problem was the replacement of print media with television! For the past few years social media has been the place the majority of Americans get their news. There is no editor checking veracity or validity. We are our own editors! Never has confirmation bias been so confirming. And this leads to an inability for people to relate. As Noddings and Brooks say,

A prime purpose of critical thinking in the public domain is to consider and evaluate the arguments made on controversial issues. This requires a continual search for meaning and understanding. The object is not necessarily to win a debate. Rather, it is to understand what is being said on all sides and, perhaps, to find a nucleus of agreement that will provide a starting point from which we can work together. (from Teaching Controversial Issues, 2016)

In this media climate critical thinking is on the backburner. But its necessity is clear. I work with teacher education candidates to not only encourage critical thinking, but to help them consider ways they will encourage critical thinking in their students. The following frameworks give them a boost to get over the hump of gut reactions (without ignoring their importance).

I start teaching critical thinking with Peter Elbow’s “Games.” A claim is made, one person plays the believing game, another plays the doubting game. Take the claim at face value and explore its implications, critique the claim as a basis for action and/or describe the bad actions that might result if the claim is taken at face value. For Elbow, it’s not that simple, of course. But he does not teach future teachers how to teach critical thinking.

Another framework that includes a binary is that of Barbara Thayer-Bacon’s “Constructive Thinking.” The book rests on metaphors provided by the images of Rodin’s The Thinker and a quilting bee. Thayer-Bacon develops the metaphors deeply. But the ideas students usually come up with give the basic outline: Rodin is a man, thinking, alone, about something. The quilters can include men, women, and children, and are working together to create something of value both aesthetic and practical.

To keep things numerically sequential, I’ll continue here with Paul Ricoeur’s three-pronged hermeneutics of suspicion. I dramatically simplify this one. First of all, suspicion is the opposite of empathy, so in a way this particular framework can put some meat on the bones of Elbow’s games: believing/doubting = empathy/suspicion. There are three “masters of suspicion,” and each represents a different way to interrogate what may be hidden in what a person says (or a claim). The masters and their “angle” are as follows: Marx-economic angle (follow the money), Freud-psychoanalytic angle (find the neurosis), Nietzsche-power and self-deception angle (find the power relations and lies).

And then there were four. Bacon’s Idol’s are a helpful framework for critical thinking in that they point to four typical weaknesses in human thinking. Note that, as intended, Bacon’s Idols are ways to be skeptical: the doubting game. The idols are the cave, the marketplace, the theater, and the tribe.

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The cave represents our own little private world, our concerns, maybe even self-centeredness. Our interests lead us down rabbit holes. The marketplace refers to the use of language and the fact that language names experiences, feelings, and objects that can never have their full meaning or value captured perfectly by words. The theater refers to suspicion, hype, and deeply held beliefs including religion. The tribe is the herd, following the crowd, trends, and the moving train we all find ourselves on known as the status quo. The Idols, seen as pitfalls, can be used to think carefully about claims and extend our abilities to vary a line of doubtful inquiry. Bacon seems to have cornered the idea of “confirmation bias” long before the term was in vogue.

Each of these frameworks can be taken up as a game, an exercise in mental agility. But in the face of the moral dilemmas constantly supplied by the horrors of family separation (whether due to family separation or mass incarceration), poverty, White supremacy, and environmental degradation, these tools can be helpful tools for analysis and action.

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