In Defense of Critical Thinking

Stanley Fish continues his piece on the humanities in his blog today--Amy talked about part one here--and makes some good points. I'm only really nitpicking with the discussion near the end as regards his dismissal of the term "critical thinking."

That certainly sounds like a skill worth having, and I agree that it can be acquired in courses where literary texts, philosophical arguments and historical evens are being scrutinized with an eye to seeing what lies beneath (or to the side of) their surfaces. But it also can be, and is, acquired elsewhere. Right now millions of TV viewers are acquiring it when they watch Chris Matthews or George Will or Cokie Roberts analyze the current political moment and say things like, “It would be wrong to draw any long run conclusion from Hilary Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire because in other states the voting population is unlikely to be 57 percent female and 97 percent white,” or “If we are to understand the immigration debate, we must go back the great waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” or “Homelessness is not a single problem, but a nest of problems that cannot be solved piecemeal.”

You can hear the same kind of thinking on sports radio, where host and callers-in debate the ingredients that go to make up a successful team. And critical thinking is what tens of thousands of preachers encourage every week in their sermons when they ask parishioners to slow down and reflect on the impulses, perhaps obscure to them, driving their everyday behavior.

So two cheers for critical thinking, but the fact that you can learn how to do it in any number of contexts means that it cannot be claimed for the humanities as a special benefit only they can supply. Justification requires more than evidence that a consumer can get a desirable commodity in your shop, too; it requires a demonstration that you have the exclusive franchise.
Emphasis mine.

Let's start with the beginning of the quoted section. I hope I don't come off as a snob when I suggest that humanities classes are, in general, doing a far better job of teaching critical thinking than Chris Matthews, Cokie Roberts, and all the rest, but I think the comparison is a foolish one. Chris Matthews isn't engaging his audience's conclusions. In fact, Matthews isn't really interested at all in his audience's conclusions--he'd still be pontificating whether there were people watching or not. But a Humanities teacher can't dismiss his or her students so easily--we have the responsibility to engage with them, and in defense of my fellow teachers (of whom Mr. Fish is one), I'd say we do, on the average, an admirable job.

But let's say that Fish's overall point is still correct, that critical thinking is something you can pick up outside a classroom (I agree)--that doesn't mean that the classroom is therefore unnecessary. Smart people can learn nearly anything on their own, given the time and resources to study, but a classroom eases the process and often insures a fuller understanding. That's why I emphasized the "only they can supply" part of Fish's statement about that claim for the humanities--we don't have to be the only supplier. We just have to be an effective one, and we are--more effective than sports talk radio, or political pundit television or radio shows, or any other source I can think of off the top of my head--because we're more engaged with our audiences. We're involved in the give-and-take of argument, not the one-sided "pundit speaks to the camera and I curse back at him" model Fish is describing. Think, if you will, of the humanities as a pair of glasses. Anyone can see without them, but glasses help you see more, even if you already have perfect eyesight.

I don't know why Fish insists on exclusivity for justification--we don't insist on exclusivity in any other form of study. Universities and corporations and inventors engage in similar lines of scientific research all the time. If they didn't R&D would be severely hampered. So why should the humanities be any different? We do a better job of teaching critical thinking skills than anyone else out there does, because we've made it our mission.

It's possible that Fish has been in the upper echelon of academia for so long that he's forgotten what it's like engaging freshpeople and sophomores in their earliest classes, especially at non-elite universities. But as someone who deals with them in every classroom, let me tell you that the most important thing we do is teach critical thinking--in many cases, we're their first real exposure to that world. So when I teach my sophomores about the flexibility and undefinability of abstract concepts in poetry, I'm also teaching them about the ways politicians and pundits use language, in the hopes that they can see through the crap that gets flung at them from every angle. And that's enough justification for me.

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