Critical Thinking for the Masses

“I was going to beat my roommate’s ass…but decided to be more dialectical in my approach.”

Over the past ten years I have taught writing and literature at an Oregon Community College where my students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, old, young, broken, battered, betrayed, living in their car, you name it. Some were good students in high school, but many were not, and so my task has been to figure out: What is the quickest way to educate them or more specifically how to teach them to think of themselves as critical thinkers. I’ve wanted to find the intellectual equivalent to martial arts, a way for students to defend themselves from the endless stream of bullshit that flows our way on any given day.

To this aim, I started to compile a list of the most helpful concepts, vocabulary words, strategies that helped me in college and beyond; I wanted the ones that both helped me to navigate the educational system, but life in general.

As daunting as this sounds, the truth is that most of my college classes, consisted of memorizing things for tests that were promptly forgotten: facts, figures, data, etc. So rather than wasting my time with things that students can look up on their phones, I began to talk to them about the concepts they need in order to understand the world. I start by using the famous parable of the blind men and the elephant, the story of the blind men who are each stationed at a different part of an elephant, and arguing about what it is. The one at the nose, for example, says that the elephant is like a fire hose, the one at the tail arguing that it is like a rope, etc. I ask my students to tell me which one is right and the class is usually divided between those who believe all of the them are correct, and those who say none of them are correct.

The problem is that the vast majority of my students don’t even have the requisite vocabulary to answer the question, and so I introduce to them their first terms to lead them to a higher level of thinking. And these are the concepts of “subjective” and “objective” truth, a subjective truth is one that is true for the individual while an objective truth is a case that is true independent of our individual perceptions. After they have these terms explained, someone can now raises her hand to say, “Subjectively speaking all of the blind men are correct, yet objectively speaking, none of them are.”

Bravo.

Perhaps at Harvard, students already understand these concepts from high school, but for my demographic, these terms are almost always new and fundamental to helping them understand the nature of understand the world in a more complex way. In addition to now having a larger vocabulary, the students have also been introduced to several other critical concepts that lie at the heart of true critical thinking, and that is the “dialectical” nature of knowing as opposed to “dichotomous thinking,” which are the next to concepts we go over on the first day. Not only are my students able to understand the difficult vocabulary once it is put to them in a way that makes sense, I also ask them to apply to concepts to their own lives. And so far the greatest testimony to the power of knowledge I have been given is that day I had a student say he was going to “beat his roommate’s ass,” until he realized he was thinking in “a dichotomy like the blind men,” and decided to become “more dialectical in his approach.” This was after one day of class, with an ex-con who had not been in school for twenty years who was using these terms! And this it is why, despite all the despair of the state of education, I personally, do have hope for the future, and the so-called masses.