Critical Thinking Begins @Home

“Critical Thinking” is a desideratum. As is “Diversity.” As is “Community.”

I learned long ago that the terms by which an institution defines itself publicly, when interrogated honestly, reveal exactly what the institution is not. Often the terms don’t even describe the true desire or goal of the institution.

Beware of the institution of higher learning that claims Teaching  as a high priority. Look at the budget. It’s not where the money goes. It’s not where excellence is recognized. It’s not how professors are critically assessed or professionally nurtured. Often the parents’ or students’ or CFO’s pleasure is the defining priority.

Beware of the institution that parades its Diversity— whether in words or in pictures on its website where “many races” are represented. Do we see, in the depths of the institution’s policies and practices an eagerness for and openness to true diversity–race, temperament, ability, gender, sexual orientation, training, experience, religious practice, age, and other differences we haven’t even thought about yet? Maybe diversity is a desideratum: an radically-inclusive community, ever stretching its own boundaries of self. Maybe diversity is a marketing ploy.

Beware of the academics who tout Critical Thinking and proclaim discouragement at the “poor preparation of our students.” All too often, “critical thinking” means students should reject their presuppositions and accept ours instead. We (academics, I mean) assume, no downright believe,that our thinking is, by default, critical. Whatever we think is “critical thought.” We assume that our thoughts and our teachings are, by default, critical thinking. What wethink is critical; what theythink is wrong, sloppy, bad, uncritical.

houseBut Critical Thinking Begins at Home.

We delude ourselves if we think that critical thinking is just something we teach others to do, if we think critical thinking is only thinking critically about other people’s thoughts and actions. Critical thinking will reveal itself in how we work together in committee, in faculty meetings, in our own self-questioning and willingness to question others.

A Matter of Practice

If we think critically, we think critically as a matter of practice. It’s the way we listen to TV. It’s the way we listen to our own thinking. It’s the way we encounter the world — wondering, questioning, laughing at the absurdities we see, exploring alternatives, expanding our vision, assessing, assessing, assessing… ourselves along with all we encounter. A critical thinker engages the world–tradition and newness, outside and inside, them and us–by exploring, learning, growing, asking tough questions and offering curious challenges. A critical thinker is one who is in love with the world, who practices fascination and curiosity and demands of herself the best thinking she can do and the clearest practices possible.

And we begin that practice at home — on our own beliefs, our own traditions, searching out our own blind assumptions, being honest about our own desires, finding the holes and weaknesses in our own arguments. We sharpen ourselves and build honest and humble confidence through a willingness–no, an eagerness–to question ourselves. And we never stop.

You Must Revise Your Life

It reminds me a bit of the practice of writing. No author in her right mind (except maybe a blogger, alas!) would publish her first draft–what Anne Lamott calls “a shitty first draft.” No, the first draft is just getting it out on the page. Revision is where the real work of a writer comes into play. And revision is all about being able to look at your own “shitty first draft” and strengthen it, make it “play”, shape it into something of beauty and power.

William Stafford published a book of collected essays and poems entitled You Must Revise Your Life. Revision of one’s writing, of one’s thinking, is finally inseparable from revision of one’s own life. We wish to think critically about those other people, the people who need us to share our critical insight on their thoughts, on their beliefs, on their lives.

But Stafford reminds us that revision requires a willingness to think critically about one’s own creation … even to the point of being willing, William Faulkner said, to “kill your darlings”–those phrases or scenes or whole chapters that the writer loves but which do not serve the work. Critical thinking begins at home … with one’s own “darlings.”

Stay Tuned … I’m Going Somewhere …

This post is longer than what I had intended. But I’m going somewhere with all this, and I hope if you’ve read this far you’ll consent to follow along.

In the next few blog posts I’m going to “think critically” about the academic discipline of “Biblical Studies” and about the received practices of Education, of Pedagogy. That’s starting from home, for me. I’m going to suggest that maybe we “Biblical Scholars” should critique our own practice. What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Might we consider alternatives to our practices of “reading the Bible”? I’m going to suggest that we Professors might need to change our own sense of what “counts” as good teaching, of what kinds of teaching-learning objectives might lead to excellence.

I hope you join me. Happy to have your own critical thoughts!

[Added in August 2018]

I never got around to publishing my materials where I critique the discipline of Biblical Studies. I hope to continue that work here. Stay tuned!