“Critical thinking! That sounds so negative.” I’ve heard students make these and similar comments. I think that those were my thoughts when I was first introduced to the concept of critical thinking, too. I try to explain that critical thinking is not criticizing; it’s a way of approaching the world that goes beyond a naïve belief in superficial optimism and opens thinking up to new ways of looking at the world.
My first real experience with critical thinking came in a political science class in college. Quite frankly, I was so busy trying to remember the definition of “nation-state” that I had little brain power left over for any kind of thinking. I took everything that was presented in the class as absolute fact. I had always been good at taking information and remembering and presenting it—that was why school was easy for me. The final paper I wrote for that class was an attempt to regurgitate the facts as accurately as possible. When a friend of mine asked me about the paper, I told him what I had written was good enough. He was not convinced.
Instead, he made me sit down with him, go over the paper and question what I had written. As I looked it over and asked myself questions, I found I made new connections and had new insights. As a result, the paper I turned in was better than any other “A” paper I had written up to that point. More importantly, I was thrilled to see my ideas come to life, at really creating a new world view. It felt powerful, and my most thrilling moments teaching have been in seeing students realize that same power in their writing.
Another time, I was in a class which involved my acting as a Big Sister to a thirteen-year old girl with a troubled home life. At nineteen, I was full of visions of myself befriending her and changing her life. I still remember the first time I picked her up. She lived in a downtrodden house on a crowded street. I knocked on the door, and her mother answered.
“I hope you can teach this girl how to behave, so I don’t have to kick her out every day,” she said as she nodded over her shoulder. I could see a young girl standing behind her in a gloomy hallway, crowded with old furniture and the smell of old food. I didn’t even know how to respond, other than nodding. Later, after we had gone out for dinner and were walking across campus back to her neighborhood, LaRita told me about how she and her friends came out on campus to have fun. They ran around old buildings, talked laughed and even got into a few fist fights.
“You should die and come back black,” she told me. “Black people really know how to have fun.” LaRita had a sense of cool, a feeling of confidence in her own life that I rarely had. When I thought about it, though, I wondered what in her life gave her that sense. Compared to the spacious, light life I had, hers seemed, from everything I saw, cramped and dark. The contrast led me to investigate many of the assumptions I held about life, about where happiness comes from, about what is important. Of course, the answers evolve and change as life changes, but LaRita always remains with me in spirit.
As I wrote my final paper for that class, I tried to question my initial thinking about how the experience would be. I may have provided LaRita with some fun times away from her house and someone to talk to, but she provided me with something, too: questions to consider, to challenge my conventional thinking about life—that is at the heart of critical thinking.
While I tend to link critical thinking to my experiences writing about different aspects of life, it goes much deeper—critical thinking for me is at the heart of what it means to really experience an education. In class after class, textbook after textbook, lecture after lecture, I continue to ask questions, aloud, silently, in writing: Is this really true? How is this biased? How does it match my experience with the world? What are the underlying assumptions? Do they fit with my assumptions? What experiences led to this, and how different are they from my own? What world view is operating here? Why? Why? Why? Like a two-year-old, I am confused, excited and curious about the world I am emerging into. I question everything.