Everyone’s a Critic

The work of cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham is always worth reading, and his recent paper for the NSW Department of Education on critical thinking is a very informative and well-argued piece. Essentially, Prof. Willingham’s contention is that while there is certainly “such a thing” as critical thinking, it is highly domain-specific and dependent on rich reserves of background knowledge.

I can find no fault with this conclusion (or the reasoning behind it), but perhaps it is worth delving a little more into what exactly we mean by critical and critic, since the terms seem to have taken on new meanings in recent years.

Ever since certain events in 2016, “critical thinking” has been a hot topic among education’s great and good. But it is a particular interpretation of that term that has suddenly been considered essential for our 21st-century students™: the capacity to sniff out “fake news”, to analyse the assumptions and evidence behind statements by politicians and the media, to avoid being hoodwinked by monsters like the Trumpandbrexit.

In short, the sort of critical thinking that belongs, broadly speaking, to the social sciences.

But as Prof. Willingham says, “critical thinking” denotes different capabilities depending on the subject area (or the domain, if you like). Examples from some scientific fields are described in the professor’s article. But what about the literary subjects?

Time, again, for a brief excursion into etymology.

Critic, critical and criticism (as well as crisis) come from the Greek krínein, to judge. This in turn comes from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning sieve – an instrument for sifting, or separating, different things. This same archaic root was the origin of the Latin crimen, which gives us discriminate…a word which, sadly, is hardly ever used now in its positive sense. And this is not unconnected with what I have to say next.

Art, music and literary critics are tasked with making judgements based on their knowledge of the art form in question. And why are they entrusted with this task? Presumably, one would hope, because they possess a rich store of knowledge in their chosen turf.

And this is what we should be seeking to develop in our students, at advanced levels, in the literary and creative subjects. This is why we teach literary techniques and genres, musical styles, art history, and all the rest. All these contribute to a form of critical thinking as well.

We teach literature, music, art and dance not because we believe that our students will all become Brontes, Menuhins or Nureyevs. We do it, in part, to equip them with the knowledge to enhance the enjoyment and edification they can receive from an artistic work…but also to make intelligent judgements on various types of artistic productions. This is a means of ensuring that the next generation will retain the tools to distinguish the sublime from the crass, the valuable from the cheap, the lasting from the transient.

“Critical thinking” is often touted as a vehicle for producing knowledgeable and informed future citizens. Indeed it is, in the social science domain. But in many of the humanities subjects, it has the no less important function of producing cultured citizens as well – those who are capable of drawing on their stock of knowledge to discriminate, in the best sense of that word.

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