critical thinking

Critical Thinking Outside

When politicians and university administrators threaten the humanities, scholars rally to defend their fields of study with a rousing yet familiar chorus: “The humanities teach critical thinking!” We argue that our fields, including history, philosophy, and sociology, teach students proficiency in critical thinking, a crucial job skill for the twenty-first century. We decry the systematic neoliberal defunding of the humanities. and resent the promotion of the STE(A)M fields. We read and share each other’s blog posts and tweets, preaching to the already converted.     

Nevertheless, our conversations about the value of the humanities and their role in teaching critical thinking skills fail to reach broad audiences. Our claims that we teach critical thinking have little impact on larger public conversations about how and why people can use critical thinking to understand the world better. For example, although the public fawns over the vague idea of history (”Never forget!”), studying history as a undergraduate major or worse, in pursuit of a graduate degree, provokes puzzled but well-meaning questions about our life choices.  

Based on my own observations in my life, work, community, and nation, we’re rapidly approaching the nadir of critical thinking. Trying to nail down the authenticity of anything and verify our knowledge about the world seems like drudgery in the context our flexible and open relationship with truth and fact. We’re huge consumers of all types of media, but often lack the tools to think about how and why we’re passively consuming what we watch, read, and share. We’re inundated with fake news on teevee, social media, and the dark corners of the internet. We’re often not thinking about how our own biases affect how we think about the world. We’re also getting pretty comfortable in our own personal echo chambers, devoid of people and ideas who challenge our own beliefs. We’re far removed from the complexity and hard questions we claim to teach others to think about. We expect Facebook and Google to filter the truth for us, rather than putting in the hard work to do some thinking for ourselves. Despite professing my undying love for history, facts, and critical thinking all over the internet, I often find myself doing less hard thinking work than I should.

Unthinking and ignorance are back in vogue, more popular than ever, even by the low standards of the rampant anti-intellectualism of the last forty years. Last year’s election of Trump, a man not known for measured critical thinking, logic, or reason, made critical thinking skills seem obsolete and old-fashioned. If such an uncritical thinker could be elected president, why bother learning the finer points of thinking? If lies and ignorance substitute for critical thought, careful diplomacy, and measured reasoning at the highest levels of government, why bother to learn to think at all? If the truth no longer matters, should we even bother to search for it?  Some scholars have begun to wonder if teaching critical thinking has become an exercise in futility.  Lack of critical thinking also isn’t only a problem of “those people,” the communities we stereotypes as poor, blue-collar, and with low literacy rates. Lots of news articles portrayed Trump voters as reactionary, unsophisticated, xenophobic, and racist. I’m not saying they aren’t, but these traits are found in the leftiest and elitist of elite liberals as well. I’m originally from Boulder (don’t judge), renowned home of crunchy elitist liberals, an alarming number of whom also don’t believe in vaccinating children, for a slew of reasons, some legit, some profoundly unscientific.   

At the same time, we need critical thinking more than ever. The sheer complexity of the world demands people able to think about it in critical ways. We’re living in an extraordinary moment of complex issues. Climate change. International relations. War. The retreat of democracy. Human rights issues. The list goes on. Despite the decline of public confidence in the knowledge and experience of experts, the ability to think about things in sophisticated ways matters. I don’t believe that ignorance produces better results than critical thinking.

Critical thinking, as a concept, has become a corporate buzzword, much like “diversity” and “core competency.” Critical thinking means many things, but at heart, it’s a search for the truth. Critical thinking helps us determine what is real and true and what’s not. Far from being the exclusive purview of academics and college students, I believe that everyone benefits from critical thinking to solve real world problems. Everyone can learn to think better and use critical thinking skills to help solve real world problems.  

Critical thinking also matters to civic engagement. It doesn’t belong to any one group of people; anyone can practice it. These days, I’m interested in bringing critical thinking out of academia and using it on the ground. We need critical thinking in our communities to think about some tough issues: what kind of community are we? How do we best ensure the well-being of people in our communities with the resources we’ve got? What are the major issues in our communities and what are their roots? They may or may not be what we assume, but how do we know? How do we challenge our assumptions about serious issues like environmental racism, homelessness, poverty, children’s education, domestic violence, public health, or the design of our cities (to name just a few) without understanding our thinking process?

Understanding our thinking process is important because we continue to believe in a lot of things that just aren’t true. Pre-existing beliefs and emotions powerfully shape our ideas and thoughts. We all have biases, but should examine them and understand them better. Our biases lead us to believe in things and concepts without thinking about questions of evidence. Ouija boards. The paranormal. Bigfoot. Eugenics. Archaeological forgeries. Conspiracy theories. Birthers. Holocaust denial. Dangerous vaccines. Creationism. The U.S. as a post-racial society.

How do we know what we know and why? What way of knowing is appropriate for what situations? What counts as evidence? How do our worldviews shape how we consider certain types of evidence? What’s the result? Why do we refuse to accept evidence that contradicts what we already believe?

I would not want to suggest that critical thinking represents a panacea for all of our current problems. Critical thinking has limits. Nor is it the only way to know things. It’s a method and process, not a destination. Critical thinking also isn’t universally popular. Plenty of people and systems would prefer that we don’t think very critically about them. Neoliberalism, for example, would prefer that we don’t think hard about it, as would other systems of oppression: systemic racism, classism, and sexism. Nevertheless, critical thinking about these concepts (and lots of others) have changed the way we think about them.  

This week, my big idea involves envisioning how to teach critical thinking in my community. I’m convinced that people in our communities could benefit greatly from having public discussions about critical thinking and how to do it. I also think that learning critical thinking can be meaningful, engaging, and fun. I’m picturing a series of workshops, webinars, public speaking, events, and a short series of classes all based on the idea that anyone can learn critical thinking skills. Maybe this all happens at the library. Or at my town hall. Or online. Like so many inventions, I have no idea if it will work, so I’m going to have to test it. And then do some critical thinking about it to evaluate whether it’s a good idea or not.   

I think we as academics need to take conversations about critical thinking outside of classroom and engage the public, business leaders, and our communities. Some academics are already doing this, by translating abstract academic ideas into concrete concepts that people can readily understand. I’m convinced that learning critical thinking needs to be an activity available to everyone, not just students in classrooms. As a historian, I believe that humanities people have an important public role to play in our communities, both inside of an outside of academia.

Staying Engaged Outside Academia

One of the most difficult parts of leaving academia is the idea of breaking up with the life of the mind. When you’ve devoted years of time and thousands of dollars into training for thinking up new ideas for a living, sometimes life outside of academia seems beige and uninteresting.

Fortunately, academia isn’t the only place you can chase your personal intellectual passions. Plenty of problems to solve and interesting things to think about exist outside academia. You can stay engaged with ideas and thinking up new stuff, but it may be on your own time.   

Like so many things in life, your access to resources (or lack of them) may determine how engaged you stay with your research and new ideas.

I’ve been thinking lately about our underlying assumptions about being an alt-ac person and how external resources shape life outside of academia. For instance, if your spouse happens to have a well-paying job, maybe you can still afford to go to all of your favorite academic conferences without travel funding from an academic department. If you have some cash laying around, maybe you can afford to make your research into a hobby. Maybe you’ve got enough resources so that you can start a freelance business from scratch without having to do it in your spare time.

On the other hand, because of the neoliberal debt-servitude model of the modern PhD, a lot of people are graduating under crushing debt loads, with shitty academic job prospects, and even scarcer resources. Getting out of academia gets us out of the adjunct rut (maybe), but the alt-ac life still hinges on the racial, classed, and gendered structures that shape our paths forward.    

People with few resources at their disposal are probably going to have to get day jobs while they’re trying to figure out what to do next. A day job often isn’t particularly satisfying, but pays the (student loan) bills. A lot of day jobs, though necessary and life-saving, are boring and soul-crushing. They require considerably less creativity than we’re used to exercising as PhD people engaged in the search for truth and the creation of knowledge.  It’s hard to leap from discussing Foucault and the idea of governmentality (particularly these days) to a job that requires little to no critical thought. Before I got my current job, I worked a whole slew of weird temp jobs; some were okay, others were awful. Some of them involved things like spreadsheets and bored me to tears. On the bright side, day jobs usually pay more than adjuncting.

Working 40-hours a week at a day job makes it hard to stay engaged intellectually. Exhaustion isn’t conducive to intellectual production. Working a day job may leave you intellectually understimulated and bored, especially if you’re only using a fraction of your PhD skills. You may start feeling like you’re slowly losing your critical thinking skills.    

Here are some ideas about staying engaged intellectually and practicing critical thinking skills while working your day job:

  • Read new books. Even better, start a reading group. Maybe you have a reading group where you talk about new ideas every month. If you live in the boonies, maybe you start an online reading group. Read some hard stuff. Read some new stuff. Keep reading and thinking.  
  • Evaluate your current job. Is there somewhere in your day job where you can practice greater critical thinking? Critical thinking skills are, after all, a search for the truth and a means to solve-problems. What problems could you be solving? Some day jobs have zero leeway for critical thinking, but some might.
  • Teach a class. There are literally zillions of platforms in which you could be teaching from. You may not be able to teach your traditional university courses from them (or maybe you could?), but maybe you’re teaching something new that you’ve always wanted to teach.
  • Take a class. PhD people are, by definition, learners. Why not learn something new at your community college? Maybe you finally learn HTML, Python, or Italian.
  • Pick a topic and start doing some public speaking. Why are you not doing a TED talk about some fascinating part of your research? Maybe you’re taking your research on the road and talking about it at your local rotary club. Join Toastmasters and learn how to give a great speech. (Bonus points for the networking aspect of public speaking to new groups.)
  • Start a website. Blog about your personal intellectual passions. Try some new kinds of writing. Talk about some new ideas.
  • Freelance writing. Find some intellectual blogs that you might guest post for and pitch some ideas. Someone might say yes.
  • Publish existing research. We wrote a lot as graduate students. Maybe we’re still writing? Write and revise in those little moments that you have when not working the day job. I get up early in the morning specifically for this reason.
  • Start a writing group. If you need to get some writing done, a writing group is the way to go. I wrote about mine here. You get to give and receive critical feedback.
  • Do some new research and make a new project. My PhD research was all about transnational relationships between Guatemala and the U.S. I thought about what I might do locally that would satisfy my research itch. I recently visited the Western History archive that’s a part of my city’s public library. While there, I found a bunch of really cool news articles that would make good history blog posts. Currently working on these.   
  • Volunteer with non-academic organizations that do things you’re interested in: libraries, historical associations, museums, art galleries.  
  • Be a reviewer. Being a reviewer is great fun. Not only do you get to read new and interesting stuff, but you get to comment on it. Be a peer reviewer for a journal. Review some books. Get some book reviews published.

In the ideal world, we’d be employed in jobs that gave us free rein to pursue our intellectual lives. In today’s world, with higher-ed and the humanities under attack generally, I predict that more PhDs are going to have transitional day jobs as they figure out what to do next. Staying engaged with ideas while working a day job isn’t easy. But better than boredom.