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.

Non-Academic Teaching

Everyone who has sailed away from academia towards the uncharted waters of the non-academic world struggles with the fallout of their decision. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. We’re struggling with the loss of an idea about who we are in the world and what we’re going to do now that we’ve had to change course and jettison serious dreams. 

Many people (self included) struggle with the idea of never teaching again. I knew people in my graduate cohort who didn't care about fancy postmodern theories or the right way to format footnotes. They earned PhDs to become teachers. We liked, and in some cases, loved our classes. We liked helping students see the world in new ways. We even (sort of) enjoyed revising the syllabus and planning lectures. (For the record, nobody in their right mind loves grading.)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how academia isn’t the only place on the planet where we can teach. In fact, it is entirely possible that there are people in the world who need our teaching even more than college students (who aren't doing the reading anyways).

Is non-academic teaching just like academic teaching?

The answer (like so much humanities research) is more complicated than we previously thought: yes and no.

No, teaching people outside of the boundaries of the university is not going to be exactly like teaching paying students who need to take your class to graduate. No, you’re probably not going to be able to spend sixteen weeks with the same students and gently guiding them through carefully chosen readings designed to stimulate discussion and teach critical thinking skills. No, you probably can’t make non-academic teaching your primary job. No, there’s no possible tenure light at the end of the non-academic teaching tunnel.

On the plus side, teaching outside of academia involves little to no grading. Huzzah!

(To be clear, I ain't bashing anyone who has a university teaching job. Those are good and necessary too. I just want to suggest that teaching can still be part of our lives as ex-academics, though in a different way.)

Teaching people in non-academic setting requires different goals and methods to teach different types of students.

Here's an example:

I recently taught gender theory to a bunch of volunteer victim advocates. These were not college students. These were people who were interested in learning how to provide better support and services to transgender victims. There was no syllabus or readings. We started with the differences between biological sex and gender. We discussed gender identity and gender expression and how people can perform gender roles. We talked about heteronormativity and how it defines (in tandem with whiteness, maleness, ableism, etc.) much of what we consider as the default human experience. We talked about combating microagressions with microinclusivity. At the end, I tried to tie the theory stuff to practical suggestions about how to work with transgender people who have been victims of violent crime.

Many of the volunteers hadn’t had a gender theory class before. We talked through confusions. People asked thoughtful questions. Some people shared personal experiences. At the end, I realized that we’d all had a collective learning experience and now had a new paradigm through which to approach issues of transgender people. For me, this was a new kind of teaching experience.

Most people who have been on the academic job market have written a (dreadful) teaching statement (self included). The teaching statement shows academic search committees how we see teaching and view ourselves as teachers. Looking back, my teaching statements read as pandering to the whims of the academic job market and as seriously lacking in imagination.

What's powerful about teaching is having knowledge (and the skills to convey it) to help other people look at the world in a new way. I no longer think teaching is defined by a university, syllabi, reading, exams, or grades. These things might help facilitate teaching, but they don't define it.

Many years ago, I read a book called The Teenage Liberation Handbook. I was in the process of dropping out of high school and a teacher recommended it to me. The author proposed that learners could use the entire world as their classroom. Everyone could potentially be a teacher. What if we, as educators, took the same approach? What if we thought about teaching in new ways? What if the entire world was your classroom and everyone in the world could potentially be your student?

Some places that PhD people might teach include:

Local speaker series
Their non-academic jobs
Civic events
Historical societies
Private tutoring
A blog

We’re really only limited by our imaginations.

Non academic teaching wouldn’t involve carefully prepared syllabi, but it might have some goals. It wouldn't have grades; it would be focused on learning as the ultimate outcome. It wouldn't have student evaluations. It would use more than books and reading to teach students about how to think about the world around them. It wouldn't happen in the classroom. It would happen everywhere. Students and teachers would be learning from each other.

We might have an even greater impact on other people and the world by teaching outside of the university.

Those who can, teach the world.