#54: becoming critical thinkers
3 essential books on bridging divides, practicing curiosity & thinking as action
Earlier this week, a journalist friend I respect very much was interviewed by conservative commentator Glenn Beck about her new book, I Never Thought of It That Way, which is a thoughtful guide on how to learn from people whose views are different than your own, particularly when it comes to political polarization the US.
It was one of those rare conversations where, on the surface, little is agreed upon, but so so much is generated just because a respectful, authentic, non-performative conversation is willing to be had.
I highly recommend watching the video.
On that note, today’s constellation includes three books on critical thinking that I find to be essential reading, and a passage from each.
🥬 Essential reading for becoming and raising critical thinkers
The following three books are so rich with practical insights and so important to the future of our world that I would encourage you to intentionally clear time on your calendar to read them at a pace that suits you.
If there’s one question I want to persuade you to ask more often, it’s “What am I missing?”
“What am I missing?” is not just any question. It’s the question. It’s the doorstop to put down in the hallways of your mind, pathway after pathway, to keep open possibilities from slamming into harmful assumptions.
Answering it is not easy. For starters, we can’t look it up. There’s no textbook to consult to tell us just the things we don’t see. It’s not in our phones, and Google can’t run the search for us. There’s no algorithm, either, to make it all “frictionless.” When you’re going with the flow of a divided world, you can’t get a clear picture of what’s around you. What you do make out is too warped to trust, transformed by the echoes in our silos and the shared animosity we feel toward groups of people on the other side of countless issues—groups that merge into one big enemy we fight. Sorting, othering, and siloing narrow what we see while convincing us we see enough.
Having a platform where you get to publish your thoughts for an unending array of readers is an intoxicating experience. Being able to give feedback in real time to those who publish is just as enticing—and too often, that feedback is off the cuff and blunt, the work of a moment of thought. Our kids are entering those rapids when they join the online world of conversations in progress. In fact, they don’t know a world without it! This pressure-filled, react-to-everything style of engagement can weaken a love of reading offline where there’s no pushback or performance incentive. Reading alone is not “party-like” at all.
The antidote to this untended, overgrown garden of global writing is to make the choice to read deeply, choosing to engage in a sustained way. Reading for depth—giving patient consideration to an idea—is like sneaking off to a quiet corner of the party with one other person where you won’t be interrupted. Reading as listening means building your understanding, not correcting or cheerleading the writer.
Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom (bell hooks)
Critical thinking is an interactive process, one that demands participation on the part of the teacher and students alike… It is a way of approaching ideas that aims to understand the core, underlying truths, not simply that artificial truth that may be most obviously visible. One of the reasons deconstruction became such a rage in academic circles is that it urged people to think long, hard, and critically; to unpack; to move beneath the surface; to work for knowledge. While many critical thinkers may find intellectual or academic fulfillment doing this work, that does not mean that students have universally and unequivocally embraced learning to think critically.
In fact, most students resist the critical thinking process; they are more comfortable with learning that allows them to remain passive. Critical thinking requires all participants in the classroom to be engaged. Professors who work diligently to teach critical thinking often become discouraged when students resist. Yet when the student does learn the skill of critical thinking (and it is usually the few and not the many who do learn) it is a truly rewarding experience for both parties. When I teach students to be critical thinkers, I hope to share by my example the pleasure of working with ideas, of thinking as an action.
(I know there are so many other amazing resources on this — feel free to share in the comments if you have favorites.)
I adore bell hooks’ last line above because modeling is the crucial element in normalizing the behavior of critical thinking. And I think we need to do our utmost to increase the spaces in society in which you are the odd person out if you don’t think critically.
So today’s prompt is: How might we practice modeling critical thinking in our homes and communities?
Could it mean being the one friend who is willing to see and honor the unpopular perspective in the group, no matter how much you dislike it?
Could it mean being more open about sharing the things we have read and watched that helped us see new things a new way?
Could it mean introducing intentional question-and-answer sessions into our day-to-day banter with loved ones?
Could it mean diversifying our news diets by asking someone you disgaree with for a recommendation on something they love to consume?
I’ll leave you with these words about artistic practice because I wonder how different our lives would be if we adapted the journalist’s mindset into an artist’s, constantly asking—what else don’t I know? what could I be missing? whose voice isn’t here? who the audience for this performance?— in everything we did, and we collected the answers as little stars from which to build entirely new constellations of each other.
Time Spent is an entirely free resource on media/culture and a public part of my writing practice. Spreading the word is immensely helpful as I test out some of this thinking.