When I was in 5th grade, my teacher told my mother never to expect me to go beyond high school in the area of academics. I’m not exactly sure what my teacher saw, or didn’t see, that would lead him to believe that I was not capable. However, I do know that I’ve always viewed myself as one who was an average student who had to work harder than most of my peers to get a “B” grade. Since then, with both a B.A. and M.A., I don’t necessarily agree with my teacher, nor my own childhood perspective of my academic capabilities. However, I still live with the idea that I’m not a very good critical thinker. While my ability to be self-reflective has been honed over the years along with the academic skills like writing, reading, and studying, I still lack confidence in my ability to articulate or distinguish between good and decent with better and best thinking. I usually rely on others I trust to help me make those kinds of decisions on what books to read, scholars to esteem, and philosophies to consider adopting.
Thus it was with some trepidation that I took to reading our Miniature Guide; my skepticism blocked any creative thought about whether I could apply the concepts. But after listening to Jason in Cape Town, I became encouraged. He sees one of his responsibilities to help us become better critical thinkers. Critical thinking wasn’t something that could be developed from my viewpoint; you either had it or you didn’t. With Jason’s enlightenment and from seeing ways to integrate tools from the text, I live with a new found hope that I might one day be able to balance the heart and head in the materials I encounter for the purpose of discernment and critical thinking.
My first clue from the text in building a foundation for critical thinking comes from the Intellectual Traits/Virtues. While it’s important to be able to think well, to be a critical thinker actually starts with a posture that comes from our character: humility, integrity, courage, empathy, etc. I can start there. This beginning point for me is already a part of the rhythm of my life. I strive after many of these qualities, stronger in some while weaker in others. Perhaps the one trait that struck me most at this point is perseverance. After returning from Cape Town, I wondered (as I’ve already wondered before) whether I have the ability to follow through with this program for many different reasons, most significantly in my intellectual capacity. But when I read about Intellectual Perseverance, I realized that the goal isn’t to be a poser about academic prowess, but rather to build character that God has called me into. My responsibility is simply to keep on keeping on. In fact, while I would characterize myself at the stage of a Practical Thinker, it does give me great hope to read the definition of an Advanced (I don’t even have to get to Accomplished) Thinker as one who is “committed to lifelong practice” and “internalize[ing] intellectual virtues.”
Starting to practice my critical thinking skills, I decided to take the steps from the Template for Problem-Solving and put it into my own words for my ESL community college students. The task reminded me of why I wanted to teach in the first place. When I can take a concept and put it into my own words, I am able to help another while simultaneously helping myself understand what I’m trying to communicate. Two words stood out as I wrote out the tasks: keep it simple and be honest. So much of the focus of education is about acquiring more information. Yet by the time we are adult learners, we have discovered ways to find out what we need to know (i.e. google), so in its place we need more viable ways to synthesize what we already know. These two ideas: keep it simple and be honest are approaches to learning that help synthesize new information with known information. The metacognition that takes place in learning becomes the glue for the thinking skills that I’m hoping to acquire in more distinguishable ways. Once again, as I teach my students to keep it simple and be honest with themselves, I remind myself of the same.
A final thought comes from a quote I found while doing some research this week: “Be egalitarian regarding persons. Be elitist regarding ideas.” (Peter Kreeft). I think one of the reasons I’ve been lacking in my critical thinking skills has been my confusion on this particular issue of how to accept people as they are, rather than judging what they do, know, look, etc. I placed ideas in the same category in which I chose not to judge. However, after reading Kreeft’s quote, I realized that while I am called to love people right where they are, that does not mean I have to accept ideas without judgment. In fact, Sumner’s quote at the end of The Miniature Guide was a welcomed reminder that I can be slow when it comes to accepting thoughts, proposals, ideas:
“They [critical thinkers] are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weight evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side of the other.” William Graham Sumner, 1906
I’m giving myself permission now to sit with what I read, research, and hear about, not necessarily as a skeptic, but as one who wants to savor the experience of learning, allowing my palate the opportunity to learn what the different flavors, tastes, and aromas are in order to discern as an “elitist,” kind of like Sandra Bils when we did our wine tasting the one evening in Cape Town.