In a recent post, I took a swing at the problem of using the rhetoric of critical thinking without actually employing it ourselves in higher education. So, let me try to explain a little more of what I mean by critical thinking. It’s a complex concept, so I’ll try just one piece.
Critical thinking starts with self-awareness. It entails the intellectual virtue of humility, a virtue not easily won. To think well, one must practice noticing the contours of one’s perspective. It means thinking about the way we think. It means asking ourselves (and being open to others asking us) what biases and assumptions are already at work as soon as we start the act of thinking. Recognizing our biases and background beliefs and exposing them for evaluation is fundamental to critical thinking. This is what I mean by self-awareness.
An exceedingly important example has to do with recognizing our own social location in the ways we read the Bible. The reader admits to being situated in a particular place, time, culture and language. Race, gender, educational level and socio-economic status influence how we read. There is no neutral ground, no way of reading the Bible without bias. The Bible, likewise, is situated in a similar way.
This kind of self-awareness is liberating, not limiting. (It has nothing to do with one’s commitment to biblical authority.) I will get far more out of reading the Bible if I pay attention to how my context affects the way I read. If I am aware of my assumptions, I can practice avoiding the automatic, default conclusions, thereby learning to let the text speak more on its own terms. This is the liberating effect that self-awareness can bring.
On this topic (of Bible reading) the easy target for people inside the academy is “literalism.” We regularly lament how it distorts people’s understanding and, with no little indignation, verbally shake our fingers at literalists. We accuse them of not being appropriately self-aware, of not paying attention to social location; in short, of not thinking critically.
But, as the old childhood admonition goes, pointing a finger at someone else turns three back at us. We in the academy can be guilty of simplistic readings ourselves, using the very tools we believe so powerfully illuminate. I have read too many scholarly articles to count, in which the author identifies herself or himself by virtue of this social location paradigm. Let me illustrate: I am a white, male, middle class, well-educated, married heterosexual, academic, from the rural high plains are of the United States.
The problem, I hasten to say, is not the description of social location, which, to the good, gives you (and me) the opportunity to assess how it might influence my perspectives on any given topic. The problem, rather, is that we’ve come to think that simply by describing our social location, we have proven that we are self-aware, as if the mere naming of a handful of socio-economic categories proves our scholarly legitimacy. it can easily serve as an academic shibboleth.
I have to admit, I have begun to worry more about this latter problem than I do about the literalists. We academicians are supposed to be the self-aware critical thinkers. It’s part of our job. But, because we have grown so confident in how we use the tools of our trade, we often sound self-congratulatory and complacent. We can make astute-sounding references to critical thinking while displaying a shocking lack of it ourselves. We should not miss the irony.