Sixty-five years ago, when I was a boy going to P. S. 117 in Jamaica, New York, we were asked as a homework assignment to choose one of the cities on the Baltic Sea and write a report. This was during World War II, when Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia had not yet been swallowed up by the advancing Red Army and converted in Soviet Socialist Republics. Had I known that in twelve short years I would be writing my doctoral dissertation on Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, I might have chosen Koenigsberg, but instead I chose Riga. I still have a vague visual memory of the report, complete with a map of the three Republics colored with crayons. Last night, as I do most nights, I got up at about 2 a.m. and checked my email. [It is an old guy thing. I haven't slept through the night in decades. But I digress...] There, waiting for me, were two responses to my series of posts on The Ideal University, and one of them was from Riga. How cool is that! The author is an American philosopher who is, for reasons I have not yet ascertained, living and working in Latvia.
The second email was from the same woman whose comment I replied to yesterday. She was my student briefly at Columbia in 1967, and is now an Economics professor. Her politics, like mine, are not exactly mainstream. Here is a part of what she said:
"I feel that one of the important roles of the university is to teach "critical thinking" . This often means enabling the students to discern the ideological content, and then to pose alternative positions. This is how I might use the term "critique," directed towards the assigned readings rather than the student's performance. Rather than a method of "perfecting" student performance, I would hone student skills in articulating the author's unstated assumptions, and then exploring the influence of those assumptions on the argument"
She then goes on: "Is this already implicit in your aesthetic reconstruction/simplification of "great" authors works (with "great" still to be defined)? Or does this meaning of "critique" emerge in discussions among diverse, passionately committed students? Once students are sufficiently encouraged, does this form of "critical thinking" not actually require instruction at all (being more or less spontaneous)?"
These two comments, or questions, really call for a rather extended response, so be patient as I try to make myself clearer. [WHOOPS -- I ACCIDENTALLY POSTED THIS BEFORE IT WAS FINISHED -- IF YOU ARE READING THIS, COME BACK IN A BIT AND I WILL HAVE COMPLETED THE POST. SORRY ABOUT THAT.]
1. By all means, I think the development of the capacity for critical thinking is an essential part of the educational process. It is one of the reasons that I enjoy teaching Karl Mannheim's great book, Ideology and Utopia. One of the most exciting seminars I taught in my fifty years in the classroom was a graduate seminar on Ideological Critique, in which we read Edwin Wilmsen's Land Filled With Flies, to understand the ideological distortions involved in the anthropological examination of the people incorrectly called "bushmen," along with Henry Louis Gates' first [and only good] book, The Signifying Monkey, and Ed Said's wonderful and tremendously influential work, Orientalism. So on this we are in total agreement.
2. BUT: I am not comfortable with the belittling implications of the scare quotes around the word "perfecting." I think this may simply be a place where I part company with many who share my political orientation. I really do experience ideas aesthetically as well as ideologically and intellectually. The beauty of powerful and precisely clear arguments and conceptual formations is not some sort of extraneous decoration, like the wedding cake stonework on late baroque buildings. It is inseparable from the power of the ideas, and is, in my eyes, as valuable as their truth. Indeed, I suppose I share St. Thomas' view about the relations among what he called the "transcendentals" -- beauty, truth, and goodness. That identification has often been coopted by conservatives, but I refuse to cede it to them. To those who simply cannot see the beauty, and the power in the beauty, of Marx's Labor Theory of Value correctly understood, there is nothing more that I can say. Having shown that beauty and rigor as precisely as I was able, in Understanding Marx, I must simply rest my case.
3. As for critical thinking, once it has been introduced to students, not actually requiring instruction, being more or less spontaneous, all I can say is, From your lips to God's ear! That is certainly the ideal for which we all long. To show a student how something is done, and then have the student simply get it, and start doing it on his or her own, is what we dream of.
One more story, also from long ago. When my first wife, the well know literary scholar Cynthia Griffin Wolff, was an undergraduate at Radcliffe, she took the Shakespeare course taught by a great Comparative Literature scholar, Harry Levin. Her first paper was handed back with a low grade, and she rushed in, quite distraught, to see the Section Man who had graded it. He spent a few moments explaining what they were looking for, and then she said, "Oh! That is what you want," and left. She never got less than an A in the course again. Would that we were all blessed with students like that.
Well, this is really fun. Keep the comments coming. Anybody out there in Africa?