- You know nothing
- Suddenly, you know everything
- You realise you might not know everything but you have no idea what you might not know
- You gradually understand what you know a little bit about, and accept that you’ll never know much about anything.
We talk about critical thinking, and in an ultimate irony fail to think critically about what we are saying. At university critical thinking is supposedly one of those skills we are meant to inculcate in ourselves (or that we magically end up with around the same time as we are awarded a diploma on a stage). It conjures vague notions of analysing spreadsheets, debating someone, perhaps being able to disagree with something written on the pages of a foreign affairs journal.
But critical thinking it is to think critically. That is, like a critic. What exactly is a critic? And why should we think like one?
Daniel Mendelson in The New Yorker:
“By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically—which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period.”
For all criticism is based on that equation: knowledge + taste = meaningful judgment. The key word here is meaningful. People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics. (This is why a great deal of online reviewing by readers isn’t criticism proper.) Nor are those who have tremendous erudition but lack the taste or temperament that could give their judgment authority in the eyes of other people, people who are not experts. (This is why so many academic scholars are no good at reviewing for mainstream audiences.) Like any other kind of writing, criticism is a genre that one has to have a knack for, and the people who have a knack for it are those whose knowledge intersects interestingly and persuasively with their taste. In the end, the critic is someone who, when his knowledge, operated on by his taste in the presence of some new example of the genre he’s interested in—a new TV series, a movie, an opera or ballet or book—hungers to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, make it mean something.”
To think critically, then, is to make the world around us mean something, to us. It is to not simply take your neighbour’s opinion, or your college professor’s, but to develop your own knowledge and taste sufficiently so that everything—whether a piece of furniture or a new movie or a forcefully presented opinion—has meaning to you through your own lenses. It’s basically nothing short of being an individual. That’s why we aim so intently for it—and why we keep improving our critical faculties our whole lives.
At high school the idea is to be well-rounded. Know a little about a lot of things; be good across the board. Do well in academics, music, sport. But don’t be exceptional at anything. At this point, that’s dangerous: you’ll tie yourself down too early, and invite the ire of your peers.
At university the idea is to be well-rounded with a bump. Learn a little more about a lot of things, have a range of interests and talents. But now, you need to become known for something. Be passionate about something. Be exceptional at something. That’s the way to be successful, to get into graduate schools, to land a good first job.
The language of roundedness generally stops there. We speak of successful people from there on. Generally what matters is just that the bump remains. People develop their careers, and the bump becomes how one defines oneself.
I think we need a language of wholeness. Real people are interested in an enormous range of things , and yet remain exceptional at one or a few things. That’s not just well-rounded with a bump or two, but that’s what it means to be a whole human being. We are not our resumes, nor are we just our interests.
Wholeness seems a worthy aim. Interested in the world and in many things throughout life, and good enough to lead and inspire others in one or a few of those things. If we need a phrase to aim for (and do we?), wholeness seems appropriate.
I’ve been sitting here for thirty minutes thinking of what ideas have shaped my day today, and whether I could write about any of them. It’s not that there haven’t been ideas, and it’s not that I don’t want to write about them. But after cycling over 160km in the past 24 hours, my mind just isn’t sharp enough for that kind of writing.
So I’ll post something else, which in light of not writing today may start to seem somewhat meta. It’s one of those cheesy “take back your life” videos. But what’s not to like about beautiful Italian scenes, Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address, and cycling?
I hate the pervasive driver-cyclist antagonism. Too often each group dehumanises the other to the extent that safety is made an even bigger problem.
The reality is most cyclists are also drivers, and most do their best not to hold up drivers and to ride with respect for cars; likewise, most drivers have at some point or other ridden a bike on the road and respect cyclists who do so regularly.
But of course the problem comes when one group gets so far into group mentality that the other becomes “them”—not really people, but a faceless group who get in “my” way. And this can happen on both sides of the equation. I’ve seen groups of cyclists ride as if they were the only people on the road, holding up cars for kilometres of road even when they could’ve let drivers pass. When the cars honked their horns, the cyclists moved out further into the road and rode slower. To them, the cars behind could have been driverless; group mentality made it seem as though it was just the “other” trying to get in their way.
And too often I’ve seen drivers drive recklessly nearby cyclists, especially when passing. Some drivers try to pretend as though there were not any cyclist on the road.
Just the other day I was riding up a hill here in Singapore, sticking as close to the side of the road as possible, when a van drove past me as if I hadn’t existed. I was swiped on the shoulder by the van’s mirror and almost knocked off. When I caught up with the van at the next traffic lights (to the driver’s dismay, since he hadn’t bothered to stop) he smiled maliciously and said, “That’s why you don’t ride your bike on the road.” Never mind that he was my only danger.
It was as though he were not speaking to a human. He had so forgotten that I am someone who also drives a car, who also has a family, who also has years ahead of me that all he could focus on was the fact that I might’ve got in his way. What was stranger than being hit by the mirror (which shook me and bruised but ultimately was not a big deal) was hearing the driver speak to me in tones one might speak to a tree that has fallen across the road.
Like I said, I hate driver-cyclist antagonism. I hate the articles local newspapers come out with once a month or so on the subject, which stir up those antagonisms further. I’m both a driver and a cyclist, just like most drivers at some point ride their bike and most cyclist at some point drive a car. To dehumanise is literally to forget that one is human, and that is the greatest danger of all—it is what leads to a cycle of maliciousness, because all one begins to see are two groups, one of which I’m in and the other which I’m not.
Whether you’re behind the wheel or in the saddle, realise that in an hour’s time the person in your way themselves might be driving a car or riding their bike. We’re all rarely as static as simple labels like to make us out to be. If only that were easier to remember.
And what I thought, after that van sped away from me, was that it is not so far a step from the phoney war between drivers and cyclists and the more real, far more dangerous antagonisms like those across the United States and Europe at present.
One perspective on writing says to give everything you have, right away; to not hold anything back for later, because more will always come, and you need to use what you have right now.
Another perspective says to keep your best for when the timing is right; when you have the right medium or platform, when the right people will be able to read what you have to say. To let it go before then is to waste it.
It’s these times when faced with contradictory advice that you learn who you are, because you can’t hide behind by others’ well-meaning opinions. That advice may not be right for you and your circumstances anyway. Only when there are two opposed ideas are they essentially cancelled out, leaving you with your own decision for your own reasons.
Which way I answer the examples I’ve given here will show what type of writer I am. But there are times when the stakes are even higher; when the decision is about what type of person you are.
Perhaps that is why one should ultimately seek out advice. Not to listen to it, but to gather enough that it can all be ignored and one can actually decide for oneself, and to decide without ignorance.
In New Zealand we call it the Tall Poppy Syndrome. Leslie Lipson, an American political scientist who came to New Zealand to do a Tocquevillian study of our democracy, described it like this:
“Democray itself can imitate the policy of Periander the Greek and remove the heads that stand above the crowd. There is a tendency for the idolaters of equality to sacrifice talent on the altar of their God.”
And Ray Bradbury wrote of the phenomenon like this:
“Not everyone born free and equal, as the constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.”
It is the mocking of those students who dare to take an interest in their classes, the disdain for the politician who attempts to inspire with their voice, the half-hearted congratulations to an employee who wins an award for hard work. It is not a public policy nor a conscious act, and the most well-meaning are often among the most guilty.
I’ve thought a lot about why this seems to be a circumstance in small democracies like ours and not in all. It seems to me that it is the peculiar combination of a love for equality and the fact of proximity. Because most New Zealanders have only two degrees of separation from the prime minister, they demand similarity. In a larger country like the United States there may be a similar love for equality, but without proximity there is no expectation of similarity.