- 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?