Teaching Criticism

When I consider my formal education, I try to think of how and when I was taught critical thinking. I know it was never a topic in and of itself. When we teach kids, we tend to teach a subject matter. This is American History and these are the things you need to know. And then come the names and dates and events which are usually the names and dates of government (and military) actions — and, sometimes, the resistance to said actions. Critical thinking is not even considered a thing to teach (by most and certainly by the mass makers of curricula and testing).

This is not too surprising for several reasons. Most notably, I suppose, of course we learn about the state seeing as education is state mandated and, for the most part, state administered (even private schools are bound by state curricula and testing). So the state teaches about itself, its own history and operation — which is to say, we teach propaganda.

And, well, teaching subject matter — names dates, events — is easy to teach and easy to standardize. We can all learn the same facts; tests have the same questions with set answers. All a teacher needs to do is write a name and date on the board then give a test asking the name and date. This makes teaching absurdly simple, testing absurdly simple, and quantifying and measuring "education" absurdly simple. The rising obsession with quantification only reinforces this. After all, how can we put a number to a student's newfound ability to think, critique, process, create? And if we can't measure it, how do we assess it, make policy, judge, hire and fire? How do we justify budgets? (See this brilliant scene from The Wire which I can't embed here.)

There are no doubt other reasons we teach subject matters rather than critical thinking — economic, historical, ideological, practical, existential reasons. Critique demands a certain posture towards oneself, others, and the state apparatus — a posture of questioning that leads to personal and social alienation. Not taking things for granted, questioning and tracking and undoing the very terms of engagement with the world: this is existentially and politically demanding — and risky. It can be uncomfortable. So why do it? I don't blame anyone, I suppose. Life is hard enough without alienating yourself.

What is critical thinking? I'll say it's examining the very terms of making sense, not accepting the assumptions we make, questioning our questions and approach, not letting any matter stand outside the field of examination. Criticism demands examining the form of analysis and not just the analysis itself.  Yes, we sometimes teach alternate takes on state sanctioned versions of events. And that is no doubt a good and important thing. But we rarely, if ever, examine how we make sense of things, what we consider a subject, how we go about deciding what an event is, what counts as evidence, what counts as a truth claim.

Let's take this subject we call history. How do we define an historical field? An historical period? An historical event? Why do we call it the Renaissance or the American Revolution or the Middle Ages? What terms have we assumed to designate them as such? What counts as historical evidence? What kinds of things are we even looking for?

When I got to college, I thought I wanted to study history. That's because of my American History teacher, the brilliant, late Robert Tucker, who had us read Gabriel Kolko's critique of the USDA. Kolko argues that the USDA was created to defend a besieged, dirty, and corrupt meat industry. The assurance of the government about out meat was not for the good of the citizens but for the good of industry. Things I took for granted were suddenly reversed. I found this exhilarating. I wanted more.

I thought I wanted more history. And then I got to college and the history classes were so predictable, so achingly boring. It was all names, dates, and events sometimes weaved together with a more or less compelling narrative. So I went to my advisor and tried explaining, rather incoherently, what I wanted. I kept saying I wanted history without wars and treaties and dates and big names. Where was the architecture? I asked. Where is the literature and art? Where is the philosophy? Where is the geology and weather? Can't historical trajectories be drawn any number of ways? Why were the historical eras all taken for granted — the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, World War I? I mean, were there really two world wars? Wasn't there just one — and the Japanese and Germans won? And what are the Middle Ages in the middle of, anyway?

And then I read Foucault's History of Sexuality and everything changed. Foucault rearranges the archival facts into very different story lines. Wars and such are conspicuously absent. He uses architecture, literature, philosophy, art, court transcripts. His distribution of eras is surprising: he finds continuity between the Catholic confession and Freudian psychoanalysis.

Turns out if you track behaviors and ideas rather than predetermined events, the very ways we think about our history shift. I ended up writing my honors thesis on historiography, comparing the methodology of Foucault to that of Lawrence Stone — what they assume, what they consider evidence, how they view time and human subjectivity.

My point is not that Foucault is right and everyone else is wrong. My point is that looking at fundamentally different ways of constructing the subject matter — in this case, history — leads to fundamentally different conclusions. And the very act of doing that — of not taking one way for granted but looking at multiple ways and then even questioning that instinct — belies ready and smug assumptions. It teaches students — people — to think differently and for themselves, to not just accept the status quo. Criticism teaches a certain generosity towards life, a desire to seek multiplicity within the inherited monoliths. Criticism can be part of any course teaching students to be lively human beings. And isn't that the whole point of this thing?

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Bharath Gopalan said...
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