To my surprise, I found myself nodding at the position taken in a recent column at the New York Times.
“Young Minds in Critical Condition” points out that finding fault, picking apart, and endlessly dissecting passages in literature, a topical stance, or anything for that matter, is not a reflection of superior knowledge.
Confusing “Critical” With Smart
Michael S. Roth, President of Wesleyan University, writes of his students and their analyses of literature and philosophy:
… there’s a certain satisfaction in being critical of our authors, but isn’t it more interesting to put ourselves in a frame of mind to find inspiration in them?
… being smart, for many, means being critical. Having strong critical skills shows that you will not be easily fooled. It is a sign of sophistication…
Critical Thinking vs Criticism in Order to Find Fault
As I consider the applicability of this article beyond our classrooms, it’s worth noting the difference between critical thinking and criticism.
Critical thinking involves:
… the thinker improv[ing] the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective… [with] assent to rigorous standards of excellence… as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.
Note that overcoming “egocentrism” is part of this picture. Criticism, on the other hand, involves “passing judgment… fault-finding.”
Somewhere between the useful quality of critical thinking and the habit of finding fault lies intention and context. Are we seeking to take down a concept, weaken an argument, denigrate a person or their performance – right down to minor or irrelevant flaws – in order to make ourselves feel more important? If we overdose on criticism or positive spin, aren’t we doing society a disservice?
The Notion of “Critic”
Some years back, I reviewed art for my city newspaper. I preferred the term “reviewer” to “critic,” though the distinction may be a subtle one. The role, no matter how I explain it, involves applying judgment. My approach, admittedly, was “glass half full.” I chose to emphasize the positive, and to open a gateway to understanding. I leaned toward reviewing what I considered good.
I was tasked with seeing several exhibitions each week, and typically I wrote about one. Occasionally, my editor would insist that I cover the lesser talents, some of whom I didn’t want to discourage. I recognized that they were still early in their careers, finding their visual voice, and a bad review can be devastating. And yes, some of the shows were, in my opinion, of little interest or poorly executed.
As pulling my punches wasn’t an option, though I picked my words carefully, I never felt pleased with those reviews. They may have been truthful, as I saw and interpreted through my own eyes, but I was uncomfortable with coming down on the side of negativity, rather than focusing on works that were interesting or inspirational.
Building Up Beats Taking Down
While Roth notes that American academics value both “critical inquiry in the pursuit of truth” and “exuberant performance in pursuit of excellence,” I recognize how we all have a tendency, often fueled by page views and the lure of going viral, to lean toward the former rather than the latter. The Times article continues:
… Taking things apart, or taking people down, can provide the satisfactions of cynicism. But this is thin gruel.
I couldn’t agree more. And Roth’s words have me reflecting on what I say, what I write, and how I accomplish both. On balance, what we need is, well, balance, not to mention a sense of proportion. Somewhere between our “take down” mentality and the pop culture tendency toward positive spin, we just may find a workable reality.
When to Take Down, When to Build Up
Dissecting a chapter in a literary masterwork is one thing; the consequences of going too far are little more than a professor rolling her eyes and possibly lowering a grade a half point. However, dissecting a piece of legislation presents an entirely other set of potential outcomes- and value.
As for people, setting aside the habit of nitpicking and harsh judgment comes more easily to some. Time plays its role, as with a few years of life experience we appreciate that little is black and white: destruction is necessary at times (in order to reconstruct), but far less satisfying than “building up” an idea, a friendship, a business, or the confidence of a family member.
Thin gruel? Hopefully, food for thought.
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