Saturday, April 09, 2011

PhD 1.1: Critical Thinking – Going Critical

One of my mentors told me that she when she was getting her PhD once upon a time, she struggled in her romantic relationship. Why? She was using her new critical thinking skills all the time. But she was not just using her critical thinking skills, she was applying her critical thinking to every conversation - and to her relationship.

When her partner confronted her on the issue, only then did she even realize what she was doing. So, she responded to the confrontation, “I am getting an entire advanced degree in how to find out the gaps, holes, and problems with claims made, assumptions, whatever supports beliefs. It is how I am being molded.” Her partner’s response was something like, “Well, keep it outside the relationship and we’re fine.”

At some point in the process of getting a PhD, the student “goes critical.” I suppose in some way it is like “going native” in anthropology or missionary work. What it means is that the student “gets it” and begins applying the critical thinking skills not just in the classroom or for assignments, but begins to use these skills as a way of thinking about life. The doctoral student finds that this education is not just some isolated part of life that will impact future employment; instead, the student finds that “this is my life.”

The student “goes critical” and begins asking questions, usually out of excitement or honesty or embarrassment for what used to count as enlightened thinking, and sees things differently. Now, here is the catch: Sometimes this happens partially outside of the awareness of the student. Sometimes the student does not consider how their morphing worldview will impact the world they are viewing.

One of the curious things about “going critical” is that a person asks more questions and provides fewer answers than they did previously. That shift alone is tremendous. Furthermore, the questions asked are generally on a different level than before. They are deeper and are concerned with things like the reliability and validity of claims made. This can be a really good thing. But it can be a really bad thing.

There is more than one way to question the reliability and validity of a claim of truth. One way is with humility and honesty. It is a gentle curiosity that wonders what could be true and is hopeful that there is a truth worth believing. Another way sounds like an accusation. It is coarse and sharp. A question about the validity of a claim feels like a personal attack – emotional invalidation. A question about the reliability of a claim feels like being called a liar or an idiot. The kind of harm that can be done here should not be underestimated.

There is no more virtue in critical thinking skills than there is in a hammer. Any tool can be used to build or destroy. Critical thinking is no different. Critical thinking skills cannot make you a better person. It is not their function. They are not a set of tools forged for the purpose of character development.

In fact, critical thinking skills are more likely to expose the sort of person you already are. If you are kind, gentle, honest, loving, generous, respectful, then gaining critical thinking skills isn’t going to change that. In fact, it will likely magnify those characteristics. If you are arrogant, mean, dominating, and cruel, then gaining critical thinking skills isn’t going to change that either. In fact, it will likely magnify those characteristics.

Since critical thinking is a powerful tool we should be prepared to be exposed for who we are.

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