Critical thinking

At a recent writing workshop, a visiting professor told the group she was as good as any lawyer at verbally backing someone into a corner. She admitted that she often stifled her critical thinking skills because it made others feel bad. To loud applause she concluded, We need less critical thinking and more creative thinking!

My eyes grew wide. Had she and the audience just equated critical thinking with the act of criticizing others?

I was saddened that a concept important to my recovery from abuse could be so maligned. Critical thinking brings me comfort and a method to bring order to a confusing world filled with unpredictable people. In my version, it does not include criticizing others.

The abuser lorded over me his understanding of human behavior and managerial techniques. To him, I was ignorant of his intellectual world, and I was. The captivity he enforced kept my mind entrapped and protected from new ideas. I only dared expand my thinking at work, and the nature of my job limited much of that.

My recovery from abuse began when I started understanding who I was and how I related to the world. For 30 years, someone else told me who I was, and I needed a new voice in my head. Even though it didn’t have a name at first, I discovered the process for amplifying that new voice was critical thinking.

My introduction to critical thinking came from a booklet stashed among the abuser’s thousands of books.   While sorting books after his death, I impulsively set aside a copy of Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder’s booklet entitled The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking (website here). A few years later I opened the booklet for the first time.

I discovered that critical thinking wasn’t an outcome, but a process that weighed more than feelings. Years of abuse had numbed my feelings, but once free, a flood of feelings showed up. Critical thinking offered hope that overwhelming feelings didn’t have to rule my life.

The authors claimed that the quality of our life depends on the quality of our thought. They defined critical thinking as the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking, with a view to improving it.

Since my introduction to critical thinking, I’ve noticed various definitions, including attorneys defining a solidly built argument for court. But I think of it as holding my judgments in suspense until my reasoning is complete. I’ve learned the value of listening to someone without needing to quickly judge whether I agree or disagree.

It’s hard to listen to someone without drawing quick conclusions about our agreement or disagreement, especially if we have a history with abuse. An abuser will harangue their target until they agree. I learned to quickly submit to the abuser’s view or risk escalating abuse. When practiced outside of an abusive relationship, I at first resisted listening objectively, because it felt similar to remaining mute while being abused. But removing myself from abusive relationships increased my safety so I could practice distinguishing listening from reasoning and from concluding.

As a target of abuse, I was a great cheerleader for the abuser and his strong opinions, but cheerleading is no longer my job. Now when someone states a strong opinion and insists upon agreement, I listen but don’t endorse or reject. I’m curious why they need my endorsement. Could they be seeking greater confidence from my agreement? When I drop the cheerleader or antagonist role, I can listen for the reasoning behind the argument, which is the basis for critical thinking.

Holding out another person’s views as possible until proven otherwise is a strength. We are sometimes told that indecisiveness indicates weakness. I’m tempted to appear strong by quickly stating an opinion, but I know that premature decisiveness is a weakness.

The booklet promotes the idea that reasoning skills equate to intellect, which it breaks down in terms of humility, courage, empathy, autonomy, integrity, perseverance, confidence in reason, and fair-mindedness. My intellect was squelched when I was in an abusive relationship because concerns for my safety didn’t leave room for higher levels of reasoning. With increased safety, and the example and encouragement of my current healthy partner, I’m convinced that critical thinking has brought me to a healthier intellect.

Intellect might be confused with level of education, but I often find intellect in my rural neighbors who never had much formal education. My neighbors may use earthy phrases, but their intellect is obvious.

Well, I may be wrong. (humility)

It ain’t a popular opinion around here, but at least it’s mine. (courage)

Well, everyone’s got a case of the troubles. (empathy)

That’s what I stand for. (autonomy)

If my word ain’t any good, I got nothing. (integrity)

I’m a gonna explain it to you one more time. (perseverance)

I got this one figured, and I won’t be a changin’ my mind. (confidence in reason)

I’ll give you that one. (fair mindedness)

And, whenever I hear someone say, You might be right, I’ll have to think on that a bit, I recognize their critical thinking process warming up. They may not have a name for it, but the critical thinking process is as engrained as the creases in their sun-drenched faces. It’s too bad that some discount us a bunch of dumb farmers.

We can make critical thinking as complicated or as simple as we want. I’ve found it helps guide me through unreliable emotions. I recognize it in a lot of places, but I know it’s not happening when someone verbally backs another into the corner.

 

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective not the truth. – Marcus Aurelius

Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and hatred for every kind of imposture. – Francis Bacon (1605)

 

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