Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

reflective moment(Originally developed for Incoming Honors Students at UNT circa 2007)

As you engage with other members of the university community in the vital conversations that make the university an engine of change, I predict that you will encounter a temptation. The temptation is particularly keen in universities because part of the process of education is to engage in critical thinking. You learn not to take everything at face value. You learn to question and look for motives, patterns, misperceptions and errors. You learn to think beyond the obvious.

Yet, I believe there is a very real difference between critical thinking and being critical. When you make that subtle shift from analysis to negativity you set yourself up for the temptation of cynicism.

A cynic is one who takes the view that things are unalterably negative and that only a naïve fool would think differently. A cynic’s goal is to be the first one to find the fatal flaw. And cynicism has its advantages. You can be thought of as brilliant without having to invest in finding solutions. If you go ahead and write off the possibilities you can avoid a lot of effort and forego the risk of failure. After all, cynicism makes it seem wise to stop trying.

That’s why, in the end, cynicism is a poison to progress.

So, is that the choice: naïveté or cynicism? Of course not. We do not have to neglect careful scrutiny and in-depth analysis to avoid cynicism. What we have to avoid is tuning our lenses to see only the negative. We can look for the resonance as well as the dissonance.  And if dissonance is found, if a problem has been identified, we must commit ourselves to go the next step, to finding its hidden lessons.

Analysis, after all, can help us see connections as well as disjunctions. When we identify motives, we can find ways to build alliances. The more you examine the underlying structures, the better you can make them work. You see, the world is intimately interconnected and the more you can trace the connections, the more you see how your work is a part of the whole.

Perhaps what I am advocating is a mode of critical thinking with an optimistic flair, one that looks for patterns that work. Perhaps I’m just encouraging you not to stop half-way in the critical thinking process. I’m encouraging you to take it all the way to its creative possibilities. Otherwise you shortchange your education, you shortchange yourself, and you shortchange the future we are creating together.

[photo by João Pedro Nogueira per cc 2.0]

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