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Beyond Critical Thinking

Critical thinking has so thoroughly colonized our idea of education that we tend to think it’s the only kind of thinking. Tests try to measure it, and ritzy private schools all claim to teach it. Critical thinking–analysis, not mere acceptance–is a skill we can all learn. And we’ve learned it too well. We’ve learned only critical thinking skills, and not the equally challenging skills of prudent acceptance: We don’t even realize that we need to learn when to say yes, and to what.

We teach students to find the undefended premises of an argument, or the contradictions in a claim. This is really easy. Every single argument has a premise for which it doesn’t and can’t argue, and every even mildly interesting worldview is built on conflict and internal tension. Not every contradiction is a reason to reject a worldview! Internal contradiction can reflect the fact that human life is not reducible to rationalistic syllogism; it can disguise a deeper harmony or a fruitful paradox; it can arise from an attempt to craft guidelines for prudent decisionmaking in a world of unique cases. You won’t find any of those pathways through a contradiction if you just walk away from the argument as soon as you’ve identified a contradiction.

If we allow any alternative to critical thinking, it’s creative thinking. We fetishize self-expression and novel or counterintuitive approaches to problems. This is why #slatepitches is a thing; #slatepitches is, among other things, a recognition of the limits of creative thinking, a satire on its aggressive hunt for the new angle.

What we don’t teach, and don’t even consider as something worth teaching, is the art of acceptance. The art of accepting somebody else’s thoughts, words, insights, and dwelling in them until they become your own as well. We don’t teach how to tell when you’re sure enough, when you really should take the leap of faith, when you should say, “Yes, my understanding is totally inadequate, but I believe.”

If you think I’m hinting at a parallel to the culture of fear of commitment… you’re not wrong.

Nobody can live by critical thinking alone. And so we wait, and we keep our options endlessly open, hoping that some lightning-strike revelation will take the decision out of our hands. “When I met your mother I just knew…” “And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus, and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven….” We hope that we will be transported over doubt to a place of secure faith. It turns out that this does happen sometimes–just enough to tantalize the many people who long for the moment of undeniable, irrefutable knowledge and never receive it.

I don’t actually have a positive response, beyond the stuff I said here; I don’t have a curriculum for the class on acceptance and trust. That’s what the comments box is for, people! I hope that admitting you have a problem is the first step.

And maybe a couple of next steps would be acknowledging the universality of regret, and recognizing how much personal growth flows from keeping our commitments rather than forestalling them.

Time keeps moving forward whether you like it or not; “if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice” and all that. The endless unreadiness of emerging adulthood, where no self is ever good enough to wear forever, isn’t a sustainable life either. If we had more models of repentance and forgiveness, which could show us how to live with bad choices and/or how to find our way back from them, maybe the leap of faith would not seem so paralyzingly impossible.

And I’ve written before about the American tendency to view commitment as the end of personal growth and change rather than the beginning (or, more accurately, one possible pathway to growth and change). We think freedom provokes personal growth and human bonds limit that freedom. I’m not sure it’s right to say that this worldview is exactly backwards… but it sure is not frontwards, I can tell you that much.

I realize that this post covers way too many different things. Knuckling under to a church, for example, isn’t actually that much like getting married, and neither one of them is much like exploring a philosophical stance or living within an uncomfortable tradition. But I’m going to assume that you guys can run the counterarguments and spot the exceptions to my points yourselves–with your well-honed critical thinking skills.

about the author

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos and has written for Commonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications. She is working on a book on vocation for gay Catholics. Her email is [email protected] and she can be found on Twitter at @evetushnet.

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