Yes, the beach is nice, but it’s time for a little bit of summer schooling. In his provocative and accessible new book, Critical Condition: Replacing Critical Thinking With Creativity, Patrick Finn considers whether the importance of critical thinking has become overstated in academia and in the wider world. In this excerpt—which is particularly timely with a federal election upon us—Finn suggests that critical thinking has come to undermine our functioning democracy, explains why “we can’t go on together … with suspicious minds,” and offers the ideals of Jack Layton and Barack Obama as an alternative to the critical thinking status-quo.
When we look behind the scenes, we find that today the world of critical thinking is a bursting bubble. There will always be value in it, but it currently holds an artificially high value that needs to be adjusted down. Meanwhile, creative thinking is enjoying increasing demand and is poised to replace its more linear cousin as the mode of thought of greatest benefit to most of us. To engage most fully with our talents as individuals and as citizens of a global community, we need to engage with open, contributory modes of thinking and working. I call this loving thinking, and it involves working from a position that begins in hope rather than in suspicion.
Elvis Presley had one of his biggest hits with a song penned by Mark James titled “Suspicious Minds.” That song, big, bold, and beautiful in that Las Vegas style that Presley grew into, warns us that “we can’t go on together … with suspicious minds.” It cautions all lovers that you cannot be in a fulfilling relationship when you begin from a place of suspicion. In Shakespeare’s Othello, act 3, scene 3, the hero declares: “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul, / But I do love thee! and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again.” Othello suspects early and learns late that when we are gripped by suspicion we lose all harmony and hope of rest.
What both Elvis and Othello knew is something we should come to grips with if we hope to find a better way of working for the twenty-first century. Critical thinking instructs us to treat all incoming information as if it were coming from a hostile witness in a jury trial.
We begin from a place of suspicion and pry open every seam in every statement to check for weapons of deceit. The result is—as Nietzsche warned—that we become the enemy we are fighting. Or the enemy we think we are fighting.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then so too is ugliness, and our relentless pursuit, not of the truth, but of any attempt to deceive us, causes us to see conspiracy everywhere. The alternative I propose is loving thinking. In this model we begin by giving the author the benefit of the doubt. We start with the assumption that most people are simply trying to communicate with us and that their attempts to do so indicate not hostility but hospitable engagement—they are inviting us to join something, are not bullying us into believing ideas that could harm us.
Imagine a child who is about start school. Her ideas about what she would like to do often relate to the things she sees in front of her—sometimes through the media, but very often pulled from daily life. Thus, children often dream about working for the fire department or driving a garbage truck. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu reminds us that children are governed by the world in which they find themselves. Their dreams are made of the bits and pieces of the lives they are living in this moment. Nature has equipped us with the spirit of inquiry, but we need education to help us build on our dreams.
When we enter school we are full of dreams about what we want to do, and those dreams are cast in positive terms. Those who study creativity are fond of the Picasso quote, “We are all born artists; the trick is to remain one.” Education experts pick up on this and ask how our school systems are failing us: Why do we seem to be quashing dreams rather than nurturing them?
Our horizons expand as we learn more about the world and about our lives and as we gather more materials for constructing our dreams. The problem is not in the materials educators provide but in how they deliver them. We are teaching students to think critically so that by the time they graduate from university, it is a benchmark of success to be able to call oneself a critical thinker. As a consequence, students know more, but they also dream less.
But wait. Has anyone ever wanted to become a critical thinker? If we gave people a choice, would they ask to become critical thinkers? And if we asked parents whether they wanted their children to become critical or creative thinkers, which would they choose? And perhaps most important of all—when did we begin to feel that it was okay for our universities to teach us how to think? Shouldn’t the point of university be to free our minds so that we think for ourselves rather than to train us all to think the same way?
The repercussions of critical thinking are visible everywhere. The financiers who nearly bankrupted the world economy were trained as critical thinkers. They were expert competitors who knew how to present their ideas in the most persuasive ways possible. They also knew how to fend off competing arguments when their practices were questioned. If community rather than rhetorical rivalry were at the centre of our education, perhaps they would have felt a greater need to respond directly to those who questioned the house of cards they were building.
Governments certainly do not need more critical thinkers. In Canada where I live, every year, big yellow school buses roll up to the parliament buildings in Ottawa. The children on the field trip step down with their backpacks and brown-bag lunches and are given an orientation session. Part of that session involves the teachers and organizers instructing the children to behave themselves while in the viewing area. Another involves a detailed explanation of why the people they see will be fighting, yelling, and insulting one another. The children are told that this is how high-level politics is conducted—that this is what civilized governance looks like.
Stop right there.
What if the children’s instincts are correct? Do some adults have the same feeling? Of course they do—opinions of politicians and the way they conduct themselves are at their lowest in history. It is embarrassing for our children to see people behave in this way, and it is irresponsible to deny the feelings we have when we witness this carnage. What they see is an example of the worst kind of behaviour. In any classroom, that behaviour would earn them a correction. What these children are witnessing is the operation of critical thinking as it has developed in our political system.
In Canada we actually call these people “the foreign affairs critic,” or the “environment critic.” Do we ever hear these people offer creative contributions that could improve the lives of the citizens they represent? Of course not—no matter what the government says, the critic disagrees. So bad is this sort of gridlock that governments in the United States seem unable to pass any kind of legislation. They would rather the population suffered than cede the point on any issue. The European Union, the African Union, and the Arab League are similarly locked in destructive battles. What we have now is government run on critical thinking. The good news is that people have had enough and want change. The bad news is that the people who have a vested interest in the old ways are willing to do anything to block change. How could they do anything else? They have spent their lives fighting not for society but for a win at any cost.
Is it not strange that governments, which contend they represent the will of the people, have a position known as the whip, whose job it is to ensure that everyone in the party supports the message they are told to support? As with school trips to the seat of power, students who study political science or political philosophy initially see the truth behind the word whip, but over time are groomed to believe it is a normal part of democratic functioning.
Governments today are being challenged more than ever before to engage with one another. Globalization is placing huge demands on nations to work together. A glance at the UN Security Council shows us just how difficult working together can be. How might we best prepare our future leaders to negotiate with one another over contested lands, differing belief systems, and conflicting economic interests? Is it best to be suspicious of everyone else in the world, or might we build a better future by following leaders whose creative capacities have been developed? For the early Greeks the answer was simple—we are best prepared to serve society if we move past our critical skills and embrace a more creative, contributory model that allows us to care for ourselves in ways that enable us to best serve society.
When we consider the results of an educational system governed by criticism, it quickly becomes apparent that our current machinery is broken. Why don’t we start at the top? In two recent federal elections (Canada and the United States), two candidates stood out for the way in which they presented themselves. Jack Layton in Canada and Barack Obama in the United States tapped into a different kind of energy. Layton passed away shortly after he was elected, and Obama has been attacked for not sticking to his message, but it is their messages that interest me here. Their campaigns highlighted exhaustion with old ways of doing politics and a desire for change. It is doubtful that either could have done what he promised, given the logjam of competitive politics, but it is telling that both were elected for having a vision of something better.
Poster by Stuart Thursby
Both candidates made a case for positive dialogue. Both connected with voters who were Internet savvy. Both were unlikely heroes who shocked the political world with their success. People of all stripes are tired of the way our politicians work. It seems that all candidates for office try to portray themselves as anti-establishment, but this nihilistic position is merely the other side of the critical thinking model. It still relies on an “us versus them” mentality; it still seeks to isolate problems, describe them, and find people to blame. In this model, everyone is defined in negative terms—that is, they come to have meaning for us not through ideas but because of who they oppose, and how.
Obama and Layton changed all of that. Or at least, they promised they would.
Excerpted from Critical Condition, by Patrick Finn. 2015 Wilfred Laurier University Press. Appears with permission of the publisher.