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TLS Program


Theme for the Year

Theme 2016
Paul Marienthal at work in the TLS office

Critical Thinking Is Not Criticism

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively andskillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. —The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking

I know many students who are expert at analysis and have a knack for finding the gaps, the limitations, the discrepancies, the exaggerations, the deficiencies in a text. They come armed with theoretical and historical bullets, ready to shoot holes through ideas. These students know how to say “no,” “it doesn’t add up,” “I recoil from his assumptions,” “her reasoning turns me off.” These students understand “critical thinking” to mean “criticism,” and they are brilliant at it. They can leave whole disciplines tattered and falling from their bindings. However, when it comes time to actually shape the world, they find themselves without very much ammunition. I do not want to minimize the importance of saying “no.” No can end abuse. No can halt wars. But “no” does not create a “guide to belief and action.” No does not bake the bread. No does not build the roads. No does not create fair housing. No does not write effective policy. No does not invite outsiders to the table.

The rich definition of critical thinking at the top of the page is an exquisite marriage of mental and muscular processes. Put simply, critical thinking is engagement, a combination of reflection and action. For those of us who are athletes, musicians, artists, carpenters, mechanics, and cooks, analyzing and acting are simultaneous experiences. For the basketball player, the jazz musician, the cook, passing a ball or wailing on a horn or chopping vegetables is not separate from the understanding of why drop back into the key against a fast break, how to stay on rhythm, or what makes taste. The skilled person has learned by the disciplined process of conceptualizing, synthesizing, analyzing, and evaluating how to produce three-point baskets, soaring melodies, and pots of stew.

We consider TLS a kitchen. We cook pots of rich social action stew.

When thousands marched on Washington, it was not only to criticize. Martin Luther King Jr. could have simply said, “It is obvious that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’. . . .” This is certainly a reasoned observation, and fulfills the first half of the critical thinking equation. This alone would have been a strong statement of belief. But he did not stop there. “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” It will be revealed and we will make it good. And we will make it so. It is we who will make it so. It is we who will make it so. Certainly critique and its cousin irony have a place at the table. We know great art and literature employ shadow, parody, and edgy twists of fate.

For example, Randy Newman’s “Short People” and “Sail Away” beautifully lampoon bigotry. But irony has limits. Taken as a whole, a great piece of art is an act of making, not essentially an act of cynicism. Cynicism is hopeless, the end of dreams. “Every hill and molehill in Mississippi” is an MLK image playing at the edge of irony. But the sentiment was not ironic because he said, “Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill in Mississippi.” MLK understood world making. 

From John Dewey we learn to cross-fertilize science, philosophy, and democratic practice. Evidence is always at the heart of the matter. Sifting and sorting and weighing, combining and collecting. But then we must plan and act. Sorting alone just leaves us with piles of words. For Dewey and for us in TLS the next step, once the sorting and observing and the hypothesizing is done, is the action, the experiment, the work, the cleanup, the construction, the meal. 

I wish everyone believed in fairness and equity, in kindness and generosity as primary guides to action. Like one of my heroes, Cornel West, I wish the fuel for all the action on the planet was love. My deepest hopes rest with love. But everyone must come to their beliefs on their own. Everyone must do his or her own conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication. 

We who have the skills for disciplined observation, we must not relinquish the material world to the greedy uninformed, the intellectually undisciplined, the cynically self-motivated. I do not mean the intellectuals should be doing all the deciding and making! Far from it. I believe everyone should be a critical thinker. The farmer, the mechanic, the plumber, the cook, the engineer, the doctor, the mathematician, the soldier, the mother, the teacher, the road builder—everyone should be obligated to observe, reason, and evaluate their work, to modulate their actions in a constant state of reflection so that their beliefs align with the evidence.

We must not only be critics. We must be makers.