“Branding” the humanities – what is ‘critical thinking’?

Here is an interesting article on what ails the humanities.  The claim is that humanities professors have inflicted a lot of damage on themselves.  The piece is rather optimistic about the public attitude toward humanities, one person remarking that “I don’t think our civilization is so degraded that we have to defend giving attention to what is excellent.”  The problem, rather, is two-fold.  The first problem is related to overspecialization and the popularity of various approaches (deconstruction, postmodernity, anti-colonialism, feminism, marxism) in the academy.  One fellow in the article noted that “What matters to the public is Shakespeare, not the ‘logic of theatrical representation.’”  Ordinary people recognize that Shakespeare is a value.  We are not so lost that we have to argue that great things deserve attention.  The problem is that humanities faculties too rarely teach the great things, and when they do it is without proper respect (they are busy just “deconstructing” them).  If that is your college exposure to Shakespeare,  you are going to either not take university faculty seriously, not take Shakespeare seriously, or perhaps both.

Related to this is the failure of humanities professors to speak in a way that could inform a regular citizen in the public square.  It is this “neglect or inability or lack of desire .  .  . to speak directly to the public in a public language” that then makes people think the humanities are worthless.  That humanities colleges routinely over-state their worth (‘you can’t be a feeling and good person unless you have read such and such a work of literature’) doesn’t help the matter.

I think it is a pretty compelling article, even if I am sometimes more cynical about the public appreciation of and desire for great works even when they are properly respected in the classroom.  But the piece got me to thinking about how the humanities “brand” themselves.  This has been the topic of some discussion of late here at Utah State.  Increasingly, the humanities brand themselves in terms of skill sets, and the favorite skills to which we lay claim are “critical thinking skills.”  But what is critical thinking?  When I hear people casually drop the term to explain what they teach, I am not entirely sure I know what they mean by that buzzword.  If I were to define critical thinking, I think I would say something like ‘the ability to evaluate and analyze thought with the aim of making the thought clearer or more accurate or more penetrating.’  But, when I hear some in the humanities talk about it, or when I Iook at what many humanities professors do in their classes, I fear that “critical thinking” sometimes just means “being open-minded” (whatever that actually means) and that “being open-minded” really just means being a skeptic.  You are a critical thinker if you are skeptical of everything, since attaching yourself to a belief would be an indication that you do not have “an open mind.”  “Critical thinkers” then, don’t attach themselves to anything.  What gives me this sense?  Usually when I talk to people about what critical thinking is, the word “truth” never comes up.  And it is just this attitude that the supposed high ground of deconstruction will produce in students when they take humanities courses.  And if that is as common as I think it is, no wonder people are then rather suspicious of the humanities.

When this occurs in a class, I think one of two things happens.  Either (a) students ingest it whole hog and become nihilists.  They become the sorts of people who are incapable of believing in anything, incapable of believing in anything great, and incapable of making sure and sound moral judgments (if they dare make moral judgments at all, they are probably situational about it and deny that there is anything intrinsically evil).  Or (b) the students make the judgment that humanities profs are off the deep end and they decide that the humanities are a waste of time.  Of the two, the latter looks to me to be the better option.  I like Chesterton’s phrase: “An open mind, like an open mouth, does have a purpose: and that is to close it upon something solid.  Otherwise it could end up like a city sewer, rejecting nothing.”  For, as Chesterton also remarked, when you believe in nothing you will believe in anything.

So I say we should reframe what we are up to in the humanities.  Since defining the humanities in terms of “content” is apparently too controversial, we will stick with defining the humanities in terms of “skills” acquired.  But instead of focusing on developing “critical thinking”, let’s focus on cultivating intellectual virtue.  Intellectual virtue allows you to make sensible and sound judgments about the good, the true, and the beautiful.  Intellectual virtue means you are good at thinking, which is distinct from being good at not believing anything.  Unlike the rather bare skill of “critical thinking” (at least as that buzzword is usually used), intellectual virtue is intimately bound up with truth (Aristotle’s intellectual virtues: wisdom, scientific knowledge, reason, prudence, and know-how are how we arrive at truth in different contexts).

This approach, I think, would better fit with what the culture at large wants from humanities departments.  They want their young adults exposed to great ideas.  They want them to be exposed to beautiful things.  They want them to appropriate for themselves the great ideas and moral values that they passed on to them.  They don’t want their kids to be nihilists.  They want them to have intellectual virtue.  That, to quote the article, is the “best attitude toward revival: respect for tradition and consideration of the public.”

So what I took from the article is not so much that humanities faculty should not or cannot make a case for the humanities, but that in order for them to do so effectively they have to stop navel gazing and must set aside their tribal ideologies.  We need to look outward.  It is a lot of the Menand / Simmons point – take the ideas out of the department and into the world.  When we carry on about totally “academic” issues, it is not the least bit surprising that policymakers and ordinary citizens find little “real world” value in what we do.

In short, humanities departments will survive so long as they are actually providing the service that the mass of civilized citizens thinks they should be providing to culture.  But we are so inward looking that we often forget what regular people think of literature.  Looking outward, then, does two things.  It humbles the humanities — no, we are not solitary civilization savers nor holders of esoteric political wisdom about various oppressions acquired on the hither side of deconstruction.  And looking outward also demonstrates the genuine value of humanities — we do have something to do with creating thoughtful citizens and selves, and we do have an important role in exposing students to great things.  Studying the humanities is not a silver bullet to peace on earth, but nor is it irrelevant to living a deep and rich life.

So we need evangelical generalists (I am going to put that title on my business cards), but we need them to teach great ideas in a way that connects them with the lives of businessman, nurses, moms and dads, etc.  Sometimes the material needs to be changed, sometimes the approach to the material.  My experience is that students, for any griping I might receive, actually like that they read the real deal – Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, etc. – in philosophy classes.  I always felt the same way in my college classes.  I was glad I read Chaucer and Shakespeare, etc in my English classes.  It is when we try to argue that deconstructing Puerto Rican marxist novels is the real business of literature that we start to lose traction.  Your ordinary Joe and Jane from Idaho Falls understandably think the class has little value when that is what they are exposed to.  That said, they also don’t need some completely over the top argument that they will lead impoverished and pathetic lives if they have not read Augustine.

My experience is always that the proof is in the pudding.  Teach great ideas and present them in a way that respects their greatness and connects them with the student.  Make it applicable to them (for instance, I often connect my teaching of Aristotle’s Ethics to parenting and the formation of children).  Without meaning to boast, this is effective.  Students end the class saying what every humanities professor should want them to say, “I thought this class was going to be really dumb and pointless, but as it turns out it was one of my favorite classes and I got to think about a lot of things I had never thought about before.”


Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

5 thoughts on ““Branding” the humanities – what is ‘critical thinking’?”

  1. Excellent post. I think you know I’m largely in agreement with what you say here, but I’ll put forward a couple of responses from my “critical thinking” organ. First, I think all disciplines have some responsibility to make what they are doing as accessible to generally-educated audiences as possible — think of it as the “PR” side of each discipline, but it is more than that: it’s an obligation, particularly when scholars are drawing on public resources. That being said, I think humanists ought to be as specialized as any scholar in the sciences – it is good to have scholars who know everything about medieval Hebrew, with that subject occupying their whole brain. We need both specialists and generalists, in every discipline.

    The generalists ought to have greater sway in deciding our undergraduate curricula, and as you say, it shouldn’t be merely a set of vacant “skills” being taught. The content should be the great ideas you mention, but coupled with historical and modern challenges. I respect the Niels Bohr quote to the effect that the opposite of every profound truth is also a profound truth. Plato and Aristotle and Augustine are powerfully right and powerfully wrong, like many of Shakespeare’s characters, and the objective of undergrad education ought to be to place students in the middle of the fight.


    1. I like how you frame undergraduate education. I tend to think of it not in the language of a “fight” but in the language of a conversation. The objective of undergraduate education should be to place students in the conversation, indeed, to show them that they are living the conversation. Like all conversations, every side has something interesting to say and there are tensions throughout.

      I think I agree with your point on needing both specialists and generalists, but I want to push back a bit.

      Yes, I am glad there are people who devote their entire lives to Dante’s Divine Comedy. I don’t do that, but my understanding of Dante is better than it otherwise would be if there were not people who dedicated themselves in this way. So my claim is too strong if it read as ‘we only need generalists’ rather than ‘we need much more generalist approaches in undergraduate (and arguably graduate) education.’

      That said, I think there is something about the humanities that is inherently generalist. Let’s define an education in the humanities as a broad education for citizens in “human questions” so that they may live a well lived life. In view of this, it would appear that one could over-specialize if specialization came at the cost of your ability to engage broader human questions (that is, the telos of the humanities would be frustrated).

      In the sciences, there are good reasons for having generalists (PR, contributing to elevating the common understanding of things, etc). But those that hyper-specialize in the sciences are not undermining the very purpose of their studies. But that may not hold in the humanities. I still want to say that all faculty in the humanities should be able to “play the generalists game.” If you cannot connect your narrow area of research to broader human questions, doesn’t that mean that you are not really doing the humanities?

      In short, a scientist could be either (a) just a specialist or (b) just a generalist or (c) both. Someone in the humanities, however, can’t be (a). They must be either generalists or people who are both generalists and specialists. The latter seems preferable. I think I am a better generalist for having really dug into one area of specialization. I would worry a bit about someone knowing only a little about a lot without knowing a lot about a little. However, I think everyone in the humanities should be capable of stepping back from their specialized area to engage the broader human questions that define the humanities. In other words, I think every humanities professor should be able to teach USU 1320. An English prof should be able to teach something about Plato and a philosopher professor should be able to teach Shakespeare. I am not as good in 1320 when the texts are more literary (at least I don’t think I am), but all humanities profs should be capable of “interdisciplinary work” since the humanities are, at least by my definition, oriented toward broader questions.

      Is that too strong of a claim? If it is not, my sense is that many professors in the humanities are not actually capable of doing what I have described and so something has gone wrong.


      1. Do you really want to say something has gone wrong if a scholar, say, knows everything that can be known about Dante and is useless in the classroom for anything else? I can agree that it would be better for the scholar to be broader, but I don’t see that anything has gone wrong. And what would you call such a person if not a “humanist”? Maybe just a “Dante scholar”? But isn’t that a subspecies of humanist?


  2. Given that I defined the humanities as being essentially concerned with broad human questions, I think I would have to bite the bullet and say the Dante scholar who is utterly incapable of connecting Dante to a somewhat broad collection of “human questions” would not be a humanist. If that is the bullet I have to bite, that does not mean saying that his work is of no use. It has just become a narrower “science” and is no longer really a direct participation in the humanities. Humanists might use his research, as we do with those we get from the sciences, in our more general / interdisciplinary approaches to human questions.

    That said, I grant that it looks like an odd outcome. Now, it is unlikely that one could understand Dante in a deep and profound way without having those human questions in mind, since those human questions are all over the Divine Comedy. So this is an unbelievable hypothetical. But are all such hypotheticals unbelievable? Do we want to say that all humanists are also generalists? But that doesn’t seem to be the case, does it?

    If the “specialist” vs “generalist” distinction is to mean anything, it has to mean that the specialist is unable to step back from his narrow field to make connections to other texts, questions, and human concerns. The question, I suppose, is whether being an educated humanist necessarily includes this capacity. I am inclined to say that it does, but only because I have packed the definition of the humanities to include broad human questions.

    How would you define the humanities? Perhaps it would be useful to get clear on just what the humanities are before we decide whether or not they are suffering a “branding” problem and whether there is any crisis in humanist education as found in most American universities. Is it my definition of humanities, which sort of builds in a generalist view, that you think has gone wrong?


  3. Great posts – really got me thinking. “Critical Thinking” seems to be a negative process of skepticism – but it is a tool that is part of the tool-set. While it’s a handy, sharp one for certain cases of excruciating dissection (politics?), I’m discovering fast that it’s simply the wrong tool to be using when studying literature and humanities. My proposal is that the sponge is the tool to use! We’re better off turning into absorptive listeners rather than bladed deniers – like architects who must walk through great halls; musicians who must sit quietly with eyes shut to enrich the internal world before we go trumpeting on our own. If anything, the “critical organ” will function on its own in the background, shaving out misnomers and conflicts of interest, rather than carving a blood-path as the guiding force behind education. If I and my fellow students expect to get anything at all out of a humanities education (they all make it clear I’m not intended to get one thing – a job!) it’s by absorption and a full evolution of mental environment. I’m learning first-handed how being too critical all the time would just muck this process all up. “Think Critically if you want a grade!” they say, and I have no idea what that means aside from, “Poke at it a little until you find something wrong, then BS about that.” This may have been important during the transition through high school, when teachers should be encouraged to cork the regurgitation and prepare students for reality. (They can vote in the 2012 election!) But for college humanists, maybe we should celebrate what’s right rather than seek toward what’s wrong. The Republic is abhorrent to modernists in many cases: infanticide, authoritarianism. Socrates occasionally makes some terrible arguments. Augustine makes some horrific concessions in City of God. The Inferno gives me the creeps. But here I go thinking critically – and if I spend all my time doing it, I miss the point. These are beautiful, rich pillars of human experience. They were in my Western blood before I opened the books. Skepticism has a place (where would we be without it) but for humanist purposes it’s in the back seat.


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