Posted by: HAT | April 12, 2012

Reading for Changing the World

The cover of the book Teaching for Critical Thinking

I think this is a really worthwhile book

Hi, Gang!

I just finished reading Stephen D. Brookfield, Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question their Assumptions (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012). I am glad I read it, I will probably read it again, I have a fairly long short list of folks to recommend it to, and when one of those people asked to borrow it I realized that I didn’t want to let my physical copy of it out of my hands because I want it for ongoing reference. In other words, I really REALLY think it’s good.

The university where I am now teaching [part time] has as a stated objective to develop students’ critical thinking. I started reading this book because I thought I should use the time between sessions to develop my own ability to do that, beyond my usual repertoire of “what are the author’s arguments?” and “give me reasons for your conclusions.” It was a good place to start.

Brookfield has a lucid and useful summary definition of critical thinking – “clarifying and checking assumptions by viewing material from different perspectives (79)” – that accompanies his cross-disciplinary perspective on critical thinking. It’s all about identifying, questioning and checking assumptions for accuracy and validity to enable informed decisions. Critical thinking won’t necessarily change the world – but on the other hand, if the world is going to change, critical thinking will need to be in the tool kit. (To which I say, “Down with the culture industries and their hegemonic semantic freewheeling!”)

In Brookfield’s treatment, assumptions are not identical to axioms, propositions that are accepted as givens without proof, or even presuppositions, which are implied antecedent conditions. Assumptions can be explicit, as well as implicit, and they can be grounded in evidence that is explicitly presented to support them. I didn’t realize my own practice of conflating “assumption” with “axiom” and “presupposition” until I figured out, about half-way through the text, why I was having some trouble with his naming of explicit, supported elements of an argument as assumptions. So the book induces critical thinking. He also categorizes assumptions as “causal, prescriptive, and paradigmatic,” which seems like a useful scheme, especially for classroom use. I am now busily engaged in trying to notice and classify my own causal, prescriptive and paradigmatic assumptions, an exercise which has already made me feel much more sympathetic to the therapists I know, who seem to spend a lot of time clarifying and checking prescriptive assumptions that are, shall we say, less than helpful.

The author presents a wealth of specific techniques for introducing critical thinking into the college curriculum, across the disciplines. I can imagine myself “speaking in tongues” and engineering some of the critical group exercises he outlines with actual students. He devotes a full chapter to reading and writing critically, and discusses the need for modeling these complex activities for students at length, with helpful examples and demonstrations. A side-effect of this feature is, I think, that the book is warm and funny and wry and endearing, as well as informative.

One of the particular delights is a balanced, concise but thorough discussion of the intellectual traditions that value critical thinking and bring it into the university curriculum: analytic philosophy, Enlightenment experimental method, pragmatism [art as experience], psychoanalysis, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt school. Reading a pretty mainstream book in education that lifts up concerns about hegemony and cites Gramsci with appreciation is one of the better intellectual experiences I’ve had recently.

Brookfield also takes critical race theory and feminism seriously, devoting a lot of ink to examples of in-class deconstruction of racial micro-aggression and including a fully serious engagement with the critique that critical thinking protocols represent patriarchal analytic thought-style, in opposition to women’s more connected ways of knowing. His response is that critical thinking as he defines it is empirically most effectively a product of social learning, for people of whatever gender, implying that bringing assumptions to the surface of consciousness and checking their accuracy and validity need not be a competitive or adversarial activity. It’s clear from this that Brookfield practices what he preaches and teaches.

This book feels like a gift from the universe to an adjunct faculty member about to embark on the intrinsically critique-driven “Women and Religion” course – at my institution, explicitly designed to “explore the substance of and justification for feminist critiques” of the monotheistic religions. But it strikes me as potentially valuable for folks in other settings as well – like boards that are wading through strategic planning processes, or committees that are charged with designing information sharing events, to pick a couple of more or less random examples.

The last words of the text constitute testimony: “I know that the struggle to live this way is worth it.” I’d like to share that testimony. I hope to do a better job in that struggle, and I think this book will help equip me for that. Thank you, Stephen D. Brookfield, for writing Teaching for Critical Thinking


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