The New Model for Critical Thinking
The trouble with Critical Thinking is that we live in a society based on Mimicry. If we take away the mimicry, the whole society falls apart.
That innovation is the basis of our economic progress is a modern myth, propagated in an industrial scale. But doing things similarly, rather than differently, is what keeps our society going. The trouble is that we have so convinced ourselves with the innovation myth.
The whole idea of capitalist society stands on mimicry. Dating back to Adam Smith, its foundational idea was that we would desire things that others desire, because their desire indicated that these things are worth desiring after all. This is the fundamental idea that creates consumer demand, industrial production, finance capital and so on. It is about aspiring to be the same, rather than aspiring to be different, that drives our economy.
Surely, the argument has moved forward since the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. As the individual has become the centre of the social universe, ‘being ourselves’ has become the goal. While on the surface that should indicate difference, it has come to mean being the same - desiring the same things through consent rather than lack of choice! Put in a different way, it is about all of us wanting to be the same in our own ways!
Seen this way, Steve Jobs’ great insight - that the consumer doesn’t know what she wants - makes perfect sense. Of course, she doesn’t - and needs to be shown the way. The great commercial vision is make everyone feel that they are unique individuals because they have all become different because they are all carrying around an iPhone! The fact that everyone’s Apple headphones are being shown off is not a sign of going back to monochrome conformity of 1984, but a colourful convergence of consent - a trend, a revolution - around being different in the same way.
As educators are challenged to teach people think critically, this marks the central challenge. It needs to be a certain type of critical thinking and not another: It should accept the need for everyone to have desires within certain choice parameters, rather than raising ‘philosophical’ questions about morality and worth. One should be taught to question whether we can do things we do any better, but there must be a line drawn if there is any question about whether doing what we do is worth doing. Any education must be ‘practical’, which means not just doing things but keeping oneself within the boundaries of the present, and off the speculative pursuits of alternatives.
Of all the disciplines, this is most difficult to do in the humanities. This is not because all humanities educators are ‘leftists’, as some governments would believe, but because humanities tend to go beyond present time and space, delving deeper into language that hides the alternative possibilities and opening up doors to philosophical speculation.
This is the challenge now being dealt with in the conversation about new ‘Liberal Arts’, where the curriculum limits itself to the translation of capitalist wisdom into bite-sized chunks of ‘liberal intellect’, distilling the literary and linguistic skills out of historical and philosophical contexts and potentially subversive thinking. This ‘new humanities’ is defining a new model of ‘critical thinking’, which is not too critical, and one that appropriates tools of thinking in the service of status quo.