Critical reading

What is Critical Thinking?

Most college courses include “critical thinking” as a desired learning outcome. But what do we mean by the term? And why is it so importantfor coursework and for life?

“Critical” is derived from the Greek word krisis, which means “to separate.” When we think critically, we are pulling things apart to evaluate them, but we are also separating ourselves from our thinking (our interests and biases) to be better thinkers. 

Sometimes that is easier said than done.

Let’s take something easy to digest: sports. It’s easy to have a favorite team. Mostly, loyalties come from who your family favors and where you grow up. You can root, root, root for the home team, but if you are going to make a claim that any one team is better than another, you’re going to have to back it up with evidence. 

There is a big difference between saying (1) the Cubs are the best team in baseball and (2) the Cubs are the best team in baseball because they had the best regular season record and went on to win the World Series. (Yes, that really happened.) Critical thinking can be directed toward others, but we need to be the most critical about our own views.

Very quickly, however, invoking statistics (win-loss record, runs scored, etc.) becomes a discussion of the relative merit of one piece of evidence over another. The classic example of this is batting average, which was for far too long exaggerated. On-base-percentage (which also takes into account walks and being hit by pitches) is a much better measure of a hitter’s skill. 

In academic settings, critical thinking is more than just remembering or understanding content or offering an opinion. It's an essential skill that requires analyzing and evaluating theories and evidence; identifying biases and challenging assumptions; considering the consequences of hypothetical or counterfactual situations; developing new and probing questions; making informed decisions about complex problems; and applying knowledge to a new field or area and even creating new knowledge. 

A great example of critical thinking is Lorenzo’s Oil. The 1992 film documents the true story of Augustos and Michaela Odone as they attempt to find a cure for their son’s adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a fatal disease. The cure they discover, a combination of rapeseed oil and olive oil, is counter to the established medical wisdom of the time and resisted by most experts they consult. They eventually have seek help abroad to have their cure manufactured, and it ends up adding 20 years to Lorenzo’s life.

Critical thinking is almost always radical because it goes “to the root” of things, which is why it is so essential to problem solving. Karl Marx, rather cynically, alleged that people can only see a problem once a solution is available. A more optimistic, if idealistic, version comes from John Lennon (from “Watching the Wheels”), where he sings, “there's no problem, only solutions.” Marx and Lennon were both critical thinkers, but Lennon wrote better songs.

Critical thinking is not always creative, but thinking critically is essential to the creative process, if by creativity we mean seeing things in a new light. Steve Jobs was a great critical thinker. “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes,” he said to The Wall Street Journal in 1993. “It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.” For him, trial and error were essential, but so too was not letting biases stop him from throwing an idea overboard.

Some people might be more naturally critical and independent thinkers, but everyone can improve their thinking. We especially need to be mindful about the undue deference we give to both experts and what is commonly held to be right or true. Social conformity and tradition are powerful obstacles to critical thinking.

Even though our aim is more than content knowledge, knowing something is the first and most important step to critical thinking. We need to get in the habit of reading extensively and carefully and then giving ourselves enough time to know what it all means.

How to Read a Book

You might ask yourself, how could anyone possibly fill 419 pages with instructions on how to read? The answer is quite easily, actually.

First published in 1940, Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book became a best-seller and was translated into five languages. It was substantially revised and expanded, with the help of Charles Van Doren, for its final publication in 1972.

Adler was the chairman of the board at the pre-Wikipedia Encyclopedia Britannica and Van Doren is best known for his stint on the 1950s quiz show Twenty One, for which he would later admit to being given the answers in advance.

The original book anticipated the post-War expansion of the public school system and growth in reading. It is designed as a supplement for those having a formal education and as a replacement for those going it on their own. It’s chock full of good tips for readers and writers and teachers of reading and writing.

One of its most basic lessons is the speed of reading. You’d expect that the authors would have an apoplectic reaction to the notion that any book could be read quickly. But that is hardly the case. Rather, Mortimer and Adler embrace fast reading. As they write, “Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and with comprehension" (43). The trick, then, is not learning to read quickly; it’s knowing the speed a particular book demands. Most young people suffer from an inability to know what any particular book requires.

Mortimer and Adler are not out to make every book a revelation and make every author a prophet. Books are intellectual offerings, to be examined, considered, and compared. There are bad books; in fact, most books are bad—or at least not very good. Most books should be skimmed, if they can’t be avoided.

There are other pieces of writing, however, like the Declaration of Independence, that require a great deal of attention and reflection. “Properly read, for full comprehension, those first two paragraphs of the Declaration might require days, or weeks, or years,” they instruct (42). It is Jefferson’s list of infractions, which comprise the bulk of the document, that can be gone over quickly.

Mortimer and Adler deem comparative analyses—they call it “synoptical”—as the most difficult, which is consistent with what we have come to know in the decades since the book appeared about how people learn.

How to Read a Book is also remarkable for its unapologetic modernism. Books are things to be understood. The idea that books can mean different things to different people doesn’t come till the seventh chapter, and even then it’s only in passing.

“A book is something different to each reader,” they admit. However, that difference is not the goal; it is certainly not to be embraced. “This does not mean, however, that anything goes” (83). The point is to employ a rigorous and purposeful method to minimize the difference between readers and authors. The goal is not interpreting, but good ol’ fashioned understanding.

Yet even as Mortimer and Adler seem inclined to reject postmodern deconstructionism as lazy and gross, they also want to rescue the relevance of theory. In their discussion of the difference between practical and theoretical texts, the authors identify John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, a canonical piece of political philosophy and theory, as a practical text. Why? Because it tells you how you should form a government, silly. They offer up Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason as an example of a purely theoretical text because it is concerned with what is (ontology) and what we can know (epistemology).

How to Read a Book is practical book that deserves a slow read.