Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Needed: A Good Dose of Self-Awareness

In a recent post,  I took a swing at the problem of using the rhetoric of critical thinking without actually employing it ourselves in higher education.  So, let me try to explain a little more of what I mean by critical thinking.  It’s a complex concept, so I’ll try just one piece.

Critical thinking starts with self-awareness.  It entails the intellectual virtue of humility, a virtue not easily won.  To think well, one must practice noticing the contours of one’s perspective. It means thinking about the way we think.  It means asking ourselves (and being open to others asking us) what biases and assumptions are already at work as soon as we start the act of thinking.  Recognizing our biases and background beliefs and exposing them for evaluation is fundamental to critical thinking.  This is what I mean by self-awareness.

An exceedingly important example has to do with recognizing our own social location in the ways we read the Bible.  The reader admits to being situated in a particular place, time, culture and language.  Race, gender, educational level and socio-economic status influence how we read.  There is no neutral ground, no way of reading the Bible without bias.  The Bible, likewise, is situated in a similar way.

This kind of self-awareness is liberating, not limiting.  (It has nothing to do with one’s commitment to biblical authority.)  I will get far more out of reading the Bible if I pay attention to how my context affects the way I read.  If I am aware of my assumptions, I can practice avoiding the automatic, default conclusions, thereby learning to let the text speak more on its own terms.  This is the liberating effect that self-awareness can bring.

On this topic (of Bible reading) the easy target for people inside the academy is “literalism.”  We regularly lament how it distorts people’s understanding and, with no little indignation, verbally shake our fingers at literalists.  We accuse them of not being appropriately self-aware, of not paying attention to social location; in short, of not thinking critically.

But, as the old childhood admonition goes, pointing a finger at someone else turns three back at us.  We in the academy can be guilty of simplistic readings ourselves, using the very tools we believe so powerfully illuminate.  I have read too many scholarly articles to count, in which the author identifies herself or himself by virtue of this social location paradigm.  Let me illustrate: I am a white, male, middle class, well-educated, married heterosexual, academic, from the rural high plains are of the United States.

The problem, I hasten to say, is not the description of social location, which, to the good, gives you (and me) the opportunity to assess how it might influence my perspectives on any given topic.  The problem, rather, is that we’ve come to think that simply by describing our social location, we have proven that  we are self-aware, as if the mere naming of a handful of socio-economic categories proves our scholarly legitimacy.  it can easily serve as an academic shibboleth.

I have to admit, I have begun to worry more about this latter problem than I do about the literalists.  We academicians are supposed to be the self-aware critical thinkers.  It’s part of our job.  But, because we have grown so confident in how we use the tools of our trade, we often sound self-congratulatory and complacent.  We can make astute-sounding references to critical thinking while displaying a shocking lack of it ourselves.  We should not miss the irony.

December 6, 2011 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Higher and Theological Education, Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Cost of Failing to Think

A news item about Shorter University, a Baptist school associated with the Georgia Baptist Convention, has given me another opportunity to worry about the way we talk to one another about contentious matters.  The school apparently has made a policy that all employees will sign and adhere to a personal lifestyle statement, thereby creating another barrage of online commentary.  (See http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/12/01.)

I’ll leave the facts of the case aside to focus on the comments that illustrate my concern.  To get right to it, the most heated criticism depends on a moral tradition that stands outside the one it is criticizing.  (This problem Alisdair MacIntyre has described in his book, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.)  Taking the policy at face value, for the moment, Shorter University is seeking to apply a set of practices faithful to their view of Christian discipleship.  Some of the most critical comments seem oblivious to this intention.  In the name of a certain view of individual freedom that Shorter U. has offended, some commenters offer censure and condemnation.

I am not bothered by competing moral visions.  They exhibit the simple fact of human diversity.  I am worried, rather, by the lack of  self-awareness associated with the inability to have a serious, productive conversation.  That ignorance inevitably leads to some form of ad hominem attack on any person or group that would deign disagree.

This problem has become appallingly prominent in the blogosphere, ironically, as often as not among those of us who consider ourselves well-educated.  I’m distressed, for example, at the snippy, censorious, presumptuous, comments regularly posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s pages.  To overstate the problem only slightly: too often one finds there an assertion followed by a counter-assertion, followed in turn by a more pointed counter to the counter and the slight hint of the opponent’s ignorance or bad motive. And on it goes.

We thus live in a society in which, in far too many venues, ad hominems supersede respectful, even if pointed, debate, even while we continue to talk about tolerance and respect.  What are we to do if the rising generation as a whole (again, acknowledging the hopeful, if comparatively rare, counterexamples) cannot tell the difference between serious debate and rhetorical violence?  This is a critical moral, educational question.

Which brings me back to the work of higher education.  I have blogged recently about how we use the term “critical thinking,” while largely failing to help students recognize and practice it.  Parker Palmer calls us out: “In my judgment, one of the saddest and most self-contradictory features of academic culture is the way it tends to run away from criticism.  Academic culture celebrates ‘critical thinking’…but is sometimes dominated by orthodoxy as profoundly as any church I know,” (Palmer and Zajonc, The Heart of Higher Education, 23).  In another place he calls this view “pedagogical fundamentalism.”

The “orthodoxy” to which he refers has become so self-evident to many in higher education that dissidents are sometimes looked at as if they had come from another planet.  As one who readily identifies with theological and moral beliefs considered orthodox or traditional or (sometimes) conservative, I find this scenario (sometimes) humorously ironic.

However we describe ourselves on any ideological spectrum, we need to care about this problem.  Our lack of awareness about how we argue runs the risk of pulling the house down around us.

December 2, 2011 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , | Leave a comment