Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, recently wrote a piece in The New York Times titled “Young Minds in Critical Condition.”
It happens every semester. A student triumphantly points out that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is undermining himself when he claims “the man who reflects is a depraved animal,” or that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for self-reliance is in effect a call for reliance on Emerson himself. Trying not to sound too weary, I ask the student to imagine that the authors had already considered these issues.
Instead of trying to find mistakes in the texts, I suggest we take the point of view that our authors created these apparent “contradictions” in order to get readers like us to ponder more interesting questions. How do we think about inequality and learning, for example, or how can we stand on our own feet while being open to inspiration from the world around us? Yes, there’s a certain satisfaction in being critical of our authors, but isn’t it more interesting to put ourselves in a frame of mind to find inspiration in them?
Being a student in the sciences, I don’t experience this kind of humanities phenomenon directly. But this ultra-critical mindset pervades everyday life, at least at an elite university. Students engage in this “intellectual one-upmanship” all the time without even realizing it. Try using Thomas Jefferson in a pro-freedom argument and you get the response that TJ owned slaves, thereby invalidating whatever moral or legal progress he allegedly made; therefore, the takeaway point is that the liberal notion of freedom was built on detestable foundations.
Also from Roth:
Liberal education in America has long been characterized by the intertwining of two traditions: of critical inquiry in pursuit of truth and exuberant performance in pursuit of excellence. In the last half-century, though, emphasis on inquiry has become dominant, and it has often been reduced to the ability to expose error and undermine belief. The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.
Even for my own blog posts, I sometimes run into critical comments which, instead of saying something substantive, completely miss the main point and belittle some small detail that I had usually already considered and addressed elsewhere in the article. One is powerless to defend against such criticisms, as preemptively placing ample amounts of caveats is no deterrent. It just changes the criticism from “The author does not consider X…” to “The author dismisses X…” followed by a pro-X argument, where X is a counterargument that the author has already considered.
Not that critical comments are bad—they’re quite useful. Constructive criticism is a hundred times more helpful than praise. Perhaps the issue is a self-fulfilling prophecy of blogging: since people don’t expect complex arguments with caveats, they assume that everything you say is absolute, even when that is clearly false. And it is not just in academia or blogging. Go to the comments page of any remotely controversial news story (I really enjoy reading CNN comments), and you can effortlessly predict which arguments and counterarguments are used.
Hilariously, one of the comments perfectly demonstrates the point of the article.
From user “reaylward”:
“Critical” in this context means close or analytical, not disparaging or condemnatory. Thus, a critical reading of a text means a close or analytical reading of the text, not a disparaging or condemnatory reading. The “historical critical method” of interpreting the Christian Bible, for example, means a close or analytical reading of the text, not a disparaging or condemnatory reading. “Critical thinking” doesn’t mean “exposing error”, it means thinking analytically. I think they need a dictionary at Wesleyan. And I mean that in the critical sense.
And a response by “Austin Uhler”:
Your comment is an example of the type of thinking that the author is discouraging. While you are correct about the strict meaning of “critical” in this context, your uncharitable reading means you are missing the author’s point: it is becoming more common for students to take critical thinking down negative, dismissive and unproductive paths.
This is probably the best comment-response pair I have ever seen for a NYT article.
Is the hypercritical condition a legacy of postmodernism? Is it simply a byproduct of the Internet? Are we becoming more cynical? I don’t know.
Being hypercritical is certainly a better problem to have than being uncritical. I appreciated Roth’s article nonetheless, for addressing the overly critical crowd.