March 10, 2009

Things I Learned in High School: Critical Thinking

There were many things I heard in high school which have long exited my brain, seemingly never to return, but some things have managed to stick. Like the time in 10th (11th?) grade honors English class, when our teacher, Ms. Hutchison, had us read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. We came to a point in the reading where Ms. Hutchison pointed out to us that Shakespeare wasn't actually writing about ancient Rome and the age of Caesar. Well, he kind of was, but only as an allegory for Elizabethan England. Shakespeare was delivering a message to his contemporaries encoded in the form of a historical play. That "Aha!" moment has remained etched in my memory. It had never occurred to me before then, being not very well read, to search for the hidden truth lying behind an author's slight-of-hand designed to force the reader to look at an issue from a new perspective.

Thinking in that way forced me to go through the process of trying to understand just what message Shakespeare was actually trying to deliver to his fellow inhabitants of Elizabethan England. And so began my introduction to literary criticism and critical thought in general. From there, it becomes a fun exercise to deconstruct old Westerns and understand them in their proper context – that of commentary on the times, ie. the cold war period, with an implicit yearning for simpler times and depictions of an obvious enemy in a black hat. In this context, it's easy to understand the messages about racism intended by the creators of “Planet of the Apes.” In the midst of the civil rights struggle, depicting apes fightings against oppressed humans was a clear allegory to our own civil rights struggle. There are several other examples - Idiocracy comes to mind. And everyone knows that futuristic sci-fi is really about us and our worship of technology, but not so much about the science of the future... right?

Once accustomed to understanding criticism and critical thinking, it's a subtle logical shift towards decoding messages from public figures, parsing statements and realizing what is left unsaid is every bit as important, if not more, than what is stated.

I bring this up because we're still dealing with the aftermath of what happens when you don't think critically and understand the "meaning behind the meaning." How hard did we really try to understand the motivation behind the invasion of Iraq? Did we honestly believe that the Patriot Act and looser torture regulations would make us safer? I think about this often, because I sometimes wonder if I'm one of a rare few who attempt to decipher the code of messages we receive. That's an arrogant thing to say, but I can't help but think that far too many don't bother, or that there aren't enough teachers who bother to make this point to their students. I often wish we had a few more Ms. Hutchisons, because that might save us from a lot of unnecessary effort spent fixing mistakes which could have been foreseen. Now that we're living through The Greatest Economic Crisis of Our Lifetimes(TM), it might be a good time to remember this lesson.

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