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THE BIG PICTURE: The critical faculty

Ralph Jemmott

THE BIG PICTURE: The critical faculty

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The interplay in the Press between Mr Michael Ray and Ms Margaret D. Gill on the issue of critical thought threw me back to my first term at the Mona Campus and an essay I wrote for Dr David Buisseret, tutor in European history. Having convinced myself that I had written a brilliant essay, I was alarmed that Dr Buisseret had taken it upon himself to award me a big fat C. Crestfallen, I went to his office to ask why.

 A very genteel man, he sat me down and went through “the thesis”. Almost 40 years later, his concluding words still resonate with me. “So you Mr Jemmott, you must always examine every aspect of the question.” I was convinced of my limitations and left thankful for the C and even more grateful for the instruction.      

Critical thinking and logical coherence are not simply a skill set relative to the cognitive domain of education. They constitute a frame of mind, values relevant to the affective domain. The question might well be asked, why think critically? The answer in the affective domain is to discern the truth as a possible guide to right action in the multiplicity of choices we make in life. Sometimes the truth is hard to discern since even the facts may be in dispute.

Apart from cognitive capacity, thinking critically can also reflect individual character and the culture from which a person comes. In spite of all the talk about thinking outside the box, Barbadians have not been given to questioning established orthodoxies. One factor is the small size of the society and limitations on opportunity which incline us to play it safe. Besides, critique, no matter how fair and balanced, makes authorities uncomfortable.

Barbados has been very unkind to its radicals. Some people think not in relation to any search for truth, but to what is in their particular interest.  Sometimes critical thinking can be very self-serving, particularly when it comes to material well-being, civic standing and status anxieties. It is not enough to think critically. What would be the purpose if critical thought is not communicated? A teacher at a primary school was known to be very critical of everything. One day, a senior educational authority attended the school to talk with the staff. The teacher said absolutely nothing.

After the meeting the arch critic was asked about her deafening silence, to which she replied. “You see Miss Clarke, the senior teacher, she is retiring soon, and I want that job, I don’t have a thing to say’.” The moral is:  Say nothing, offend nobody, and get ahead. Better still, negate critical faculty, always agree with superordinate authority. Get ahead faster.

One cannot be but concerned about a lack of critical thought in much of our public discourse. Listen to the CBC News at 7 o’clock and one is bombarded by platitude after platitude. Not a single incisive insight. Wishy-washy wilful thinking at every turn. This perceived absence of critical thought may well be due to defects in the education system, but one suspects that it is more deeply rooted in the existing culture, of which formal schooling is only a part. To the extent that it relates to formal schooling, one suspects that it reflects increasing deficiencies and inefficiencies related to a decline in behavioural and academic standards and more specifically to the dumbing down of the latter.

This may relate to factors in the culture. One is the pervasiveness of an entertainment culture, to a growing aliteracy – reluctance to read and read in depth – and a definite utilitarian focus in education – learning not for the sake of acquiring knowledge but for material and status advancement. 

Critical thinking in all its forms is fundamental to any educational process at any level. It is particularly important today when we are bombarded by so many sometimes conflicting ideas and have so many life choices. In a very instructive booklet Critical Thinking In History, Robert J. Weiss noted that critical thinking is “not a set of answers . . . but a process consciously applied to different situations”. Ultimately, it is the application that matters. What is the point of critical thinking if at the end of the day you lack either the capacity or the willpower to implement.        

One of the fundamental questions one needs to ask about critical thinking is: In what belief system, what perspective or ideology is it grounded? People can ague quite logically from fundamentally divergent first principles, diametrically opposing world views.

Richard Allsopp once pointed out that it is possible to justify anything and he pointed out the way some racists justified the apartheid system. Human reasoning must always be grounded in moral thought, on a basic recognition of what constitutes “The Good”. One of the greatest issues in Barbados today is the atrophy of moral intelligence and ethical sensibility. 

• Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and social commentator.