How I learned to stop learning, gush platitude, and get A’s in Critical Thinking courses…

UChicago prides itself on its hard-Core Curriculum. In theory it’s a pretty great idea. Ostensibly, it puts students through a rigorous liberal arts education focused on reading “Great Books” and “Developing a robust set of Critical Evaluative Methods” by which one can—ahem—critically evaluate said texts. Putting aside the fact that this type of education is a little outdated in our hyper-utilitarian age, and the liberal balking that there are huge selection biases favoring Great Books written by males, “Caucasians”, and the now-deceased, the practical application of Harper-Adlerian notions of A Liberal Arts Education falls somewhat flat.

As undergraduates run to the hyper-specialized margins of their chosen fields to “Carve out my niche, yah know?” the vast differences in skill-sets required for success in their newfound niches leave fewer points of similarity upon which standardized pedagogic approaches to engendering Critical Thinking skills can be built. Biology has to be rendered easily passable for philosophy majors, as does physics for poli-sci majors such as myself. The result are courses that cater to the lowest common denominator of complexity, both in terms of the type and amount of detail given, but also how it’s presented, and—most importantly—how it’s evaluated. The lowest common denominator of critical thinking, making generalizations and applying them to portions of texts, suffices.

It turns out that making generalizations and formulating arguments for their existence is entertaining, mostly because the types of generalizations—called, somewhat self-importantly in educational circles, “Criticism”—ultimately take the same form. People draw connections between shared cultural experiences and texts they’re “critically evaluating”. Because certain types of generalizations and connections are rewarded with obsequious notes scribbled on the margins of graded papers—”Brilliant! Fantastic exegesis of [two tangentially-related things]”—while others are not, students adapt their critical styles to receive more adulatory marginalia and, accordingly, higher grades.

This has spawned something I like to call Cheap Criticism. A good example of Cheap Criticism that makes for well-received literary analysis is to claim a text is allegorical. This is effectively done by assuming that the male protagonist of any book written before 1930 is Jesus Christ, one of his Apostles, or a missionary spreading His message. This, of course, isn’t mentioned explicitly; it’s hinted at. Mentions of bathing or cleaning in conjunction with mentions of water should automatically bring Baptism to mind. (Think the ocean scene in The Plague and use the disease as representation of humanity’s inherent vice, and remember how the plague suddenly left subsequent to Reiux’s swim. Bam! A damned good thesis for a Close Reading assignment is in the works.)

Art criticism basically works the same way. Paintings pre-1750 can have beautiful theses formed about them after playing a game of “Lets Spot the Biblical Reference”. Likewise, “Where’s the clever meta-commentary on morbid secularist interpretations of Biblical references?” yields interesting and universally-applicable frameworks for criticizing art post-1988.

Another way to do this form of cheap criticism is to examine the evils of Victorian-era ideals. Because professors and (especially) Writing Instructors/Underfed-humanities-PhD.-students tend to hold overwhelming personal biases against such destructive, antediluvian notions as “masculinity as power” and have a soft spot for “Marginalized Peoples and Social Groups” it’s easy to form self-congratulatory, ameliorative arguments that “critique social norms” “through the lens of” the “text”. Why? Because people teaching in the humanities tend to be, on balance, egalitarian liberals with a penchant for whining about “injustices” and the “abuses of power” of the “privileged”. (Calling them “rich” or “wealthy” merely “feeds into the reified uncritical self-conception of ‘the privileged’.” It’s “biased speech”.)

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So, we take one of these “insidious social structures” and add an -ism or -ist or -istic to the end. This adds an ideological veneer to some banal overgeneralization about society. Integrate that into an if-then statement to establish causality, and add a flourish of cleverness to the end and you’re looking at a top-shelf thesis, one whose absurdist straw-man is hard to detect.

Here’s a modularized format for a thesis statement one can fill out like Mad Libs:

“In [his/her] work, [Book Title], [Author’s Last Name] elucidates and critiques [{Ideal}-ist/{Ideal}-ism] [synonym for “beliefs”] [represented by] [male protagonist] through highlighting [a stereotypical symptom of aforesaid Ideal], [a quasi-derivative assumption], [when in the presence of] [female protagonist and/or other typically oppressed persons or entities] through repeated mention [of a commonly-occurring refrain/theme/action]. [Clever Twist].”

“In her work, Pride and Prejudice, Austin elucidates and critiques masculinist hegemony represented by Darcy through highlighting his implied fixation with wealth, a paternalistic provider-reflex, in the presence of _______ through Austin’s repeated mention of her frequent sighing, a stereotypically demure and meek feminine response to issues ______, and—implicitly—all Victorian women, perceive to be masculine or the domain of men. Ironically, this attempted critique seems only to condition female behavior to align with masculine expectations.”

(An argument about feedback cycles would yield that Pride and Prejudice served to insidiously condition women into behaviors, and a mention of socioeconomic aspirations would argue that because poor women wanted to emulate _____ through frequently sighing, Austin’s work served only to tighten the closed-loop “Cycle of Poverty” among poor women.)

That I’ve only skimmed portions of P&P three years ago isn’t necessarily evident here.

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I’m pushing my theory of banality-mongering in my next Western Civilizations course to something of an extreme. I’ve roughly hashed out some notes arguing that our version of Beowulf is a bastardized version of the original myth; that this one pushes an explicitly Catholic message wherein Beowulf is a missionary and Grendel represents the manifested savagery and brutality of indigenous pagan religion, which Beowulf is supposed to oust from a distinctly cathedral-like hall to save from destruction another distantly-related community. Included is a half-hearted commentary on the relativistic notions of “primary-source-ness” of an age-old oral tradition put to paper in Christian times.

“An extremely compelling argument, Jason. I’m quite excited to see what you make of such an original idea.” Conditioned behavior: a closed loop growing tighter. That I stumbled upon my thesis in an exercise of cynicism doesn’t make the end result any less genuine; an unbelievable argument, to be believed, needs good argumentation, with which no amount of cynicism or genuine belief can assist. “It’s a little off the beaten path, but that’s a good thing. As for any direct assistance with writing, you’re on your own with this one.” That it was called “original” killed me a little, in a gallows-humor sort of way.

Author: Jason D. Rowley

As I mentioned elsewhere, I wear a lot of hats. Currently, I'm interested in VC data, early stage startups, and journalism. Previously I've been a blogger, designer, researcher, startup founder, (temporary) college dropout, connector, occasional branding designer and amateur chef.

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