Critical thinking skills!

Now, mind you, I tend to roll my eyes when my colleagues defend the study of literature by trotting out the hoary old wisdom that it teaches critical thinking skills. I mean, of course it does. The world is a complex place, and you need to know some literature to participate in it fully. But the same also goes for science and math and history and political theory and so on. You need some of each, if you can get them.

(An aside: the reason Voltaire can be so disappointing is his overreliance on the power of critical thinking. In his hands, that often meant that what was intended to be critical thinking tended to become an exercise in witty misdirection that left the core issues untouched. See pretty much anything Stanley Fish has ever written for further examples of this.)

A lot of people who take great pride in being critical thinkers haven’t ever turned their critical faculties on their own opinions, as anyone who works in academe can tell you. Skepticism is a difficult taskmaster, after all.

So critical thinking doesn’t really make much of a case for literature in particular, because so much more than just literature goes into good critical thinking. But read Jane Galt here for a bit of exploration into the value of a humanities education for producing clever, witty people even in tech fields:

The interesting thing about the technology field is that while it’s mostly engineers and computer science majors, there’s a large minority of people who were drawn in from other fields. And what’s really interesting is that the most brilliant people I worked with during my time as a network engineer were humanities majors, something I’ve also heard other people say. Brilliant technically, I mean….

Why should that be? I don’t know. To the extent that it is true other than anecdotally, I suspect that part of it is that someone who can get a master’s in English lit from Columbia and become a really good programmer is just someone who’s really, really smart. But they also tended to be people who came up with the solutions other people hadn’t thought of — the outside-the-box people.

What makes the humanities (separate from the arts) important is that they take the areas where we have insufficient data (or too much) and try to abstract useful principles from it….

The universe does not offer us always and everywhere the opportunity to hypothesize, test, and peer review. Most of the time we have to make binding decisions on incomplete information. By searching for information in the spaces where hard data is not available, the humanities give us the tools to address those decisions….

But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be immensely challenging and rewarding, nor that it can’t provide us with valuable insights into the human condition. I am disturbed that the majority of the country doesn’t grasp basic principles of scientific thought, but I’m equally disturbed that the majority haven’t any idea or interest about their own history or how their government works, much less in picking up Shakespeare or even Dickens. And why not? Because it’s hard, that’s why. Just like any other discipline, understanding history or reading great works of literature from past centuries requires you to put in a lot of legwork building up your vocabulary of cultural and linguistic information before you can really get into the works. It’s boring. You stuff your brain with facts; you read Guilliver’s Travels for the second time hating every word. Then one day you have a eureka moment: two facts connect themselves in your mind in some way you’ve never thought of before. The internal logic of the eighteenth century penetrates your brain, and you laugh out loud at something Swift has said. Those things are important. They are the only way that we can enlarge our knowlege of human action beyond the limited scope of our own lifetimes — and as any scientist will tell you, the larger the data set, the better. They also tell us about ourselves in an intimate way that physics won’t. A life without art strikes me as, in some way, deeply unexamined.

So if the engineers who haven’t picked up a book since you read “The Godfather” in high school thought you were getting off easy, think again. The reason you haven’t is that you’re just as lazy as the English majors you make fun of.

The problem with our education is deeper than a lack of science. It’s a lack of breadth. We allow our students to wander off into little corners and only talk to others who share a fairly narrow range of interests. And we do so because doing otherwise is too hard. Hard on the professors, who have to force learning into the brains of students who aren’t used to it and don’t like it; hard on the parents, who will see a lot more variance in their childrens’ grades than they like; and hard, of course, on the students, who often seem to bitterly resent any effort to actually make them learn anything. In which number I was probably included in my younger days. But we should try anyway, if only so that we’ll have more areas of potential dinner conversation than the latest episode of Survivor.

The call here, in fact, is not really for literature on its own, but for the value of literature in a well-rounded education. That’s an idea I am willing to get behind 110%. After all, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if English majors took a bit more math. (I took math up through differential equations in college, thankyewverrahmuchly.) If nothing else, it would help when it came time to settle up the check.

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