My High Wire Act

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Several weeks ago I promised in one of my blogs that I would share the results of an exercise in critical thinking that I was preparing to conduct with faculty in my role as Director of Assessment and Program Review at my university.  Since the outcome of this exercise is equally relevant to the teaching of critical reading and writing—not to mention popular cultural semiotics—I am glad to be able to keep my promise here.

Let’s begin with my premises and anticipations.  My fundamental premise is that there is an elemental core to all acts of critical thinking, no matter what the academic discipline or real world context.  As I mentioned in my earlier blog, I call this the what .  .  . so what then? basis of critical thinking.  That is, in all instances, critical thinking constitutes a precise identification of a problem or topic (what) and moves from that to an exploration of its ramifications, meanings, or (as in the case of a problem) possible solutions (so what then?).

Now, I anticipated (and will continue to anticipate) some objections to this claim.  Its worst feature is its claim of universality, which is a frequent characteristic of definitions of critical thinking, including those that are currently most influential in the teaching and assessment of critical thinking in this country.  Most standardized tests of critical thinking, for example, lean heavily on the traditional philosophical definition: that critical thinking constitutes the ability to spot—and formally identify—logical and argumentative fallacies.  I happen to agree that such an ability is necessary to effective critical thinking, but I also think that it is too narrow a definition, and, more importantly, too passive.  It enables one to identify a fallacy in somewhat else’s thinking (critical reading) but it does not describe how to think critically (and creatively) oneself, beyond pointing out what to avoid.

A second extremely influential definition of critical thinking in assessment circles is based in educational psychology, and centers on something called Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is a hierarchical description of the cognitive functions that take place in the course of critical thinking.  Once again, I have no quarrel with this approach, but it, too, is rather narrow, and, more importantly, too abstract.  I mean, when thinking critically one doesn’t say, “now I am going to use my knowledge,” “now I am going to comprehend,” “now I am going to apply,” “now I am going to analyze,” and so on and so forth.  Critical thinking is a lot more like riding a bicycle: when you are doing it you are doing it, not consciously isolating each muscular and mental component in your movement.

But what about the what  .  .  .  so what then? descriptor?  What I wanted to demonstrate to my faculty is that that is precisely what is going on in their minds when they are engaged in critical thinking, whether their initialwhat is a problem to be solved in business and marketing, or a topic to be taught and analyzed in an ethnic studies course.  I was way up on the high wire without a net in trying to do this, but I didn’t fall, even when business/marketing and ethnic studies examples were volunteered from the participants in the session.  In fact, those two examples, serendipitously proposed by my faculty colleagues, served as the core examples for our discussion and helped establish the fundamental continuities between otherwise widely diverging acts of critical thought.

One of the key elements of the movement from what to so what then? in our discussion was the importance of the analysis of assumptions (this is one of the features of critical thinking that you can find on the VALUE rubric for critical thinking)—in cultural semiotics, this analysis is called the evaluation of cultural mythologies.  Another point that a faculty member brought up was the importance of considering alternatives in thinking critically—in semiotics, this is referred to as the overdetermination inherent in semiotic analysis.

For my part, I stressed the importance of being very clear on the what (in semiotics, the denotation of the sign) before moving to the interpretativeso what then? (in semiotics, the connotation of the sign).  I also noted how the movement from what to so what then? required historical and situational contextualization (in semiotics, the construction of systems of association and difference.)

In other words, the semiotic model worked as a fundamental descriptor of what we are already doing when we are thinking critically.  This was even the case when a colleague who is a composition specialist noted that in rhetoric one is concerned with a who, not a what.  But when I pointed out that a who stands in the place of the what that a rhetorician must first identify before moving to a persuasive strategy, we were able to agree that whos are whats, too.

OK, I know that I’m starting to sound like Dr. Seuss.  The point is, my exercise worked.  The complete practical description of how to teach, and perform, critical thinking according to this model can be found in Signs of Life in the U.S.A. 

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.