Critical Thinking and First Century Palestine


Count me in as one of the skeptics when it comes to critical thinking. Notification of conferences on this topic seem to come about as often as Pottery Barn catalogs and most definitions of critical thinking seem vague and nonoperational.  Despite this few educators would argue against the idea that critical thinking is central to education. 

I was thinking about these conflicting thoughts (suffering from some cognitive dissonance)  as I was reading Reza Aslan's Zealot and Colm Toibin's Testament of Mary two books that present very different descriptions of the same historical time period -   first century Palestine. Though both accounts were gripping, it was not really the subject matter that I found most provocative. Rather it was the vastly different literary perspectives the authors took to write their stories.   Aslan's Zealot re-creates an ethnography of the first century from historical sources. He intentionally ignores the biblical and apostle accounts as evangelical stories and looks to primarily historic accounts to synthesize his narrative.  Colm Toibin creates a fictional narrative of Mary's perspective of her son's execution.  He re-imagines her perspective from an understanding of both myths and history and his literary artistic ability (he is an incredible writer)  to paint a humanistic picture of what Mary 'must' have been thinking and feeling. 

The sequential reading of these books made me think about the space between author and reader and the task authors take on to bring the reader into their story.  In the non-fictional account, Aslan set out to convince the reader that his historic description is a fair interpretation of reliable sources.  My critical reading of Zealot, therefore, required me to consider Aslan's story through his sources. Aslan engaged me through a gripping detailed description of the extreme social inequality and physical brutality of the era. Toibin's fictional account required no citations (and he had none). He required me to empathize with Mary and her heartbreaking story of a mother's loss. His tools as a fiction writer were metaphor and analogy and his task to engage my feelings. 

Both Aslan and Toibin present stories the success of which depend upon filling the space between the author and the reader. The historical space they attempt to fill is the same. Their goals are very different.  Aslan's is an ethnography of a society while Toibin's is the story of a person.  So despite the fact that they present their understanding of first century Palestine, they literarily fill the space between author and reader in very different ways.  Readers are asked to critically read their stories in different modes and to learn about first century Palestine in very different ways. 

I think it is helpful to consider this space between author and reader as analogous to that between teacher and student.  Our success as educators depends on our ability to create provocative spaces for students to critically fill-in.  We try to do this by forming well articulated questions that require students to creatively formulate answers. We can create these spaces and present these questions in many different ways, such as discussion prompts, lab exercises, projects, and even exams. The goal is to provoke students to think in ways that inspire them to interpret and synthesize information to fill the learning space we have presented. Their syntheses we hope will turn into their own knowledge.

Here is another way to think about this.   As educators we tell stories to teach students how to critically connect what we know and what we want them to know.   These stories come in different forms depending upon the learning environment and content of the class. Sometimes our stories are in the form of arguments, where we may ask questions about a particular subject that require students to answer.  We  ask them  to answer these questions through a variety of pedagogies in classrooms, labs, studios, projects and seminar discussions. The space between the stories we present, and the arguments we ask the students to consider are analogous to the space between author and reader. Just as a successful story requires a critically engaged reader, so to a successful classroom requires a critically engaged student. 

Good writing engages a  reader to critically read. Good teaching engages a student to critically learn.  When educators provide a well articulated argument  (be it an historical account or a description of a biological process) students engage because they understand why they are being asked to think about it.  The responsibility to think critically and 'learn' then becomes theirs (just as a book becomes a reader's). 

Critical thinking then can be thought of as the process that allows students to  bridge the gap between a teacher's question and a student's answer.  This space between teacher and student represents potential learning.  If a writer is successful in creating a well-formed and well-informed story, readers will read their book (or essay or poem). Going back to my two examples, Aslan filled the space through the synthesis of historical sources.  Toibin filled this learning space with a literary picture (a painting made of words)  of a mother's  intimate feelings for her son. Both books inspire learning.

This literary analogy, I think, can help  educators consider teaching and learning as  mutual and creative processes and critical thinking as the link that connects them. Our tasks as educators is to inspire students to cross the learning spaces we create so that they can enhance their critical thinking skills and begin to learn on their own.