In Praise of Critical Reflection

            I read a number of columnists on a regular basis and find few as dependably thoughtful as David Brooks, who writes a twice-weekly commentary on American politics for the New York Times. While I disagree as often as I agree with his arguments, I admire his work because he is consistently curious and, while he has clear beliefs, he is always interested in deepening his understanding of the human condition, and thereby his insights into democratic politics, even when these may contravene his pre-dispositions. One might criticize a share of the forays into psychology and biology and the like on which he occasionally embarks, but they nonetheless reveal a lively and self-consciously critical intelligence at work. I find that openness and passion for deepening one’s knowledge commendable.

            This comes to mind as I have been reflecting this past week on an interview in which I was asked to articulate what I most wished for students to attain in their graduate educational experiences. I responded that what they most require, at least that formal curricula can provide them, is a critical and reflexive habit of mind. The same might be said for would-be leaders, or for that matter, for undergraduates as well. This is so because a reflexive acuity implies the development not only of high-level reasoning skills and a critical self-awareness, but also and more importantly perhaps, of an intellectual suppleness and receptivity to learning. It also implies a habitual self-conscious testing of assumptions and recasting of claims that is essential to continued personal mental vitality and self-knowledge and development.

            As Brooks might observe, however, the challenges implicit in developing such an orientation are hardly trivial. Indeed, I wonder, without pretending to capture all of their complexity, if those obstacles might include at least three critical elements. First, to refine these reflective capabilities, individuals must not only develop their pre-requisites, but in so doing resist strong cultural pressures, which tend to denigrate their significance. Americans are a deeply practical people and those perceived to be spending too much time with analytical abstractions or engaged in critical self-reflection may find themselves dismissed as “not living in the real world” or as involved in non-essential “navel gazing.” To persevere to develop these necessary attributes and capabilities in the face of such claims requires a measure of self-confidence and an encouraging professoriate (and likely, family and friends) as well.

            Developing high order reasoning and capacity for self-reflection also appears to require that individuals be willing to integrate critical insights into their thinking on an ongoing basis. Likewise and relatedly, it demands that when such knowledge challenges one’s assumptions, whether ontological, epistemic or less elemental, individuals be willing to address those concerns in a disciplined way, rather than dismiss them out of hand, because, often, they are innately threatening.

            Finally, and also to a degree counter-cultural in both academic and social terms, to acquire self-knowledge and analytical wherewithal to continue to deepen and act on such learning requires that individuals be equipped to test persistently the boundaries of their own intellectual and values assumptions and to recast those as perceived necessary against a self-formulated set of criteria. Academic preparation often ill equips students with these capacities, opting instead to define and demand adherence to narrowly categorized and understood disciplinary borders in lieu of providing individuals with the ability to examine, transcend or refine those.

            Similarly, the nation’s broader culture is increasingly disposed to value only the most instrumental forms of learning that may be applied quickly to issues ready to hand. This orientation results in rigidities and parochialism to which, in their own fashion, academic specializations too often lead as well. Ironically, the only way of which I am aware to mitigate these twin forces is to ensure that students read widely and deeply and explore those readings vigorously, not only for what they may yield for specific instrumental purposes, but also for insights into the human condition and for assisting students in contextualizing their lives. Even articulating this aspiration underscores the difficulties these modern forces represent and how important it is that educators continue to provide students with opportunities to develop the necessary capacities for personal and professional success. I note this imperative while realizing that there is profound and continuing political and social pressure on teachers at all levels to do otherwise. Nonetheless, our nation’s hopes for self-governance demand citizens so equipped and those who now populate our graduate schools represent our country’s vanguard leaders. One small step to securing their preservation, perhaps, is to recognize the vital significance of ensuring critically reflective capacities in our society’s next leaders.