There are four pages here to help you think about writing. The first is about critical thinking, which really is part of writing!
I’m always looking for ways to help my students write better. It’s one of the principal abilities we want our students to learn in the humanities, but I have selfish motivations, too—the better my students are at writing, the easier it is for me to grade. So I want to explain what it is that I’m looking for in college writing, some of the things I’m really hoping you don’t do in your writing, and how you might develop some of the habits and practices of critical thinking that also make for good writing.
Let’s begin with this last point about critical thinking. “Critical thinking” is a phrase that you’ll often hear used in a relatively vague way in an academic context, but it actually refers to a handful of very simple ideas. As a reader of, say, an editorial in a newspaper, you demonstrate that you have done “critical thinking” in the following three ways:
1. you can re-state the argument of what you have read
2. you can assess its positive and negative qualities
3. you can explain why the argument matters, not just to you, but universally
None of these things—including the apparently simple re-stating of the argument—is simple or easy. To properly re-state a complex argument means to capture both its essence in a simple and short phrase, but also to give a sense of nuance and complexity to it. We should note that all three of these abilities (re-statement of the argument, assessment of its positive and negative qualities, and a sense of consequence) all characterize good writing and thinking in general. In other words, a good editorial, a well-written article, or a convincing book does the same three things. It:
1. clearly makes an argument
2. is aware of its own strengths and weaknesses
3. explains why the argument matters, not just to the author, but universally
I find everything much clearer when I have an example. Let me offer a one-sentence re-statement of an argument developed in a very long (and excellent) book, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel:
Diamond’s book argues that in the many conflicts between peoples in human history, the winner has been determined not by cultural or genetic superiority, but rather by the advantages offered by geography: Europeans “won” because they happened to have the best climate, the best animals, and the best crops, which in turn led to the best technologies and the most powerful diseases of the book’s title.
A long sentence to just re-state an argument, but that’s because the argument is complex—you have to explain what “geography” means in Diamond, for example, and ultimately, you’d have to give some examples from the book to show how the argument works (wheat, for example, is the quintessential European grain, and is higher in protein and nutrients than American corn or Asian rice). I haven’t talked about the strengths and weaknesses of Diamond’s argument, but I have already given a sense why it matters: it explains why some peoples won and others lost in human history without invoking any notions of racial superiority. The Europeans beat the Native Americans because they had guns, germs and steel—but they had guns, germs and steel not because they were smarter, tougher or more industrious, but because they came from the part of the world whose natural resources made such inventions possible.
Let me give an example of a failure of critical thinking (note, however, that it still might be persuasive):
The theory of evolution should not be taught in our public schools—at least not exclusively—for a number of reasons. First of all, as scientists publicly admit, it is only a theory. Secondly, it does not explain some of the most important issues in biology, such as the origin of life. Finally, the proponents of evolutionary theory do not agree about fundamental features of the theory (such as Stephen Jay Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium”).
Such a paragraph makes a clear argument, and suggests at least implicitly why the argument matters: evolution is being taught in our public schools. Where it fails, of course, is that it does not have a good sense of the strengths and weaknesses of what it is describing. It offers only weaknesses, and each of those will prove to be highly problematic on closer examination (the word “theory” has a very exact meaning in scientific circles, one very different from the everyday sense of “a vague idea without much evidence”; the theory of evolution is not supposed to explain the origin of life, but rather the origin of species; it mis-characterizes a relatively minor dispute about the pace of evolution as a “fundamental disagreement”).
Notice that critical thinking is different from you may have learned about writing in high school or on a debate team: critical thinking aims to figure out what the truth is, and then to persuade people of that truth. You do not simply take a position and promote it. It requires that you—as objectively and honestly as possible—weigh the merits and weaknesses of the argument and the evidence.
Like any other skill, it requires practice. We are surrounded every day by important issues: should we have universal health care, or can a free market manage things better? Should we outlaw genetic experimentation on humans or proceed in the hopes of miraculous cures? Are you ethically obliged to be a vegetarian, or can one eat meat with a clear conscience? These are issues that smart people can and do disagree about, and have good arguments on opposite sides. That tells me that even though I have an instinctive attraction toward one position, I haven’t really thought about it until I have understood what makes the other argument smart. So read and appreciate the positions you disagree with. Merely looking for confirmation of what you already believe is the opposite of critical thought; it is, in fact, a form of ignorance.
Ready to move on, and read about interpretation? Let's go to page 2.