Critical Thinking: Where I’m Coming From

[This is the fifth blog entry in a series on critical thinking which lays out ten guidelines for critical thought. My previous entries addressed the first rule of critical thought, “Think Systemically.” That rule holds that we can’t really remove our culture’s blinders unless (without prejudice) we’re clear about the meaning of the key systemic terms: capitalism, Marxism, socialism, communism, mixed economy, and fascism. Today’s blog post begins explaining my second rule for critical thought, “Expect Challenge: Questioning the ‘Ruling Group Mind’” I open the topic with an autobiographical explanation of why I approach critical thought the way I do.]

Let me tell you where I’m coming from when it comes to critical thinking.

I am a field researcher whose travels have been inspired by concerns about Peace and Justice Studies – a program which I helped found and direct at Berea College in Kentucky. My research “digs” began in Rome where many years ago I spent half a decade doing graduate work, and where I first encountered Third World colleagues who raised deep questions about my own perceptions of reality.

Subsequently, my pursuit of intellectual archeology took me all over Europe – most notably to Soviet Poland – and then to Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Zimbabwe, India, Palestine-Israel, and Cuba. Over the years, I’ve taught as well in a Latin American Studies Program in Costa Rica, where I’ve also worked with a think tank, the Ecumenical Research Institute (DEI), in San Jose.

In all those places I’ve found that developing world thinkers are far ahead of would-be progressives in the United States. Third World scholars know all about colonialism, neo-colonialism, the CIA and its coups, as well as its support of dictators and right-wing counter revolutions around the world.

In the Third World, university students also know about the IMF and its disastrous Structural Adjustment Policies – terms which often raise nothing more than quizzical looks from U.S. audiences. So there’s no need in most Third World settings to argue about the pros and cons of corporate globalization and its effects on the world’s majority. For them the argument was long ago settled.

None of that is true in the United States. Here higher education largely ignores the Third World, where most people live. Most college classes overlook its rich traditions, indigenous scholarship, and progressive thinking. (I even once had a well-meaning colleague respond to similar observations on my part by admitting, “I didn’t know there were any Third World scholars.”) In the United States, the so-called “developing world” is seen as a center of self-induced misery, population problems, food-shortages, and inexplicable revolutions and genocides. Alternatively, the Third World is seen as the undeserving recipient of largesse on the part of the United States understood as the Santa Claus of the world

In the light of history and political realism, I’ve concluded that clearing up such misunderstandings should be Job #1 for post-secondary educators concerned with critical thinking. Doing so entails questioning the unquestionable and broadening students’ horizons to embrace what most thinkers in the Third World recognize as simply given.

To begin with, critical thinking must question the “of course” convictions that belong to American culture – to any culture. As noted earlier, Plato referred to such unquestioned beliefs with the Greek word, doxa. Its power is conveyed by his familiar “Allegory of the Cave.” There the human condition is portrayed in terms of prisoners chained in a cavern where their only experience of reality (including themselves) is conveyed by shadows produced by their manipulative captors.

Plato’s allegory finds its counterpart in American culture, including the prevailing system of education. Typically what happens in the classroom predisposes students to accept what John McMurtry of the University of Guelph (in Canada) calls “Ruling Group Mind” which is largely set by the parameters of generally admissible political opinion. Within such confines, the United States is seen as the best country in the world. Its overriding concern is with democracy, peace, justice and human rights. Its wars are fought in the interests of peace. God is on its side. “Of course!” we all agree.

Such naiveté is revealed in the second episode of the HBO series, “Newsroom.” Its highlight had lead actor, Jeff Daniels, delivering a speech about our country that has been viewed widely on the web. As a news anchorman of the stature and credibility of Walter Cronkite, Daniels’ character is badgered into answering a question posed by a bright American college student: “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” Here’s how he answered.

Daniels’ answer captures the realism of what I consider a major goal of critical thinking.

(Next week: Unveiling the uniquely narrow U.S. spectrum of debate)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

11 thoughts on “Critical Thinking: Where I’m Coming From”

  1. Great stuff Mike
    Will contact you from Ireland re your blog….now on route.
    They know all about IMF in Ireland.


  2. You’re correct, Mike. Most U.S. residents–and I include myself–know next to nothing about Third World scholarship in any area: economics, poly sci, theology, history, women’s studies or anthropology, to name just a few. We cannot think critically or debate honestly about these issues unless this fog of ignorance is lifted. That said, I am distressed by what I have long perceived to be a sense of smug superiority and unquestioned self-righteousness among the Left. Lord knows, the extreme Right has its own serious issues. What troubles me is that those on the Left act as if they are the Enlightened ones carrying the true message to a bunch of ignorant Yahoos. I would love to see a lot more humility and tolerance on among all parties to this debate. No one has all the answers. The best of us on both sides of the discussion are honestly seeking the truth. And I think THAT is an important component of critical thinking as this search for solutions goes forward.


    1. Sorry if that came across as smug, Bill. What I’ve tried to do however is to honor the viewpoints of those who have a wider perspective than we do in the United States. (See next week’s posting on critical thinking.) People in the Third World cannot avoid knowing about the effects of U.S. policy in their countries. We on the other hand have the luxury of remaining (as you say) largely ignorant of basic elements such as historical fact, structural adjustment, the IMF and the negative impacts of “free trade.” As I see it, the simple fact is that people on the wrong end of “American” policy do know more than we do, since they must deal with “us” on a daily basis. They should therefore be attended to accordingly.


      1. I didn’t mean to imply that you were being smug, Mike. I was merely making the point that we’re all in danger of being too quick to claim the moral high ground.


  3. I think the clip with jeff Daniels starts off strong enough but around the 3:38 mark it begins to descend into a romanticized mythology about America. A better clip I think would have been the George Carlin clip on “The illusion of choice” that pops up on screen after the Jeff Daniel clip ends. Or so it seems to me.
    The “illusion of choice” is what allows even seemingly intelligent people vote for and put signs supporting Ben Chandler in their from yards..


    1. Right on, David! I also felt comfortable with that last segment of the Daniel’s clip. George Carlin was more relevant, especially since he used the term “critical thinking.” I feared though that his language might prevent some from hearing his truth. I consider him one of our great modern prophets.


      1. I assuming you meant that you also felt uncomfortable, not “comfortable,” with that last segment of the Daniel’s clip.
        After the 3:38 mark, the clip turned into a scene right out of Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” i.e., sentimentalized idealism.


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