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On beyond a critical stance

Paul Grobstein's picture
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.  I will meet you there ... Jelaluddin Rumi

Interesting concatenation of experiences this week: Obama's efforts to reconceive American political discourse ("Nothing that humans do will be perfect ... We shouldn't assume that the other side is either heartless or doesn't care"), a college faculty meeting about distribution requirements including a plea for people to stop attacking each other, a Chronicle of Higher Education article warning that the critical thinking movement in the humanities may actually contribute to "a cultural climate that has little tolerance for finding or making meaning," and a neurobiology class discussion on dualism and monism that served as a "a nice reminder of the tendency of all of us to justify one's own preferred story by attacking alternatives."

Is it appropriate and useful to acquire greater skill at being skeptical of the understandings of others?  Of course.  A disinclination to take things on authority is fundamental to not only science but sophisticated inquiry and growth of all kinds, individual and collective, academic and otherwise.  Recognizing that no one's understanding is perfect, and being able to say why it is not perfect in any given case, is an essential skill for anyone aspiring to participate fully in the ongoing development of their own lives and the lives of communities of which they are a part. 

Its not, though, a sufficient skill for that purpose.  One needs as well to learn to extend a skeptical perspective to one's own understandings, to be able to say why they too are imperfect in any give case.  And one needs to learn that imperfection, in others and in oneself, is not a grounds for dismissal.  We have only imperfection to work with.  To dismiss understandings, either those of other people or our own, because we can show them to be imperfect, is to limit the materials from which we can, individually and collectivity, achieve more useful understandings as yet unconceived.

The point of all this is that a critical posture is not an end in itself, and certainly not a weapon to be used against those with understandings different from one's own.  Skepticism is valuable in the service of moving beyond existing understandings, by whatever route they have been achieved, to understandings more satisfying than any of those that currently exist.  The ability to use what is available, both in oneself and in other people, to create new understandings and new meaning depends on a critical posture but requires, beyond that, an interesting blend of humility and ambition: a willingness to listen to both oneself and others and a belief that it is actually possible, individually and collectively, to create new understandings. 

I think its something like that that Rumi had in mind: a place where we talk and listen not to determine what is "right" and what is "wrong," nor because its important to be polite and respectful, but rather in order to create, for ourselves and others, ways to make sense of things that make more sense than anything we have yet thought of, to create and recreate meaning.  Its an interesting challenge, one that seems worth taking on for its promise in day to day life, in classrooms, and in social communities of all sizes, including not only national but international politics as well.   

My thanks to all my colleagues in the Evolving Systems project for conversations and experiences reflected in this set of thoughts.  Anne Dalke called my attention to the Chronicle article mentioned.  See also Wai Chee for a challenge to which this set of thoughts might be thought of as a response.       


alesnick's picture


"an interesting blend of humility and ambition" -- yes, interesting!  I wonder if at base is not the blend but something like hope of which humility and ambition are both manifestations: hope that one's work is meaningful, that one has a contribution to make, that one's own part in it all is real.