Critical thinking as personal liberation

‘Bird trap’ – Image courtesy of olovedog/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Dang Nguyen, RMIT University Vietnam alumna

Dang is currently working as a Research Officer in the Centre of Commerce and Management at the University. She is a former SLAM mentor and a nominee for this year’s RMIT University President’s Award which recognizes outstanding academic achievement, social responsibility and contribution to the University community.

One of my lecturers at RMIT Vietnam once told me to enjoy my time at university as much as I can, because “You guys are living in the very magical, most wonderful phase of your intellectual life – the beginning. I would trade anything to be in that state of being, to feel those feelings again. When you are an undergraduate you are in absolute awe of the critical things you learn, of the possibilities opened in front of you. You are surrounded by smart people. You will get to feel those things later of course, since learning is an ongoing process. But you will never quite have that same feeling of pure intellectual awakening for the first time again.”

It is very true what she said – intellectual awakening is awesome. But what exactly is it? I personally define it not as a moment of epiphany, of profound truth introduced or realized, but as the awareness and practice of critical thinking. Intellectual awakening does not happen out of a magical spell – as much as we like to think of ourselves as sleeping beauties awoken by Prince Charming and his tender kiss, in reality Prince Charming is highly unlikely to make it through all the noxious creatures of biases, laziness, stubbornness, and sometimes, fear of finally meeting the love of our lives.

Love does indeed hurt. Your ‘life after love’* can never be the same. Intellectual awakening is both exciting and intimidating, for you are no longer the same person you used to be. Engaging in critical thinking means inevitably experiencing disillusionment. Once you become aware of the cultural, economic, personal, disciplinary molds that shape and dictate each and every idea that exists on earth, you cannot help but question each and every piece of information you encounter. You become anxious of wearing blindfolds, so you keep your eyes wide open. You will inevitably be on a constant lookout for love once you know it’s somewhere out there. You’re afraid of missing out.

* “Believe” by Cher – a hit during the 1990s

It’s hard to locate when and where critical thinking and I were introduced – possibly on the first day at school during some pep talk given by a senior member of the university, saying that I need to prepare myself for critical thinking as it will be the factor separating good students from ok students, high school from university. Possibly even prior to that, when the marketing executives tried to explain to my mom and me how an international education is different on open day – that it would teach me to think critically and be independent, of course. Mr. Critical Thinking’s reputation surely precedes his cameo to first -year undergraduates all over RMIT Vietnam. I vaguely felt like this was going to be good – thinking always sounds cool – and as a lack of investment in teaching critical thinking in high school curriculum had always been accompanied by a strict […] to challenge authority (which, in my opinion, is within the definition of what makes a good student in Vietnamese culture), being able to perhaps discuss or debate ideas in a new environment seemed like a pretty empowering idea.

And just like that, I embarked on my undergraduate journey with a Mr. Critical Thinking beside me without defining who he is or what is he capable of in an official way. He is just there. I remember some courses requiring more critical thinking than others – the ones that were built around theories and concepts. I loved them all. One of my first critical thinking intensive courses was Modern Asia, where we discussed issues about modernity, globalization, imperialism, and Asian values. The best thing about courses like this is that there always are at least 2 conversations going on at the same time. The first conversation is that between me as the knowledge creator and the lecturer as the knowledge moderator.

This is made possible thanks to critical thinking. It was truly a liberating experience for me to be able to analyze information and synthesize it into a version of knowledge that feels right and is truly mine, as long as they make sense and can be adequately supported. Authorship of knowledge makes “standing on the shoulders of giants” suddenly become relevant and tangible. Being able to question information and challenge patterns of thinking empowers me as an individual. The second conversation is between me and everybody else in the class, namely my classmates and my lecturer, as cultural products. To me this is critical thinking at its best – critical thinking upon the self. I realize that differences in our backgrounds inform the different worldviews and opinions we have, and they in themselves are valuable information for another round of analysis, synthesis, and knowledge making. Exchanging conversations keeping in mind these things gain me insights into how thinking is formed and help me stay constructive as well as respectful.

Having lecturers who are experts in critical thinking as role models also made me understand that reasoning is a humbling process. Unlike general misconception, critical thinking really is not about finding faults and bringing down others – it is quite the opposite. Questioning whether there is such a concept as Asian values, for example, is not mere blasphemy. Rather, it is a thoughtful and serious inquiry into the philosophical, historical and cultural foundation that created a supposedly dividing line between “the East” and “the West”, reconciling opposing conceptual forces that can be reframed into (dis)similarities. This does not necessarily serve any political purpose – it can simply mean gaining new perspectives and transforming the conventions that have kept us locked down, unable to further the dialogue and having to reduce to taking sides, protecting egos.

In a very personal way, critical thinking has gained me a wonderful and unlikely relationship with someone living half the world away – Professor David J. Gunkel. Professor Gunkel is currently Presidential Teaching Professor in the Department of Education at Northern Illinois University where he teaches web design and programming, information and communication technology (ICT), and cyberculture. His amazing research and publications focus on examining the philosophical assumptions and ethical consequences of ICT (for more information about him, visit his website). I first read his work when I was taking a course called “Asian Cybercultures”, specifically in a week where we talked about the concept of the “digital divide” between the technology haves and have-nots. I felt like there were problems with how the concept was set up, did some research to see what others were talking about the topic, found Professor Gunkel’s “Second thoughts: toward a critique of the digital divide” essay, read it, got seriously awestruck, stayed up all night, then couldn’t help but write to him to express my absolute adoration. It is a common starting point for discussion when talking about the “digital divide” to look through all the statistics and reports of sort to determine the “reality” of the issue and start assessing the level of seriousness as well as crafting solutions to it. Professor Gunkel took an alternative way and redefine the digital divide conceptually by providing a critique to it. His idea of a critique is one that “does not target flaws and imperfection… not attempt to point our problems and difficulties… not aim to provide solutions. Instead, it examines the terminology, structure, and form that make articulation of the problem of the digital divide possible… trace their history and rationale, and project the direction of their future examination” (Gunkel 2003, pp. 500-501). The result of this critical inquiry was not a solution of any kind nor a list of the mistakes and flaws to be avoided, but an invitation for self-reflection on the preconditions that have shaped the concept itself. This self-reflection pinpoints the binary structure that has always been embedded in the idea of the digital divide, recognizing its status as an inevitable framework for thinking, yet constantly reminding us to be awake and aware of the consequences that are byproducts of that mode of thinking.

Being a recent graduate from RMIT Vietnam, I guess the first phase of my intellectual journey has passed me. Or at least that’s the narrative I like to construct to read meaning into my own thinking. One way or another, education is a process, not an endpoint. Keeping the thirst for knowledge alive not only means staying useful to the world, it also means catalyzing constant self-liberation. As Rosa Luxemberg puts it, “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently”. Though the statement’s extreme point of view is troubling, I very much agree with the spirit. I have come to be convinced that thinking differently is, although not impossible, no small task at all. Luckily, we always have critical thinking and its principles available to us. And it is a good place to start.

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7 responses to “Critical thinking as personal liberation”

  1. Mark Hershey says :

    Hi Dang. Great article. Your discussion of the awakening of your intellectual life reminded me of when I first took a literature course and encountered concepts I hadn’t considered before (like Nature vs. Nurture). It was definitely a thrilling moment. While we might not have such a Big Bang moment like that again, I think if one stays curious and questioning then the riches of the intellectual life can keep unfolding for us throughout our lives. However, as you point out, it’s not always Prince Charming. The Truth (or how we understand it) can hurt sometimes and not always make us very popular either (I liked that Prince Charming metaphor, btw). I also really like what you were saying about critical thinking as a form of self-reflection (among the other concepts that you delineated). I see it as an engagement with ideas; and any true critical thinking should give us pause to reconsider our own convictions. True, too, that many concepts aren’t binary, but flow along a spectrum. That makes perfect sense, as binary thinking implies stasis, that peoples and cultures are isolated units, when so much better evidence exists that life is ever in flux…..or should I reconsider that conviction? 🙂

    • Dang Nguyen says :

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your comment. I love the idea you put forward at the end – that trascending binaries is in itself an idea that should be subject to assessment and reflection. More often than not, transcending binaries means erasing and/or ignoring differences, which is no better than building your worldview around differences… Are binaries eventually inevitable? How should we handle how they dictate our thinking? These are really interesting areas that I wish to explore further in the future. Possibly another blog entry? 😉

      • Mark Hershey says :

        Hi Dang,
        Perhaps it would be interesting to explore the concepts of “a difference in degree” versus “a difference in kind.”; I suppose while many things take place on a spectrum rather than are binary (“goodness,” “greed,” ‘freedom,” etc.), an interesting question might be, “If the differences in degree are great enough are they actually realized as differences in kind?” …and to what extent….interestingly, every time I try to frame the question I end up back in the same dichotomy/spectrum/dichotomy that seems endlessly folding back into itself…it seems like a paradox I can’t quite work out, like a kind of op art painting.

  2. Cristina Nualart (@cnualart) says :

    Dear Dang, I loved reading this, even though I am very puzzled as to how anyone could visualise ‘critical thinking’ as a man (WHY????).

    Overall, however, I disagree. The epiphanies of ‘understanding’ keep coming. Maybe my memory is not that good anymore and I’ve forgotten the first experiences of being in awe of learning, but for me they keep happening. I think there are constant opportunities in life to experience those exciting feelings. My grandmother, well into her 80s, was telling me not that long ago how many stages there are in life, in which, she felt, our personal paradigms are completely transformed. Let’s look forward to old age!

  3. Tan says :

    Very well written.

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