The Three Pillars of Improving Critical Thinking
I wanted to begin this article by quoting a verse from the Qur’an that speaks on the importance of thinking, but I decided not to do so. I thought it might seem ironic to start an article about critical thinking with a religious quote. When I took a step back and saw the process of deciding whether I should start with a quote, it dawned on me that I was deeply involved in critical thinking. To elaborate more on what defines critical thinking to most academics, I would say that critical thinking has a deeper, more skeptical approach to the presented ideas. It concentrates more on the why’s, the how’s, and the but’s, with great emphasis on the originality and the bravery of the thinker. With what I hope is an accurate understanding of critical thinking, I believe that developing critical thinking skills heavily depends on mastering liberal arts, reading history’s most influential books, and building up a confident and courageous character.
Firstly, liberal arts have nothing to do with any current political orientations. It comes from the Latin: artes liberals, which refers to subjects or skills that are considered essential for a free person. Subjects such as literature, languages, philosophy, social studies, mathematics, and many others are the main focus of a liberal arts education. The relation between these subjects and critical thinking lies in the concept of liberating oneself. Thinking, in philosophical abstract texts, is always described as a “liberating action”, which means it aims to free oneself from the slavery of ignorance and oppression. Thus, to think critically, you ought to have the tools to break your mind chains’ by learning liberal arts. In her famous essay The Lost Tools of Learning, Dorothy Sayers argued that abandoning liberal arts based education is the primary reason behind impotent language, logical fallacies, and an arrogant attitude toward knowledge and art in modern times. Moreover, she brilliantly demonstrated how liberal arts are essential to form a critical mentality that can “encounter and deal with the formidable mass of undigested problems presented to it by the modern world. “ In addition to agreeing with her, I also find myself as living evidence to her hypothesis. Through many encounters I have found new meanings and ideas from texts I always thought that I had entirely absorbed and analyzed, due to their previous knowledge of history or grammar.
Secondly, in order to develop your critical thinking skills you need to constantly exercise your mind by reading well-thought out texts. Books that feature many complex meanings in abstract short statements, like Aristotle’s or Machiavelli’s works, are perfect for practicing what is beyond printed letters. Constantly reading essayists and poets like Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, and Maya Angelou will help craft the mentality of one to be more vivid and insightful. The Great Books of the Western World is a great set of books to help you following this approach. As the title reveals, this set of books are the great production of Western ideas and philosophies that shaped the world as we see it today. These books have the depth and the subtle demonstration of how ideas are formed and connected. In addition to that, it gives the reader first-hand contact with the ideas from its original source and mostly with the same form that these ideas were expressed originally.
Lastly, developing critical thinking skills builds up a confident and courageous character. This character does not fear to doubt, to inspect, and argue against all ideas, specially what it had been taught and believed. Mohammed al-Ghazali, a great Islamic scholar, stated: “Opinions are like water. It never goes from down to up!” Thus, critical thinking needs a confident personality that believes that his or her opinions are worthy of being heard, and their doubts are worthy of being addressed. A personality that challenges the authority of the author, and dares to ask and argue fiercely. Many people who believe that they do not have the ability to think critically are a result of an environment that debilitated their self-confidence. Therefore, focusing on building self-confidence can advance the critical thinking skills because without intention and motivation, critical thinking cannot be initiated in the first place.
Knowledge and thinking are a lifelong journey. Only fools claim they have mastered “The Art of Thinking”. Knowledge, as life, is an ocean without a shore. And what every great thinker preached was to have the tools to detect good from evil and truth from lies. To have a compass to guide you when you are lost, and that is what critical thinking is all about.