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Critical Thinking’s Image Problem… and How to Fix It

While it’s difficult, though by no means impossible, to find educators nowadays who don’t want to enhance critical thinking skills, foster critical literacy, and generally build critical habits of mind in students, there’s a big reason why many kids will resist such efforts that’s rarely discussed: no one really likes critics much.

And that may be putting things lightly.

Yes, we know that critical thinking is necessary not just for deeper, more rewarding engagement with texts, but for education’s social-minded goals such as civic participation. The problem is that this isn’t the context in which students are apt to encounter the term critical and its semantic relatives, nor is it one which mirrors its everyday use in our culture. Such instances would look more like these:

Why are you being so critical?

(critical = invariably negative, often emotional, even borderline personal)

If you’re going to criticize anything, make sure you provide constructive criticism.

(criticism = destructive unless one takes pains to make it not only positive, but helpful—an approach that might work in peer revision but not in, say, true literary criticism*)

And let’s not forget the anti-intellectual stereotype of “the critic” as a failed artist powered by pomposity and the mechanical ticks of a coldly analytical heart.

Still, to be perfectly frank, critics and those that publish them often contribute to this unfortunate perception through the overvaluing of opinion and recommendation above everything else.

After all, just ask students what the basic role of a critic is, and you’re likely to hear that it’s to advise audiences as to whether they should embrace, or shun, a particular media product. For example, is that new issue really worth a trip to the comic store? Is that TV episode really worth recording? And are hardbound books and 3D movies really worth all the cash that we must shell out for them?

Aggregation sites such as Rotten Tomatoes further cement the apparent consumer-advisory function of criticism by assigning a reductive, homogenized score to a film that, for many moviegoers, obviates the need to read even a single review.

Yes, producing well-structured argumentation based upon close readings as well as critical writing that cites text evidence in support of a particular evaluation are valuable skills. They should not be dismissed from curriculum. But do students really need to wait until the upper secondary levels, or in some cases college, to discover that much, if not most, enduring criticism is not a form of Consumer Reports for a prospective buyer? In short, can we please share examples of criticism with elementary students that are intended to be read/heard by an audience that has already experienced the media product in question? It’s in such cases that the ultimate value of criticism has a chance of being realized: not simply to persuade us about the merits or flaws of a specific text in isolation but rather to increase our understanding and appreciation of its medium or art form overall.

With this in mind, then, I propose a brief critic’s “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” to share with students who are undertaking criticism beyond the garden variety “review.”

  • You’re allowed not to have an opinion about everything. (Be prepared, however, to articulate why the jury is still out on certain matters, to explain why you’re not yet comfortable judging particular aspects of a work.)
  • You’re allowed to change your opinions down the road. (But make sure to revise or augment your original critical text: think of your critical work in terms of a portfolio that can trace the evolution of your thoughts/insights on different issues/artists.)
  • You can acknowledge that certain aspects of a text work better for different types of audiences—that is, admit that you’re not a fan of a particular genre or creator, and/or are not sure what the basic appeal is for others. (If you’re not the target audience, though, you may want to explain why you’re responding to a given work and clarify any predispositions or biases that may color your criticism.)
  • You do not have to tell readers or listeners whether a particular media text is worth their time/money/energy. (Remember, though, that if you’re speaking to an audience that, like you, is already familiar with the work, you still need to add value via your insights and observations.)

Okay, so what do you think of all this? And remember, be nice… I’m really looking for some constructive criticism here.


*i.e., Shakespeare kicked off quite a while ago, and probably didn’t need your writing tips anyway.


About Peter Gutierrez