Mythology and Humanities in the Ancient World
Delahoyde & Hughes
CRITICAL THINKING ABOUT THE HUMANITIES
Washington State University is currently taking an impressive lead in finding and fine-tuning ways to improve critical thinking skills. The WSU Critical Thinking Rubric provides a vocabulary for identifying many of the elusive features that teachers seek in their students' work and classroom contributions.
The developers of this rubric emphasize the flexibility of it as a tool and encourage teachers to adapt it freely -- liberally, as it were -- to suit their own courses and/or assignments. We think it logical for humanities teachers to consider carefully the rubric's seven components, or subsets thereof, in terms of sequencing.
1) Identifying and summarizing the problem/question at issue (and/or the source's position).
This does seem basic, which is not saying that it's a cinch. Students, even teachers, are apt to approach ancient works as if there are no ongoing debates about living issues embedded in the texts and material. A student's "report" on the Greek gods in the pantheon does not reach even this first rung of critical thinking. Wrangling with the notion of the interventions of particular anthropomorphic gods in the Iliad lends itself better to being cast as a problem or question.
2) Identifying and presenting the student's own perspective and position as it is important to the analysis of the issue.
Teachers in many disciplines who have adapted the entire rubric, as a sequence, to their courses have relocated this step to a place much later in the schematic. In certain assignments, and if one reductively translates "perspective" as "opinion," this component may not even be relevant. But in the humanities, we are often at pains to explain to students that somewhere between the dry, probably pointless reporting of factoids and an editorial spewing of their "opinions" comes what we really seek -- their "perspective" -- that is, a well-articulated indication that they have brought some sophisticated worldview of their own to the subject, or that the subject has contributed somehow to the development of that worldview. We have read, for example, many term papers that are impressively researched, superbly organized, excellently written, and utterly pointless. They fall dead because the conclusion merely concludes and readers are left asking "so what?" Indeed, even within the wording of this component of the rubric, one might take issue with the blurring of the terms "perspective" and "position." Someone with a ferocious "position" on an issue may desperately need some "perspective"! So, consider the terms you want to emphasize and consider relocating this component of the rubric before or after what is listed as #6: context.
3) Identifies and considers OTHER salient perspectives and positions that are important to the analysis of the issue.
If there is no awareness that multiple angles or possibilities are inherent in the subject, then it's likely that the student isn't conceptualizing the subject as a problem or question to begin with.
Identifying and considering other perspectives and positions means more than the usual academic procedure; that is, the student reads secondary sources or even engages in primary research and applies this information to the topic / problem / question in meaningful ways, which includes generating an argumentative or expository text with a thesis. However, identifying and considering the perspectives of the "Other" has its own set of difficulties and levels of comprehension and interpretation and may be more of a bottleneck than current research statistics indicate. As a vital component of what we do in the humanities, teachers need to clarify the ways this section of the rubric encourages "critical thinking" beyond the standard procedures of secondary and primary research. Considering other perspective must include the process of consciousness or even soul-making that might rightfully be part of what we call the mental discipline of de-centering. This may sound entirely non-profit liberal, but the application can be worked out in specific pedagogical performances in the classroom.
In this context, Critical Thinking begins with fostering a willingness to consider seeing the world from another foreign or otherwise remote perspective, especially difficult at times given the way we depend on our facts and figures, the virtuosi of our knowledge, memory, authority, and arrogance. This area nevertheless necessarily includes an affinity for suspending what we know in order to imagine (with a degree of verisimilitude) what is quite literally and physically beyond our experience, culture, ethnicity, religion, gender, and so on.
The pedagogical problem begins with a distinct treatise: we can only know what we have experienced. A racist male is not going to denounce his racism by merely researching the history of oppression in America or by reading Richard Wright's Native Son. Obviously educators hope that this person would indeed become less inclined toward racism by doing the above, but getting students to walk a mile in another person's shoes creates a complexity of puzzles and often requires a teaching miracle. For instance, when considering foreign perspectives are we not almost immediately immersed in a kind of cultural or otherwise voyeurism? Or worse yet hamstrung by our own ideological hierarchies which undermine or counter our attempts to achieve genuine empathy and therefore representation of the other? And in some or most cases, isn't gathering other perspectives (in an academic context) about pointing out where these "other perspectives" are wrong or askew? Certainly we also face the very syntax of the English language itself where the subject of the sentence always does something to the predicate. The tantalizing and stereotypical verbs within the sentence diagram often breed acquisition and assault, sometimes with sudden and surprising violence. We need real salience of interpretation. The central accomplishment is to overcome the tendency to lampoon, vivify, or praise the author's perspective strictly from the canvas of our own dramatic self-portrait.
This category of the rubric invites precarious ladder-climbing in the classroom. We can feel the ladder sway and the boughs bend. For instance, some female students will read the Iliad in a different way that some male students. As teachesr, we can try to underscore differences based on gender (at least in the ancient world) through text selection by asking students to also read The Trojan Women by Euripides, which adds to the Homeric drama and certainly identifies and considers other perspectives. The agenda here however is not to generate feminine / masculine polarities or emphasize a point of view that sees women as the grass that gets trampled when the elephants fight. Or to convey that the narratives of the ancient world characterize women as the trophies or spoils of war, vital to the male heroic code. We desire something more; identifying other perspectives is easy; considering other perspectives is more complex. Remember that we are speaking only of one verse of the rubric here, a part that acts in symbiotic relationship with the rubric as a whole and involves a redemptive vision that shifts the inevitable to the creative. As educators we must ask students to explore the incongruous terrain beyond polarities. Identifying and considering other perspectives requires an unprocessed even exotic medium to give it meaning and stimulate the mind's own processes. And whether we seek or shun foreign perspectives, conceit in all its forms is damn near inescapable. At least this awareness alone should shape our capacity for rearranging the way we teach in the humanities.
4) Identifies and assesses the key assumptions.
This means that the student is perceiving the subject somewhat three-dimensionally, or at least reading between the lines. Questioning the assumption that the Greek audience of the Iliad would in all cases have understood the intervening gods as literal characters is a good sign of the critical thinking process. The notion of ethics is curiously included within the rubric wording about assumptions. Are some disciplines or topics void of ethical assumptions? Are Newton's Laws up for ethical analysis? We begin by identifying methods of inquiry appropriate, in particular, to a specific discipline in order to achieve pedagogical goals.
In the humanities, we proceed slowly for we suspect that even gravity and its laws will wax ethical at some point in the history and future of the human endeavor. Our fundamental approach to assumptions involves equality or rather thinking critically about how assumptions may perpetuate inequality. We all participate in what Alexis de Tocqueville called the Equality of Condition, regardless of our discipline. In this case, critical thinking is a social force.
5) Identifies and assesses the quality of supporting data/evidence and provides additional data/evidence related to the issue.
The distinction here is between merely regurgitating others' work or reporting from research and truly incorporating the valuable findings.
6) Identifies and considers the influence of the context on the issue.
An appendix to the Critical Thinking Rubric lists possible contexts (cultural, political, ethical, etc.) for consideration. That we still think in terms of ephemeral forces taking over ("Something told me I should go in there"; "The paper suddenly seemed to write itself!") might serve as a context for the issue of anthropomorphic gods intervening at the right times in the Iliad.
7) Identifies and assesses conclusions, implications and consequences.
The rubric's developers admit that it contains a bias towards teachers of writing. This item is difficult to envision outside of some form of writing, where students ideally have moved beyond concluding with simply a reassertion of the thesis, or a limp summary of the preceding discussion. Here too readers are asking, "So what?" and the best signs of critical thinking are those indications that the student has activated the subject by showing its importance.
Not every assignment, nor even every class, needs to demand that students succeed in demonstrating all the above skills. Rather, the Critical Thinking Rubric is designed to lend individual teachers some framework and/or some language with which to formulate their assignments and classes, and to help them pinpoint some ways to evaluate not student writing strictly, but student thinking.
Texts and materials in the Humanities exist not to be "appreciated" reverentially, but rather to encourage critical thinking themselves. We think Homer, Thucydides, Socrates, Euripides, Ovid, and the rest of the gang would agree.