Critically Thinking is Just Good for the Soul

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This weekend, I went to see The Revenant, and the entire time, I was transfixed on the camera angles, the transitions, the fog that incurred on the camera at Leo breathed. I loved the complicated social position Mr. Glass gained—agency in both the white and the Pawnee world, but not the Sioux world. I thought, while the scenery was majestic, the tone of the movie made it slightly eerie and painful. And, as I watched, I couldn’t help but appreciate how film was forever ruined for me by ENGL 5190 (Of course, the people who rode home in the car with me were probably annoyed with all my ranting about how brilliant the camera angles were and that scene where you go over a cliff and dangle on the tree for a long time and the brilliance of Leo’s creepy breathing).

I took ENGL 5190 as part of my graduate degree, and we spent the semester analyzing film. We looked at types of camera angles, types of transitions, eye-line matching, technological developments in film, shot construction, and how the differences in all of those choices communicate some kind of message and evokes some kind of feeling in the viewer. For example, one really painful scene for me to watch is when Tony kills Fred in The Sopranos, mostly because, since the shot is eye level, it’s a very intimate sort of death—something I don’t feel I should be part of. But, if I’m watching a movie in which, in the death scene, I’m looking down on my victim, I feel superior, and perhaps the death feels more “just”. And, there is no one standing up there, instructing me to FEEL THIS WAY. Instead, the visuals, the audio track, the panning and transitions evoke these emotions—and we all know that feelings speak louder, and last longer, than words. Because, when we tell stories, we can’t just say exactly what is going on—its more fun and interesting to make our reader, or viewer, work for those interpretations (and ultimately, investing in that “work” makes the time more meaningful and memorable). They say that the more connections and associations you can make with something, the more likely you are to remember it; this is why we encourage our students to annotate as they read. Whether or not they actually go back to those annotations post-reading is sometimes irrelevant, but it is the process OF writing and highlighting that creates the physical, spatial, visual, and auditory association that enhances memory, and therefore, makes the event more worthwhile to engage in.

In my classroom, we do more critical thinking and analysis than these kids probably ever desired. We analyze articles, novels, advertisements, documentaries, T.V. shows, movie clips. Superficially, we do this because the standards tell me I have to. Selfishly, we do this because it’s what I’m particularly good at (I scored in the 99th percentile on the writing analysis section on the GRE). I am cynical, I like finding holes in people’s arguments, and I’m really good at close reading. Strategically, we do it because these kids will soon be voting and I don’t want them tricked into passing scummy laws that I will then have to abide by.

But, we also learn to critically think because it makes our experiences of the world better. By learning how to critically think, to find deeper meanings, to read situations, our lives become more vivid, more engaging, more important, more fulfilling. Like, watching Tony kill Fred is painful, but there is also some kind of artistry in that pain. Hearing Leo’s labored breaths and seeing the camera fog up is uncomfortable, but there is also something very real about that uncomfortability. The isolation of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in The Imitation Game is harrowing, but it’s also enlightening.

Most of us live very mild lives. We work half-heartedly, we laugh flatly, we hold humdrum relationships. When we sit down to watch a movie, we might remember a few funny lines, the general plot, which big names played the major roles. But, we aren’t trained to watch the panning, and how the panning suggests the expansiveness of the open frontier. We won’t pay attention to how Ruby reaches over the table in Once Upon a Time, and we, too, as the viewer, are invited to view her as an object. We don’t notice how the same gender roles are perpetuated in shows, like Modern Family and Leave It to Beaver. So therefore, our experiences of watching those shows and movies is mild as well.

As a writer, a teacher, and an English major, I’m trained how to interpret the smallest details cause the most meaningful shifts. The slight mention of the red streak on her dress foreshadows her toying with danger, and the seemingly unimportant spots on that horse allows me to track its path through the tribes. The quick tilt of the camera signals impending doom, and the drawn out transitions induces more anxiety. And, paying attention to these small nuances and details can only also enhance how I read my own life. Since T.V. and literature tracks and records human existence, watching and reading trains me how to interpret my own sense of reality. My life is no different than anyone else’s. I watch the same movies, go to the same theaters as everyone else. I see the same landscape patterns as everyone else. The people I interact with are no different, the food I eat no more meaningful, the yoga classes I attend no hotter than what anyone else is subject to.

What makes my life different is that way in which I read it. The fine details make the most interesting revelations. So, while that New Years’ event was just another New Years’ event, based on my literary training, the way in which it revealed my distaste for lackluster lifestyles will forever make it a memory, and a story to tell. Or, eating that fondue was just another meal to satisfy my human needs, the moment of realization of how food can also be a form of entertainment will always be meaningful. While that movie was just another movie, the fear it awakened in me will allow me to revisit each of those screen shots and transitions. While that Facebook ad might just appear as an ad I skim over, the fact that I’ve encountered the Facebook ad, the conversation, and meeting that Dutch person makes me wonder if a trip to my homeland, The Netherlands, is in store. My life can only be enhanced by the ability to think deeply, to analyze, to evaluate, and to read meaning into situations.

So, if I come back to the original question: why must we teach students to critically think? Yes, it’s because that’s what they decided happens in an “English classroom”, and yes, it’s what I’m trained to do, and yes, it’s because I want them to make informed decisions, but it’s also because I want my students to experience the world just as vividly as I do. We only have one life to live, so why not suck as much sense out of it as possible?

Learning how to critically think is just good for the soul.

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