In all of my time teaching the GRE Test and other university courses, I have been searching for one thing: an interesting, challenging thought from a student. In that pursuit, I have even deliberately stated incorrect stuff to see if anyone would correct me. Sadly, I have not had any such experiences; rather students have just absorbed my statements as gospel, accepting all I say just because I am the “teacher” in that setting.
To me, the reason for the lack of original and provoking thoughts is simple: nobody feels the need to think. And that is a major problem when it comes to preparing for the GRE Test.
The GRE tests list “critical thinking” as one of the fundamentals it tests. But wait… How does one learn critical thinking? How would YOU learn critical thinking? Take a moment and think about it.
Did you think of Googling it? That would be the natural thing to do. But when you actually do that (and I hope you just did), you get to learn a lot about critical thinking without learning to think critically. You might blame yourself for that, or even think that you’ve learned what was needed, but neither of those assessments would be accurate. The real issue is with the evolution of the term “critical thinking” itself.
Critical thinking on the GRE as an intellectual practice has been around for more than 2,500 years. But, in the last 100 years, it has been formalized as a teaching goal. Since then, the concept of critical thinking has become a convoluted mess that encompasses ten different things with a hundred methodologies, making it difficult to answer the question: where should I start if I want to learn to think critically?
Well, you can start here, at least as far as thinking critically on the GRE is concerned.
Critical thinking is about being able to analyze a situation properly. That situation may be a problem that needs to be solved, an argument presented by someone, or an opinion on an issue. The GRE tests the last two through the Verbal Reasoning and Analytical Writing sections, while your problem-solving skills are evaluated in the Quantitative Reasoning section.
The individual sections and strategies for thinking about them will be covered in subsequent articles. Before that, let us simply define the broader philosophy which will guide our strategies.
Here is the rule of thumb: nothing is true unless proven so; any claim needs to be proven, and the listener/viewer/reader has to demand the proof. This seems like an obvious thing to say, and people practice it in discussions and arguments with friends/family, I have seldom seen it practiced in academic scenarios.
(a) it is easier to accept because the alternative requires effort, and;
(b) it is even easier to accept claims made by a teacher, an author, or anyone else in the position of an educator, as the authority of their position lends them credibility.
The reality is that authority and expertise have nothing to do with the correctness of one’s argument. I have observed this both as a student and an educator.
As a student, I challenged scientific and non-scientific claims by teachers and even the books that they used as a backup for their statements. Unfortunately, that resulted mostly in admonishment and backlash, rarely leading to a rational discussion based on facts.
As an educator, I have sometimes deliberately contradicted my own statements in the course of 4-5 sentences, only to find students accepting both contradictory statements without challenging them. That can happen only when students believe they have no role to play in their own learning and that whatever the teacher says should be accepted, which is just plain wrong.
While I got a 170 in my GRE Quantitative Reasoning exam, I once forgot how a simple ratio-proportion equation is constructed while teaching in class. Given this, how does my position as a teacher or my expertise in a subject grant me immunity from being incorrect? It does not. Authority should lend respect, but it should not lead to automatic credibility.
So, here’s the lesson for now: ask “why?” Ask that question as many times as necessary to get to the truth of whether or not a certain line of thought and argument is accurate. Ask for proof. Ask for it in discussions. Ask for it in the classrooms. Ask yourself that question when you form an opinion yourself. And, at the same time, maintain respect for your interlocutor; you are not challenging them and they are not challenging you. Instead, you are both just trying to get to the truth and a higher level of knowledge together.
Start right now. Did you accept everything you just read? Did you feel the need for proof for all the claims made in this article? Did you analyze them? If not, go ahead and do it. Then make up your own mind.