The Dangers of Neglecting Critical Thinking When Reading Literature
Reading is fundamental. Photo by Lauren Hough.
SADIA KHATRI | OPINION COLUMNIST | [email protected]
Are the really blue curtains, and does it even matter? The current trend of rejecting nuanced interpretations of literature, especially literature that contains questionable themes by today’s standards, has been hugely popular on social media – ICT Tac in particular – and this must stop.
Critical mind is defined as the ability to analyze, conceptualize and reflect on a body of work. To think critically talking about a work means focusing on the possible interpretations of this work. The analysis of the literature is an important step to fully understand and appreciate all that one can read. Reading through a critical lens is especially important for older historical texts. Whether the literature you read is done in class or not, it’s important to think about the depth of meaning that each piece of literature contains.
English lecturer Dr. Angela Hofstetter described critical thinking as a process that involves intense focus.
“I think critical thinking involves serious focus and the ability to look at any problem from multiple angles,” Hofstetter said. “It allows you to… see how many ways [something] can be interpreted. »
Although critical thinking should be applied when engaging with literature, this is not the only situation in which it should be used. Being able to think critically is an important skill to have. It allows us to look at the world through a deeper lens. For example, at a time when disinformation is very common, critical thinking can prevent engaging with false information.
Dr. Joseph Long, Assistant Instructor of Philosophy, emphasized the importance of critical thinking as something everyone needs.
“[Critical thinking is] necessary for all of us to make good choices,” Long said. “When we are engaged in a dialogue…we are truly engaged in a cooperative exercise in which we work together towards the same goal, which is the resolution of the argument by finding the truth.”
Thinking critically about what we see and experience helps us better understand both the world around us and ourselves. It is necessary to have the skills to think critically about any subject matter, but this skill is particularly important when it comes to literature. Written texts contain a wealth of nuanced material waiting to be analyzed.
Hofstetter emphasized how critical it is to engage with literature through the lens of critical thinking. For her, nuance and critical thinking are necessary factors in successfully appreciating and analyzing literature.
“Literature can do a lot for critical thinking,” Hofstetter said. “Sometimes when we read an essay… the concepts can become abstract. And literature epitomizes the messiness of what it means to be human… As soon as you think you can cling to one person’s point of view, you’re shown another [view], and we get competing claims of ‘What is right? What’s good?’ Sometimes, and that’s really valuable.
A somewhat popular claim that has been made on social media is that older literary texts contain problematic themes – such as racism, sexism and other harmful beliefs – and therefore should not be engaged or read. Asked about the potentially problematic nature of older classic novels, Hofstetter provided some interesting insights.
“Of course they do. [contain such material]”, Hofstetter said. “People change over time, and what we do with them can be problematic, or it can be part of a larger conversation trying to understand the human condition… and where from. we come.”
When engaging with a text containing questionable themes, it is essential to think about it from a critical – and often historical – perspective. It is indisputable that racism, sexism, misogyny and other forms of hatred and prejudice are terrible, but it is important not to overlook the larger contexts of these texts in order to better understand why these sectarian beliefs existed in such proliferation. By not acknowledging the existence of such beliefs, history is ignored. Acknowledging history and historical texts is especially important in the current socio-political climate, given efforts to ban and censor texts have increased considerably. Literature that relates to issues of race, sexuality and gender is an especially popular choice for censorship. Neglecting to accept novels that, for example, accurately portray the horrors of history censors the experiences of people who have suffered. A refusal to recognize important parts of history sets us up for failure; we are bound to repeat our terrible mistakes if we fail to recognize them and learn from them.
In a follow-up email, Hofstetter also raised an important question about the subjectivity of what is defined as problematic. She pointed out that it is quite possible for a text or an author to symbolize several things. An example she provided was Jane Austen. One argument that has been made is that Austen’s work is symbolic of imperialism and whitenesswhile another argument that has been made is that his work is representative of freedom, choice and feminism. Both of these arguments may be true simultaneously. By thinking critically about Austen and her works, one is able to analyze these viewpoints to better understand Austen and the society of which she was the product.
It is quite possible for a piece of literature to contain themes worthy of analysis and content that is problematic or questionable by today’s standards. Arguably, most classic novels follow this trend, as they are products of their time. The forms of prejudice and bigotry evident in these novels should not be ignored or overlooked, and when Hofstetter was asked how to properly navigate these themes and content, she pointed out the complexity of such navigation.
There is no real answer or method on how to engage with historical literature that may contain problematic themes. However, critical thinking and nuance should always be applied. Understanding the depth of a work of literature allows us to understand why these questionable themes may have existed in the first place.
“It also sometimes helps us understand how someone came to see the world that way,” Hofstetter said. “Feeling with a character like that – even if it’s a problematic character – it can help…teach us something. And it can [potentially] help us learn how to change the world not to shape a character that way.
By analyzing the literature, we develop a better understanding of the world of yesterday and today. As Hofstetter mentioned, focusing and deeply analyzing a literary work that may have questionable content can provide us with valuable insight into why a character in a novel may have been characterized as he was. Additionally, the assertion that all older novels contain some form of bigotry or bias grossly undermines the achievements of marginalized authors.
Sophomore creative writing major Miranda Emerick had a similar belief in the importance of engaging with literature that may contain difficult-to-read themes.
“We can learn a lot about how not to be like that,” Emerick said. “You can take a look at a text…and sometimes…it can really change your view of the world because you’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know people could think like that.'”
Emerick’s point is absolutely true. Reading something that contains elements you may not agree with can help you understand the full extent of the harmful nature of this type of belief. We are able to learn more about something that we may not have known much about before. Emerick also pointed out that books with difficult material should be read analytically.
“I think it’s important to look at these plays and look at them critically,” Emerick said. “Especially books with heavy themes of sexual violence and racism…it’s important to look at them and think about what we can take from them and what we need to do to grow as people.”
While living in a fast-paced and ever-changing world, it is essential to take a moment and think deeply about the literature we read. The sad truth is that many influential novels contain problematic themes. However, it is irresponsible to ignore these texts because of such themes. It is extremely important to analyze these themes and reflect on them with nuance in order to better understand why they are problematic. Taking problematic things at their problematic face values benefits no one. When we truly engage with a text on a deeper level, we can learn something profound about the world.