The rhetorical rhetoric of critical thinking (and how Sweden showed me love)

I have a problem with critical thinking.

It’s me.

I’m emotional.

And critical thinking either ignored me or flicked sand into my eyes when we tried to play together. It didn’t feel safe to play in this sandbox, yet I persisted.

I honestly tried to make it work for a very long time. In fact it took me six years to get my BA.

I sauntered off to university one day believing that the practice of critical thinking would do some good for me and the world.

Instead what I witnessed was the granting of licenses in the form of degrees for the right to analytically rip, tear, shred and claw into other ways of being with facts turned daggers.

Critical thinking looked like it meant cynical, critiques, and sometimes cruel arguments that were given top marks at the institutions of higher thinking. I was confused by how critical thinking lacked the humanity that it claimed to want to promote and protect.

Wouldn’t we have to own our humanity if we are to accomplish this?

I wanted to use my head to express what was in my heart. But there’s not room for the heart in critical thinking. Any mention of my heart just made me a target for more sand in my eyes.

Critical thinkers mostly sounded angry to me, so they weren’t anyone that I was overly attracted to having conversations with. Ironic that they would exhibit anger too since most critical thinkers claim to be objective (code for taking feelings out of it).

Have you ever thought about how that’s even possible?

It’s only possible when in denial about our feelings. Otherwise …

Feelings are what inform us about how we are. It’s actually information about us for us to do something with. Have you asked yourself how you’re feeling lately?

They guide us and tell us when we are seeing, speaking, hearing, or doing things that we feel good about or not, that are right for us or not.

When we go against our feelings, we feel bad. Like when I really want to stay home and rest, but I say yes to going out with my friends.

When we act in congruence with our feelings, we feel alive. Like when I need to tell someone no even if I’m afraid I’ll disappoint them, but I tell them no anyway (from my heart).

Feelings are not an inconvenience to be overridden, though try as we might.

If we cannot feel, we cannot find our way. We cannot live on logic alone.

I understand the thinking though. It’s not like we get an education in emotions. Just in disembodied thinking emphasizing left brain activity. And an emphasis on critical thinking just creates more of the same.

Critical thinking turned all around me (including myself) into critics and cynics. I wanted their grades. So I tried to be like them. Painful as it was. As a result, I went through most of university scared. Trying to be how I am not. Wondering how this was really good for the world and good for me.

Ask questions? Share my perspective?

Uh, no thanks.

My eyes were starting to hurt from the grains of sand that rubbed the inside of my eyelids. From my friends to my string of boyfriends with their B.A.’s, M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s, I was called “sensitive, emotional and dreamy” (like these are qualities detrimental to my health and well-being).

In academia, I learned that in order to be there (as an emotional person), you need to pretend that everything is an analytical discourse. You need to pretend that everything is objective and that people aren’t actually people. You need to remove humanity in order to say what you do in the way that you say it. That’s what you do when you’re a critical thinker.

I watched An Inconvenient Truth with a well respected “critical thinker” who couldn’t believe that “Al Gore was blaming imminent environmental catastrophe on overpopulation in the developing world.”

“So that’s what the whole movie was about?” I asked. Incredulous of course.

“Absolutely. Didn’t you see?”

I held a different perspective, but one that I was in no mood to debate. She on the other had was ready to debate at the drop of a hat. I couldn’t help but to wonder: Do I really have to be this way to get good grades?

What I really wanted was her gone and me in bed.

There was no room for me in the conversation.

In a learning environment, I genuinely wanted to share my view and questions and find connection through that sharing. In university though my feelings had to be hidden underneath the text. Perhaps revealed only through the strategic use of arguments to support my objective viewpoint. It wasn’t proper university writing to use personal pronouns nor allude to feelings. In this way, I never actually was aware of what I thought. Only how to present thoughts. Critical ones.

My truth. It was. (Breathe). It was this.

In critical thinking, I am confined to expressing that I think it’s wrong to harm someone with a word, a policy or a law because of facts and effect.

BUT what of affect?

I am affected. I feel frustrated, helpless and fearful when I see someone else being hurt whether by another person, a political policy, or a law or whatever. I don’t want that for me. And I don’t want that for anyone else. Including you powerful person in authority whether you be the government or a corporation. It feels bad to create this way given our capacity to create differently. Is this the best that we can do?

Feel that truth?

Can I not be just as compelling if not more compelling when I share my subjectivity, my vulnerability, my humanity, my emotions?

People respond to people. Not thoughts.

Want to really get people to see beyond the length of their nose?

Cultivate curiousity.

Encourage a sense of wonder. Foster the ability for compassion. Return to the sensibilities that you had as a child. When you weren’t looking for an answer or guided by an answer.

Once – you were just questions. The ones that called to you. They were the path to your genius.

How my curiousity survived.

I went to Sweden (to one of the three institutions that I collaborated with on the completion of my BA).

The energy and attitude around learning was distinctly different from every day that I had had up to that point in time. The experience changed my orientation to learning because I saw and experienced learning differently. I wasn’t enduring learning anymore, I actually wanted to learn.

How do they do it? Those Swedes!

It took a year to unravel some pain enough to regard myself as an equal partner in learning. No one even thought to flick sand at anyone.

Learning wasn’t about answers. It was about creativity in expressing your question, sharing your existing perspective and cultivating a space for others to do likewise. This enriched what you did know and at the same time you realized how little you actually did know. This grew the desire to know more by cultivating the asking of the right questions.

This was the infamous Swedish flat hierarchy at work in the classroom. This resonated. The intention was set to the frequency of play – the most effective and efficient and most powerful form of learning. For the first part of our lives we are consumed with learning in this way. What happened?

What was different in Sweden?

Well, just to name a couple of things … Each person in the room was asked to contribute and given space to do so. Together we learned how to create the learning space that we could and would learn in. Setting the stage for learning was not taken for granted. My learning potential was further encouraged by the option to re-write exams that I missed or failed. Without fear and without shame. There was always another exam period. I struggled with my socialization from North America around this.

Was I really allowed to fail and was it really okay not to feel badly about it?

Once I realized that I was the only person in the world worried about failing (because I truly was in Sweden), my natural desire to learn kicked in. 

I felt into the psyche and vibration of a learning society. Teaching and learning were in the spirit of love that created lots of profit – both social and monetary wealth. I know that North America wants this. I know that we can do this. But our methods don’t produce these results. What would we have to actually embody (and then act) to create what we truly desire for and in our society, our schools, for the future of the planet?

The gift that critical thinking gave me lay in the contrast of experiences. The contrast of learning in both Canada and Sweden created a choice point to consciously cultivate within fertile inner soils that were nutrient rich for lifelong learning and growth.

I graduated from university. Surprised that it had come to an end given the endlessness of it at the start. When it was over, I focused on the compassionate companionship of my inner being for the next six years and became aware of myself and my thinking. With the sand completely out of my eyes,  clad in a new play outfit, I set about finding others to play with in my sandbox of curiousity.

Awareness was really what I wanted after all.


The story behind this post.

A friend emailed me a link to an article on by Steve Denning about cultivating the art of asking the right questions. I tried to leave a comment in response, but the website did not take to my choice of password. I was so frustrated that I ended up writing an article. This was it.

make. believe. for real.
Where you fuel, re-tool and attune your imagination. Get your soul to work (on purpose). Ruthless compassion. Fierce gentleness. Sassy wisdom. And oodles of insight.

3 responses to “The rhetorical rhetoric of critical thinking (and how Sweden showed me love)”

  1. Thanks for the fresh perspective on such a well established social norm. It was surprising to learn that another successful, developed, country approaches learning from such a fundamentally different place. It makes me wonder what other sorts of norms taken for granted could be re-thought to create a more fun and harmonious life experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *