Students, End Your War on Books

Flip open the cover and bend back the spine. Skip over the Roman numerals until you reach the first chapter heading. Now, prepare to search and destroy. Find the weakness. Fire. This is studying.

This is studying?

The 21st century intelligent university student increasingly hunts through her assigned books with one strategy: preemptive strike. The goal is disagreement.

Of the Nobel-prize winning economist’s book on reducing global poverty, the 95% with which she agrees is the part she won’t bring up in class. That part puts her on edge, even makes her feel a little insecure. She can’t say anything smart about it, since the author already did. But, oh, that one strategy she sees the flaw in – that’s her mark! It’s where she aims her critical thinking. And the whole point of reading it was critical thinking, right? What could anyone learn from an author with this major oversight, which her own critical thinking skills have so justly sniped?

On one hand, disagreeing with authors is good. Refusal to test boundaries and assumptions imprisons education on the bottom floor of reason. Indeed, when students have room to disagree with authority, they develop a vital battery of demanding skills which are fundamental to education and foundational to democracy. However, the war method produces an incomplete set of critical thinking skills.

By declaring war, by needing to triumph over her books, the student closes off avenues to growth. On the national level, war, by limiting trade, stifles a country’s development. The same is true of war between student and text.  Disagreement’s benefits, in isolation, fail to justify its place as the Crown Jewel of the Intelligentsia.

The other side of critical thinking must have its place. The university seems to have rejected the application of Disagreement’s starched, boring older brother. Agreement, we are told, is the former order. (I’m using the term loosely; by agreement I mean developing thoughts in line with an author’s thoughts, rather than contrary to them.) Agreement, the belief goes, is rote. It’s uncritical. It’s thoughtless.

The distaste for agreement assumes that disagreement proves critical thinking in a way that a thorough, respectful understanding of text does not. In that view, true engagement with text is, by necessity, military engagement.

This view of critical thinking is restrictive and dangerous. Agreement should have a place in critical thinking. For one thing, if the student’s whole focus hones in on the 5% of a book she can undercut, the majority of the work is being ignored. Additionally, realistically, controversially, an author often thinks and knows better than the student, who would gain from being disciplined by the wiser mind. Rejecting agreement even reduces the benefits of disagreement; without the openness necessary to understand the structure of a complicated idea, disagreement remains shallow and surface level, often missing the most dangerous aspects of a work.

A student’s critical thinking requires a balance of diplomacy and defense. Without that balance, learning cannot happen.

  • David Nilsen

    Alicia, I used to think education was a boring subject (I mean, a subject about teaching other subjects?). Then I started reading your posts, and now I know better! Bravo. ;)

  • Alicia

    Wow – thanks! I really appreciate that. Haha – yeah, I definitely get what you mean about it being a weird subject to study, being the study of study.

  • Bill Newcomer

    I can easily believe this happens, but a few specific illustrative actual real life examples would help your case. Objectively I’m scratching my head, asking if the case, as presented, is really accurate.

  • Alicia

    Bill, you’re lack of familiarity with this phenomenon is encouraging. Sometimes, it’s hard to see beyond the walls of my own classroom, and I’m glad this attitude toward books is uncommon enough to require real life examples. When I first drafted this post, I included one, but I was afraid my classmates would feel I was picking on them, so I left it out, in the end.