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On Being Critical

Sandy Ikeda

The other day the speaker at my college’s commencement exercises admonished the class of 2010 to “be critical.”  He did not elaborate, for which I’m rather grateful since it kept his speech short.

(Word of advice:  If you have occasion to make a commencement address, everyone — and I mean everyone — will love you if you keep it under five minutes.  One year, the honoree was the great jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, and when he approached the podium he simply pulled out his trumpet and improvised for four minutes. That’s one address I’ll never forget!)

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “critical” in part as “censorious, fault-finding; skillful, engaged, in criticism.” I think that’s the meaning the speaker intended.

I recently wrote about what I think are the twin pillars of a free society: radical tolerance and radical criticism.  I don’t want to repeat what I said there, but I would like to develop the argument a little more, starting from the recognition that there are two ways to be critical.

The first is to be critical of the assumptions, assertions, and arguments of others.  Human knowledge progresses through the application of critical reasoning to prevailing hypotheses and theories.  In an academic setting one questions what one learns from articles, books, and one’s teachers.  I have found that some students are really good at this sort of thing, and the best of them not only keep you on your toes but also propel the discussion in useful and unexpected directions.  This kind of criticism drives competition in the so-called “marketplace of ideas” and tends to keep prevailing views in check.

Not passively accepting what you’re told is a good thing.


Criticize Thyself!

It can even be fun. Certainly it’s easier to be critical of the actions and ideas of others.  So the second way of being critical is to aim criticism at oneself, one’s own assumptions, assertions, and arguments.  I think this is the side often ignored in practice because it’s so hard to do.  It’s like knowing deep down that we each are going to die, although just as deep down we each “know” that it’s not going to happen until much, much later.  Similarly, we each know we can be wrong, except that in this particular case we “know” we are right.

A good teacher will try to turn a student’s critical eye (and boy do students have critical eyes!) inward.  Students don’t like this — nobody does — and I try to set an example by letting them know that however confident I may be of what I think I know at the moment, I recognize that I may be wrong.  To be credible it’s good to give them personal examples, as long as they’re not too embarrassing.  For instance, I’ve been telling students that a minor in economics at my college requires taking both microeconomics and macroeconomics, but I found out recently that I’ve been wrong – for years.  Yikes!

That’s When We Need Tolerance

Self-criticism is important for two reasons.  For one thing, it’s the only way we can hope to begin to remove the blind spots in our cherished beliefs.  Unless we are genuinely willing to admit that any of these can be dead wrong, we’ll have real problems discovering what we don’t know we don’t know.

The starting point of self-criticism, as perhaps of wisdom, is the realization that we are not perfect.  (It’s hard not to cling to the idea of our perfection: “I know perfectly well that I’m not perfect, so that at least makes me somewhat perfect.”)  And it’s that knowledge which enables us to correct some of those imperfections.

I also think self-criticism is the sine qua non of the other pillar of a free society: radical tolerance.

I realize from some of the comments on the earlier article that many people do believe that perfection is humanly achievable.  I do not, and I gave my reasons there.  That may be sad, even tragic, but what I think it buys me is a glimpse into how the norms of criticism and tolerance might become established in the first place.

That is, it makes sense to me that self-criticism is logically prior to tolerance, which is something that didn’t occur to me when I wrote that article.  (Another error of omission on my part!)  If perfection is attainable, why tolerate anything less — in others or in oneself?  But if I’m right about perfection being a mirage, then persistently striving for and falling short of perfection can only result in profound frustration.  To avoid being defeated by such frustration, however, requires a kind of forgiveness, of tolerance, of the fundamental flaws that self-criticism reveals in ourselves.  Self-tolerance and love of oneself then are what help us to move on – perhaps to achieve great (if not perfect) things.

So be critical, Class of 2010. Let’s start with ourselves!

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