Using Literature as a Gateway to Critical Thinking

Sometimes, the groans can be heard clear across a campus, and they resonate in memory for years. When a professor assigns a text for reading, anything from the poem “Just to say” by William Carlos Williams to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” the students are rapid to react as if they have been handed a death sentence.

In some cases, this is because they have so much their reading on their plates that they just feel overwhelmed, but many times, it is a matter of their previous failures to grasp anything meaningful from a literature assignment. This later is the primary point of importance in continuing to distribute the literature. Many university students lack a fundamental grasp on the tools they require to read and write critically, which in turns leaves them without the ability to think and reason in logical and critical terms.

The influence of critical thinking on the success of a student at the university level is undeniable.  It will influence how well they comprehend the texts in front of them. It will affect the way in which they can relate one text to another across classroom and semester borders. It will also have a great effect in the way in which they can communicate their ideas to both their peers and their instructors. The way in which a student learns to read and produce written work will be the fundamental core of their language and communication abilities without regard to area of specialization.

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Many students will never learn to recognize the deeper or more subtle meaning in many of the texts unless they are first exposed to it in literature.  Poetry is exceptionally useful for this purpose. The allusions, worked in through metaphor, simile, and symbolism, give a deeper insight to the position of the author from the outset. The famous lines of “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams provides an excellent example for this type of inquiry:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

If five students are asked what the narrator is really speaking about, the instructor will likely get five, or more, differing opinions. The poem may be about real plums.  The poem may be about the consumption of personal space or time.  The poem may be speaking on the conceit that obtaining forgiveness for acting may be earier to obtain than permission. These tools allow the student to understand there is a greater depth to the approach than the simple words on the page as a literal expression of a real object, place, or person.

At the same time, these keys offer a new light on the author’s angle of approach. Knowing where the author is coming from helps to weed out fallacious arguments, personal vendettas, and even suppositions masquerading as facts. While others ideas can help a reader to formulate their own intellectually sound opinions, those ideas will only be as firmly grounded as the foundation of facts they are based on.

The number of times that something is presented as a fact, only to turn out to be an opinion may really shock and surprise many of the students who are used to opening a text for a class and consuming what is before them for regurgitation. This technique is particularly well suited to high schools where the teacher to student ratio often precludes discussion.

When the students then have to begin seeking out secondary sources and turn to the internet for information they will have to confront decisions on what is ‘good information’ versus ‘bad information.’ They will not even be able to be certain that newspaper articles and TV shows presented as news are giving them the honest facts. Looking at headlines on the internet, with a tool such as Google News, you can instantly see how word choices affect the entire tone of a story and change meaning dramatically even when reporting on the same incident.

By giving students the tools they need to think critically, through the exploration of literature, the universities will begin to overcome the most common objections to much of the assigned reading. These students will begin, and continue, to question even those facts and ideas that appeal to them. This will give them the ability to construct strong and fair opinions of their own. It will lead them to be more cautious when writing papers for any number of disciplines. Not only will they have the moral stamina to stand up for their opinions, they will be certain that their opinions and statements are both fully realized and backed up with good documentation.

The trouble with literature in the classrooms is not in the amount of time spent on literature itself, but on the lack of time spent on discussing the literature to bring about these changes to the culpabilities of the students as critical thinkers. Just reading it is not good enough.  In order to derive a benefit which will deepen the experience of education, and therefore contribute more effectively to the community, the time must be taken to teach explication as well as construct.

Defining the importance of literature for the students and then perusing the matter if educating with it as a matter of common course is imperative to the end result of a well educated individual. These individuals will return more to society than what they take from it. In order the continue to chip away at the disparity between classes, races, and even genders, it is important to continue to train students who will think and reason in logical and critical terms through the ability to read and write critically. Literature is as imperative as resource as the air they breathe.

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