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critical thinking: January 2009 Archives

... I learned in English 295. Seriously, you didn't think I was going to say kindergarten, did poser.jpgyou?

OK, true confessions time. I am an English major - and proud of it. (And when I say English major, I mean "English." I took my requisite two semesters of American lit but that was it. I wrote my thesis on the Romantic poets, can you believe it?) My alma mater was old school at the time: we were required to take Critical Theory in order to graduate, and we dreaded it. The professor who taught it was notoriously difficult and loved to hand out D's and C's as a matter of principle. It was a tough subject and I personally witnessed several students cry in class.

We all hated it and wished it would go away. Nearly twenty years later, I'm finding out that it was the most useful class I took in college (I can't really count the bartending certification and basic auto repair non-credit seminars, can I?). Why? Because, as it turns out, the class actually succeeded in doing what it was supposed to do, which was to teach me how to think - well, critically.

For one thing, it gave us a vocabulary of useful words that succinctly describe certain specific concepts, such as "metanarrative," "literary present," "dialectic," and others. I recently posted a comment on Reach Advisors' blog and casually threw out "verisimilitude," meaning the qualities that make something (in this case, a museum experience) seem real, and earned a wry response. I supposed that's to be expected. You see, critical theory went out of fashion decades ago; it was a bit of a coelacanth in my college career and disappeared from the core requirements not long after I graduated.

However, as I've begun paying attention to the swirls of discussion and debate surrounding the future of cultural institutions, museums in particular, I find myself occasionally wandering back in time to a stuffy second floor classroom in Maine and saying, "Oh - so that's what we were actually talking about." Critical theory provides tools and rules for comparing and contrasting rather nebulous things like ideas and stories. I'm discovering that these are useful in my current work.

For example, I just worked on a project in which a group of geographically proximate historical sites are looking to unify their interpretation of a particularly significant time period in the region's history. The answer: create a metanarrative. Somewhere, my former professor is - well, probably not smiling, but at least he's not going to hand me a D today.

Class, do you have any thoughts? I'd love to hear them.







critical thinking: Monthly Archives


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