On Critical Thinking
Sensitivity to criticism is something that has been with me since I was small. And it’s not important that it came from overly critical parents unless I have internalized their censure as my own inner voice of authority. To blame something on anyone is to give them lasting power over me for as long as I grant them that right, and I no longer choose to do this. Yet and still, that inner voice proves a powerful judge, condemning me if I don’t match my own exacting standards. It can be exhausting.
Returning to college sixteen years ago as an adult proved to be the best catalyst for inner growth and change in recent memory. Had I subjected myself to the kind of constructive criticism important to academics at eighteen or nineteen, it would have met with unconscious resistance. As an older adult, my greater powers of reflection allowed me to slowly absorb the importance of critiquing while not taking it as personally as I otherwise might. Exposing my innermost vulnerability through writing proved to be the most challenging, and it was the written word that was under scrutiny. I had not shown my creative writing to anyone but my mother when I was perhaps ten or twelve, and her response to a particularly poignant poem I had written about the Vietnam war caused her to boldly question my sanity. This shut the door on that kind of sharing for many years. I never stopped writing – nobody could have robbed me of that outlet – but I no longer considered it worthy for others to appraise.
Vermont College has a unique degree program for adult learners called the ADP – a fully accredited program that, to my mind, is the future of education. Having students of all ages meet in groups, choosing their own advisors and the advisors accepting them in turn allows sharing not normally experienced in traditional lecture halls. Professors learn from students learning from one another and advisors, both on staff as well as in an adjunct capacity. The intensity is ramped up due to the two-week residencies every six months on campus. Then students return home to read a book a week, interface with jobs and home life, and hammer out both academic as well as reflective essays and critical papers. The variety of feedback is enormous, given advisors change twice a year for four years, or however long one participates in the program. And that is after the choice is made – during those two weeks on campus, one encounters many advisors, both as lecturers as well as in encounter groups with existing and prospective students.
While at VC, I interacted with both male and female advisors, most of them my elders. Their voices could not have been more diverse. Their criticisms came from trained academic minds, but also from human beings with their own quirks and foibles. As a teen, I would have worshipped these scholars. As an adult, I questioned them in my mind as I simultaneously cultivated respect for their advice and critiquing skills. The critical thinking I developed as a result of going through the program allowed me to internalize a wiser discerning voice without feeling as though it was imposed upon me by another.
Before VC and concurrent with learning the ropes of motherhood and a professional life, criticism leveled at me caused me to shrink back from, rather than grow into uniquely expressing who and what I was. Now I am able to listen to criticism when it comes and, in between the occasional knee-jerk of taking things too personally, I find I am more able to render the raw material of another’s appraisal into something useful; skimming the valuable part off the top where I can benefit from its innate wisdom. I no longer grant it the power to determine my truth – rather I let it inform my direction.