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Critical Analysis

By David O’Halloran

(This article appears in the winter 2014 issue of Saint David's Magazine.)

A sailor cannot see north, but knows the needle can.
—Emily Dickinson

When the founders of Saint David’s first conceived the idea of our school in the late 1940s, they demonstrated a depth to their wisdom that has served the school much like the needle of the compass serves the sailor. At the school’s inception, the ability to think critically about the ideas and issues of the wider world was considered extremely important in the education of boys aspiring to be good men. This imperative would later be found in the last phrase of our mission’s first sentence, in the words “critical analysis of ideas and issues . . . ” Whether sixty years ago, two thousand years ago, or today, there remain certain fundamental habits of mind, exercises of intellect, that are essential to highly educated, good men, no matter the time, decade or era. The cultivation of critical facility is one. But to what end? For what purpose this critical mind?

We define critical, in keeping with our classical tradition,as the division, the separation of an idea or issue into its smaller constituent parts. The derivation of the word “critical” is the ancient Greek word “krino,” which loosely translated means “I separate and I judge.” In addition to the breaking up of an idea or issue into its constituent parts, “critical” also calls for the exercise of judgment. A critical mind, therefore, is a mind that will break apart and examine the various positions on any idea or issue. It will then analyze the reasoning and assumptions behind each of the varying positions or perspectives, the sources of any supporting evidence, their validity, and the implications of each. This will precede the formation of a conclusion or the exercise of judgment; and the judgment here is understood specifically in a forensic sense.

If we again look to the ancient Greek derivation of “critical” with a focus this time on the “I judge” part, we can define “judge” by considering a slight derivation of the Greek root “krino” with the addition of the prefix “ana” giving us “anakrino.” Here the “I judge” is not the more common definition, that of presiding over with the power of pronouncing judicial decision, or of giving an opinion concerning right and wrong, good or bad. Instead, the “I judge” in defining the critical mind is more in the forensic sense: to investigate, examine, inquire into, scrutinize, sift,and question, to discern all things. It requires discipline and deliberation. The critical mind is in every sense a discerning mind. It occurs when the emotion of the heart is checked by the reasoning power of the brain.

A strong emotion that often pulls from the heart and impedes our ability to think critically about the world around us is fear—fear of the unknown, the different, fear of failure, fear of change. In my opening Chapel talks this school year, I challenged the boys to confront some of their own fears—there are, of course many when embarking on a new school year—as a way to begin exercising skills associated with developing a more critical mind.

In helping the boys grasp this idea of analyzing fear, I shared a story I’d heard from Paul Assaiante this past summer. (1) It’s a story about emotional or instinctual reaction to fear. When lions hunt gazelle, they place the oldest and weakest of their pride quietly in the center of the herd of gazelle. Strategically positioned and lying low in a large circle around these oldest and weakest lions and the herd of gazelle, are the fastest and strongest lions. At a given signal, the lions in the middle of the herd roar and the gazelle flee—running away from the roar.

Ironically, in their attempt to evade what they fear, the gazelle run right into the jaws of the fastest and strongest lions. If they had instead run toward the roar, toward that which they feared, their chances of survival would have been far greater. What the gazelle lacked at that moment of fear is the same that we as humans lack when we find ourselves in uncomfortable, unknown or novel situations—namely, rational thought. Instinctively, we run from, or at best avoid, what we fear.

We do not want our boys to be like the prey and believe or accept all that they see, hear, or sense on the surface, whether driven by fear or any other emotion. We do not want them to limit the experience of their world through the emotional lens of instinct or matters of the heart. Instead, we want them to take what they perceive through their senses and break it down, work with it, examine, analyze, organize and connect it to what they already know. Then we want them to reconstruct it, put it back together to create meaning for themselves. It is only when we have reconstructed or recreated knowledge for ourselves that meaning and true understanding are achieved.

As we progress deeper into this “Information Age” and experience more of its technological innovations that will sweep through the culture, we want our sons to be able to discern which of the latest gizmos and gadgets are really useful, important or needed. Too often we are told that we need something when really we have been “programmed” to want it. And if we do decide we need it, learning how to use and apply it to advance thinking and understanding becomes essential.

Our popular culture is relentless in its perpetuation of the importance of self-promotion. The “me,” the “I,” the ego defines so much of our ethos today. As Frank Bruni mentioned in a recent New York Times piece, it is the very “oxygen of success” in today’s prevailing culture. The idea of humility, so prized in past generations, has become virtually extinct.

On a recent weekend my daughter sent me a text. As I was contemplating my response, I noticed for the first time really, the shadow writing “iMessage” in the text response box on my iPhone. I thought to myself, yes “I” do message, “I Message!” and iPhone, iTouch, iPad, iPod, iBook, iTunes, “I, I, I.” The “I” equals “me, me, me.” The insidious has now become ubiquitous. Advertisers and others have so cleverly imbued the popular culture of our time with the central importance of “me” that we don’t even realize how indoctrinated we have become. Our children can easily believe that the “me,” the “I,” is the center of everything and that humility holds no place, especially in this new world of social media. It’s all about me, what I want, what I like, what I do, “look at me,” “listen to me,” what I believe to be true is the truth. Just look at the defining entertainment genre of our time, reality television, which insists that everyone is a latent star: the housewife, the hoarder, the teen mom, the duck hunter, the aspiring pageant queen. The message is the same: I am the world and the world is me.

No it’s not. We may live at a time when our children are repeatedly being told by the prevailing popular culture that their individualism, their own separate self, is more important than anything else; but this doesn’t mean it’s true. We need to help them learn to critically reflect on the messages of popular culture so that they are able to discern the “need” from the “want” or the “fact” from the “fiction.” In so many ways, a good school has to be on some level counter cultural.

Ultimately, we want our children to avoid prematurely assigning the meaning promulgated by the advertising lions of Madison Avenue, or the ideological lions of the political left, right or center, or even the bigoted lions found in many of society’s nooks and crannies. We want our children to find their own meaning and then we want them to evaluate it—to form an independent opinion, a judgment of their own, informed by their critique of the data and facts around any issue or idea.

In effect, to successfully critique the world around them, we must first teach our children to critique the world within—to come to terms with and confront their own strengths and weaknesses, their own fears, prejudices, and ignorance. As with most habits of mind, developing a critical one can begin with a look inward: What are my goals and objectives as they relate to this issue or idea? What do I already know? What don’t I know? Have I found the balance important to me? What are my related strengths? Challenges? What do I fear? What is important to me?

As a parent, I have a thousand fears. At the top of my list right now: “Am I the father my children deserve?” I heard another story recently about a little boy, about eight years old. (2) He had just started to play soccer and wanted his dad to come to his games. Very busy, his dad replied, “I’ll try son, but work is hard and dad’s trying to make partner.”

Some time passed and the boy came back to his dad and asked, “Dad, how much do you make an hour?”

His dad answered, “about $400.”

His son gulped. “Can I borrow $200?”

“What? No. That’s a lot of money, son.” Upset, the boy walked away.

Dad followed, “What’s wrong?”

“Dad, I won a trophy at soccer. I’ve saved $200 and with your $200, I could buy an hour of your time, so you can see me get it.”

Am I the parent my children deserve? I don’t know what this dad’s answer was; but it is a critically reflective question, the answer to which will not only expose his reality, it will inform and speak to his beliefs about parenting, work, family, and where to find balance. The result allows the critical mind to see the multiple paths that can be defined or refined as one sets and accomplishes one’s goals.

To be more critically aware of the world about us, we must first be willing to be critical of the world within us—to “know thyself.” We have to help our children learn, and we have to teach our children to ask the difficult questions about themselves, to profoundly probe their own thinking before they accept what they see around them as reality—what they believe to be real, right, or good.

I asked at the opening, . . . to what end? If our mission calls on us to ensure our boys critically analyze ideas and issues—where are we going, where does it lead, to what end and for what purpose? The end of this critical thinking journey is the formation of belief—what we and our children believe to be true. “Men educated in [critical analysis]” Sumner tells us “ . . . cannot be stampeded. They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices.” (3)

Saint David’s takes the cultivation of a critical mind seriously. It is our principal role to ensure that we cultivate in the minds of our sons an omnipresent critical awareness—an open, rational, critical mind that accepts little on the surface.

Our children’s beliefs are at stake, and what our children come to believe forms the lenses through which they perceive the world. There is no education in the second kick of the mule. This is the kind of education that makes for good citizens, and for men who aspire to “the good.” It is a needle of the compass that the sailor knows will guide him because he can’t see north. It is a rigorous education—informed by faith and steeped in the cultivation of a critical mind—that the boy knows will help him see more of the truth.

1. Paul Assaiante and James Zug, Run to the Roar: Coaching to
Overcome Fear (New York: Penguin, 2010).
2. From a podcast by Michael Josephson on The Josephson Institute,
September 14, 2013.
3. W. G. Sumner, Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance
of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals (New
York: Ginn and Co., 1940), pp. 632, 633.


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