Critical Thinking and The Other

May 12, 2015

what-is-critical-thinking12By Richard-Olivier Marius

Well, actually, all human beings think critically. Critical thinking is the foundation of civilization and civilization exists not only in the western world but in any geographical space that is populated by the human.

The idea that non-western peoples lack the ability to think critically and to construct a civilized society for themselves was the lie put forth by the racist European to justify colonialism. Unfortunately, it is this very idea that westerners (and even non-western people) – consciously or unconsciously – may still hold true about non-western people today. I have heard volunteers hint – and I once believed it – that a silent student is a student who is incapable of thinking. However, simply because a student is not verbally engaged in class does not mean that the student lacks the ability or the willingness to think complex thoughts.

Indeed, the rural Swazi student does appear to be an inactive learner. I have struggled to inspire students to raise their hands and to speak (and when they are speaking, to speak loudly and clearly). At Ludzeludze Primary and Cabrini Ministries youth camp, for instance, a considerable amount of my lesson plan was omitted as I spent most of class time encouraging students to participate. The students were not willing to speak (I currently have the same issue tutoring Form 5’s in English). Further, the reticence of the Swazi student is also demonstrated by the body language. Students slouch in their seats, doze into space, and, if they are answering questions, speak with a very low and indecipherable tone of voice, while their eyes are on their lap. While these may be held to be symptoms of the apathetic and inactive learner, these symptoms do not speak to what activities might actually be taking place deep inside the student’s head.

Inactivity in the classroom does not equate to an absence of thought. Thinking is a very internal, nonphysical, practice that cannot be observed. (Yet one might know that a student is not thinking according to what one sees standing in the front of the classroom?) While it is easy to judge whether a student is actively participating (and possibly learning), it is not easy to determine whether a student is thinking, and, if the student is thinking, what or how that student is thinking. A student who raises a hand to answer questions, it is fair to say, is actively participating (and possibly learning), while the student who is always silent is not actively participating. Still, this student who is silent and who is not actively participating may very well still be learning and experiencing educational growth simply by the fact of engaging with the subject material intellectually.  Moreover, this student may very well be engaged critically with the PCV’s own mission – i.e. who the heck is this PCV and why is he making us do this stuff? In other words, that PCVs are not informed on what the young of the community think of them hardly means that the youths do not have any thoughts of the PCV. At Cabrini Ministries youth camp, the students sat in a circle and refused to verbalize what they believed a CV to be and why a CV might be important to them. However, once they were provided a pen and paper and the luxury of sitting in any location in the classroom where they felt comfortable, they were finally able to provide elaborate and insightful answers that demonstrated their acute understanding about the nature of competition in and brutal effects of capitalism. I can only wonder just what they might have answered, had I asked them to assess the PCV’s very insistence on the importance of a CV.

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The reticence of the rural Swazi student may be attributable to factors other than an inability or unwillingness to think critically. Poverty is one factor. The hungry and malnourished student may not be able to focus in the class and a student without transportation funds may just be too dead-legged to raise a hand. Further, it does seem that rural students suffer from low self-esteem. Once called upon by the PCV, the student cringes in the seat, eyes on the desk, with an innocent grin of embarrassment. It takes words of encouragement and a review of the classroom ground rules before the student begins to speak and, once speaking, a bit more effort on the part of the PCV for the student to speak a little louder and clearer. It may also be the case that students are simply too shy to engage with the foreigner (and in the foreigner’s tongue). Then there is the painful reality of corporal punishment. The rural student may refrain from a question out of fear of the stick for the answer that is wrong. And as for corporal punishment, may we withhold judgment for now; Swazi historical memory may still have trace of what happened once the errant child angered colonial authority. Perhaps the parental stick (and the ensuant apathy instilled in the child), was then the lesser evil to deter much greater potential harm.

We are surrounded by the evidence of a critically thinking people. Consider Swazi’s social perception. Both black-skinned and white-skinned volunteers are called umlungu: umlungu being a white person – however not necessarily a person who has white skin, as it may. Now whereas a simplistic – yet not by any means invalid – way of viewing whiteness/blackness is in terms of skin color, the Swazi actually rationalizes it even further in terms of access to privilege, another valid way of viewing whiteness/blackness. Swazi’s relationship with their environment also demonstrates their critical thinking ability. Swazis understand that they may save money for more important use by manipulating trash instead of buying western tools/products, feeding their dogs and cats leftover pap and cabbage instead of purchasing pet food, and by wrapping their children on their back instead of purchasing western baby strollers and carriages. It is by organic understanding that Swazis reduce, recycle, and reuse, a fact that perhaps the uncritical volunteer might not be so ready to admit. Swazi’s relationship with their material world shows that they do not only think critically, but act it too.

All humans think critically. The post-colonial lingo may obfuscate the blatant racism of yore: Africans cannot think. For the modern humanitarian worker may not dare articulate it in those terms. Peace Corps Volunteers are willing to assist The Other in a spirit of cross-cultural sensitivity and understanding. And we PCVs, it seems, do so very well. But racism does not always result from direct speech or action, but often manifests itself through implications, unintended effects, and taken-for-granted “common sense” viewpoints about The Other. Swazis didn’t think. Then, we did this activity. Now, they think. Indeed, speak to the humanitarian worker long enough, review his fieldwork narrative (i.e. VRF) and pretty soon you might just rediscover that racist 19th century colonist at work (even where the volunteer is a person of color): the modern development worker who carries in his humanitarian backpack Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” in the effort to civilize the dumb Swazi. The challenge for the humanitarian worker (as it was for me) is to be aware of this trap, and sidestep it.

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