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Critical Thinking: A Source for Enjoyment and Learning

by Dr. Catherine C. Linn

Maintaining an Aesthetic Distance
Critical Thinking as an Adventurous Journey
The Process
Other Frontiers
Are Critical Thinking and Literary Criticism for Everyone?
How Do We Begin?


If we think, we are likely to question; if we question, we are likely to analyze; if we analyze, we are likely to evaluate or criticize the object of our thinking process. We do this in the context of our experience of the world, of other ideas, and of other sources of input, whether visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. When we think about a piece of writing, whether it is considered informational, poetic, literary nonfiction, or literary fiction, we challenge ourselves to discuss and write literary criticism.

Once we have read reflectively, our questioning will lead us, not just to the summary of what happened, not just to a cataloging of the events of the plot, not just to a translation or paraphrase of the argument or the explanation, but to an examination of how structure, themes, and style, as well as multiple language strategies, buttress the meaning and unity of a piece, thus enhancing our appreciation, understanding, and enjoyment of its message.

The focus of this paper will be selected teaching and learning attitudes and approaches deemed helpful in facilitating the reading, questioning, and critical thinking necessary to engage a piece of writing so that it speaks to its audience. To the degree we are successful in engaging the piece in conversation, the more successful we will be in the articulation of literary criticism.


An integral part of "conversing with" a piece of writing is the sensitively observant attitude with which student and teacher must approach it. I say this from the experience of having audiences impose their own world-views on texts, thus casting darkening shadows over them.

In guiding students toward gaining an appropriate aesthetic distance from a text, I like to employ the metaphor of the piece of writing being a person with whom one wishes to cultivate a fulfilling, intimate conversation. For the exchange to reach the level of intimacy, one must read with openness, care, and respect. One must allow not just for cognitive understanding, but for a sentient, emotional experience of the piece. Questioning within this context can be particularly powerful in accessing the multiple viable interpretations from which the reader may draw insightful inference and make cogent and coherent evaluations.

To motivate this sense of expectant wonder, the teacher must ask questions that are interpretative and open-ended, and must reflect an authentic attitude of discovery and wonder. This sets up the affective context for students to trust themselves to engage and become proficient in the process.


What I have outlined here takes a reader on an arduous, adventurous journey, replete with challenges of ambiguity, paradox, and possible misreadings. This journey of becoming a sensitively observant and understanding reader and writer leads us along thoroughfares as crowded and as dissonant as our own lives, or those of Odysseus and Aeneas. However, there are no lightning bolts, rams in the bushes, rods that divide the waters, or a deus ex machina. We develop skills in the old fashioned way that is always new, namely by reading with careful attention, raising questions about what we read, writing in response to a text, discussing a text with others, and, above all, revising what we write.

The concept and practice of revision takes on a significant meaning in the journey, because it is not just a matter of revising our writing, but rather, our thinking as we grow and change in our comprehension, intimacy, and appreciation of each piece considered.

In evaluating or criticizing any piece of writing, we need to calibrate the information that may not be essentially literary with the overall meaning of the piece itself. In other words, a literary piece is never pristinely literary; instead, it emerges from and exists in a context that has historical, philosophical, and other implications. In "A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry," T. S. Eliot expresses this with great clarity:

You can never draw the line between aesthetic criticism and moral and social criticism; you cannot draw a line between criticism and metaphysics; you start with literary criticism and however rigorous an aesthete you may be, you are over the frontier into something else, sooner or later.

Although we, as teachers of the written and spoken word, know the field of literary criticism may be appropriately compared to the Tower of Babel, it is incumbent upon us to teach the principles of critical thinking through which our students can become proficient. Besides modeling interpretative and evaluative questions, we need to direct-teach the piece of writing's content concepts and vocabulary. This direct-teaching enables students to extend the ramifications of aesthetic literary criticism into the historical, philosophical, political, or other area that is the most likely to illumine the meaning of the piece under consideration. While this takes the discussion beyond the central aesthetic criticism of the verbal art alone, it is well within the confines of T.S. Eliot's statement that any discussion of literature takes us over multiple frontiers into other fields.


For purposes of English/Language Arts teaching and learning in our current standards-based culture, it appears the central approach to literary criticism is the aesthetic, because it involves the student in the development of reading, language, and writing skills to a sufficiently sophisticated level. Students will be able to understand, appreciate, and become proficient in the reading, evaluation, and assessment of the written word according to aesthetic theory. Since this is a lifelong endeavor, teachers need to let students know that they, too, are learning—this can be a great support to students in the honing of their skills not just until the end of high school, but for the rest of their lives.

When we approach a piece of writing as critics, we bring to the questioning and the analysis the freedom and the limitation of our own assumptions and premises. We cannot avoid doing this, because we are constrained by the symbols and concepts of language, philosophy, history, and politics that we use to describe people, events, times, and ideologies. Furthermore, in defining literature as a verbal art, the medium of which is the word, we distinguish it from visual art that relies on line and form as media, and from sound art (music) that communicates through sound, rhythm, cadence, and tone.

In considering literature as imitation, our prior knowledge of life, our ability to visualize and imagine, as well as our willingness to ask process questions, can be powerful strategies in the unlocking of meaning. Engaging prior knowledge and imagination fires the quest and curiosity in all readers of all reading capabilities, because it connects them with their own world, the world of others, and that of the text. This raises the level of identification, enthusiasm, and passion for the text. During this stage, maintaining a process journal can help readers draw inferences about the text and its influence on readers.

Thinking about the reactions of the audience leads easily and smoothly to the consideration of the writer's craft. Since the reader is already involved with the text, the choice and order of words and how these elicit powerful feelings become appropriate subjects. At this point, we as teachers need to direct-teach and model the structure of sentences, their alternation of coordination and subordination, and the persuasive, argumentative, and/or explanatory power they carry in the piece. This examination and discussion flows easily and gracefully into noting the stylistic characteristics of the piece and how these work in synergy with the content to create the unique meaning communicated by the literary piece.

This is a good place to emphasize that any paraphrase or summary of facts or events must illumine analysis of the piece. Furthermore, students need to realize that identifying and listing the vocabulary of rhetorical and figurative language is not enough. They must explain how these contribute to the overall cogency, unity, and tone of the piece. In the study and examination of each piece of writing, I have small groups of students alternate on a daily basis. These groups listen for and "police" verbal remarks about the text that express mere summary or paraphrase rather than interpretive analysis.

Criticism characterized as "aesthetic" focuses on the literary piece as art. It examines not just the subject, but, more especially, the style of the piece. The primary focus here is the choice and manipulation of language to create an aesthetic or literary naturalness. Aesthetic criticism considers the ways in which the writer presents his or her subject by employing diction, figurative language, and syntax to create a pertinent vividness and immediacy of tone/mood/feeling/attitude, and to underscore universal themes relevant to an audience.

Since it is necessary to direct-teach many of these concepts at the high school level, the final purpose of the reader's mastery of them is to understand their impact by allowing oneself to be moved by them. This can be compared to mastering any art that makes a complicated activity look natural. The "art" may be as pragmatic as riding a bicycle or as "artistic" as playing a piano concerto or dancing the closing movement in the ballet Swan Lake. In these and in multiple other situations, the rider or artist alone knows the amount of effort and degree of discipline that created the "naturalness." So it is with the development of sensitivity to structure and style in the written and spoken word.


To reach as full an appreciation as possible of a literary piece as art, we as readers sometimes need to consider the historical significance of the subject matter, the events, and as many of the allusions as possible. Examples might include the following: knowledge of the context and significance of "abolitionist" in Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn deepens reader appreciation of the author's satire; knowledge of the history of English suppression of the Irish enlightens the reader's understanding of Swift's satire in "A Modest Proposal"; and knowledge of the type of leader England had in George I and Swift's inversion of him as the King of Lilliput in Gulliver's Travels bring new dimensions of appreciation for the text.

In examining a piece of writing that involves political issues, we as readers must consider whether the writer is using (a) political principles and (b) political language to articulate the intended purpose. To illustrate: When we study a cluster of literary pieces like "Speech in the Virginia Convention" by Patrick Henry, The Crisis and/or Common Sense by Thomas Paine, and The Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, we see that the authors have employed the political principles and themes of their time—the need to cast off the shackles of monarchy and to embrace the challenge and freedom of democracy. Furthermore, they employ studied, predictable, political rhetoric (parallelism, anaphora, analogy, syllogism) as well as highly emotionally charged connotation to persuade a near-illiterate, fragmented, and hesitant audience to follow and support them.

The literature of the more recent civil rights movement of the 1960s provides another illustration, but with a difference. We have the lyrical questioning protest of Langston Hughes's poetry, the hard-hitting rhetoric of John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Speech, and Martin Luther King's flawlessly crafted "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." These pieces appeal to the human spirit, reason, and emotion. Langston Hughes lights the quiet kindling fire of questioning. Kennedy balances formality and political rhetoric with imagery of what citizens hold close and dear. King's chiding of his spiritual brothers, gently and with pristine clarity, brings the unspeakable happenings of the South to light, and, like Kennedy's words, appeals to the nationalistic and the spiritual in all citizens.

Since great literature deals with the dramatization of natural, metaphysical, and moral ideas and/or questions, philosophical criticism addresses these and the ways they are structured and expressed. Since literature does not exist in a vacuum, but rather responds imaginatively to the evolution of human consciousness in its reflection on universal questions, we cannot expect the "life" perspective dramatized in a piece of literature to coincide with our own. If we make this error of renunciation and literal mindedness and insist on seeing what we want to see, we will cast our own shadow across the piece and it will not speak to us because we have excluded it and shut it down.

Readers' isolation of themselves from the tide of human consciousness only leaves them in didactic literalness and darkness. In the Golden Age of Greece, people were preoccupied with inner self-knowledge, while 20th-century people continued to be preoccupied with finding their place in society. We see these two eras respectively considered in (a) the theoretical concept of tragedy in Aristotle's Poetics and the dramatization of it in Oedipus Rex by Sophocles and (b) Arthur Miller's theoretical essay "Tragedy and the Common Man" and the dramatization of that common man, Willie Loman, in Death of a Salesman.


How possible, one may ask, is it to teach literary criticism and appreciation to an audience that resists the spoken and written word? The question is a reasonable one in light of the easily available proliferation of pre-programmed secondary material or commentary available to students. To short-circuit students' reliance on the approach of others, you can teach briefer pieces that provide just as challenging a learning endeavor as longer pieces.

This is not to say that longer pieces should be eliminated, but rather that the development of the skills of critical reading of and thinking about shorter pieces can be developed effectively with less interference from secondary material. The mastery of shorter pieces also helps students build confidence in their own abilities to interact successfully with the text, a confidence of which they are robbed by reliance on the secondary sources.

Students can be encouraged to rely on the strength of their own resources in critical reading, thinking, and writing if you emphasize the power of individual inquiry coupled with the shared democratic exchange of ideas. You might also note the way in which any power that has lorded its might over others has consistently established laws and severe sentences for anyone who taught or attempted to teach the suppressed people how to read. This is not a hoary concept from the Middle Ages or the pre-Middle Ages; we have graphic examples in the history of our own country, in South Africa, and most recently in Afghanistan.


Pre-reading questions need to be universal to allow the reader to connect personally with the content. I often think of these as the leads in a journalistic story because they engage the reader. To illustrate a pre-reading question, I would like to use John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Speech, January 20, 1961.

  • Why do people, especially Americans, like to celebrate freedom?

You may present this question and entertain several verbal responses, without judgment or elaboration. The students may present several other universal questions. All such questions will be displayed for consideration. Students will then write spontaneously in response to one of the questions. This may be done in class or as homework. Then students will pair/share and read within their own small discussion groups. There will also be some large group sharing. During the sharing, the students will get into the routine of making notes on other students' ideas that further their own thinking in some way. This approach will build habits of thinking about and valuing the contributions of peers as well as those of the teacher.

All will then read the text twice. The purpose of the first reading is to experience the text, cognitively and emotionally, as a whole. If the piece is nonfiction, the first reading will probably help answer questions regarding the author's subject and purpose. If the piece is fiction, the first reading will probably answer the question "What happens?" If there is need for the direct teaching of vocabulary, characteristics of genre, and ideas relating to content, this is a good place to do it, as the students are likely to have many questions about these matters.

Whether the piece is fiction or nonfiction, the second reading provides an opportunity for dealing with questions of interpretation. Here students are encouraged to underline, highlight, and write question marks in the margins. The purpose is to help students abstract the meaning of the piece before they begin to ask questions about strategies or techniques. In their questioning and discussion, they usually articulate significant ideas central to the text and develop a deeper understanding of them in their group discussions. If they can abstract a meaning from the piece that is in harmony with the viewpoint and voice of the writer and are able to use the text to support that meaning, they are laying a foundation for the evolution of their own voice and viewpoint to be articulated in their discussion and writing. They are also developing the literary vocabulary to talk and write about a piece of literature.

Drawing analogies between the motifs, cadence, and pacing in music frequently enhances students' appreciation of the effect of sound devices, the role of imagery patterns, and the echoing of repeated words and syllables in fiction, poetry, and drama. The ordering of the events and characters in fiction and drama and the heightening of the suspense by twists and turns of the plot spur students' curiosity and enhance their identification with characters and what happens to them.

Although it can be argued that it is appropriate to teach fiction, nonfiction, and poetry separately, sometimes blurring the imaginary line that divides the genres proves helpful in moving students out of their need to have the "right" answer and in reducing their literal-mindedness. An emphasis on reading aloud and asking them to write what they see, hear, and feel in the piece, although time-consuming, pays great dividends in helping them integrate the emotional and the cognitive and in getting them to understand that the choice and syntax of language actually contribute to meaning beyond the literal. They begin to acquire a working understanding of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's comment: "Prose is words in the best order; poetry, the best words in the best order."

Students' ongoing questioning and discussion of nonfiction should lead them to articulate the central premise or argument and to outline the main points used by the writer to develop it. They need to determine the reliability of the author's viewpoint and raise possible counter-arguments to his or her position. In considering nonfiction, students also need to note and explain why the author may have employed highly evocative and connotative language, as well as Biblical or other allusions, and how these devices heighten and enhance his or her message.

Then it is time to examine the rhetoric of the nonfiction piece: the length and variation of sentence structure, the alternation of coordination and subordination, the rhetorical questioning, the repetition, the syntax, the punctuation, and how all of these in harmony with the figurative language articulate and modulate the pace, cadence, and rhythm in singing the overall meaning. (Once students have analyzed several pieces, there may be no need for the teacher to model every time. This frees the teacher to provide individual help to students who may still be struggling.)


Central to all of the reading, questioning, analysis, evaluation, and criticism of existing pieces is the goal that every reader will become an effective writer, not just of literary criticism, but of essays that have a specific purpose and subject and that maintain a respectful attitude toward an identified audience.

As educators, I think we all realize that criticism is a ramifying web of considerations, but we must never lose sight of Literature as a Verbal Art. If we communicate nothing else to our students other than the value and power of the word, written or spoken, and their skill in reading, understanding, and writing it, we will have accomplished a good thing.