This article covers the crucial role of reading to critical thinking. If you don’t understand the benefits of reading or why it is useful to you and crucial for your own self development then you aren’t likely to take advantage of reading lists which are crucial to sustaining an anti-colonial political awareness to then apply to your actions. Below I discuss the importance of reading to critical thinking and praxis. One of the greatest benefits of the methods of critical inquiry is NOT so you can argue with others but for you to argue with YOURSELF. Its for you to challenge yourself and better understand WHY you’re conflicted about a topic and see ways in which you can actively confront it and understand the implications of your own argument. In this sense I present reading as an activity where we work out actionable and effective revolutionary change that generates agency, possibility, and understanding.
“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”
― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
READING & AGENCY
We’ve all been played by empire, its important that once we realize this we don’t make the mistake of playing ourselves. Reading gives you an opportunity to train, to learn, to prepare so that you don’t play yourself, so you can engage in positive action through coming to have a wider and deeper understanding of yourself, others, the world around you and the relationships between these things.
The Western education system model socializes you into passivity and conformity via memorization. Do not shame yourself for not knowing or misunderstanding. Willingness to learn is what matters. Once presented with new information that you didn’t previously know, take it as the chance to find out what this new thing is and how it relates to your understanding of the topic. This is an opportunity for expanding your world, for a test/experiment & this is not always comfortable. Here is where we test our understanding of something, we weigh the validity and seriousness of new information & try to see how it changes our understanding of something. Reading then is part of disciplining oneself and tailoring your approach to the problem that is presented before you.
“The very notion of action would lose all meaning if history were a mechanical unrolling in which man appears only as a passive conductor of outside forces. By acting, as also by preaching action, the Marxist revolutionary asserts himself as a veritable agent; he assumes himself to be free.” – Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity
Reading highlights the different pathways to action. An agent is an actor. When I refer to agency then, I’m referencing the freedom of choice and action that a person has. Through reading I learn about how others have acted, have thought or contemplated action. I learn how the world was and is made in order that I may take the actions necessary to bring about the world that I speak about. This happens first through reading about the experiences of others and the what has come to shape the world outside of myself. When we read about the experiences of those who have come before us we get context. This context gives us things to reflect on. It moves us outside of our experiences and the feelings/states of being that come with them to see how others have handled these events. Reading in this sense is very much of an exposure of yourself to the thoughts of others in the larger arena of human history. Its a grander thinking about thinking and thinking about being in order to be.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
― James Baldwin
Reading exposes you to vast information about a topic and also give you the opportunity to not just absorb/consume what others have produced but to question it, ask better questions, propose possibilities, for you to pick it up and do it, speak it, do it better than those who came before you. Reading is then crucial to the learning process and should always be done actively. Engage the text, take it for what the author presents it as, understand what their argument/point/conclusion is and then look at it from every side. Every thing has a history, every thing is related to something else. What worlds of possibility open up when don’t take things for granted. Reading is then a closer look and a way of expanding and developing your understanding of the world so you can make better decisions.
READING AS KNOWLEDGE EXTRACTION
“Read absolutely everything you get your hands on because you’ll never know where you’ll get an idea from…”
― Malcolm X, Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements
Something that I came to learn early in my stage of political education: read everything. Now this was something that I could get in the idealistic sense but when you come to understand the different systems of coordinated human action that has influenced what is remembered as history or fact, what is written down, who we choose to remember, and who is read…well, I was tired of reading about dead old white men. That exhaustion as well as dissatisfaction was real as the anger that I also held upon realizing I was taught something that wasn’t true by institutions that claimed to pursue the truth. But that was only ONE way of seeing/understanding what I was experiencing.
As argued by Kwame Ture, you should know how your enemy thinks. Read whatever you can come across, some of it will be painful but that does not mean that it doesn’t have its utility. If we are seeking to change the world as we know it then we must first know it. Perspectives are just that, perspectives. The context or conditions are what shape which perspective is closest to describing what’s actually happening (the facts). We may not always understand the WHY of a problem but if I want to make something that is harmful cease, then I must understand HOW it works, so that I can possibly break it. But for that to be possible then I need intel and intel is developed and extracted constantly. Meaning that learning is always a process and one we must dedicate ourselves to every day.
This means get what you can from a text, even in the things we do not like we learn something from them. So if the argument is wrong then ask yourself HOW it is wrong. Is it wrong in an interesting way? What set of ideologies does this text ground itself in? What is their history? Do people still think and act this way? If so, in what context? There is always something to be taken away from an observation. As Malcolm X points out, you never know where you’ll get that an idea. That next idea could be a way that you can meet a need in your community or a way you can dedicate yourself to challenging the ways you’ve been taught to deny the self-determination of another person.
EXPOSE THE QUESTIONS THE ANSWERS HIDE
“The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.”
― James Baldwin
Question everything. Take nothing for granted. Whenever presented with a set of options, assess them and then ask yourself if those are truly the only options. Some options present themselves if you look for them. This is at the heart of critical thinking, its an art of asking better questions, its a form of creative problem solving. But this cannot be appreciated unless we understand that problems while commonly seen as negative are also opportunities. Exposing the question the answer hides requires that we re-frame the problem, re-frame the question. In A 21st Century Ethical Toolbox, philosopher Anthony Weston presents four ways to re-frame problems [some edits added by me]:
“(1) OPEN UP THE QUESTION: Ask open-ended* or strategic questions – of others and also of yourself. How did we get into a situation in which this sort of thing (whatever it is) emerges as a problem? Are there other ways it could be viewed? How can we dig deeper & create more options? What keeps us from moving toward effective solutions?
(2) THINK “PREVENTION”: How can this problem be headed off before it even comes up?
(3) REVISIT OUTLYING ASPECTS OF THE PROBLEM: Mentally review all of the changeable aspects of a problematic situation, not just the ones in the spotlight right now. See what new ideas you can come up with.
(4) LOOK FOR THE OPPORTUNITIES IN THE PROBLEM: Could the situation that seems to be a major ethical problem actually be an ethical opportunity if viewed in the right way? An opportunity for what?”
*open-ended questions have answers beyond simple “yes” or “no”
I say this because you must remember WHY you read. Reading is an activity through which we seek NEW ways of KNOWING and NEW ways of BEING. Those new ways can be new to you, new to someone else, or new to all of humanity. It is there that we can challenge ourselves, find the words to depict or better understand our experiences, the experiences of others, and to understand how society came to where it is today. In books we can find history, other humans who have belted out questions about existence, ways that people came to perpetuate colonialism, ways that people resisted colonialism, in reading we can find our ancestors and ourselves.
READING AS A POLITICAL PRACTICE
Reading helps me develop my understanding of the world as it was, as it is, as it could be, and also dream (or rather, as it ought to be). The activity of reading commits me to the pursuit of figuring out the best courses of action and helps me ask better questions about the problem at hand. While this sounds benevolent to some, it is a struggle between your own thoughts and the thoughts and ideas of others (and how that struggle can produce an internal struggle). Reading is often thought of as passive though it is an activity that requires awareness and attentiveness if one is to take full advantage of the opportunities it provides in revealing the world and the many worlds and way of making worlds within it. Reading is a practice of the pursuit of information that we must commit ourselves to if we truly wish to be informed as we act in bringing about a world where the right to self-determination of others is not denied.
It is through reading that I come to be able to think about my own thoughts as well as the thoughts of others. I bring myself to the try to understand the argument presented before me, its context (partially based off my understanding of it relative to something else and my intentions for reading it), understand it as a thing with a history, and most importantly understand what new valid information ethically requires of me. Here is where we find a way to generate ideas, possibilities, alternatives, other ways to do things.
Some resources on HOW to read:
(1) “Staying Afloat: Some Scattered Suggestions on Reading in College – http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/tburke1/reading.html
(2) “How To Read For Grad School” – https://miriamsweeney.net/2012/06/20/readforgradschool/
(3) “How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists” – http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2016/05/09/how-to-read-and-understand-a-scientific-paper-a-guide-for-non-scientists/#author
(4) “How to (seriously) read a scientific paper” – http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2016/03/how-seriously-read-scientific-paper?utm_source=sciencemagazine&utm_medium=facebook-text&utm_campaign=seriouspaper-3110