• September 4, 2015

Beyond Critical Thinking

Beyond Critical Thinking 1

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle Review

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Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle Review

The antivocational dimension of the humanities has been a source of pride and embarrassment for generations. The persistence of this reputed uselessness is puzzling given the fact that an education in the humanities allows one to develop skills in reading, writing, reflection, and interpretation that are highly prized in our economy and culture. Sure, specific training in a discrete set of skills might prepare you for Day 1 of the worst job you'll ever have (your first), but the humanities teach elements of mind and heart that you will draw upon for decades of innovative and focused work. But we do teach a set of skills, or an attitude, in the humanities that may have more to do with our antipractical reputation than the antivocational notion of freedom embedded in the liberal arts. This is the set of skills that usually goes under the rubric of critical thinking.

Although critical thinking first gained its current significance as a mode of interpretation and evaluation to guide beliefs and actions in the 1940s, the term took off in education circles after Robert H. Ennis published "A Concept of Critical Thinking" in the Harvard Educational Review in 1962. Ennis was interested in how we teach the "correct assessment of statements," and he offered an analysis of 12 aspects of this process. Ennis and countless educational theorists who have come after him have sung the praises of critical thinking. There is now a Foundation for Critical Thinking and an industry of consultants to help you enhance this capacity in your teachers, students, or yourself.

A common way to show that one has sharpened one's critical thinking is to display an ability to see through or undermine statements made by (or beliefs held by) others. Thus, our best students are really good at one aspect of critical thinking­—being critical. For many students today, being smart means being critical. To be able to show that Hegel's concept of narrative foreclosed the non-European, or that Butler's stance on vulnerability contradicts her conception of performativity, or that a tenured professor has failed to account for his own "privilege"—these are marks of sophistication, signs of one's ability to participate fully in the academic tribe. But this participation, being entirely negative, is not only seriously unsatisfying; it is ultimately counterproductive.

The skill at unmasking error, or simple intellectual one-upmanship, is not completely without value, but we should be wary of creating a class of self-satisfied debunkers or, to use a currently fashionable word on campuses, people who like to "trouble" ideas. In overdeveloping the capacity to show how texts, institutions, or people fail to accomplish what they set out to do, we may be depriving students of the capacity to learn as much as possible from what they study. In a humanities culture in which being smart often means being a critical unmasker, our students may become too good at showing how things don't make sense. That very skill may diminish their capacity to find or create meaning and direction in the books they read and the world in which they live. Once outside the university, our students continue to score points by displaying the critical prowess for which they were rewarded in school. They wind up contributing to a cultural climate that has little tolerance for finding or making meaning, whose intellectuals and cultural commentators delight in being able to show that somebody else is not to be believed.

I doubt that this is a particularly contemporary development. In the 18th century there were complaints about an Enlightenment culture that prized only skepticism and that was satisfied only with disbelief. Our contemporary version of this trend, though, has become skeptical even about skepticism. We no longer have the courage of our lack of conviction. Perhaps that's why we teach our students that it's cool to say that they are engaged in "troubling" an assumption or a belief. To declare that one wanted to disprove a view would show too much faith in the ability to tell truth from falsehood. And to declare that one was receptive to learning from someone else's view would show too much openness to being persuaded by an idea that might soon be deconstructed (or simply mocked).

In training our students in the techniques of critical thinking, we may be giving them reasons to remain guarded—which can translate into reasons not to learn. The confident refusal to be affected by those with whom we disagree seems to have infected much of our cultural life: from politics to the press, from siloed academic programs (no matter how multidisciplinary) to warring public intellectuals. As humanities teachers, however, we must find ways for our students to open themselves to the emotional and cognitive power of history and literature that might initially rub them the wrong way, or just seem foreign. Critical thinking is sterile without the capacity for empathy and comprehension that stretches the self.

One of the crucial tasks of the humanities should be to help students cultivate the willingness and ability to learn from material they might otherwise reject or ignore. This material will often surprise students and sometimes upset them. Students seem to have learned that teaching-evaluation committees take seriously the criticism that "the professor, or the material, made me uncomfortable." This complaint is so toxic because being made uncomfortable may be a necessary component of an education in the humanities. Creating a humanistic culture that values the desire to learn from unexpected and uncomfortable sources as much as it values the critical faculties would be an important contribution to our academic and civic life.

But the contemporary humanities should do more than supplement critical thinking with empathy and a desire to understand others from their own point of view. We should also supplement our strong critical engagement with cultural and social norms by developing modes of teaching that allow our students to enter in the value-laden practices of a particular culture to understand better how these values are legitimated: how the values are lived as legitimate. Current thinking in the humanities is often strong at showing that values that are said to be shared are really imposed on more-vulnerable members of a particular group. Current thinking in the humanities is also good at showing the contextualization of norms, whether the context is generated by an anthropological, historical, or other disciplinary matrix. But in both of these cases we ask our students to develop a critical distance from the context or culture they are studying.

Many humanities professors have become disinclined to investigate with our students how we generate the values we believe in, or the norms according to which we go about our lives. In other words, we have been less interested in showing how we make a norm legitimate than in sharpening our tools for delegitimization. The philosopher Robert Pippin has recently made a similar point, and has described how evolutionary biology and psychology have moved into this terrain, explaining moral values as the product of the same dynamic that gives rise to the taste for sweets. Pippin argues, on the contrary, that "the practical autonomy of the normative is the proper terrain of the humanities," and he has an easy task of showing how the pseudoscientific evolutionary "explanation" of our moral choices is a pretty flimsy "just-so" story.

If we humanities professors saw ourselves more often as explorers of the normative than as critics of normativity, we would have a better chance to reconnect our intellectual work to broader currents in public culture. This does not have to mean an acceptance of the status quo, but it does mean an effort to understand the practices of cultures (including our own) from the point of view of those participating in them. This would include an understanding of how cultures change. For many of us, this would mean complementing our literary or textual work with participation in community, with what are often called service-learning courses. For others, it would mean approaching our object of study not with the anticipated goal of exposing weakness or mystification but with the goal of turning ourselves in such a way as to see how what we study might inform our thinking and our lives.

I realize that I am arguing for a mode of humanistic education that many practice already. It is a mode that can take language very seriously, but rather than seeing it as the master mediator between us and the world, a matrix of representations always doomed to fail, it sees language as itself a cultural practice to be understood from the point of view of those using it.

The fact that language fails according to some impossible criterion, or that we fail in our use of it, is no news, really. It is part of our finitude, but it should not be taken as the key marker of our humanity. The news that is brought by the humanities is a way of turning the heart and the spirit so as to hear possibilities of various forms of life in which we might participate. When we learn to read or look or listen intensively, we are not just becoming adept at exposing falsehood or at uncovering yet more examples of the duplicities of culture and society. We are partially overcoming our own blindness by trying to understand something from another's artistic, philosophical, or historical point of view. William James put it perfectly in a talk to teachers and students entitled "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings": "The meanings are there for others, but they are not there for us." James saw the recognition of this blindness as key to education as well as to the development of democracy and civil society. Of course hard-nosed critical thinking may help in this endeavor, but it also may be a way we learn to protect ourselves from the acknowledgment and insight that humanistic study has to offer. As students and as teachers we sometimes crave that protection because without it we risk being open to changing who we are. In order to overcome this blindness, we risk being very uncomfortable indeed.

It is my hope that humanists will continue offering criticism, making connections, and finding ways to acknowledge practices that seem at first opaque or even invisible. In supporting a transition from critical thinking to practical exploration, I am echoing a comment made by my undergraduate philosophy teacher Louis Mink, and echoed by my graduate mentor, Richard Rorty. Years before Dick Rorty deconstructed the idea of the "philosopher as referee," Louis Mink suggested that critics "exchange the judge's wig for the guide's cap." I think we may say the same for humanists, who can, in his words, "show us details and patterns and relations which we would not have seen or heard for ourselves."

My humanities teachers enriched my life by showing me details and pattern and relations. In so doing they also helped me to acquire tools that have energetically shaped my scholarship and my interactions with colleagues and students. It is my hope that as guides, not judges, we can show our students how to engage in the practice of exploring objects, norms, and values that inform diverse cultures. In doing so, students will develop the ability to converse with others about shaping the objects, norms, and values that will inform their own lives. They will develop the ability to add value to (and not merely criticize values in) whatever organizations in which they participate. They will often reject roads that others have taken, and they will sometimes chart new paths. But guided by the humanities, they will increase their ability to find together ways of living that have meaning and direction, illuminating paths immensely practical and sustaining.

Michael S. Roth is an intellectual historian and president of Wesleyan University. This essay was part of a lecture commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of Wesleyan's Center for the Humanities.


1. intered - January 04, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Professor Roth's richly textured article gives us much to contemplate. I would add two perspectives to this discussion.

Asking the question "What is there to mean by 'critical thinking'?" produces a different set of answers than researching the question "What does critical thinking mean?" The controversy and prescriptions offered in this article are framed within the latter, narrower view.

The question of how best to facilitate critical, exploitative thought is an empirical question. ('Best' would include components of breadth, depth, generalizability, efficiency.) A rational answer proffered in the 21st Century must incorporate modern learning and pedagogical sciences. President Roth's view seems to focus more on his experiences without regard to whether or not they were the actual causes of his development or, if so, if they were efficient and optimally effective.

I recommend the table on page 11 of the following document, "Factors Which Might Affect a Discipline's Definition of Critical Thinking." The article also addresses challenges in conceptualizing and measuring critical thinking and related constructs.


Robert W. Tucker
InterEd, Inc.

2. johntoradze - January 04, 2010 at 01:21 pm

Well, since "the kids" (23 & 27) just spent the last two days in Thailand falling for every scammer that said "Hello" and both are humanities majors - I have great trouble believing this is a real problem. It sounds to me like it's a phantom academic problem.

If a humanities education that is supposed to teach skeptical thinking results in nothing but academic credentials, what's the point? Who cares if a young adult can criticize Hegel or Butler, if they can't use their brain to function in real life?

3. andrewpiper - January 04, 2010 at 03:34 pm

Ask any humanities department to broadly define its vocational mission and the answer is almost always the mantra of "critical thinking." Thank you for taking on the (rather uncritical) orthodoxy of being critical. I have been thinking for years how to articulate an alternative way of thinking about the value of the humanities and your article has provided a number of thoughtful starting points.

Andrew Piper
Assistant Professor
McGill University

4. paultheexpoet - January 04, 2010 at 05:04 pm

@john: My dad calls that the "Dummy Tax." It happens when you move to another culture and don't know what is reasonable or not in that context. It can also happen when a lawyer is dealing with a car mechanic (the BBB found that 2/3 of car mechanics inflate their bills) or a doctor with a plumber because we, as Americans, are very specialized.

5. richardtaborgreene - January 05, 2010 at 06:04 am

I do not really like this article and its approach, though at other times and in other contexts I would highly respect it and its author, with ease.

In prior research, I found a dimensions, cutting across all traditional fields of knowledge and professions, and 1/54th of how people rise to their tops, called "educatedness" that consisted of 64 distinct capabilities (as defined by 8000+ people, half US, half global, in 63 diverse fields), one of which was "leaving home" that is learning to emotionally detach from and use as a tool under control of reason each and every aspect of your identity as born and raised in some particular time, place, and group. That means you wield your maleness, if born male, and much of the time shut down its influences on you because judged by your reason as detrimental to your current goals, rather than blindly always being naturally male just because you were born and raised a male (this is an example of one such identity aspect). MUCH of what the above article writes about as the mission the humanities should do without turning critical thinking into criticism of thinking into non-thinking is help people achieve Leaving Home, one of 64 educatedness capabilities. That is, formally speaking, the humanities should Educate people, installing 64 capabilities in them, one of which is this emotionally detached viewpoint wielding of each and every aspect of their born identities. I prefer this framework as it shows how the humanities, the social sciences, the arts, the sciences, engineerings all can or cannot assist us in fostering educatedness capabilities of particular sorts in people.

6. laoshi - January 05, 2010 at 07:30 am

Roth is right. In the age of Obama, critical thinking is no longer needed.

7. djsilvatx - January 05, 2010 at 10:19 am

From my perspective, there are two issues that post-secondary educators need to consider more carefully.

The first concerns making an important distinction between "acquisition" and "learning." From what I've seen over the years, many - if not most - students don't (can't?) acquire critical thinking skills as we'd like them to; it's not something that they osmose in ways we assume that they might/should. Rather, they will fare far better if we make the task more explicit and allow them to LEARN the requisite skills. Doing so requires us, as teachers, to draw explicit attention to how a critically-thinking person works through an body of data or constructs an argument or gathers relevant evidence for a counterargument. To this end, it's important that we expose them to the language of critical thinking, as doing so helps them to raise their level of awareness regarding the thinking process. (Primates, human or otherwise, use tools more effectively if those tools have names.) In addition, we need to provide them with opporutnities to put those tools to use as regularly as possible, offering feedback on their progress.

The second point concerns the matter of context. While students in STEM fields typically assume that what's learned in Course X will be important to apply in Course X+1 and/or Course Y, students in the humanities are often surprised to learn that a linguistics lecture about American dialect regions should reasonably presume some knowledge of U.S. geography, history, and politics. (I start mine with a blank map of the USA and ask them to identify major geographical features. Try it. You'll be amazed.) Why should that be? Perhaps we in the humanities might look more closely how our colleauges in disciplines such as physics, engineering, and nursing organize their curricula. While we can hardly imagine a student attempting to negotiate physics without a decent background in calculus, why do allow our students in English or history or philosophy to even think that they can be successful without meaningful cross-pollination? Sure - we "get it." But do they? If not, might we not help them?

8. rcsha - January 05, 2010 at 02:51 pm

Roth is on to something very important: critical thinking has lost sight of the critical, and humanities professors are teaching students how to engage in jijitsu without teaching them the value of what is being made the object of criticism. My literature seniors this year swatted away the errors of Achebe, Dollimore, Plato, Said, Bourdieu, but they were at a loss to put something in their place. I agree that immersing them in the material but be as valued as helping them to stand above it.

9. panacea - January 05, 2010 at 09:26 pm

It doesn't help that our culture of the sound byte is more interested in scoring points in a discussion, than exploring ideas. laoshi's comment is a case in point.

Today's students are techincal minded. They want to get through a course of study with the sole objective of obtaining a specific type of job. This is true of students in the sciences such as medicine, but also in fields such as business. Students aren't interested in learning how to think. They want hard skills to earn a living.

The problem is, that kind of approach makes it difficult to gain the skills they seek. For example, in nursing, you have to know more than how to administer medications. You have to know what those medications do, how they work, and how nuance's in an individual patient is going to affect a treatment plan. Critial thinking skills allow a nurse to set priorities and anticipate problems. The humanities can do a lot to help students build those skills.

Somehow we've got to get away from the idea humanities are "useless" courses. I think what needs to happen is those who are actually IN the humanities need to look at ways to make their subjects relevant to everyday living. Studying literature is great for its own sake, but how does the skill of evaluating the meaning or purpose of a great work of literature help an aspiring accountant?

10. lexalexander - January 06, 2010 at 08:14 am

Actually, in the current politics and culture of the U.S., not nearly enough is being debunked thoroughly enough.

From trickle-down economics to U.S.-centric political science to creationism (accepted by a plurality of Americans), our intellectual marketplace is overrun with fraud, and these fraudulent ideas are costing us real money and real lives.

11. mwirvin - January 06, 2010 at 09:19 am

Perhaps it is a factor of my Humanities education, but "debunking" never was a high priority (I am currently a college professor, and I am 32). "Critical thinking" was a way to deal with crises in our human lives. My professors ranged from a prominent Marxist to a speech-writer for Nixon, but across the board, their approach to the Humanities dealt with living with, by thinking about, crisis. For some, that could be a crisis of highly orthodox religious faith; for another, the failure of capitalism to protect the poor; for another, alienation and loneliness. There occasionally was some debunking, and these professors were intellectually often at each others' throats, but they shared the same end: answering the question, "How do we live?" Unless we believe that only the leisure class of intellectuals need to ask and answer this question (which makes us the worst sort of snobs and elitists), then studying history, literature, art, music, philosophy and the other Humanities is just as important to the future accountant as it is to the future professor or artist. I agree that "critical thinking" as a mode of power is destructive or at best useless; but I think Roth's excellent point here is that the our exploration of the crises in our lives, the lives of students and professors, can be both productive and pleasureable, not for a coterie of elites, but for all.

12. hstmaurice - January 06, 2010 at 11:28 am

Coming as Roth does from a humanistic education, I agree with his general point about the necessity of developing early in life habits of mind to carefully consider ideas in context. Such habits often lead to conflicts between doubts about ideas and certainties that one must nevertheless act upon them. An examined life, as every commencement speaker asserts, is worth living. But it's not comfortable. Any culture that prizes self-gratification is especially in need of self-examination by everyone in it, not just an elite few in their towers and gardens. The more we know, do and feel, the more we must ask what, how and why.

13. socfem - January 06, 2010 at 01:34 pm

As I read this, I thought Roth must be a professor at an elite private college. And sure enough, he is. Having attended an institution similar to Wesleyan I see Roth's point. But as a professor at a public university, I see no signs that the students are too critical--or critical at all. They clearly need critical thinking skills--just to be good citizens and evaluate the "news." They also need to learn how to read better--not to mention write coherently! Let us not forget that WHERE we teach and WHO those students are shapes what they most need from us!

14. gtkarn - January 06, 2010 at 07:02 pm

This may be one of the most astute and refreshing reflections on the humanities (whose "fate" is so often tediously discussed) that I have read. Its sensitivity to the dangers and hubris of the the hermeneutics of suspicion, and its much needed critique of teaching students to read always with their fists up, ready to counterpunch, is most welcome. One of my favorite critics, Daniel Mendelsohn, opens his collection of essays, HOW BEAUTIFUL IT IS AND HOW EASILY IT CAN BE BROKEN, with a brief philological lesson that invites us to a view of the critical act as something beyond habitual debunking, a habit which leads merely to smugness such as is exhibited by #13 who,amazingly, after reading this piece, feels the need to lecture President Roth on a point he's surely aware of. Doubtless socfem (#13) needs to read, slowly, carefully, and then reread what Roth has written. I plan to do that and to send the piece to many others as well. Thanks so much to Professor Roth.

15. arrive2dotnet - January 07, 2010 at 12:58 am

I think Roth's article is addresses a tension that exists in the humanities, and a lot of fields, between creativity and critical thinking. Developing new ideas, interpretations, and perspectives is one of the high ideals of humanities disciplines, as is the idea of challenging and/or "shooting down" the ideas using critical thinking. The traditional role of critical thinking as a means of cutting through error, or sloppy thinking ... to get to an underlying truth is obviously valid, and critical thinking also serves a creative effort where the creators apply such skills to improve what is being created. Yet sometimes critical thinking can be overapplied to the point where every new idea that is developed gets criticized to death, and the role of the critic abuses the role of creator. Perhap this is not exactly what Roth's paper is about, but I think it is paralell with Roth's ideas of valuing "the material"(that which has been created) even where it may be possible to devalue it through critical thinking.

16. laoshi - January 07, 2010 at 11:41 am

@panacea: "It doesn't help that our culture of the sound byte is more interested in scoring points in a discussion, than exploring ideas. laoshi's comment is a case in point."

How is my succinct comment supportive of your notion of a sound byte culture? Perhaps you are one of those commentators who "delight in being able to show that somebody else is not to be believed", as Roth put it.

O ye of "little tolerance for finding or making meaning", your second paragraph is a truism: Not all students are technical-minded. Your third paragraph is elliptical. Where is the link between critical thinking and a nurse's ability to "set priorities and anticipate problems"? I do agree with you, however, that "those who are actually IN the humanities need to look at ways to make their subjects relevant to everyday living". I just don't see critical thinking as the panacea, pardon the nominal appropriation.

How exactly are the humanities relevant to nursing? My student wife would really like to know. It's bad enough she's forced to parse trinomial equations, which she'll never apply in praxis.

Roth explores the notion that the skill of de-bunking may incapacitate students from discovering or creating "meaning and direction in the books they read and the world in which they live"; this is the problem with critical thinking for its own sake. Why can't we read literature for what it is, rather than literary criticism?

17. janice_h - January 07, 2010 at 03:45 pm

"Louis Mink suggested that critics "exchange the judge's wig for the guide's cap.""
These two are not unrelated. A guide needs to tell you what is the right road and what road would lead to death. To lead you down the right path. They might not always be right, but it's their duty. This is what happens in good discussions, whether offline in seminars, or online at http://www.pandalous.com/

18. 22284881 - January 07, 2010 at 04:25 pm

As a person in the latter end of the middle years (50s), with children who are polishing their minds in college and grad school, I don't see in any of this interesting "discussion" the notion of how developing critical thinking, problem-solving, language, and all such liberal education skills is about developing the mind for lifelong adaptive use. I would suggest that such mind-building can be seen as having physiological benefits as much or more than intellectual ones

19. paulturpin - January 07, 2010 at 06:11 pm

I'm with mwirvin (#11) and the emphasis on crises. It's worth thinking about the affinity between the roots of "criticism" (forming a judgment) and "crisis" (turning point). It takes the first to recognize the second. But Roth's complaint about criticism as skepticism seems aimed at postmodernisms of various sorts. The value I find in postmodern critiques is that a normative investigation needs to test its own norms, too.

20. dsusser - January 07, 2010 at 07:18 pm

I agree with paulturpin (#19) that this piece seems to be aimed rather squarely at a sort of postmodern relativism that by most accounts doesn't carry much weight anymore. More importantly, the author entirely neglects the role that deconstructive or negative critical thinking plays in *clearing the ground* for creative or positive thinking. The best teachers I've had (and consequently, the sort of teacher I hope to become) have been those that taught me to turn a critical eye toward *my own* beliefs and assumptions, so as to then make me more open to the ideas I encounter in literature, science, and public discourse.

21. ehyslopm - January 07, 2010 at 08:46 pm

This article simply illustrates the conceptual confusion surrounding the concept of "critical thinking". There is little mention of the epistemic requirements of meaningful critique, or any discussion of the intellectual virtues that help foster the qualities that are truth conducive. The article amounts to nothing more than sloppy sloganizing that reflects little understanding of the subject matter at hand.
Emery Hyslop-Margison
University of New Brunswick

22. readerjoe - January 09, 2010 at 06:36 am

I'm currently a humanities graduate student, but my background is in special education. In that context, critical thinking often amounts to skill-building: naming and applying elementary concepts like "evaluating sources" and "weighing pros and cons." Criticism as reduced to fault-finding does not amount to critical thinking; that's high school English 101. Good students with the rare fortune to have been presented with a lucid framework for "critical thinking" sometime between about the sixth and tenth grades often internalize these techniques and practice them automatically.

Without somewhere acquiring this full evaluative toolset, however, students are bereft of an essential component of agency. They must resort to wit, which produces the sort of one-sided cleverness Mr. Roth seems to be encountering; we become slaves to our own opposition. Critical thinking, defined as a broad set of techniques (as most responsible secondary teachers I have known understand it), addresses Mr. Roth's fears directly. If rcsha's students "swatted away the errors of Achebe, Dollimore, Plato, Said, Bourdieu, but they were at a loss to put something in their place" (#8), then I would argue critical thinking skills are precisely what they desperately need to cultivate. On this point I am sympathetic to intered's comment (#1), which identifies the need to articulate precisely what critical thinking entails before "moving beyond" it.

Thus Dr. Roth's distinction between using overlooked information and desiring to see others from their point of view seems to be begging the question somewhat (one can't "exchange" one cap for another when both constitute skills of critical thought); nevertheless, Dr. Roth's article does raise an important point regarding the use of "values." Critical thinking constitutes only one very limited component of the life of the mind, and the contextualization of its role provides an excellent opportunity for the humanities to assert a formative influence on cognitive science, as it once did for psychoanalysis in the techniques of Freud.

This brings me to socfem's comment (#13), an honest expression of the exhasperation echoed in classrooms across the country, which is that many students arrive in college with a woefully incomplete cognitive toolbox. Our educational culture increasingly prepares students to voice an opinion in the name of "creativity," but it does so at the expense of developing the proficiencies in language and higher order cognition necessary to articulate a formal argument in print.

As humanities scholars, we should know better; we know that creativity and ability are mutually reinforcing.

These woes are compounded by the terrifying historical shift in academic teaching loads onto adjunct faculty and graduate TAs, who often lack the experience and pedagogical background to deal with remediation appropriately. Most seem heroically swift at adapting, but any insight they manage to develop is undercut by the reality that most will never find tenure-track positions from which to reshape the discipline.

The counter-mood for cynicism is agency; train secondary educators to present critical thinking skills in context, and allow tertiary educators to develop professionally; then students will be less reliant on the wit that flashes from the darkness of intellectual insecurities.

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