Here’s my syllabus introduction for my Fall 2014 Critical Thinking class:
Introduction: My mom often talked about my grandparents working as strawberry farmers. They started off as sharecroppers, then leased the land, and eventually grew their own crops, hiring their own set of workers. They worked late when the berries were ripe, and my grandfather had to wake up at all hours to move irrigation pipes. I remember hearing my grandmother’s pick up come up the driveway of her house, and then she would walk in the backdoor of her house smelling of moist soil and sickly sweet berries that had been smashed into the knees of her pants as she crouched to pick them, and even then I remember thinking that I did not have the fortitude to squat in the dirt and pick berries to make a living.
I was not judging them or their work; they were my beloved grandparents after all, but by the time high school graduation neared, I knew that I would be attending college, and at the time I took my opportunities and what they would mean for granted. For on the rare occasions we left the comforts of their home to go shopping or to a restaurant, it was clear that I could navigate those situations more easily: I could read and speak fluently; I was not intimidated; I did not have the same worries that the world would judge me for how I spoke, and it was only in college that I began to understand that our world often divided us into categories: blue-collar v. white-collar; graduates v. drop-outs; body v. mind; educated v. ignorant; smart versus…You can probably figure out the rest.
But my mother also shared how my grandfather had learned Spanish to communicate with the Mexican laborers he worked with and hired; how he had to learn about new technologies, pesticides and herbicides that would protect their crops and profits (though not their health). How they had to understand how new strands of berries would sell better because they looked prettier even though the sweetness had been lost. They had to calculate crop yields, negotiate loans and prices, and forecast the best and worst weather circumstances: they were hard-working, determined, and smart no matter how broken their English, no matter the level of their education.
I’m telling you this because by confining the idea of thinking, especially “critical” thinking, to a college classroom is unfair and possibly harmful. It causes us to judge the intelligence of a person or groups of people based on their work, their neighborhood, the color of their skin, their place of birth, or any other number of factors that shape their lives. Conversely, it can make those who have taken those classes, who have those degrees, to feel as if they stand above those who have not.
So, in order to explore this question of intelligence and critical thinking, of how we obtain and cultivate such habits of mind, we will read about different types of work and the thinking they require; we will explore the debates about the purpose of college—whether it is preparation for the workforce or for the development of the mind—and we will ask ourselves how we can transfer our intelligence, or smarts, or whatever you want to call that expertise, from one context to another. Specifically, I want you to take the joy of learning, analyzing, and thinking you have in one area, like football or make up or hacky-sacking, and transfer it to a new space, a new journey, a new research project.
Today, I still drive the yellow pickup that my grandmother gave me; it once smelled of those sweet strawberries, of dirt, and a life of work, but now those smells are gone. As I think about her, I compare her work with how I approach each class: I am planting seeds and cultivating minds, I am considering the yields I might achieve with the proper technology and care, and this makes me think that if given the right circumstances, she might have been able to do the same.