The Humanities, Critical Thinking, & Microcomprehensions

We are awash these days in defenses of the place of the Humanities in higher education.  Answering the spectre of a utilitarian argument against the “Arts,” aligned with a narrow corporate agenda, these defenses often cite data on the economic “return on investment” of a Humanities degree or the general employability of Humanities graduates or, more specifically, discuss the value of “soft skills” to employers: that list usually stresses communications, but also the even more opaque phrase, “critical thinking.”

Our objects of study in the Humanities are straightforward enough: we examine the history of ideas and cultures, traditionally in departments of history, literatures and languages, philosophy, and music, but since the 1970s in more interdisciplinary groupings, such as Canadian studies and gender studies. These objects of study do not line up with jobs, like Engineering or Medicine do, but instead give graduates a broad array of flexible skills and a strong foundation in cultural knowledge that has value in a wide range of workplaces as well as our non-working lives. The point is not what we study, but how—this is where critical thinking and communications come in.

The move towards learning-outcomes rubrics doesn’t help the case for the importance of the Humanities in our universities, though many do try to capture Humanities work. But a lot of Humanities education, and research, is less about meeting benchmarks than improvement.  In short, I don’t just want my students to know how to write a proper sentence—a tickable box on a list of learning outcomes, like “can solve quadratic equations.” I want them to find it easier and easier to write a proper sentence, so that they can spend their time, in university and in later life, honing the concepts and developing more powerful phrasing rather than checking the dictionary and fretting over comma placement.  Fluency, the ability to read and write easily and effectively, is arguably best understood on individual terms—on steady improvement through, and then after, a university education.

So, that’s communications—what is “critical thinking”? In the Humanities, we tend to use the term to mean logical, evidence-based analysis that uncovers patterns in the material under discussion, whether poems, policies, or polemics. This requires sufficient fluency to read many pages of challenging material, a sharp sense of logic (we still use terms such as ad hominem, non sequitur, and faulty analogy), and an ability to remember and organize pieces of evidence according to an analytical rubric, across more and more texts as we advance in our fields.

In a facebook discussion of how recent defenses of the Humanities often seem only vaguely aware of what Humanities scholars and students do, I proposed that we needed a term that would grasp the tens of thousands of small learning experiences that collectively improve fluency and train our brains to gather information and find patterns across myriad cultural materials rather than to execute particular tasks (solve for y, identify the parts of a blood cell, calculate the radiation pressure in a star). I suggested the term “microcomprehensions,” as a counterpart to the term “microaggressions.” The term “microaggressions” grasps the cumulative effects of negative remarks and actions that, individually, may seem trivial but collectively reinforce prejudice and impact those against whom they are directed. Microcomprehensions build understanding, like each snowflake in P. B. Shelley’s simile of an avalanche in Prometheus Unbound (1820): “Flake after flake . . . As thought by thought is piled, till some great truth / Is loosened” (2.3.39-41).

Here’s an example. I can usually expect all of my first-year students to be familiar with the cultural pressures on women to fit within a narrow range of body shapes. They are less likely to have thought about pressures on men to fit within a narrow range of body shapes. They are even less likely to be aware that these idealized body shapes are highly variable, historically and culturally. So, I often take a couple of minutes to talk about the keen nineteenth-century interest in men’s calves: “Put him in uniform, and he would have been perfect, from the soft roll of fat under his chin to the well-turned calf of his leg, which showed so prominently through his well-cut trousers” (G. Manville Fenn, “A Gilded Pill” 1879). This is not a useful piece of information, in and of itself, and I do not expect this to help any student get a job in Calf Aesthetics. But that’s not my point. My aim is to encourage them to think about body-ideals as subject to time and place—as fashions—and so to read literary and other cultural depictions of bodies with a slightly more informed foundation.

This is one instance of microcomprehension. Another might involve grasping the distinction between “amoral” and “immoral,” a distinction crucial to understanding different ideas of legal and ethical responsibility—or to guiding a response to a friend’s ill-advised behavior. Another might involve looking up Perry White’s reference to “Robert, Martin, and John” in Batman vs Superman (2016), and then using that to think about the movie’s focus on the mighty falling from power. Another might involve noticing how the word “challenge” is now often used instead of “problem,” and thinking about how it absolves decision-makers of responsibility (as if to say, “we didn’t fail—the bar is just too high for us to reach!”). Another might recognize a microaggression, and use that to better see and respond to other microaggressions. Every microcomprehension increases knowledge, and provides new resources for sharpening critical thinking and communication skills.

Data generally suggests that, in their working lives, Humanities majors begin at lower salary levels and then move up more rapidly (Philosophy grads, e.g., more than double their starting salaries by mid-career, while Engineering grads see improvements short of 70%), closing the gap between them and professional or science graduates.  Perhaps this is because the Humanities aren’t learned—they’re a way of learning, and that’s the real payoff.


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