Two Dimensions of Thinking Critically About Knowledge

Two Dimensions of Thinking Critically About Knowledge

One of the persistent myths of mainstream society is that the knowledge we study in schools is factual and neutral. Yet we know that knowledge evolves over time and is dependent on the moment in history and the


cultural reference point of the society that accepts it. Thinking critically involves more than just acquiring new information in order to determine which facts are true and which false. It also involves determining the social, historical, and political meaning given to those facts. This determination includes assessing the investment various groups may have in furthering or challenging those meanings in any particular historical moment. For example, there was a time when it was not widely understood that the Earth is round. Common sense might tell us that it is flat, and anyone looking out over a vast landscape would have this sense confirmed. Yet when scientific reasoning and more accurate technological methods for measuring the Earth emerged, the knowledge or “fact” that the Earth is flat was rewritten so that now we teach students that the Earth is spherical —or round.

Thus one dimension of thinking critically about knowledge is the acquisition of new information that may challenge our common sense (such as looking out the window and seeing what we believe is a flat landscape). In other words, to think critically means to continuously seek out the information that lies beyond our commonsense ideas about the world. Yet knowledge also involves understanding the meaning given to information (such as the meaning given to the journeys of explorers such as Columbus that are presumed to have debunked the idea of a flat Earth). We must understand what the political investments are in that meaning— in other words, who benefits from that knowledge claim and whose lives are limited by it?

Thus, thinking critically not only requires constantly seeking out new knowledge, but also understanding the historical and cultural context in which knowledge is produced, validated, and circulated. For example, while many might believe (and were perhaps taught in school) that people thought the Earth was flat until Columbus set sail for India, the reality is that many civilizations knew the Earth was round prior to Columbus. These civilizations included the ancient Greeks, Muslim astronomers, early Christian theologians, ancient Indian scholars, and Maya, Aztec, and Inca Indigenous peoples of what is today known as North, Central, and South America. Why, then, are we so familiar with the idea that everyone believed in a flat Earth until Columbus set sail? What are the cultural, political, and social investments in fostering this idea?

Considering the first dimension of thinking critically (acquisition of new information), we would first seek new knowledge about other societies and their contributions (such as ancient Indigenous, Indian, and Islamic scientists). Now considering the second dimension of thinking critically (the meaning given to that “flat Earth until Columbus”

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