Tools of the Humanities: Critical Thinking and Analysis

There is a common fear that pervades many of us. I had the same unease at one point in my life, and from time to time it returns. Fortunately, as a writing, English, and philosophy major, I am immersed in the humanities, which have provided me with the tools to cope with this fear. The fear I speak of is the Anxiety of Over-Thinking It.

I feel like I hear this most often in reference to movies. Two people will watch the same movie, and regardless of whether or not one, either, or neither of them enjoyed it, one will make their judgment on the spot or only slightly later, and the other will have the audacity to think about the movie. Seriously, this person will think about the movie for a good ten minutes (Or more! Scary!) before making known his or her initial reaction. Inevitably, both parties will have reasons for their respective opinions of the film, but the one who is undoubtedly Over-Thinking It might have lots of reasons for the judgment made, or possibly this person only has a few or even a singular reason that rules as the dominant assessment of the movie but they will have lots of smaller, sub-reasons backing them up. The most horrifying direction this can take is when the person with reasons will make an initial call as to the quality or entertainment level of the movie, and then after throwing all those reasons around, this person might exclaim a change in opinion of the film after disclosing an initial sentiment. How unbelievably arrogant.

Inevitably, the other movie patron in this example will say something like, “Why do you have to analyze everything? Why can’t you just enjoy something?”

First off, a personal caveat: I can’t speak for everyone, but when I analyze or Over-Think something, that does not mean I’m not enjoying it. I’m going to work under the assumption that this is the same for other people as well. In fact, I know some people who enjoy a movie, or book or song or videogame or whatever, by picking apart every little thing they can possibly find in the object of analysis. In their criticism it may sound like they don’t enjoy this or that particular thing; indeed, their tone may suggest that they couldn’t possibly enjoy anything, but I assure you, in some people, this is how they consume and process and ultimately enjoy things. Think of them like you would a cat shredding a piece of furniture: it may look like a compulsion, it may look like he has a vendetta against that particular couch and this is the outpouring of his repressed rage, but I assure you– this is just sorta what he does, it’s normal and healthy, and he is more than happy doing it and he may not know how to enjoy that couch any other way, but he is certainly enjoying it now. Personally, I reserve that level of analysis for term papers; I tend to pick up on the bigger ideas present in a given work and only look at a handful of the relevant details.

Still, to return to my original point, when I analyze something, that does not preclude my enjoyment of it. Truth be told, I tend to put more analysis into the things that I really enjoy and I don’t bother with the things I don’t enjoy any longer than it takes for me to understand why I don’t like a thing and whether or not I should consider trying to like it.

Without hesitation I can say that analyzing things has led to many of my greatest levels of enjoyment of given things. I would not have considered being an English major if I had not picked up a particular book one day and realized that I could not possibly only leave it with a surface understanding and a passing yea or nay. After many re-readings and various attempts at interpretation, my appreciation and enjoyment of the book in question has exponentially increased. To have dropped the book and stopped thinking about it after I finished reading it would have impoverished my life, and I say that without any exaggeration (So what’s up with English majors, amiright?) I still don’t think I understand the book. I’m already making another plan of attack and equipping myself with a different load-out of theories.

Some people may think that sounds awful. It sounds like work. To some people, that sounds like I’m no longer experiencing the book, but that I’m in a cold and detached relationship to it, examining it as a pathologist would a cadaver. Some people are all, “You read a book? Twice? The same book? How many times? Did somebody force you?”

To the person who “just wants to enjoy it,” or doesn’t want to bother with thinking about anything beyond the surface presentation, or who is annoyed by those who offer meaningful and well-intentioned criticisms of the things they enjoy, I give a warning: Everything affects you. Even the things you want to ignore, even the things that seem harmless. Even when you “shut off your brain,” you still absorb content from the things you consume. You can’t “just snack on a Twinkie” and not have your health affected by the sugar and the preservatives just because you don’t want to worry about them at the moment. Even mindless entertainment has subtext, intentional or not, and you can be exposed to them like radiation. Did you know that people used to put radium into paint and put that paint on stuff in their homes because it glowed and they thought that was nifty?

Wouldn’t you like to know what affects you? Wouldn’t you like to take a look at the media and art you consume and decide which ones you want to be most influenced by? What if something you enjoyed was funny and cool on the surface, but underneath, by the intention of the creators or not, was misogynist or racist or flew in the face of your personal values? Wouldn’t you like to know that before you let it shape your life, even at a minute level, like quoting it or recommending it to someone else? Think of analysis and critical thinking as the hazmat suit that keeps you from possibly catching cancer from somebody else’s carelessness, except it’s invisible and weighs nothing so you don’t look like a dweeb and you can wear it at all times, not just when you’re entering a home from the 1950s.

But maybe you don’t want to worry about filtering the things around you. Maybe you know it affects you on some level and you just don’t care. Maybe you don’t want to risk finding out that the things you enjoy are not as cool as you thought.

I think that shows a lack of faith in the things you enjoy. Dr. Hue-Ping Chin, whom I unfortunately have not had the chance to take a class with, told us a story about how a student in her Buddhism course dropped the class because she was concerned that she would be converted to Buddhism. Dr. Chin told the student that this seemed to show a lack of faith in her own religion. It’s the same with refusing to take a deeper look at media and art: what are you afraid of? Nobody is trying to force anything on you (nobody you should listen to, anyway).  Nobody will take away the things you enjoy (unless they prove to be malicious or outwardly harmful, in which case you’ll probably be thankful somebody figured this out). You can even enjoy bad things. It’s true! Although I would say that the only precondition of something being ‘good’ is that you genuinely enjoy it, and that you can understand why you enjoy it.

Occasionally, I will enjoy something and not want to look any deeper into it because I don’t want to ruin that initial feeling of excitement or amusement. I’ve learned to recognize this as a sign that I’ve intuitively noticed something bad or important about the work that worries me. My experiences in the humanities have shown me that I should not let myself be held back by this fear, because I could discover something eye-opening with a closer look. My English and philosophy courses gave me theories to work with and practice at applying them, and as with anything, it gets easier with practice. My writing courses made it easy for me to write a 1500 word blog-post about thinking about thinking too much about stuff.