The bookshop called me on Friday evening. The book I’d ordered had arrived. I said I’d be in the next morning to collect it, and I was. Rather than heading home to consign it to my ever-growing stack of still-to-reads, I dropped into a café to turn a couple of pages.
This book jumped the queue because it’s by a colleague I’ve begun to work with, and I thought I should see where she’s coming from. I began to see by reading the prologue. Tiffany’s book began as her PhD thesis, which stemmed from a seed planted when reading a plaque below a statue. She writes how the date on the plaque frames its protagonist within a history that was not necessarily his, and casts him as ‘a man of peace’. It would have been all too easy to accept this as the reality, but Tiffany didn’t. Questioning this imaginary led to a truth that I’m now reading, and one that has received acclaim from, among others, Kim Scott.
I’d downed my coffee by the time I’d finished the prologue, so I briefly thumbed through the images in the middle of the book before leaving. What then caught my eye were maps, not of what my Western eye would see, but of what one might see by looking beyond the symbols of modernity. It reminded me of something a friend from the desert did when recently visiting Melbourne. In my attempts to help him gain his bearings, I pointed along the major thoroughfares to contemporary landmarks. He looked up at the sun and located himself. This got me thinking about my own encounters and how blinded I have become by the clutter of the modern world. To unquestioningly accept the world as it is presented to us has become far too easy.
So how do we remain critical? And what if we’ve not learned how to critique? These are questions I always face in my work. Not just thinking critically myself, but also passing on such a mindset to my students. I’ve not fully come to grips with my answers, yet I do think being critical is not just about questioning, but about seeing beyond the obvious. Tiffany attributes her ‘seeing beyond’ [my words] to a wariness of the plaque’s words, something learned from the historian E.P. Thompson. So I wonder whether I can ‘teach’ critical thinking, or whether I should just point my students in it’s direction. Learning to ‘see beyond’ comes through engaging with critical thinkers, whether in the flesh or through their writings. I’m fortunate enough to work alongside people who continue to question, and remind me to do the same. There are though so many reminders in the bookshops of the world, both non-fiction and fiction, which can help us all remain vigilant.