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Distributed September 2, 2003
Contact Mark Nickel

The 240th Opening Convocation
Carolyn Dean addresses Class of 2007 on ‘Critical Thinking’

Carolyn Dean, professor of history at Brown, addressed the undergraduate Class of 2007 and entering graduate and medical students at Brown’s 240th Opening Convocation Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2003. The text of her address, titled “Critical Thinking,” follow here.

President Simmons, Provost Zimmer, Chancellor Emeritus Joukowsky, Chaplain Cooper-Nelson, distinguished faculty, students and members of the Brown community, and especially the class of 2007:

I am honored by the opportunity to speak to you today.


Academic exercises
Carolyn Dean, professor of history, addressed faculty and staff inside the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center. Inclement weather triggered the rain plan for the 240th Opening Convocation

The title of this talk, “Critical Thinking,” may seem a fairly predictable theme for such an occasion. But when I coined the title, I was inspired by a challenging evaluation I received last semester.

Most of the evaluations for the particular course said that I had assigned too much reading or not enough; some wanted more detailed outlines and others begged for more exciting reading – all the things I have learned to listen to over the years. But one was unusual. It said: “Professor Dean tells us all the time that we should think critically, that we should read the textbook critically and do more than just learn the facts. But she never told us what critical thinking means, she never defined it.”

I should reassure you that I do give identifications on the exam ensuring that students have learned the facts. And of course I recognize that criticism is a skill that take long years to learn and whose formal rules vary by discipline. But I had always thought of the lectures I give as clearly and “critically” framed. What, I thought defensively, does this person want? A definition of critical thinking? It was, as you perhaps sense, the kind of evaluation that makes you wish you could have done something better, and yet you have no idea what in the world you might have done.

So in the spirit of what I failed to convey to that student and which he or she had absolutely every right to ask and expect, as well as to all the other nearly two hundred students in the class who I have to assume felt the same way, I want to tell you briefly about my own learning, my own work and the work of others. I will try, however inadequately, to get at this elusive thing everyone says you should and will learn to do and some professors have the temerity not to define: critical thinking.

I’ve had several lessons in what might be called learning how to think critically, so I’ll recall a few, sketchily, and try to explain why I think of them as lessons. I begin with my mother. My mother is a liberal Jewish lady from Brooklyn. She married several times, to men of various colors and creeds, and she has now graciously attended two big-screen, mass baptisms for my nephews since my sister-in-law converted to evangelical Christianity.

My mother sent us to a Jewish school and we also had to go to Church from time to time – Catholic or Protestant depending on who we had to make happy. My father usually taught us how to cross ourselves correctly before Mass so that no eyebrows were raised.

I did not learn what an Ivy League college was until I was in college. Of course, you knew places like Brown existed, but they were places other people went to. This was not a source of trauma or resentment, nor did it indicate a lack of ambition. Ivy Leagues were simply not part of the world my parents lived in, and a college education anywhere was something to be proud of.

The amazing thing is that somehow I ended up here in the end. It wasn’t my first Ivy League or my first job, but it was the first place I really wanted to be. Like many of you, whether undergraduates or graduate students, I came here ready and yet not quite ready, excited but also wary.

So let me tell you of my first experience at Brown in order to make my way back to critical thinking, from which I have not strayed, though it may seem so to you.

My first day of classes at Brown arrived. That meant shopping. “Shopping” – at least the way it takes place here – is a uniquely Brown experience on which freshman will embark immediately after convocation. You may or may not know that shopping is an absolutely traumatizing experience for faculty. Students walk in, whisper to their friends, and leave. This goes on for the duration of the first class. For a fragile if slightly experienced but very young faculty person trying to look authoritative, shopping was a massive challenge.

On the first day I taught, a student waiting to go into my first class – there was a large group outside the door which included me – asked if I knew whether the professor for the course was boring. Twelve years ago and ill at ease, I must have looked so confused that she assumed I was a foreign student with a poor command of English.

In this fairly light-hearted manner I am trying to relate an experience of the world you will all recognize or intuit in your different ways: the experience of metaphorically occupying a lot of places at once – intellectually, emotionally and experientially. That is, in a short and uneventful life, I learned the rituals and culture of least two of world’s major religions with no firm footing in either; I learned to perform – though not always ideally – according to various elite school behavioral norms while never feeling quite at home; and I have almost always been taken for a student except when I am literally behind the podium. These experiences are pretty banal versions of the constant and complicated psychological and cultural negotiations all of us are forced to engage in. They aren’t always pleasant, but they keep you alert. You are forced to think at every minute about where you are and who you are and mostly about who you are not. You rarely have the luxury of not thinking.

In order to get at what this all has to do with thinking critically, I want to tell someone else’s story. It’s a tough story to tell, but I think it’s important. It is the story of Germany’s most famous literary critic. His name is Marcel Reich-Ranicki and he is a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto. In most concentration camp and other memoirs, the brutality of SS men and Nazi true believers is unremittingly and predictably brutal. The quality and nature of this cruelty has been the subject of most studies of Nazi anti-Semitism, because its psychic and physical brutality defies imagination – from the isolation and segregation of minorities to the well-known savagery of shooting squads and death camps. This is the sort of violence we have in mind when we think of the horrors of slavery, genocide and so-called ethnic cleansing today. But historians discuss quieter, less visible forms of cruelty far less often, at least in reference to Nazi Germany. This quieter cruelty is what I would like you to listen for while I recount one small episode in Reich-Ranicki’s life story.

In 1973 Reich-Ranicki received an invitation from a renowned German publisher to go to a party celebrating the publication of a new biography of Hitler by a famous journalist. Ranicki and his wife go happily and notice upon arrival an impressive gentleman probably in his late sixties to whom everyone is talking. At once, his wife turns pale and he too does not feel very well. But before they can decide what to do, their host whisks them over to meet the gentleman who, it turns out “was,” as Ranicki says, “a criminal – one of the worst war criminals in the history of Germany. He had caused the deaths of countless human beings ... I am talking of Albert Speer.”1

Albert Speer, you may know, was appointed Hitler’s minister of armaments and war production in 1942, and prolonged the war because he did his job so well. He was condemned to 20 years in prison at the Nuremberg trials. Once he left prison he lived more than another decade and, as you see, was invited to all sorts of parties.

In Ranicki’s story, he converses with Speer. Speer is pleasant and treats Ranicki as a human being. As they speak, Ranicki says, Speer keeps nodding his head as if to say, “the fellow Jewish citizen is welcome,” yes indeed, “the fellow Jewish citizen is right!” After a while, Speer gestures to the book everyone is at the party to admire. The title Hitler is emblazoned in enormous letters on the cover. Speer points to the title and says to Ranicki intimately and with a gleam in his eye: “He would have been content with this, he would have liked it.”

How, we might ask, could Speer have forgotten to whom he was speaking?

This scene demonstrates powerfully how indifference can be intrinsic in the spectacle of showing one’s self to be a sensitive person, and more, demonstrates that cruelty can take the most banal forms: an overly self-conscious effort to be nice, an offhand and not consciously malicious comment to a man whose family had perished. Would you say that Speer was indifferent, insensitive, awkward, sadistic, or anti-Semitic? And what about the people who invited him and invited them both to the same party?

Now, if you were thinking critically, how would you explain Speer talking about his friend Hitler to a survivor? How would you explain exactly how indifference takes the form of a self-conscious desire to reach out and be inclusive? In other words, what do we mean by “indifference?” How would you try to think about the emotional density of prejudice? If to think critically means to be highly self-conscious about how we must all negotiate our identities in complicated ways whoever we are, how might you approach this episode?

I’ll leave you to think about that. When I go teach my class tomorrow, I know that that evaluation – the one that inspired this talk – will be on my mind. I will be far more self-conscious about how complicated it really is to convey the meaning of critical thinking. When I give lectures about modern European history in the future, I will know to ask exactly these kinds of questions we have just asked about Albert Speer and Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s conversation, and to do so far more explicitly than I have done thus far. If you are thinking that this is just a longwinded way of saying that you must always question the premises of any assertion or argument, you are right. But trying to articulate exactly what it means to do that is a lot harder than I would have ever imagined.

As you begin your studies, you will develop the self-confidence never to be satisfied with assertions that you feel intuitively to be inadequate but don’t yet know how to argue with. You’ll begin to leave behind the frustrating feeling of being thwarted by someone else’s apparently superior arguments and begin to develop arguments of your own. That, you have to admit, is an extraordinary opportunity.

I wanted to address critical thinking because it encompasses all of these things, and because the main thing you will learn to do over the next four years is to think critically. At the same time as you will learn to think, there will be all kinds of ways in which you don’t think or resist thinking. So let me end by asking you to remember Reich-Ranicki’s story as you begin these four years in which finally, it is up to you to choose to think critically or not to think.

And I have no doubt you will all choose to think.

Thank you.

1 Marcel Reich-Ranicki, The Author of Himself: The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki
  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001): 342.


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