As we contemplate buzz words, "critical thinking" is a good one. Isn't this a term that appears in most educational programs, searches for new employees, or economic plans? We want students and professionals to be "critical thinkers." But let's take a look a this idea... critically.
The popular educators of Latin America, working in the 1960s and 1970s, talked about "critical pedagogy," not just critical thinking. By this they meant that their students would learn from their own lived experience, in order to change their reality to create societies that were more just, equal, and less oppressive. This was happening in contexts in which economic and military repression of the poor left the majority of citizens of Latin America illiterate, without political power, and subject to violent exploitation for the benefit of the few.
In other words, our lives do not occur in some kind of "objective" vacuum, and our thinking about how the world works cannot, either. We all approach the world from our own experience, and our experiences are vastly different; in power- or economic- or political-terms, our lives are quite unequal. A critical pedagogy asks us to analyze this, to "problematize" issues that we might otherwise take for granted.
One example I often share with my students is one given when telling the story of the popular educators in Brazil. When working with adult learners on literacy, Paolo Freire and others would not have the students learn to read the Brazilian equivalent of "Dick and Jane." What do two middle-class people running through the city with their dog have to do with the lives of poor rural residents of Brazil? Not much. Rather, they would have the people start talking about their lives, and they would start writing these words on the board, sounding them out, and learning to spell and read similar words.
For example, the peasants might mention that the well was dry this week. They would learn to spell and read "well," and then talk about why the well was dry, who was being affected, since when, and where the well was located. By discussing all of these things, they might realize that their access to water was being affected by the new fruit plantations popping up near their village and the government policies prioritizing water access for the export crops and their powerful owners. This was a far cry from the original interpretation of the peasants, which might have been that it was "God's will" that they bear certain burdens in their lives.
The learning didn't stop there. The peasants would enact their newfound learning by taking some kind of action: working to make sure their well would supply them with the water they needed for life. Thus the project to learn how to read had everything to do with "critical" thinking: it was literacy to bring more justice for the people who were on the losing end of political and economic projects.
What would a critical perspective look like in your life? For white people in the US, we are in a moment now in which we are re-thinking the history of the US from the perspective of the slaves that built it, and their descendants. This is a critical process. And it's critical.