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Critical Thinking

As a student you may feel that, having only done a few hours of reading on a topic, you can't argue against an author who has spent many years writing a book. Yet one of the main purposes of a degree is to enable you to evaluate critically what you read.

Remember that no author has total authority. All arguments are written from a certain perspective, and leave aspects of the topic out.

In coming to grips with the topic, then, you might find some of the following questions useful:

  • What is the topic of the book or reading?
  • What issues are addressed?
  • What conclusion does the author reach about the issue(s)?
  • What are the author's reasons for his or her statements or belief?
  • When was it written? Does it reflect the views of its time in any way?
  • Is the author using facts, theory, or faith? Facts can be proven. Theory is to be proved and should not be confused with fact. Opinions may or may not be based on sound reasoning. Faith is not subject to proof by its nature.
  • Has the author used neutral words or emotional words? Critical readers look beyond the language to see if the reasons are clear.
  • What intellectual standpoint is it written from? Many books make certain assumptions. Sometimes these are spelled out in the Introduction. They may be conservative, liberal, Whig, Marxist, nationalist, feminist...
  • What does it leave out? All books make selections in their treatment of a topic. Which of the following aspects are omitted: religious, economic, intellectual, social, cultural, etc? Whose experiences and attitudes are not considered?
  • What do the reviews say? Reviews of important books can be found in prominent historical journals about a year after the book's date of publication. Reviews are published more immediately in literary and educational journals, such as The Times Higher Education Supplement, The Times Literary Supplement, and The London Review of Books. These will give you an idea of the reception the book received when it was published.
  • Be aware of why you do, or do not, accept arguments of the author.

Characteristics of Critical Thinkers

  • They are honest with themselves
  • They resist manipulation
  • They overcome confusion
  • They ask questions
  • They base judgments on evidence
  • They look for connections between subjects
  • They are intellectually independent
Text adapted with permission from The Department of History's Study Skills booklets.