Fight back with your brain!

There’s a point in my favourite episode of Joss Whedon’s Firefly (it’s Objects in Space, connoisseurs) where River Tam, an exceptionally gifted and damaged young woman who, in this particular moment, is kicking the ass of a bounty hunter, says: “And also, I can kill you with my brain”. It’s always made me laugh. Mostly because it’s so true.

OK, maybe our brains don’t kill – not really. But the larger point River makes is absolutely unassailable: hard, directed, careful thinking is powerful stuff. As I noted in my last post, it’s also not stuff that’s all that well respected in our current neoliberal climate: too much thinking from us Plebeians is risky for the corporation-friendly powers that be. They rely on us not thinking too much about, say, why we just bought that book on Amazon given that Amazon is a massive tax avoider and committed small bookstore assassin, or what the production line tethering our iPhones to child soldiers in sub-Saharan Africa might actually look like. They count on the (generally well founded) assumption that we’ll buy their message that consumption is good, taxes are bad, and assume they’ve done the heavy thinking for us, because hey, why wouldn’t they? They’re smarter than us, right? Up there on those podiums? In other words, they hope and pray that we’ll choose not to use our killer brains – because, of course, at any time, we can choose otherwise.

The power of a well trained brain is my business, as a scholar in the humanities and the social sciences. My colleagues and I fret a lot – as you can imagine, since the powers that be are always reminding us how useless we are at training Drones for Good Jobs – about how to quantify what it is we do with and for students, and about how to articulate that doing to a larger public made terribly skeptical by neoliberalism’s anti-intellectual smoke and mirrors games. The default, for a long time, has been to claim that we are building “critical thinkers”; this is another way to say that we are helping students to develop their killer brains. It’s a bit of a tough sell, though; after all, those of us who have never thought of ourselves as especially “critical”, or for whom “critical” just means antagonistic, will likely not appreciate what scholars mean when they say “critical thinking”. Which, of course, is another way to say that, maybe, scholars need a different vocabulary – maybe a more direct, forceful, powerful vocabulary – for saying what it is that we do, and why it actually matters. A lot.

Here’s what I think I do in my classrooms. It’s what I try to do, anyway – because it’s about building a base of skills that is in fact in urgent need.

  • I teach students how to use their brains – their careful, sharp thinking, and clear, direct writing – to fight those who are trying to trick them into accepting less. Less good in the world. Less money and fewer resources for them and their families, and for their communities. Less community, less camaraderie. Less security. Less freedom.
  • I teach students what it means to become committed citizens: of their home towns and regions, of their adopted towns and regions, of their nations, of our shared world. Being a citizen requires a hell of a lot of hard, concentrated, careful thinking and active, courageous speech. And those skills don’t come from nowhere.
  • I teach students to think politically. 
  • I teach students to solve problems creatively.
  • I teach students to question the things I claim to be true, and to ask me to spell out how I know their truth, as practice for questioning all the truthy bullshit they are likely to encounter outside our classroom, on their way to demanding more and better for themselves and others.
  • I teach students to use all the gifts they bring into our classroom to fight better, and smarter, for their own and others’ human rights.

This is what I hope I do when I get up to teach everyday: I hope that I am training politically aware, creative, thoughtful, agile citizens, the future leaders of a much better world than we’re living in right now. I hope I am training killer brains, in the face of their endangerment.

How about you? How do you describe the work you do in your classroom? Please share, so that we can begin building that better, stronger vocabulary. “Critical Thinking” doesn’t really cut it anymore – and we’re about so much more than critical thinking, anyway.


PS: yesterday, the UK lost an exceptional citizen and a deadly sharp brain – polymath and political commentator Simon Hoggart. For this post, and for all it champions, he was an inspiration. Read his excellent Guardian obituary, with links to his writing, here.

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