Above: View over Trinity College, Cambridge (UK). Photo by Bob Tubbs, 1997 (from Wikimedia Commons).

Higher Learning

Introduction - Critical Thinking - Argument - Format


Often students take English courses because they’re required to, yet they aren’t clear about the reasons behind this requirement. On this page I use excerpts from the 1995 film Higher Learning to illustrate two of these reasons — first, to think in a critical way, and second, to write at a post-secondary level. While Higher Learning isn’t an acclaimed film (IMDB gives it 6.5 out of 10; Rotten Tomatoes gives it 49% on the tomatometer and 74% for the audience), it does make a number of crucial points in down-to-earth and dramatic ways. In the film Maurice Phipps (Laurence Fishburne) is a professor of Political Science at the fictitious Columbus University. Malik (Omar Epps) and Kristen (Kristy Swanson) are taking his class. Deja (Tyra Banks) is Malik’s love-interest, and she proofreads one of his essays. Almost everything Phipps and Deja say about critical thinking and essay writing applies to post-secondary English classes in English North America.

Please note that all first-year English courses stress critical thinking and post-secondary writing, yet there’s a difference between literature courses and academic writing courses. Literature courses tend to emphasize the aesthetic aspects of innovative writing, as well as the context out of which this writing comes. These contexts are often historical, cultural, artistic, philosophical, religious, political, etc. One of the principal aims of a literature course is to give students a broad understanding of culture and an appreciation of fine writing. Academic writing courses, on the other hand, tend to focus on contemporary non-fictional prose and on contemporary social contexts. Academic writing courses are less about artistic qualities and more about academic formats and scholarly sources.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking requires that you respond more than just subjectively to a text (or film, TV show, documentary, etc.). It requires you to distance yourself from your own views and to see how the text fits into a larger context of rhetoric, reason, emotion, media, culture, and history. This can be difficult, partly because in high school you’re often asked to say how you feel about a text, or to understand a text but not to analyze how, why, and in what context it operates. 

In many ways, critical thinking paves the way for original thinking. In Higher Learning Professor Phipps urges his students to think critically by getting them to examine political assumptions they may make based on what he calls their “sex, background, socio-economic status, personal experience, etcetera”:

Prof. Phipps: Your assignment for the semester is as follows: to formulate your own political ideology. This will be dictated by your sex, background, socio-economic status, personal experience, etcetera, etcetera. This course will be like anything in life. It will be what you make of it.

Phipps’ assignment is geared to a Political Science course, yet throughout the Humanities and Social Sciences instructors want students to examine their own assumptions. Students also need to come up with their own ideas, which is easier if they’ve already distanced themselves from fixed ideas. All of this may seem rather demanding, yet the originality required here isn’t that of a deep study or Master’s thesis, and it doesn’t require years of expertise in a field. Here, originality means an insightful argument backed up by reasons, examples, and — if the assignment requires it — research.

Some students may see exercises in critical thinking and original thought as impractical because they may not have immediate application to their discipline or to what they’re studying at the moment. Yet which discipline doesn’t require — at least in the upper levels of the discipline — re-thinking, new perspectives, and constant re-appraisal? Also, as you receive new information in your studies, this information may challenge what you already believe. Negotiating between old and new perspectives is in itself a form of critical thought.

One reason that educators and social policy-makers want you to improve your critical thinking is to create a more aware and sophisticated society. In Higher Learning, critical thinking is explored in negative and positive ways: the alienated Remy uncritically accepts Neo-Nazi arguments and agrees to kill African-Americans; Kristen turns her identity crisis into an exploration of sexuality and into organizing an inter-racial peace festival. Both cases illustrate Professor Phipps’ point that education should be about more than just learning information, more than just recycling “dates and facts from the past.” It should also be part of a larger process that encourages students — and teachers — to analyze, question, and confront the world. To explore the use of language within diverse contexts is part of this larger process.

Later in Higher Learning, Kristen discusses an essay with Professor Phipps, who emphasizes taking a stand and thinking in new and rigorous ways:

Prof. Phipps: I am afraid it [her essay] is unclear.

Kristen: But... I don't understand.

Prof. Phipps: Miss Connor, you don't appear to take any kind of position in this paper.

Kristen: I thought that, when you write, you're supposed to be as objective as possible.

Prof. Phipps: That is a rule of journalism. It is often taught and very rarely practised. This, however, is a political science course. If you wish to write about objectivity write about its use in modern politics in your view.

Kristen: That'd make a good paper. I'll write that down.

Prof. Phipps: Oh, Christ Jesus.

Kristen: What?

Prof. Phipps: In future, Miss Connor, please find your own thesis. I am looking for evidence of original thought. You are not here to simply recycle dates and facts from the past. One's primary purpose at university level should be to learn how to think.


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Deja [proofreading Malik’s paper]: Run-on. Run-on. Fragment. Fragment. Fragment. ls this a period or a comma?

Malik: That's a lot of red ink.

Deja: Do you want help?

Malik: I'm here.

Deja: Malik, you gotta get this to flow, and right now it's not flowing. Right here, that's a really good point but you gotta follow it up with a concise explanation […]. When you write an essay, you gotta follow a certain format. You start with your thesis statement and you have to always use transitional phrases. And don't use the same word every single time. Change it up. Professors hate that. You should use a thesaurus. And where's your outline? We got a lot of work to do.

Deja and Malik are attending an American university, yet the thesis statement / topic sentence format is the same across English North America. Personally, I’m fond of the thesis / antithesis / synthesis format, yet I don’t teach this format because 1) instructors in the Arts and Humanities across North America expect students to use the thesis statement / topic sentence format, and 2) the thesis / antithesis / synthesis format requires a grasp of the subject which is more appropriate for upper-year courses or graduate courses. At the first-year level, students are encouraged to deal with counter arguments, not counter-theories.

The thesis statement / topic sentence structure is also extremely logical, and can be used as a model of both writing and thinking::

— The title gives your reader a general idea about the topic.

— The introduction takes your reader from a general state of awareness to your particular argument.

— The thesis statement tells the reader exactly what you’ll be arguing about your subject; it presents your overall argument in 1) a condensed form and 2) in a way that clearly links to your topic sentences.

— The topic sentences show your reader how each subsidiary point you are making advances your overall argument.

— The conclusion highlights your overall point, and either completes any scenario you developed in your introduction or suggests further avenues of enquiry.

Mastering the thesis statement / topic sentence format will help you whenever you need to write an essay in the Humanities or Social Sciences. Mastering this format is also an exercise in shaping your writing in a particular way to meet a particular goal. Once you’re able to shape your writing one way, you’re more capable of shaping your writing in another way. This is like learning general mathematical principles: you can use them in physics, yet you can also use them in calculating your taxes or interpreting a graph in Psychology or Criminology.

For instance, imagine that an interviewer asks you, “Why should we hire you for the journalist position?” You could rattle off several ideas: first, you’re good with words (you maintain a website); second, you need the money (you have a 25,000 dollar student loan to pay back!); and third, you like newspapers (you then tell a story about your involvement with your high school paper). Or, you could think of a response that contains an inherent logic and that emphasizes certain points and leave out others (as in the overall structure of an academic essay). In this case, you could choose a chronological order, which would help the interviewer understand your career development. You could list your main points quickly, so the interviewer could have a clear idea of what you’re going to talk about (as in the introduction and thesis statement). You could then go into detail about these points, stressing why each is applicable to the job in question (as in the topic sentences and the body): first, you were the editor of your high school paper (suggesting ambition and practical editorial skill); second, you took writing courses in college, where you also contributed to the college paper (indicating familiarity with the day-to-day operation of larger, adult-oriented papers); and third, you run a site that receives about 200 hits a day (indicating fluency with online media). You could then quickly summarize your strongest points, underlining how all of this makes you ready to work as a journalist (as in the conclusion). This response mirrors the format of an academic essay: it’s unified (in this case, along chronological lines), it builds a case, and it highlights only the things that are important. This organized, coherent way of thinking and communicating will impress any interviewer — whether the job is in journalism, nursing, police work, or academia.

Finally, try to remember Deja’s words:

… you gotta follow a certain format. You start with your thesis statement and you have to always use transitional phrases. […] And where’s your outline?

Because essay structure is crucial, outlines are crucial. Outlines allow you to see your overall argument at a glance. They also allow you to see how well you’re transitioning from one point to the next. They allow you to see whether or not there’s a logic and flow from one main idea to the next. As Deja says, “you gotta get this to flow.”

The one thing Deja says that I disagree with concerns the use of a thesaurus. In creative writing, repetition of a word may serve a creative effect, yet generally it creates monotony. In academic writing, however, repetition is generally a good thing, since it enhances clarity and continuity. If you mean the same thing, use the same word or phrase. Otherwise, your reader will wonder why you switched words. A thesaurus can be used by skillful writers, yet writers who aren’t advanced will often use a word that appears to have the same meaning yet has a slightly different meaning. Being well-read, instructors are acutely aware of these subtle differences.


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