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THE HUMANITIES AND CRITICAL THINKING
Aim of Chapter: To make students aware that critical thinking skills are crucial to the art of
being human and that exposure to the humanities is one sure way to enhance these skills.
Having read and carefully studied this chapter, students should be able to:
1. Distinguish between Apollonianism and Dionysianism, using Michelangelo’s and
Donatello’s David as illustrations.
2. Explain the Popcorn Syndrome and give an example from their own TV or film viewing
3. Explain why the e. e. cummings poem is Dionysian, not Apollonian.
4. Summarize the major steps in solving a problem.
5. Bring to class an item (preferably a column) from a daily newspaper that contains hidden
6. Study the Norman Rockwell illustration and indicate items that give away its age.
7. Summarize the steps in the personal critical response.
8. Distinguish between Literalists and Figuratists.
CHECKLIST OF MAJOR POINTS
1. Everyone can benefit from applying the critical thinkingtechniques of professional critics
and scholars: becoming objective in our evaluations, separating the rational from the
emotional, and delaying a final judgment until we have all the evidence.
2. If we continue to develop our critical thinking skills throughout life, we train our minds to
think beyond the mere practicalities of the moment. Thus, the habit of critical thinking can
become a source of inner strength and resiliency in times of frustration or crisis.
3. The distinction between Apollo and Dionysus as symbolic names for the two major
components of our personalities that govern our tastes and how we live our lives should be
taught as a foundation for all that is to follow in the course. Nietzsche made the famous
distinction in his Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music between two ways of responding
to a tragedy: the Apollonian, which seeks meaning; and the Dionysian, which finds
fulfillment in the emotional release that watching tragedy affords.
4. In addition, classes generally enjoy discussing Apollonian and Dionysian elements in their
everyday lives: for example, planning ahead versus taking whatever comes; verbalizing
versus feeling; having an orderly, organized room versus being less concerned about
whether the bed is made or last night’s clothes are picked up. It is important to indicate that
one should try to avoid beingonly Apollonian or only Dionysian, but rather to seek a balance
between the two.
5. The Popcorn Syndrome is the aftermath of having enjoyed a night at the movies (and eating
popcorn), but waking up the next day and, in retrospect, realizing the many flaws in what
was seen. Critical viewing very often features a swing from the Dionysian to the Apollonian
and may in the long run be better than sitting in the theater and analyzing each moment.
Doing so may cause us to miss the element of emotional appeal, even though the appeal may
6. Empathy is a quality that our Dionysian side engenders in us: the ability to go outside
ourselves and identify with another person or a piece of music or work for print, stage,
screen, or canvas. It means a total withdrawal from the critical, Apollonian self, a total
absorption in the life and problems of that person or in what a given work can do for our
emotional life. Empathy is an important first step in the critical process but is by no means
the only step.
7. Alienation means staying within the confines of our critical self and looking objectively at
the life and problems of another or at those aspects of a given work that reward critical
analysis. For example, anyone who has listened to Ravel’s Bolero knows that it is an
exciting orchestral piece, growing steadily in intensity until it reaches a fever pitch of
emotion. Our Dionysian self surrenders completely to the music, but the Apollonian self
stands back and tries to determine what there is about the music and the orchestration that
make it exciting. It is important to keep stressing that both are valid responses, and the wellbalanced person is capable of having a two-layered experience.
8. The e. e. cummings poem is an excellent way to illustrate both Apollonian and Dionysian
responses. We suggest reading it to the class as they follow along in the textbook, advising
them first just to enjoy its sound and the grammatical liberties taken by the poet; and
advising them, further, that empathy is enough. Next, to exercise students’ Apollonian side,
wishing to unearth possible meanings, you can say that the poem is not lacking in this
regard. Read the poem aloud a second time,then ask the class to write down possible
meanings discovered during the second reading.
9. The six steps in critical analysis: (1) define what you want to determine, (2) put aside
emotional responses, (3) collect and analyze all pertinent factors, (4) evaluate the work or
topic in its proper context, without dismissing it because of its foreignness to you, (5) be
willing to understand characters who are different from yourself, and (6) arrive at an
informed opinon with evidence to support it.
10. Solving problems is a primary goal of critical thinking. When we develop the habit of
critical analysis in general, we are prepared to confront real problems in our lives with the
same analytical techniques.
11. Detecting hidden assumptions behind what others say (as well as what they themselves say)
is one of the most important skills that we can impart to our students. If the example in the
text of the newspaper reading does not seem enough, here are a few other statements in
which students can be asked to find buried assumptions:
a. After all the games that our pitcher has won for our team, he doesn’t deserve to be forced
to testify before Congress about charges that he used steroids.
b. They caught her speeding, but just because she’s a famous movie star, they didn’t throw
the book at her.
c. Mother’s Day came and went, and not even a lousy card from my son!
d. The food there is really horrible, but at least it’s cheap.
e. Teenagers just shouldn’t be allowed to drive during rush hour.
12. Understanding the larger context, or framework of circumstances and relationships, allows
critical thinkers to avoid making mistakes in judgment. Our study of the humanities gives us
a sense of the past, and this provides us with a historical context for appreciating works from
all time periods.
13. The Apollonian voice of the professional critic can help us see a work of art objectively and
provide a model for our own developing critical thinking skills. Furthermore, the
professional critic not only evaluates but serves as a teacher, sharing his or her philosophy of
what constitutes art in a given form.
14. Becoming an informed personal critic ourselves involves keeping an open mind and being
objective about a given work, learning about its historical context, speculating plausibly
about it, and appreciating its form and craft. These elements of personal critical response are
demonstrated with the Wordsworth poem in the chapter.
16. The noncritical thinker tends to narrow-mindedly relate all experience to herself, whereas
the critical thinker demonstrates her broad-minded awareness of general principles gained
from listening to, viewing, reading about, or studying the topic at hand.
17. You can usually detect literalists and figuratists by their characteristic use of language. The
literalist tends to speak in terms of popular views of the moment,makes assumptions without
evidence to back them up, and prefers acceptingpackaged ideas from the media to arriving at
their own opinions through analysis. The figuratist tends to use colorful, original language,
full of metaphors;cites specific examples to arrive at general principles; and demonstrates a
broad general knowledge of the world.
SUGGESTED TEACHING STRATEGIES
1. Read a list of statements presumably overheard in a theater lobby from discussions by
people who have just seen a sneak preview of a new movie. Ask the class to write down “L”
or “F” and a sentence or two to support their choice. Here are some examples, and we’re
sure you can provide great ones of your own.
a. “I can’t stand these young stars they keep introducing in film after film. You never hear
from them again because they’re in rehab.”
b. “I know what I like, and I don’t like movies about kids who want to break into the
music business. Why should I care whether they succeed or fail—I have no musical
c. “Yes, I just saw it. It’s about a pop-singing sensation who breaks down because she
can’t handle the notoriety. We’ve seen this plot before, but this one has an unusual and
unexpected twist. It’s something like adding a shot of hot sauce to revitalize Grandma’s
2. Before discussing the dichotomy between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, you could ask
the class to make a list of three figures in the news whom they believe to be Apollonian and
three whom they believe to be Dionysian. Of course, they must support their views.
3. If the campus is well stocked with videotapes, find a short film (preferably from an
independent filmmaker); instruct the class, while watching it, to jot down critical notes, then
give them enough time to organize their notes into a short review they believe illustrates
Find the matching number from among the choices listed at bottom. You may use choices more
than once, and be aware that there are more choices than you will use.
___ A noncritical thinker is often one of these.
___ Best viewed in the context of 1939
___ Friedrich Nietzsche
___ He is associated with the vibrant energy
of the earth
___ Called the film The Sound of Music “a
___ Baseball-playing folk philosopher
___ Reports the details of what happened
___ Changing your mind after enjoying the
movie the night before