Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Can You Say It in Your Own Words?

Of all the helpful things in Adler's How to Read a Book, the following made the most significant impact on me. Though I often fail at hitting this idea, I frequently think of this principle when seeking understanding and moving toward critical evaluation.
Every author has had the experience of suffering book reviews by critic who did not feel obligated to do the work of the first two stages first. The critic too often thinks he does not have to be a reader as well as a judge. Every lecturer has also had the experience of having critical questions asked that were not based on any understanding of what he had said. You yourself may remember an occasion where someone said to a speaker, in one breath or at most two, "I don't know what you mean, but I think you're wrong."

There is actually no point in answering critics of this sort. The only polite thing to do is to ask them to state your position for you, the position they claim to be challenging. If they cannot do it satisfactorily, if they cannot repeat what you have said in their own words, you know that they do not understand, and you are entirely justified in ignoring their criticisms. They are irrelevant, as all criticism must be that is not based on understanding. When you find the rare person who shows that he understands what you are saying as well as you do, then you can delight in his agreement or be seriously disturbed by his dissent. (pp. 144-145)
Lest anyone is tempted to divorce this advice on critical thinking and reading from biblical morality, consider that what Adler expresses above is really the answer to the question: How, when reading, do I do unto others as I would have done unto me, and how do I love my neighbor as I love myself?