Critique, criticism and a new development indicator | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 20, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, April 20, 2021

Critique, criticism and a new development indicator

I've always wanted to be a PhD student. I love reading and writing and a PhD is literally being facilitated—often with a full scholarship—to think, read and write. It's an opportunity to learn about theories, concepts, philosophies and methodologies. Out of these, what stands out for me the most—especially in relation to the education I've received in Bangladesh—are the discussions on philosophies and on new ways of thinking. Some topics sometimes seem so simple at the beginning but in the end, result in blowing my mind. One such discussion was on the difference between criticism and critique, and I found this especially stimulating when I began to find the relevance of the topic in everyday life.

When a teacher scolds a student for making a mistake, is that criticism or critique? When an academic reviews a peer's paper and suggests a change, is it critique or is it criticism? When an aunty compares her daughter's skin colour to yours, is that critique or criticism? What about when a parent pushes you to study for the BCS, when a friend challenges your Facebook status, when someone expresses a different opinion than you, or when citizens take to the streets to protest? What is critique and what, then, is criticism?

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There is a fine line between these two concepts. If invited to be either "for" or "against" something, we may often find ourselves engaging in criticism rather than critique. According to the professor who taught this idea to us, "Criticism invites a complaint, or a state of opposition, or identifying negative aspects". On the other hand, "Critique challenges rather than confirms, disrupts rather than reproduces cultural traditions and conventions, and shows tensions in language use, encouraging dissention rather than surface consensus". Brookfield (1987) suggests that being appropriately skeptical about any knowledge or solution that claims to be the only truth or alternative is the essence of critique and criticality. According to Alvesson and Deetz (2021), there may be distinctive differences between the language used to critique and the language used to criticise. Once you know this, it may be easier to notice the patterns in the language used—the often more negative connotations used to criticise and the more constructive approach to critique. One of the two is more positive, in essence, than the other.

Critique forces you to question your premise and to rethink the taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs that power your way of thinking. Critique presumes that it can lead to improvement and social change, whereas that is, in most cases, not likely to be the intention of criticism. On the onset, understanding intention is the key to distinguishing between whether a remark is critique or criticism. This may be tricky, but as indicated in the definitions of critique, language is often indicative, and so may be gestures, tones and body language. It's not just what we say, but also how we say it.

Is it important to be critical? More importantly, is it important to have a critical mass? We may each have different takes on this, different answers. Averaging the answers, and weighing whether the "yes" or "no" group is larger, is an indication of the pulse of a country. I believe that a critical mass is the key to progress and that critical thinking and the practice of criticality should be prioritised in education. Learning to accept critique is part of this practice. Passion, the drive to improve and the inclination to receive critique go hand in hand.

There is a history of education systems evolving from the purpose of creating a critical mass. There was a time when a group of individuals sitting under a tree listening to someone wiser constituted a classroom. Over time, what we consider a class, a classroom and an education has transformed into what it is today. In his book School on Trial: How freedom and creativity can fix our educational malpractice, Nikhil Goyal eloquently traces the history behind the development of the American public school system and the consequent purposes of modern-day schooling. One purpose, he suggests, is to teach children how to comply with orders, submit to authority and "fit in". He mentions the thoughts of the eminent Noam Chomsky who once said, "The whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don't know how to be submissive…". It makes one wonder whether the establishment of a critical mass serves, in actuality, the opposite purpose of modern-day education. It seems very likely that the absence of a critical mass, of the "disobedient", may be a rather desired state for many, if not all, modern states.

The inclination to critique or criticise is a reflection of one's mentality. And I believe that "mentality" should be included as an indicator of development. Recently, there has been much focus on strengthening the approach that we use to assess a country's development. In February, Prof Wahiduddin Mahmud wrote in an oped in The Daily Star that GDP, commonly used to measure economic development, ignores many non-income aspects of human well-being. As an unconventional approach to assessing development, he shed light on some new factors, largely emphasising the quality of life, the quality of public transport, tap water, public libraries, human resources etc.

I strongly believe that mentality should be added to the list because, at the end of the day, if there is no development of the mind, of human nature and behaviour, towards goodness and wellness—is development really development? If we have high quality roads and transport, but we don't think twice before wronging someone; if we have the most modern technologies and the best education system, but we are alright with cutting corners for personal gain; if Dhaka becomes like Singapore but we, the people, spend the larger part of our days criticising, backbiting and belittling each other—would our gains really be gains? Mentality matters—are our people more pro-social or pro-self, are our people more prone to criticise than critique, are we by nature mostly kind or mostly selfish? These factors should be a part of our indicators of development. Subsequently, how we reliably measure these traits becomes an important issue and may just be the next big challenge for social scientists to figure out.

What we believe should be considered development indicators will continue to be a topic of debate and discussion as we tread, as a nation, to a better future. The point is that these debates and discussions get to unfold. Be it critique or criticism, opinion or fact—an undeniable indicator of development is that our thoughts can be freely and comfortably shared. For the day that we are silenced, and gradually lose the will to voice our thoughts, is the day that hope no longer has any promise.


Rubaiya Murshed is a PhD student at University of

Cambridge and Lecturer of Department of       

Economics at University of Dhaka.


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