Critical thinking: American Art and the American Dream. Lesson three: Reasoning, art, myths.

Dear Students,

welcome to lesson 3 (over two weeks).

Today (2nd week of lesson 3):

  • We’ll have a (very) quick quiz on the reading you did for homework.
  • I’ll talk about what we mean by ‘myth’, mythology and the American dream.
  • You’ll do some exercises using reasoning to understand/interpret some works of art.
  • We’ll have begun to think about popular myths and art.

What is reasoning, and why is it so important?

Perhaps more than any other kind of thinking, reasoning is the type most closely associated with critical thinking. Reasoning is highly valued in every field, from physics to geometry, political science and literary analysis, and is a foundational teaching goal of most schools and teachers.

Reasoning with evidence is one of the eight elements that Ron Ritchhart and colleagues believe to be essential to understanding:

Thinking to Understand
1.Observing closely and describing what’s there 2. Building explanations and interpretations
3. Reasoning with evidence 4. Making connections.
5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives 6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions.
7. Wondering and asking questions. 8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things

Brainstorming exercise: what is reasoning?

Take a moment to think of three words that tell us what reasoning is. When you’ve had a few minutes to think we’ll put them up on the board and reflect on our ideas.

Now let’s have a look at this word cloud (in class) representing the views of more than 1000 students. How does it compare to our ideas?

What did you discover?  What common themes and ideas can you find in the Reasoning Word Cloud? Did you find words like logic, interpretation, analysis, argument, hypothesis, inference, explanation, and deduction?

Reasoning works in particular ways for particular academic disciplines.

  • In the social sciences, reasoning often means examining primary resources, seeking causes, and drawing inferences to support ideas about history and politics.
  • In science, reasoning involves looking closely at phenomena to form and test hypotheses based on observation.
  • In literature, reasoning calls for carefully parsing and comparing text passages to make predictions about a character’s motivations and decisions.
  • In art, due to its complexity and varying degrees of clarity and ambiguity, reasoning looks like “figuring it out” or interpretation based on observation. Viewers of art make meaning by looking repeatedly, then making claims and justifying ideas with observations from the work.

Defining Reasoning

Reasoning is the type of thinking that links a claim with evidence.

For our understanding, let’s generally define a claim as a statement or assertion of understanding about something – an artwork, a phenomenon, an experiment, an interaction, a text.

Evidence is factual, reliable, valid data – observable or historical.

While measures of solid evidence to support a claim vary slightly in each field, good evidence most commonly is sufficient (enough to make sense), appropriate (as related to the claim), and qualitative or quantitative (showing certain qualities or quantities).

Reasoning explains how or why the factual data works as evidence.

The ‘What’s Routine’

To practice our reasoning skills, let’s try another  thinking routine called the What’s routine.

  • Have a long and careful look at another artwork (in class).

Take a few minutes to look and think about the following three questions.

Q1. What’s going on (in this artwork)? [What’s it about?]

Let’s record your ideas on the board. Then I’ll ask you the second question,

Q2. What makes you say that?

Again, let’s record our ideas on the board.

Now, the third question. Recall Ron Richhart and colleagues talked about ways of thinking that aid understanding. They suggest at least 8 types:

Thinking to Understand
1.Observing closely and describing what’s there 2. Building explanations and interpretations
3. Reasoning with evidence 4. Making connections.
5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives 6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions.
7. Wondering and asking questions. 8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things

Q3. What types of thinking did we use to answer the questions?

Thinking with context

Let’s learn a little about the artist, and the context of the work (videos/explanation in class).

Background information about the Statue of Liberty.

The Statue of Liberty is a colossal neoclassical sculpture on Liberty Island in New York Harbor in New York City, in the United States.

The copper statue, a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States, was designed by French sculptor Frédéric  and built by Gustave Eiffel. The statue was dedicated on October 28, 1886.

The statue of Liberty as an icon of an American popular myth. Let me tell you a little about term

Introducing conflicting conceptions of the term ‘myth’.

Common sense (realist) perspective:

A myth is a false (often deliberately false) belief or account (Williams)

It is implicit that the person designating a story as myth does not now believe it to be true … (Flood)

Cultural (romantic) perspective: Myth gives a truer (deeper) version of reality than (secular) history or realistic description or scientific explanation.

Neutral perspectives:

  • In everyday usage, one way of understanding myth is simply a collective belief which is or was given the status of truth (Flood).
  • A myth does not simply imply something that is “false”; rather it is a collective belief that simplifies reality (Grittner).

Historical roots of the concept: mythos/logos, imagination/rationality.

For thinkers reflecting on what they saw as archaic aspects of the religious beliefs conveyed by the stories of the [ancient Greek] gods, the word mythos came to connote the use of language in the service of the use of imagination, story-telling, and fiction, as opposed to logos, connoting the use of language in the service of reasoning (Flood).

Contingent/universal definitions:

Myths are often tied to particular historical periods and places.

Williams: myths are ‘held to be fundamental expressions of certain properties of the human mind, and even of basic mental or psychological human organization [that are] are ‘timeless’ (permanent) or fundamental to particular periods or cultures (Williams).

Wolfrey’s et al. definition: The traditional story of pseudo-historical events that function as a fundamental element within the worldview of a given people or nation.

Contemporary historical and anthropological views

Myths seen as working in terms of narrative (discursive forms), subject-matter (stories of gods or superhuman beings), cultural status (sacred truth for the community to which the myth belongs) and social functions (expressing religious beliefs, confirming values and norms, or legitimating social practices and institutions).

In our course, we are most interested in the conflicted definitions of ‘myth’:

  1. the sense that a myth as something that gives a truer (deeper) version of reality than (secular) history or realistic description or scientific explanation (Williams)
  2. the sense that a myth is a false or unreliable story or belief

Using these two conflicting definitions (roughly, romantic vs. rationalist versions), we can begin to do some critical thinking about aspects of a particular mythology:

Founding myths: the American Dream

National communities have founding mythologies (body of related myths) ; they function as a fundamental element within the worldview of a given people or nation.

We might say they work to aid ‘imagined communities’ (the phrase Benedict Anderson coined, meaning the way a people comes to imagine itself, how they think/feel of their ‘we, how they identify as a we). Different communities do that in particular ways, drawing on their own particular mythologies.

Quick discussion example: The Malboro Man.

Classic American cigarette advertising
  • What’s going on with this image?

  • What makes you say that?


In American mythology , the U.S. is, as the national anthem puts it, “the land of the free / And the home of the brave!”

It’s a land in which in which all citizens are thought of as being equal and free. As Thomas Jefferson wrote

We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  (Declaration of Independence, 1776).

The American dream is encapsulated in the idea that every individual American should have an equal right to become her or his best self. Citizens have the right too, or should be free to try to realize their hopes.

The American Dream is individualist. In a common sense (or everyday) kind of understanding, the dream involves the idea that if an individual put in the effort then s/he should be able to achieve the success s/he deserves.

  • Individual responsibility is a key idea: if someone succeeds, it is attributed to their individual efforts, they are regarded as having made the best of their talents (whatever their talents are).
  • Conversely, if someone fails, then it is their fault (that individual didn’t work hard enough to realize her/his dream).

This idea is sometimes referred to as meritocracy (society is ruled by the principle that people get what they deserve).

The American dream can be thought of as a founding myth (or mythology). Thomas Jefferson, one of the ‘founding fathers’, thought the new American republic was different from old feudal Europe. He believed an “aristocracy of talent and virtue” was replacing the aristocracy of birth, the old world order where aristocrats inherited power and wealth.hgt

This dream was popularized in

the fictional characters of the 19th-century writer Horatio Alger Jr – like the New York shoeshine “Ragged Dick [1867/8]” [who went] from rags to riches …

in part due to entrepreneurial spirit and hard work.


Being able to rely on your talents and efforts to go from rags to riches is one part of the mythology of the American dream.

Discussion Question:

Let’s think about an example.

Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezo. These three business own more wealth than the poorer half of America’s citizens (collectively they are wealthier than the lowest 50% of Americans).

Q. How does that relate to the American dream?

Another part is the idea that America gives welcome to anyone from anywhere and that anyone can ‘make it’ in America (regardless of where they came from).

Give Me Your Weak Quote Give Me Your Tired Your Poor Your Hudd Emma Lazarus Like

Historically, a key element of the American myth of a land of hope and freedom is the idea that America gave welcome to the world’s migrants. For many foreigners, the idea of American freedom has been a magnet attracting them to migrate to the United States.

New York’s Statue of Liberty is a famous icon that represented welcome to the 19th century immigrants who later became American citizens.


For generations, America has served as a beacon of hope and freedom for those outside her borders, and as a land of limitless opportunity for those risking everything to seek a better life. (U.S. Congressman Spencer Bachus).

We might say that the Congressman’s story of American welcome is one ‘re-telling’, ‘reiteration’ or ‘narration’ of a founding (national) myth, just as The Statue of Liberty is an icon of that myth.

Artworks in dialogue with each other, and …


The What’s routine again.

Q1. What’s going on in the above artwork?

Let’s record your ideas on the board.

Q2. What makes you say that?

Again, let’s record your ideas.

Q3. What else would we need to know to answer Q1. more fully?

Again, let’s record your ideas.

Q4. What types of thinking did we use to answer the questions?


Class exercise: The what’s routine and your artwork

Now, choose one of your five artworks (last week’s homework). Working in your small groups begin to do the what’s exercise, using that artwork.

1. Choose one of your artworks to talk about (send that one as an image to our wechat group, and send your name with the image [pinyin/English names]).

2. Tell each other what’s going on.

3. Ask each other ‘what makes you say that’?

4. What else would we need to know to answer q2 more fully?

5. Explain what types of thinking you used to interpret your artwork.

Readings about myths

Last week you read the keyword “Myth” by Raymond Williams, and the literary definition of myth given by Chris Baldick. (readings sent to our wechat group). The key thing to remember is the positive (romantic) and negative (rationalist) ways of understanding myths/mythologies.

Homework (more reading + a conceptual exercise)

  1. Read “Thinking Critically, Challenging Cultural Myths”, from Colombo et al.,  Rereading America, 32-43.
  2. Have a look at the standards for critical thinking (Paul and Elder, 2008, p10). Compare them to the dispositions we have learned about. Which standards correspond to which dimensions? (You might make a table, diagram or adjacent lists to show how they correspond).



Baldick, C. (2001) The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, OUP.

Colombo, Cullen and Lisle, (2019) Rereading America, Cultural Contexts for Critical Writing and Thinking, 11th Edition.

Flood, .G. (1998) Political Myth (Theorists of Myth).

Grittner, F. (1990), White Slavery: Myth, Ideology and American Law, NY and London.

Williams, R. (2015), Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, New Edition.

Wolfrey, J., Robbins, R., Womack, K. (2006), Key Concepts in Literary Theory, 2nd ed.

Critical Thinking

Ritchhart, R, et al., (2011) Making Thinking Visible, How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners, Wiley

Paul, R, Elder, L, (2008), The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools

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