Why is criticism (n.) associated with such negativity? The etymology of criticism couldn’t be clearer. Since 1600 it has had the meaning of ‘discussion of merit, character or quality’ (etymonline). Criticism meant to talk about how good something is. It retains that definition, to this day, in academia where we talk about ‘Literary Criticism’, for example. I studied two modules of ‘Culture and Criticism’ in my first year of undergraduate literature studies, and that was certainly not all negativity. Yet, I’m sure most people associate criticism with negativity, rather than neutrality or even positivity. They would probably agree that criticism means something like ‘the act of saying that something or someone is bad’ which is the meaning the Cambridge Dictionary puts first. Somewhere in the natural evolution of language, we have associated, and then displaced, the act of talking about merit and quality with the act of finding fault.
When I do observation feedback, the first thing I ask teachers to do is to tell me about the lesson they taught. More often than not, they plunge straight in, providing me with a list of flaws, most of which are a result of some failing on their part. I’ve learned to expect this and so now, I gently interrupt as soon as I can and prompt them to tell me about some good aspects of the lesson. The first time I do this with a teacher, I’m often faced with a surprised face. I reassure them that the purpose of observation is to identify both the strengths of the lesson and some areas of practice that could be improved. ‘Observation’, too, has become a term laden with connotations of judgement and evaluation, rather than one describing a developmental discussion between professionals.
And yet negative criticism is necessary for us to grow and develop: as professionals; as friends, partners, children and parents; as footballers or violinists; as cooks or painters; and so on. We should value negative criticism more than we fear it. There’s power, strength and humility in inviting someone else to offer us criticism. However, the power dynamic is so often flipped with criticism reaching us uninvited or from someone wielding power over us.
Perhaps the strongest critical voice we hear is the inner one and perhaps that’s why teachers start with the negative aspects of the lessons they have taught. It’s a voice that doesn’t allow us to become complacent, but it’s a voice that can become destructive if we allow it too much leeway. Learning to filter useful internal and external criticism from unnecessary negativity masquerading as criticism is a life skill and it’s one I know I’m still working on. Useful criticism (positive and negative) helps us to grow and develop.