Critical Thinking About “Critical Thinking”
There are more than 16,000 school districts in the United States and nearly all of them boast that they teach ‘critical thinking.’ In fact if you Google “critical thinking,” “school district,” and “mission statement” combined you get an astonishing 182,000 matches. Click on them and you will find page after page of heart-warming affirmations like this one from the Lordstown, Ohio School District: “We believe in the development of critical thinking skills.”
A commendable belief; but what would happen if critical thinking actually were effectively taught? Suppose the youngsters truly, seriously and boldly scrutinized their community and nation’s customs, principles, and beliefs. Suppose they were encouraged to critically examine the authorities that most of us defer to in directing our lives and defining the good, the true, the beautiful? No doubt that would be critical thinking. But would educators who encourage this sort of analytical inquiry receive hearty congratulations or have to flee a rampaging mob of angry, torch-wielding villagers?
Let’s be clear that by critical thinking we do not mean mere logic chopping. You know, the “these are the premises” and “this is a conclusion,” sort of thing. That kind of ‘critical thinking’ is generally harmless in that it rarely results in serious challenges to anything deeply believed. That is why this is the common style of ‘critical thinking’ taught in school. No,by critical thinking we mean systematically reconsidering the deep assumptions that many, including student’s parents, take to be true. We also include questioning basic authority — including sacred and semi-sacred documents and those who interpret them. Thinking critically has to include that sort of thing or it is hardly critical.
Some might argue that it isn't necessary to tackle these issues head on; that by teaching generic methods of thinking critically learners will, sooner or later, bring these tools to bear on those deep assumptions and basic authorities that are central to their lives. But too many things can interfere with transfer of learning to rely on it. If you want young people to really think critically, it is far better to provide them with a direct and well focused opportunity to do so. Just be prepared to find another job shortly thereafter.