Friday, April 22, 2011

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking

There are more than 16,000 school districts in the United States and just about all of them boast that they foster ‘critical thinking. Check out school mission or vision statements, for example. Thousands include heart-warming affirmations like this one from the Lordstown, Ohio School District: “We believe in the development of critical thinking skills.” Then there is the Calvin Wiley Elementary school in North Carolina. They assures all and sundry that their vision, "is to engage in critical thinking and inspire lifelong learning for 21st Century success."

These, and the thousand. of others like them, are commendable commitments. But what would happen if school kids
 actually were taught to think critically? We're not talking about mere logic chopping here — the usual “these are the premises” and “this is a conclusion,” sort of thing. Such so-called ‘critical thinking’ is both harmless and useless because it rarely results in serious considerations of anything of consequence.  No. by critical thinking we mean systematically reconsidering the deep assumptions that most of us take for granted. We also mean questioning basic authority — including sacred and semi-sacred documents and those who interpret them. When "critical thinking" fails to include that sort of things it is hardly thinking, much less critical.

Imagine encouraging kids to consider what would have happened if the American Revolution had never happened. We could ask them, "Would we still be a colony of Great Britain?" The obvious answer is no. No doubt we would have gone through the same process as Canada, New Zealand and Australia and today would have long been a fully independent nation. But try encouraging that critical thought and see where it gets you. Or suppose students were taught how to truly, seriously and boldly scrutinize traditional religious beliefs? We might encourage them to ponder, for instance, why a supposedly loving God permits so much physical suffering in the world. If God loves us, what's with things like hare lips, cerebral palsy and spina-bifida? This question of physical evil has engaged critical thinkers, including brilliant Christian ones, for a great many years. But should educators  encourage this sort of critical thinking they would have to flee a rampaging mob of angry, torch-wielding villagers.

Some might argue that it isn't necessary to tackle such controversial issues head on in order to teach kids to think critically. They maintain that by teaching generic methods, learners will, sooner or later, bring these methods to bear on critical matters. T
his is a forlorn hope because all sorts of things can interfere with this sort of transfer of learning. If we really want young people to  think critically, they must be provided with a direct, well focused and conspicuously relevant opportunity to do so.  Teachers should just be prepared to find another job should when they do so. 

See for another dimension of this inquiry.l