Thursday, March 21, 2024


There are more than 16,000 school districts in the United States and nearly all of them claim they teach ‘critical thinking.’ In fact if you Google search “critical thinking” + “school mission statement” you will get 175,000+ matches.  

School mission statements typically make claims such as this: “We believe in the development of critical thinking skills.” (Lordstown School District, Ohio.) Okay; but what does "critical thinking" amount to? Wikipedia says it involves: "the analysis of available facts, evidence, observations, and arguments in order to form a judgement by the application of rational, skeptical and unbiased analyses and evaluation." 

Such a procedure, when applied to things that really matter, unveils deep assumptions that socialization conditions us to take for granted. That's why successfully teaching students to think critically, often runs afoul of that very socialization — one of schooling's primary, though generally unreflective, functions

What is socialization? "Making someone behave in a way that is acceptable to their society." (Oxford Dictionary of English.) For instance, making them conform to gender norms, avoid cultural taboos and engage in 'appropriate' manners. Such things define a society and play a major role in glueing it together. 

Take the common belief of many Americans that the United States is the best country in the world. That conviction is a result of socialization. Generally it is unreflective. Most who firmly believe this lack an adequate basis for comparison. For instance, most have never lived anywhere else. But critical thinking threatens this perception, It requires weighing the assertion and investigating whether or not there are other countries that might be as good or better.  

That investigating also requires deciding what criteria to apply. Suppose, for example, students test this claim by applying the criteria of life expectancy. Here the United States' ranks a dismal 40th. (World Population Review). The U.S. also ranks a discouraging 23rd in citizen happiness. (Oxford's World Happiness Report, 2024) Students might also discover that among developed countries, the U.S. has one of the world's highest income inequalities. (Wikipedia) Or that the Cato Institute ranks their "the land of the free" a dismal 23rd in human rights. (Switzerland is number 1.) In fact the United States has the sixth highest incarceration rate per thousand on the planet. While the United States contains just 4.2% of the world's population, it incarcerates 20% of the world's prisoners. (Wikipedia) 

On the other hand, they might also discover that the U.S. ranks number 1 in disposable income per person. The income an individual has left after subtracting payments for income taxes. [Investopedia]) Similarly, they could learn that while the United States has only 4.2% of the world's population, it accounts for 25% of the global economy and 30% of global wealth. They might also learn that the U.S. is first in Gross Domestic Product, 1st in innovation, 1st in higher education, 2nd in economic competitiveness, and a credible 5th in productivity,. (These rankings are from a variety of authoritative sources, principally Wikipedia.)

Let's imagine a high schooler critically considering such facts, going home and announcing that they don't think the U.S. is the greatest country on earth. Might that raise parental concerns? Especially if their youngster came to this conclusion based on what they learned in their tax-supported public school. Do you think the local school board might hear complaints about this sort of learning? Should the teacher expect kudos? Should the superintendent and principal batten down the hatches for a blow? 

Critical thinking would also involve seriously examining documents that most in the U.S. consider to be authoritative. The Constitution and the Bible come to mind. And remember, that examination requires the thinker to also take a close look at the authorities that interpret these complicated documents for us. How seriously should students take famed evangelist Joel Osteen' s interpretation of the Bible, for instance? Why him? Because Osteen offers Biblical interpretations that a whole lot of folks take seriously? He has written ten books, some of which were NY Times Best Sellers. His church claims 40,000 members and hundreds of thousands more follow him on mass media. Yet he's had no formal training in religion. He dropped out of college and never earned ordination. He inherited his pulpit from his father. Nevertheless, challenges to Osteen's authority will not be welcomed by those who admire him. Especially if they were spawned in the very schools they help pay for and now "infect" their child. 

The same applies to the Constitution and the interpretations of it by legal authorities such as the Supreme Court. Let's just consider Justice Clarence Thomas' interpretations. He's supposed to apply only his legal knowledge to help define the Constitution for the rest of us. Yet students engaged in thinking critically about it would quickly learn that he reluctantly admits accepting lavish trips, luxury vacations, cruises on opulent yachts and junkets on private jets from a conservative billionaire. Might the kids conclude that these gifts influence his opinions and undermine the quality of his decisions? Critical thinking certainly requires them to ponder that. But what about "right to life" parents who regard Clarence Thomas as uncommonly authoritative? Will they be happy when they learn their son or daughter are questioning his judgement,  indeed  questioning his very integrity, and that they learned to do that in public school?

Some argue it isn't necessary in teaching critical thinking to tackle controversial things like this head on. That by being taught generic methods of 'thinking critically,' learners will eventually bring these tools to bear on those deep assumptions and interpretive authorities that direct their lives. But many variables interfere with such transfer of learning. If we want young people to actually learn to think critically, teachers must provide them with direct and well-focused opportunities to examine issues that really matter. But if teachers do that, they better be prepared to look for another job. 

The stark fact is that it's impossible to foster critical thinking about anything of consequence without upsetting a whole lot of people. Critical thought is disturbing by its very nature. 

Worse still, encouraging student's to think critically about anything significant can, and asuredly will, be significantly misinterpreted. Moreover. misinterpretation will often be used for personal advantage by unprincipled opportunists. For instance, demagogic politicians who seek reelection at all costs or greedy televangelists who scare their followers in to buying them a personal jet. 

In the final analysis the emotional discomfort provoked by critical inquiry is the price of growing up. So if educators avoid fostering critical thinking, they are encouraging students to remain childlike intellectually and emotionally. This is particularly harmful in a democracy. Yet, ironically, it is precisely this sort of childishness that reinforces the socialization that is vital to societal survival.

Perhaps educators should encourage just enough critical thinking to allow societal adaptation to a changing world, but not enough to inadvertently provoke social disintegration. But where is this middle ground? And should we expect educators, school board members, politicians, and the public to stick their neck out searching for it? Besides, most of the above couldn't do it if they wanted too. Critical thinking is a rare commodity and well beyond most of them. Worse still, this middle ground is especially elusive in a society lacking consensus and riven with controversy. 

Then there is this. If teachers did succeed in surpassing their own limitations and actually get students to employ critical thinking, what would happen when these empowered youngsters focus on their own schooling? 

Imagine them critically examining how, what and why they are being compelled to learn — or at least pretend to. Picture them using all the available facts, evidence, observations, and arguments, then forming a judgement about their schooling based on the application of rational, skeptical and unbiased analyses and evaluation? What decisions might they reach? What actions might they take? What are the chances schooling would remain unchanged? Would any teacher. principal, superintendent or school board member feel more secure? Would parents be happy with the results? You decide.

-- GKC