Critical Thinking

The buzzwords these days in many colleges and universities around the country are “critical thinking.” At our university where I taught for 37 years a mandate came down from on high not long ago that critical thinking would be required of all graduates forthwith. It was a mandate to all state universities and each was allowed to determine just how to accommodate the requirement.  A great idea, no doubt. But the reality was that it was like throwing a handful of feed to a cluster of hungry chickens! Every department realized that such a requirement was a way to get students into the classroom and pretty much every department in the college proposed one or two of their own courses as a way to meet the mandate. In other  words, every department in the university, with few exceptions, insisted that they taught critical thinking in their courses.

Were that it were so. I have always thought that critical thinking can be taught across the curriculum, and have even led workshops in helping other faculty members see how it could be done. I thought, for example, that accounting and economics, not to say chemistry and even engineering were rich sources for the critical thinker to explore. The same can be said for several of the other departments in the university. But not all. Seriously: critical thinking in sports science??

The home of critical thinking is the philosophy department where logic and critical thinking have been housed since time began — or at least since such courses appeared on the scene. Logic, of course, was a part of the original “trivium” that comprised a part of the seven liberal arts that go back to the medieval period, the birth of the modern university in such places as Paris. But the mandate from on high failed to indicate just how the courses in critical thinking were to be implemented and in doing so they opened Pandora’s Box.

It is not the case that critical thinking is in fact taught in all (or nearly all) courses across the board — sad to say. Though, as I mentioned, I think it can be taught across the board. But the course demands that students be taught how to recognize arguments and distinguish them from simple exposition, locate suppressed premises or assumptions, identify conclusions and separate them from the support for those conclusions — how do we determine where the conclusion lies if we do not have “indicator words” like “therefore,” or “it follows that”? Most arguments appear without such indicators and a careful reader must be able to ferret out the point of the argument before she can begin to think about it critically. It has to do with asking the right questions.

And once the conclusion has been located and the support for that conclusion identified, how compelling is that support for that conclusion? Are any fallacies committed, formal or informal? What are the differences between formal and informal fallacies? These are questions that are central to critical thinking and these are questions that few disciplines with which I am familiar focus upon. For many people critical thinking means sitting around shooting the bull and letting the discussion go where it wants. Those same people seem to think that thinking itself just happens. It doesn’t, not careful thinking. It takes work. As Toynbee said, it is as difficult as is walking on two legs is for a monkey.

Thus we have the interesting but confusing situation in which a sensible mandate has come down from on high and has been met with a plethora of courses that all claim to teach critical thinking while, in fact, very few do. How do I know this? Because I have examined LSAT results over the years and the disciplines that stress critical thinking reward their students with excellent LSAT scores and therefore prepare them nicely for law school where critical thinking is essential. The majority of academic disciplines — even some of those traditionally regarded as the best disciplines to prepare students for law school — do not.

Unfortunately, these are the realities with which we must deal on a daily basis in today’s university. Good ideas become fluff. The demand that the student be prepared to think critically, in this case, is replaced by the demand on the part of faculty across the board that they be allowed a piece of the pie (in the form of what are lovingly called F.T.E. or “full-time equivalent”) — students who sit in the classroom and pay the bills. Instead of thinking about the students and their real needs, many in the faculty think only about their own chosen academic discipline and determine to protect their domain at all costs — even at the cost of the education of the young.

It is not the case that I have nothing good to say about todays universities and colleges. There are good people out there doing good things. But there are also these sorts of SNAFUs. My point here is to note a trend. There are always exceptions to trends and to generalizations (that’s something one learns in a good critical thinking course!). That is to say, there are excellent people in the classrooms across the nation doing excellent things. But not all mandates yield excellent results. Especially when those mandates come from administrators who are not themselves very well educated.

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46 thoughts on “Critical Thinking

  1. Hugh, relevant post. We need to be taught to ask more why questions. We should also be taught to look at the data, its source, and the resulting findings. If we do not, we can be easily misled.

    A graph can be manipulated to exaggerate or lessen impact. The fara is the same, but a significant increase can be made to look small with scaling, eg.

    I see reports which alarm people over something that is only occurring 12% of the time. The key question is if it is a small impact and/ or is always 12%, then it is not as newsworthy. But, if it jumped from a trend rate of 2%, then a question is why? Or if the impact is huge – like the cost of fire damage or homicides – it may be newsworthy.

    These are easy examples. We need to think. Keith

  2. Critical thinking… looks to me like more of a mission statement, which translates as meaningless royal edicts. Exactly what is meant by “critical thinking”? Is it an analysis of cause and effects, of projection, of think before you act? Don’t publish findings in nuclear physics if you don’t want “them” to make a bomb and slaughter millions of innocents civilians to prove a point? Or to get rich? What is critical thinking?

  3. Re-read as promised. What I get is something akin to deductive reasoning? Trying to make sense of what’s being offered as evidence? Could be what make me abandon religion and politics, recognizing the inherent lies in such systems? Rejection of propaganda? Perhaps if people in general were equipped to “do” critical thinking the US wouldn’t have a 4 trillion dollar consumer debt? Am I getting the idea?

  4. My exposure to what is here referred to as critical thinking began in my undergraduate philosophy classes at SW Minnesota State College under the tutelage of Dr. Curtler.

    Prior to that experience, I read widely and wrote grammatically with correct spelling, but I could not tell the tail-end from the front-end — or the middle — of a logical argument. It was clear that I needed to get better at this, and so I tried — and still I try.

    Extensive coursework in Sociological Theory and Research Methods from demanding instructors strongly reinforced my undergraduate lessons. By the same measure, those undergraduate lessons really helped me in my subsequent coursework, both undergraduate and graduate.

    How well I recall working with fellow students in my doctoral program as I helpedt them derive testable hypotheses from theoretical arguments. They all needed my help and eagerly sought it. I recall thinking how unfortunate they were never to have encountered Dr. Curtler, or a teacher of similar talents or expectations, because it would have helped them immensely — and saved me a lot of time, as well.

    With respect to STEM, the subject of a previous post, I vividly recall the doctoral student who had the most trouble understanding how to l derive a testable hypothesis from his own theoretical framework. He had scored a perfect score on the New York Board of Regents Mathematics examination in 1973– which was the reason he received his fellowship at Purdue. Mathematics is, indeed, a form of logic (several, actually) but it does not necessarily lead to either logical or critical thinking, as this example suggests.

    The idea that one can infuse critical thinking into a curriculum by designating entire swaths of courses as “critical thinking courses” is farcical. I know; I have witnessed the farce. The keys are the teachers, the students, what they expect of each other, and what they accomplish over time.

    If the faculty do not expect it and hold students directly accountable for it, and if students can avoid it, then there will be no critical thinking, save by way of accidental outcome.

    As colleges and universities come more and more to resemble academic shopping malls, one would expect any critical thinking that occurs to be evident in a few isolated islands of coursework, largely avoided by most students.

    For all the associated administrative verbiage, critical thinking, I fear, has become more of an incidental than an intended outcome of a college or university education. The more we tout it, the less we produce it.

    So much for “branded” academic reforms. Alas…

    Respects and regards to all.

    Jerry Stark

    • Many thank for the kind words, Jerry. You are exactly right: it won’t happen if everyone on the faculty insists that they are already teaching critical thinking in their cooking or education courses! Because it has become a buzzword and because it means students in the seats this will not change. But in the end, as is so often the case, the student is the victim.

      • Dr. Curtler,

        When I took the job I held for nearly 35 years at a Wisconsin state university, I soon learned that the values of teaching and learning were secondary to the values of class size and professional publications.

        Like many state universities, this university had expanded in the 1960s to meet a student demand that disappeared in the 1970s. The resulting demographic “crunch” led to an emphasis upon large lecture courses to “keep the lights on”.

        As time progressed, the downturn in university applications eased considerably and more emphasis was placed upon faculty publications. This, too, resulted in an increased in class sizes, because a reduced teaching load was achieved by increasing class sizes for lower-division students.

        I recall a conversation with the Dean who engineered this arrangement who said, “We want faculty who can publish two articles a year and bring in grant money. If they can also teach OK, then all the better.” This was the prevailing attitude established by the 1990s at this institution, and institution presumably dedicated to student learning and public service.!

        I refused to participate in the reduced-teaching load program because I thought it was a fraud committed against the students — and I openly said so. I maintained my research agenda as I had always done — with a full teaching load.

        I continued to emphasize intensive writing and research projects in my upper-division classes. I also agreed to teach large, lower-division courses because I knew I would take these courses seriously and do a better job than any one else in the department. (My department set a low bar, so the comparison with my colleagues did me no great credit.)

        I became persona non grata in administrative and in some faculty circles. I had become a faculty curmudgeon for espousing the values of teaching, learning, and smaller class sizes in undergraduate education. Passing strange.

        I often used the classical study of Robert Michels, Political Parties, as a reference point to show students how bureaucratic logistics and careerism undermine an organization’s espoused goals and values. All the students understood this because it was part of their daily experience in the university.

        Nonetheless, I was routinely chastised by administrators for discussing this in class — as if the students did not already know it. The apparatchik Dean even assigned students to sit in on my lectures and report back to him on what was being discussed. Stranger things.

        The latest academic fad is offering “marketable” courses and majors.This is what STEM is all about.The result will be the displacement of learning in favor of training. I asked the Dean of the College of Letters and Sciences when we were to begin offering courses in welding and his first response was to regard it as a serious question rather than as sarcasm. WOW!

        Finally, the piece de resistance. To make more effective teaching in smaller STEM courses possible, larger class sizes and fewer class offerings will be the “new normal” in the liberal arts and social sciences. Oh, what a wonderful new world that has such curriculae in it!

        University teaching has been an interesting experience, both richly rewarding, in personal terms, and Kafkesque to a considerable degree.

        I am certain you know whereof I speak.

        Respects and regards.

        Jerry Stark

      • I do know whereof you speak! And this ship has sailed many years ago, my friend: “The result will be the displacement of learning in favor of training.”

  5. I think critical thinking is easy, but difficult to teach regarding students who’ve not learned early on how to be honest, not given to fantasy, and to follow cause and effect. If parents, who many themselves don’t have critical thinking skills, would take the time to talk with their children, showing cause and effect, but also sharing their own views of understanding, that might start the process, but the understanding has to be sincere and not filled with confusion, unobserved beliefs, and excuses. That’s difficult. But what is critical thinking? I’ve written on this on my blogs, but I also like to read others’ views. To me, critical thinking begins with wanting to understand. Then listening and observing without having to have the answers. In fact, years may pass before some answers are forthcoming. But this is honesty. Saying, I don’t know is better than having to have an opinion which would force the individual to bypass the state of reason. For example, I hear that lying is wrong. On it’s face, that’s absolutely true. But what is the nature of a lie? It’s self-deception aimed at confusing others to “see” things your way. It’s wanting to appear to know without the willingness to be wrong. It’s wanting to be important in ones’ own eyes. So, I ask what is lying? Well, one would say it’s telling someone else an untruth. Is lying always wrong? Some may say “yes.” Then, I would ask what would happen if my friend rushes by. I see a bigger guy in pursuit with a club in his hands. The bigger guy, furious, asks if I saw a fellow in a blue coat run by. I say, no, he went down another road. Did I lie? Yes and no. I did lie about the information, but telling the truth might have meant harm to my friend, whom I know doesn’t do wrong things, at least, not on purpose. You see. Critical thinking. And being willing to examine is important. But constantly examining simply to become an academic genius is not. The first comes from real interest, concern, and inquisitiveness. The second, possibly, a lost sense of self.

    • Well said. It is not simply an academic exercise and there is no winner. It is above all else an attitude, as you suggest, and it starts with the determination to ask the question “WHY?”

      • Yes, and parents who begin the process, support what you’re doing, will encourage with practical experiences as well. Critical thinking, without over-intellectualizing, but seeing and reasoning, prepares them for making better decisions.

  6. I had a Course once on the Matter where Wisdom was put-forth as Prudence according to one school of the Greeks, lead by Aristotle and Socrates…the two being fair antipodes of thinking on the question. The first appears Objective, while the second Subjective as to the Matter of ‘critical thinking’; one demonstrable as to tangible facts and the Other as to moral orientations to Truth. As I recall, it may have been a Contest of the World as it IS against the World as we perceive it…external/internal. The Contest yet rages.

    But I do not see that Wisdom can be Prudence, as Aristotle cannot match Socrates in their Systems, world-view. For instance….can it be Prudent or Practical to ADMIT that one Knows that they do NOT know the answers to the greatest existential quandaries of our existence? I think Socrates made a poor ‘scientists’, though declared the “wisest among men.” Ultimately, Wisdom cannot be Prudence as they are Forms of Understanding with distinct but not separate domains…both OF Experience, but not both FROM Experience, sic the Daemon of Socrates that ever ‘whispered’ which Path to go next.

    I guess we understand the Fates of the two Forms, as Aristotle virtually built the West from the Ground up, logically speaking, and still today rules the Objective realm; while Socrates was put to death for his subversion of the State, and Oracles all but extinguished, and Wisdom with it.

    • I like it when simple explanations aren’t mistaken for insight, nor long-winded for wisdom. I just like to read things that seem, seem to make sense, knowing that they most probably do not in the end, despite my best and conceited efforts. I merely like to be intellectually entertained with a semblance of cogency, no real substantive of obsessive care that it ultimately ‘makes sense’. Buddhism.

      • To require otherwise of my experience lends itself to Service upon an Other’s demands: employment or romance in particular. NO thanks. I’d much rather find Life amenable to perfect Privacy, even private Madness over Social Sanity, today become Collective Idiocy.

    • Indeed, made worse in a world of blind men clamoring with confidence for some bold adventure, and dragging their blind companions with them as they all plunge upon the Abyss. Lemmings, all.

      • I understand your frustration and anger but for your own sake think what are the reasons for all this. Humans are not only rational because their rationality is mixed with emotions, faith, compulsions of the society they live in and worst of all their self deceptions. There is only difference of degree between one human and another and no human is completely free of these influences including me and you yourself.

        What do you think?

      • I’m not sure if this was directed at me, but I will simply state that I am not frustrated and angry. I am terribly disappointed that we do not train young minds to think critically. This is not to deny that we are all a complex of emotion and reason. It is simply to say that we tread on thin ice if we rely entirely on emotion and ignore reason altogether — as the schools seem to be doing these days. Hitler was a highly emotional man and his followers get caught up in the frenzy of emotions that surrounded Naziism. As Hannah Arendt insists, if the German people had been more judgmental (not less) Hitler would never have come to power.

    • I ‘think’ that our Professor has grown comfortable in his Retirement, and ready for a new Adventure.

  7. I think you haven’t introduced yourself to my work here, as regards Cultural Criticism. I am aware of the matter that makes for Ambition, Necessity and Want, lending the Opportunity or Demand of Existence to our very petty lives, too much exalted by those who are accomplished in respect (Ambition) at the expense of the rest. What do I think? You tell me.

    • If I weren’t clear, the answer is Yes: we are dual beings, as if one, Objective and Subjective paradigms of experience informing our Perceptions, beliefs, convictions and motivations, etc. It’s the whole of my Philosophy, which you may peruse here.

  8. Hi hughcurtler,

    My remark was not addressed to you. I agree very much with you about the importance of teaching young minds to think critically. Also you are right that the Western culture is moving away from logic in social discourse. Actually I think that this fact is perhaps one of the reasons why the Western countries are on a downward trajectory.

    But I would like to say that a university professor of logic does not necessarily think and act logically in his own life. Knowing rules of logic is one thing but having a logical world view is another. I think that what matters is having a logical (meaning non contradictory) world view and then every thing else follows. Also I would like to point out that science itself does not have a logical world view. I know that these are big claims I am making but these rest on a solid and provable foundation.

    • I can attest to the truth of your claim that a professor who teaches logic doesn’t always act logically! This is a given. But the teaching of logic does teach a way to approach problems and to think one’s way through complex issues. And we need that now more than ever.

      • Logic. As if the World waits for the Proof of Logic to accomplish anything. You’d have to be a fool to believe that Logic can or does reshape the world we live in, or ever shall live in. It’s the kind of thing that men spend their time with in private, thinking themselves smart. It’s simply not human or any other kind of Nature, an invention fit for empty space and heartless speculations (outside of Numbers).

  9. I think one major problem in this country is the use of rhetoric and intellectualism. In college, I had professors that could spout all kinds of gibberish, thinking themselves intelligent, but they didn’t have one wit of common sense. The most intelligent people, with wisdom, I have ever seen experienced life. They came from humble origins, worked hard, took care of family, so when I listened and talked with them, their words were filled with real-life experience. I guess, after several decades of work, I tend to talk bluntly, straight to the point, making observations based on real-life experiences, not just on my thinking and abstract reasoning. Abstract reasoning can say anything and make it look good.

    • Seriously? You think the country too intellectual? If anything we are anti-intellectual and always have been. Americans are a very practical people who think “egg heads” live in another world. But, to your point, there are many very bright and accomplished people who were uneducated, though I would hesitate to call them “unintelligent.” Lincoln springs to mind, as does Eric Hoffer a longshoreman who read copiously and was bright as could be. But don’t denigrate intelligence. Despite the anti-intellectualism mentioned above, the founders were extremely intelligent and they wrote a pretty good Constitution and founded a Republic that, while flawed in some ways, is a beacon for the rest of the world.

  10. Too many people like to think themselves smart. They aren’t. Yes, they can think at high levels, are intelligent, but have put all their efforts into thinking and not really living. Many.

    • Let’s not confuse “smart” with”Intelligent.” And let’s not confuse “education” with “schooling,” either. There are many well schooled people with PhDs who I would regard as uneducated!

      • Well said hughcurtler.

        But I would like to add that there are some very intelligent and educated men who people would call unsuccessful in the world. They are unsuccessful because they are unable to compromise with the dishonesty and self-deception which is required to be successful in the human society.

  11. We live in a world where people no longer rely on facts or the importance of Individuality. We now live in a world where being authentic and true to your Self is a criminal offense. A world where you’re not allowed to go beyond that of which limits your imagination and conscious, creative impulses. And all we are left with is a society where there are no morals/ethics, no ability to apply rationality and reason, and we are left with a system of broken dreams and pitiful excuses for making false civilizations.

    “Emotions neither prove nor disprove facts. There was a time when any rational adult understood this. But years of dumbed-down education and emphasis on how people ‘feel’ have left too many people unable to see through this media gimmick.”

    ~ Thomas Sowell

  12. Good points. I think, however, that is many trying to find themselves, they miss the boat. In over-analyzing and intellectualizing, they spend their days thinking about things but never really being themselves. There’s a fine line between being authentic and spending one’s days trying to be authentic.

  13. Unfortunately, with all the “feel good” accolades, the excuses given, the programs that prevent people from ever having to deal with life on its own terms, many will never learn. Very sad. But those of us in the know have a responsibility to be good examples and explain when opportunities avail.

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