Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

What do colleges teach these days? One answer to that question that has become common in the past five to ten years is “critical thinking.”  Supposedly, in the age of rapid communication and information storage, we always have facts, accounts, and theories at our fingertips and we have no need to carry large quantities of knowledge around in our minds.  Therefore, our institutions of higher learning should teach students intellectual skills, not content.
I have trouble with this approach because I’m not sure exactly what it means to teach people to think critically. The word “critical” comes from a Greek verb that means “to judge” or “to decide,” so I suppose it may entail teaching how to make judgments or decisions. That would suggest that it refers to formal systems of reasoning, such as syllogistic logic or cost-benefit analyses. But most of the courses at contemporary colleges don’t present those types of formal systems. In fact, the kind of “critical thinking” I see most often is decidedly uncritical, and involves entertaining students with pop culture and training them to repeat the shibboleth and slogans of their instructors.
In truth, thinking must always involve thinking about something.  Therefore, one cannot separate the skills from the content. There is no thought without knowledge. So maybe if our colleges are becoming devoted to teaching things like “critical thinking” or “creativity,” this means that they are moving toward teaching nothing at all.

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