"Critical Thinking": What a Piece of Cant
Every once in a while I read or hear something that makes me realize that I've been unconsciously spewing cant about something for a long, long time. I get kind of a sick feeling when I realize this, because one thing I try to do, in keeping with my research in memetics, is to harden myself against the sorts of things that everyone is saying. My misanthropic gut instinct usually tells me that if everyone is saying it, it's probably wrong.
(I think this is why I tend to be very comfortable hanging out with scientists. One of my best friends at Wheaton is a scientist and the kind of person who immediately attempts to find alternate explanations for phenomena that are presented to her as facts. This can be difficult, I think, for the kind of people who like to say "studies show X" and have people believe them. Betsey won't let that nonsense go on for two minutes).
On Friday a friend from graduate school asked me to look over the introduction he's written for an essay collection. Among other very interesting things that he had to say, he took on the shibboleth (and called it that) of "critical thinking."
If you are currently in academia, or have been anywhere near it for the past twenty years, you've probably heard a lot about "critical thinking." Everyone agrees that it is the most important thing that we teach. Why, if students learn "critical thinking," then they don't actually have to learn any specific material: as long as they can think critically about it, well, our job is done. Administrators love "critical thinking," as do other professors, potential donors, parents and even students.
So of course we are probably long overdue for someone to throw some cold water on the whole idea.
"Critical thinking" appears to have all the qualities of a piece of cant. I'm not sure we do teach our students to think critically, and furthermore, I'm not so sure that we think criticallly, and I'm not even sure that if we did, it would make the slightest bit of difference.
Furthermore, saying that you are more concerned about teaching "critical thinking" than about teaching your subject matter is an example of pre-emptive rhetorical surrender and is the kind of thing that the humanities have been doing, to their great detriment, throughout my lifetime. If you are only concerned that your subject teaches "critical thinking," then there's really no reason for your subject to exist--if another subject came along that taught "critical thinking" just as well or better than yours, then why keep, say, a medievalist around when you can replace that person?
I think this is exactly why so many important, traditional disciplines have hemmorhaged students, tenure-lines and respect for the past thirty years. Because if you can get "critical thinking" from just about any subject (and believe me, every subject claims to teach "critical thinking"), then what's the payoff for studying a difficult subject like medieval literature? Trying to make the argument that difficult subjects teach more critical thinking is fighting on unfavorable ground: how can you be sure? You, in medieval lit, have to spend hours of class time on history, languages, paleography, theology, metrics, etc. In this other class, which doesn't have all that stuff, we can "think critically" just about the entire time.
Thinking about it more, and realizing that the phrase "critical thinking" is a piece of cant, I'm not sure that I ever learned how to think critically in a single class. And I'm not sure I've ever taught a student to think critically, either. I think at one stage in my teaching life I tried to teach them to be more skeptical (or, as one of my friends in the English department always says, "to be suspicious"), but even here I'm not particularly sure, and I'm not sure such teaching would really be worth their time or mine.
What I do think I got from my classes, and what I think I give to my students, is a more complete picture of the world, a more sophisticated model inside their heads, a more detailed map (though that map can never be as detailed as the territory). To speak of memes: the memetic ecosystem inside their minds is more complex and richer than it would be if they hadn't take the class, had the discussions, learned the material. And therefore that memetic ecosystem has a better chance of generating interesting, valuable, previously unknown combinations and permutations of memes.
So if you, like me, say or have said that you are more concerned about teaching "critical thinking" than the actual subject material, you, like me, are guilty of transmitting cant. And the transmission of cant shows that you're not practicing "critical thinking."