Sunday, April 02, 2006

"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."


Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

From my experience teaching in Korea, where the method of education is still largely rote memorization, I'd say that it is important to teach critical thinking.

By that, I mean the ability to argue logically while giving good reasons and providing verifiable evidence for a claim.

So, I require expository essays in all of the courses that I teach, and students learn to construct logical thesis statements and compose well-organized essays.

Well ... that's my aim, anyway.

But it's not the only aim in my courses.

Jeffery Hodges

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Chaser said...

Ok, I am new to the teaching game, but to me, you are expressing admiration for your scientist friend who critically evaluates things presented to her as "facts" at the same time you dismiss critical thinking as cant.

I always thought critical thinking was just plain thinking for yourself.

Kate Marie said...

Lisa, I thought the point of Professor Drout's post was not to disparage the notion of critical thinking per se, but to challenge the idea that teaching critical thinking "skills" is the first purpose of every class. The implicit assumption of that idea is that content doesn't matter. And "content doesn't matter" is the last refuge of every high school teacher who would rather teach "A Separate Peace" than "The Scarlet Letter."

Scott Kleinman said...

For a long time I've had thoughts similar yours, Mike. I'd add that critical thinking *is* an important activity, but it's a higher order activity which has to be based on lower order ones. Critical thinking is all about taking a body of knowledge and analysing the implications of certain portions of that knowledge in their context. (Needless to say, the context and implications may varying according to one's theoretical perspective.)

In order to do this, you need to have stored in your mind (i.e. long-term memory) a critical mass of knowledge about a subject in order to create a mental context in which to analyse it. It seems to me that the American education system discourages this and tries to put the cart (critical thinking) before the horse (subject matter knowledge). It seems that the Korean system, by contrast, lets the horse run without attaching the cart. What we need to do is make them run in tandem; but, as is logical, with the horse going first. As such, I think you're right to suggest that we need to de-emphasise "critical thinking" as the main benefit of our discipline.

History Geek said...

Well said.

I still cringe when a teacher says we should use our 'critical thinking skills' on something. I mean really, would one use that phrase with say a banker?

I'm just waiting for my director to decide we need to introduce 'critical thinking' to our four and five year olds. Or maybe I should say a parent to demand we start.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Hmmm... I have to say it's on all my syllabi, in the "outcomes" section. But it's also clear that I mean "critical thinking as it applies to the discipline and methodologies of history." I wish I could say, "in this class, I'm going to try to teach you how historians know what they know, as well as the kinds of methods they use and questions they ask so that they do know what they know." If you know what I mean.

I feel much better when we get to break down the outcomes into smaller bits of jargon, like 'read, understand, and explain primary source documents in their historic context'; 'analyze disparate sources and from them construct a well-written narrative'; etc.