“Critical Thinking” Minus Criticism and Thought

One of higher education’s most overworked phrases is “critical thinking.” Before we sing its praises, let’s see what it really means.

Temple University, where I teach, has a new general education program that identifies “critical thinking” as an essential goal. Here’s the reason behind those required courses: Those of us in higher education are unable to agree on what students should know or what books they should read. Should students read Adam Smith along with Karl Marx? Is it worth studying Shakespeare and the Bible as well as Malcolm X? We can’t say.

We can, however, agree that college educated people should at least be able to think straight. Disagreement on content causes us to turn instead to a rubric of skills. That is the impetus behind the “critical thinking” movement.

As I will show, the original meaning of “critical thinking” has been confused with thinking that is critical of American values and institutions, a mode of thought that reflects the left orthodoxy of the university community itself.

The critical thinking movement has some academic legitimacy. It emerged from an initiative at Sonoma State College some twenty-five years ago. Its source was the logic courses taught by philosophy departments, often as their contribution to the core curriculum. The movement’s novelty was in separating the goal of developing good thinking habits from the study of any particular body of knowledge.

Unquestionably, it is good for students to learn how to apply logic and sharpen their reasoning skills. Since then, however, the term has been appropriated for other, quite different purposes. In my experience at Temple—a large state-related university—“critical thinking” is intended to recruit the next generation of students into an oppositional force to carry out the struggle for social justice, a renovation thought to be urgently needed in an ideologically blind-folded America.

For example, Rethinking the Color-Line, the textbook assigned for a required course I recently taught (English R50, a course in college composition and also race studies that fulfills two requirements at once) is uniformly leftist in its selections. Angela Davis, Howard Zinn, and Jonathan Kozol are well represented, along with a stellar list of urban sociologists and radical historians, including specialists in race studies like Howard Winant, all making the case that the United States has been brutal in its treatment of minorities. The writing is vigorous, as is the display of data demonstrating the wide gap in the distribution of the wealth of this country and the misery experienced by immigrant populations and racial and ethnic minorities.

One looks long and hard for an essay or two in which immigrant populations may appear to have done well in the United States or had some good reason for showing up here for what is apparently an unendurable social and cultural mauling. Also, although there are mentions of “African-American Conservative” writers, they seem to have been segregated out of the discussion, except to be denounced unheard.

Missing entirely is support for debate and true critical thinking. Opposing positions are foreclosed without discussion. If Ward Connerly and Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele have such dismissible things to say, would not their writings help students develop critical thinking abilities by wrestling with the critically-alert arguments of these oppositional voices? But on these issues, faculty curriculum planners do not believe there are counter-arguments, only arguments beyond dispute. A student essay on the sources of social and economic distress in our urban centers might benefit from some recent writing by Orlando Paterson or the speeches of Bill Cosby, but they are beyond the academic pale.

Thus, the point of the textbook (and the course) is to help students develop negative perspectives on the United States and its history of racism and imperialism. Students emerging from such a course have been trained in railing at their nation, its traditions, and its activities in the world. However, without a broad and balanced view, their criticism won’t show much critical thinking.

Temple’s basic course in college composition (not the one teamed with race studies) shares the goal of developing “critical thinking” and utilizes two dependably univocal texts. One is The Shadow of the Eagle, an undistinguished piece of journalism purporting to show what others in the world think of us. The author reports chance conversations and then launches into his own over-ripe condemnation of United States’ world hegemony. The book is unrelentingly critical, but here again the course planners have mistaken criticism for a debate that fosters critical thinking abilities. It does not help, either, that the courses are taught by people who share these assumptions uncritically.

The other book is The Male Body. Although students may already be alert to racism and the evils of imperialism, they may not have become critical in their thinking about sexual alternatives or about sexual display touted as a force to renew our flagging society. This book includes a central chapter on the penis, along with lusty pornographic passages. The spine of this respected tome sports a ruler measuring a heroic nine inches, just in case you might overlook the crudeness of this selection. The culturally aggressive course planners seem to think this an appropriate subject for a first-year classroom. And remember—this is a freshman composition course.

Perhaps Larry Flynt is a good replacement for Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics in freshperson comp. But I suspect our students, for the most part, are fully familiar with dirty books and pictures. Our society is overheated with sexuality. A good reader on this topic, one that would actually promote critical thinking, might be a collection of writings that support sexual restraint.

If colleges really want students to be able to think critically, they could start by insisting that professors not use books in which all the authors are pushing the same message, that students should be unfailingly hostile to our culture and institutions. Teaching students to regurgitate anti-American sentiments is not the same as teaching them critical thinking skills.