Here is how academics ruined the critical thinking movement

In the 1980s, facing complaints from business leaders that college graduates couldn’t think, K-16 education responded with the “critical thinking movement.” After 35 years, how successful has that movement been?

In my view, it failed. Colleges still graduate students who can’t think and more of them. In terms of their ability to use reason to analyze meaning and detect bad arguments, American students have been getting weaker, not stronger. Sociologist Richard Arum, co-author along with Josipa Roksa of Academically Adrift and Aspiring Adults Adrift, says of recent graduates that “They didn’t develop critical thinking, complex reasoning [skills] and the ability to communicate in writing. [And] they didn’t develop the attitudes and dispositions during college associated with adult success.”

What went wrong?

From the outset, educators argued about whether “critical thinking” was a one-size-fits-all set of skills or whether it was “domain specific” (chemistry critical thinking, history critical thinking, literature critical thinking). There were arguments, unsettled to this day, about what “critical thinking” even means. For years, my college had an official institutional goal to “promote . . . critical thinking across all areas and disciplines,” but the college strenuously refused to define what it meant by “critical thinking” and how it would apply in classes on yoga, Romantic poetry, and succulent gardening.

The college’s silence was ironic since being able to define what you mean by the words you employ is the first step in real critical thinking. Mandating pursuit of something you can’t define usually leads to chaos or farce.

Now, the California Community College chancellor’s office is similarly demanding that all courses demonstrate, in a measurable way, how they develop “critical thinking.” Predictably, the chancellor doesn’t define “critical thinking.”

So what is proper critical thinking? In 1906, Yale sociology professor William Graham Sumner defined it as “the examination of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not.” Exactly. Proper critical thinking asks us, “How accurate is your mental and verbal model of the real world?” Proper critical thinking accepts that there is a “way things are,” that there are “facts of the matter,” and that it is possible to “get it right.” Mathematical and scientific reasoning, Venn diagrams, and formal and informal fallacies provide a solid foundation. A familiarity with general semantics is also desirable.

Unfortunately, in higher education, “critical thinking” was swiftly hijacked by ideologues to camouflage classroom advocacy. At a conference a few weeks ago, one community college teacher claimed he was “teaching critical thinking” by making his students play “social issue” online computer games from the collection called “Games for Change.”

However, games designed to promote social change are neither games nor productive of critical thinking. Instead, they package liberal or progressive assumptions (“change” is what progressives are after; “Hope and Change,” you will remember, was President Obama’s campaign slogan). Games about illegal immigration and homelessness simply create sympathy without doing anything to train students’ minds in recognizing and evaluating assumptions of any variety.

In an article earlier this month titled “Let’s Stop Trying to Teach Students Critical Thinking,” British Professor of Education Dennis Hayes says this:

When teachers talk about the need to be “critical” they often mean instead that students must “conform.” It is often actually teaching students to be “critical” of their unacceptable ideas and adopt the right ones. Having to support multiculturalism and diversity are the most common of the “correct ideas” that everyone has to adopt. Professional programmes in education, nursing, social work and others often promote this sort of “criticism.” It used to be called “indoctrination.”

Hayes is on to something. In the United States we see the same thing he has observed in Britain—professors telling students what to think, rather than instructing them in how to think.

In these pages a few years ago, Professor Stephen Zelnick argued that “If colleges really want students 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.”

Although Professor Stanley Fish, known for his gadfly tendencies, claims “critical thinking” is “a phrase without content,” real critical thinking involves the body of ideas and methods arising mainly from Aristotelian logic, from the French and English philosophers of the Enlightenment, and from the methods of modern science. You might not agree with those ideas or methods but they are what critical thinking is.

Not all educators understand this, and across the country many courses called “critical thinking” err by mistakenly using “critical” in the sense of “to criticize severely” rather than in its proper usage for this context of “exercising careful judgment.” Thus, a “critical thinking” class goes wrong if the instructor engages in a “critique of capitalist colonialism” or in a “critical intervention exposing the discourse of the white, male, logocentric and Eurocentric hegemony.”

Whatever merits those activities might have, they are not “critical thinking.” Nor is the Rutgers women’s and gender studies class “Politicizing Beyoncé,” whose teacher says he is “seeking to help students think more critically about media consumption.” His real agenda will sound familiar: “to explore American race, gender and sexual politics.” Such classes are about bombarding students with predetermined answers rather than questions.

Proper critical thinking helps students resist such indoctrination, “advocacy teaching,” and ideological agendas. I would even argue that proper critical thinking is inherently conservative because it is slow, methodical, and careful. Conclusions must be based on evidence, logic, and reason rather than sentiment, intuition, and emotion.

Philosopher John Searle asserts that proper critical thinking involves a handful of assumptions that let us gauge whether or not a conclusion is legitimate. To engage in critical thinking, he says, one must grant that:

  • “reality exists independently of our representations of it”
  • “language can be used to communicate meanings from speakers to hearers”
  • “truth is a matter of accuracy of representation,” and
  • “knowledge is objective.”

Despite their clarity, all of Searle’s requirements would be hotly rejected by many academics. That is because Western rationalism is incompatible with prevailing academic orthodoxies such as social constructionism, multiculturalism (race, class, and gender), anything-goes relativism, and postmodernism. Rigorous questioning, skepticism, and demands for proof are a nuisance and an obstacle to political and ideological professors.

That a critical thinking teacher should be disinterested, dispassionate, and impartial is also inconvenient when you are trying to be “committed” and passionate about changing the world. It is much easier for such professors to assert that objectivity is impossible while their students learn that “everyone lives in their own reality.”

When I encounter students who believe that they live in their own reality, I encourage them to “head to the bus stop, and when you see a bus coming, step out in front of it. Then you’ll find out that reality exists, if only briefly.”

Real critical thinking didn’t stand a chance in a hostile educational culture that denies its relevance. You can still find the remains of the critical thinking movement, but you will have to look in the math, science, and business enclaves where reality still matters.