There are more than 16,000 school districts in the United States and nearly all of them say they teach critical thinking. Google “critical thinking” and “mission statement” and you will find page after page of heart-warming affirmations like this one from the Lordstown, Ohio School District: “We believe in the development of critical thinking skills.”
Commendable; but what would happen if critical thinking actually were effectively taught? Suppose the youngsters in Lordstown learned to truly, seriously and boldly scrutinize the nation’s customs, principles, and beliefs. Suppose they even learned to critically examine the authorities that most of us defer to in directing our lives and defining the good, the true, the beautiful? No doubt that they would be thinking critically. But would educators who facilitate this sort of inquiry receive hearty congratulations or have to flee a mob of angry, torch-wielding villagers?
Let’s be clear, by “critical thinking” we do not mean mere logic chopping. You know, the “these are the premises” and “this is a conclusion,” sort of thing that sometimes passes for critical thinking. That sort of thing is harmless because it rarely results in serious challenges to anything deeply believed.
No, by critical thinking we mean systematically reconsidering the deep assumptions that most of us take for granted. And we also include questioning authority — including sacred and semi-sacred source documents as well as those who interpret them. Thinking critically has to include this sort of thing or it is hardly critical.
To get kids thinking, for instance, educators could familiarize them with the well-known argument from evil. It maintains that a loving God would permit only as much physical suffering as is absolutely necessary to achieve the greater good. Yet the world is stuffed full of seemingly unnecessary misery. What, we could ask students, is one to make of this?
Is that one too religious for public school? Then how about a high school assignment such as this? “We are often told that the United States is the greatest nation on earth. Working together, decide what standards you think should be used to measure a nation’s greatness; then use those standards to compare the United States with other nations.
Some might argue that it isn't necessary to tackle such issues head on; that by teaching generic critical thinking methods learners will eventually bring these tools to bear on those deep assumptions and basic authorities that are central to their lives. But such transfer of learning cannot be relied upon. If we want young people to really think critically, we must provide them with direct and well-focused opportunities to do so. Just be prepared to find another job shortly thereafter.
T0 examine these issues further, see Additional Reflections on Critical Thinking)
Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed. D.
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