Thursday, September 5, 2013

Critically Thinking About Critical Thinking

My "All In Perspective" column for September 5, 2013

Well, September is here and school is back in session.  Most parents are filled with high hopes for their child’s academic success, and educators across the nation have assured us that they are capable of teaching everything Little Johnny and Jane need to know.  Along with learning to read and cipher (hopefully,) we are told that the kids will also be learning those essential ‘critical thinking skills.’
Visit any education-related website and you will find references to ‘critical thinking.’  Everyone claims to be teaching it, and every person from every point on the political spectrum agrees; we must teach critical thinking!  The term itself sounds so good.  Hard consonants, nice number of syllables, rolls off the tongue, and just sounds so…smart.  The problem is that most folks don’t do much critical thinking about ‘critical thinking.’

What does it mean?  An online search produces a variety of definitions that can be used to support an amusing diversity of educational approaches (including “It means whatever you want it to mean.”)  While traditional critical thinking is based on the ancient Socratic method of seeking truth, in the common vernacular the term ‘critical thinking’ has become nothing more than an empty phrase that looks very nice on one’s promotional literature.
Considering the frequent misuse and abuse of the term, I suggest that when we hear the term “critical thinking,” we immediately ask three important questions.
First, anyone who bandies about the term ‘critical thinking,’ must be forced to provide a definition.  While traditionally ‘critical thinking’ refers to the ability to identify logical fallacy, solve problems, and discover truths, for many Lefties critical thinking means that you have adopted critical attitudes about anything traditional.  In other words, if you don’t come to the conclusions that America is a horrible aberration, there is no God, and that Republicans caused global warming, then you aren’t critically thinking.
I would also ask so-called critical thinking proponents what tools they believe are essential to critical thinking.  If the answer is “an iPad,” then we are ridiculously off course.  The truth is that while ‘progressive’ educrats disparage any program that involves memorization, knowledge of basic factual information is essential to higher analysis.  The student cannot make sense of algebraic equation unless he/she has memorized the multiplication tables and Order of Operation rules.  One cannot effectively analyze the causes of the American Civil War without knowing the timeline of events that preceded the conflict.  Yes, quelle horreur! I am suggesting there is merit in memorizing a few dates!  In accordance with Bloom’s Taxonomy, factual knowledge is the building block for higher analysis.

Finally, I would ask how and when said school/teacher/program proposes to teach critical thinking.   Will you teach informal logic and the fallacies of argument?  Will you present them with all of the scientific evidence, or just that which fits the latest politically correct theory?   Unfortunately, even some of those who can actually define critical thinking are ignoring our scientific knowledge of brain development and trying to teach rhetorical exercise too early.   In order to engage in true critical thinking, a child must reach a certain level of brain maturity.  Anyone who claims they can teach your five-year old critical thinking is full of bunk.
Although not all of those who use the term ‘critical thinking’ understand the full implications, they are right about one thing:  the United States is suffering from a shortage of critical thinking.  When Slate Magazine writers argue that getting drunk before the basketball game is an equivalent academic exercise to analyzing literature, or that providing a lousy education is good for society in the long run, then we have completely abandoned reasoning as a hallmark of civilization.  In light of such views it is not surprising that our civic leaders would embrace empty gestures like purchasing a statue to honor the homeless rather than actually helping the homeless.
Sadly, one essential element of traditional critical thinking is a stumbling block for the post-modern world:  the pursuit of truth.  When society has exchanged truth for relativism, and life has become a cheap and meaningless biological existence, then real knowledge has little or no value.  Unless we return to teaching our children that some things are true and some things are false, there will be little use for critical thinking in any venue.  Johnny and Jane may yet learn to read, but what comfort will that provide to a crumbling civilization?

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