Teaching critical thinking is not universities’ raison d’être

Such skills can be learned relatively easily and cheaply. Universities should develop expertise in fields essential to human flourishing, says Andrew Moore 

November 13, 2019
Source: Getty (edited)

Critical thinking is one of the supposed pillars of higher education, lauded in commencement addresses and celebrated on institutional websites. The great crises of our day – climate change, political corruption, economic injustice and corporate surveillance – demand problem-solvers who can apply their critical minds to complex situations, we are told. Critical thinking skills are necessary not only for students’ personal growth but for the survival of democracy and even civilisation itself.

But I’m not sure that critical thinking is as valuable as we say it is, or that it achieves what we think it achieves.

It’s worth recalling that Plato’s Socrates, for instance, often made fools of sophists precisely because those teachers claimed to be in possession of a special kind of all-purpose knowledge: a set of skills that would allow their students to win any argument and master every subject. Socrates repeatedly lampoons the idea that there is any such knowledge that makes a person an expert in all fields at once.

And yet we hear this argument advanced all the time in relation to critical thinking. Whether students are studying Paradise Lost, developing a marketing plan or examining representations of race in television commercials, we are told that what they are really learning are critical thinking skills. If that’s the case, then the content of a course is purely instrumental and infinitely exchangeable. No particular subject, idea or text has any real value beyond its role in developing critical thinkers – who, in turn, will be able to apply their skills to whatever subject or problem they are faced with.

But if critical thinking can be learned through any sort of complex problem solving, couldn’t people acquire it in the workplace? Or even just by solving puzzles or playing video games? Do we even need the traditional university? If critical thinking is merely a kind of technical cleverness, a sort of all-purpose, baseline rationality, then maybe we don’t need campuses or professors to disseminate it.   

This would be a big problem for higher education. At least, it would be if critical thinking truly were the raison d’être of the modern university. But, in fact, the centrality of critical thinking’s value has been vastly overstated.

Critical thinking might be something like concentration. One can learn to concentrate in lots of different ways, and concentration will help one to do all kinds of things. However, concentration alone is virtually useless. Concentration alone won’t decide whether a person can win a chess match or be able to tell a truth from a falsehood. Surgeons, salespeople and sous-chefs all need concentration to do their work, but their capacity for concentration is not the key factor in their success or failure. Such is the case with critical thinking. It is easily acquired in a variety of ways and is useful for different activities, but it is not very valuable on its own.

Critical thinking needs to be paired with subject knowledge for it to be worth anything. And while certain critical thinking skills may be transferable, subject knowledge is not. The reason courses are not interchangeable with each other is that they are about specific things. Learning to think critically about politics is different from learning to think critically about physics. It is not true that developing expertise in physics will also make you an astute political thinker.

And while universities certainly do not have a monopoly on the development of critical thinking skills, they also teach things that are more valuable. What makes universities special are the subjects they ask students to think critically about: economics, sexual desire, one’s own cultural prejudices or whatever else. Universities create spaces and opportunities to think critically about subjects and ideas that really matter, and in ways that are not easily replicated outside their walls. 

Subject knowledge is the reason we need higher education. If we want to safeguard democracy, we need people who are experts in political science. If we want people who understand ethics, we need people to study philosophy. If we are concerned about rhetorical manipulation, we need people to study language and semiotics. 

This, in fact, is why it is important to resist government and industry fixations on job skills: because we can’t replace the study of ethics with the study of computers and expect graduates to have somehow learned ethics anyway. There is no substitute for studying these subjects.

I have no doubt, for example, that the computer engineers and coders in Silicon Valley have superb critical thinking skills. And yet, Silicon Valley has unwittingly given hostile governments the tools necessary to disrupt elections in our democracies. The programmers have inadvertently engineered an Orwellian fever dream from which there is no obvious escape – all because they don’t know enough about politics, history and human nature.

Our institutions of higher education are invaluable to the communities they serve not because they teach critical thinking skills but because they develop expertise in those fields of knowledge that are essential to human flourishing. That’s the hard stuff – but it is also the real irreplaceable good, on which civilisation depends.

Andrew Moore is director and associate professor in the great books programme at St Thomas University, New Brunswick.


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Reader's comments (5)

The Pedagogical Value of Critical thinking: 18 Theses for Meta-Critical Consideration 1. The argument condensed in these 18 theses on the pedagogical value of critical thinking is this: critical thinking can be instrumental in students developing from being in a heteronomous (subordinate) position as learners towards becoming active, independent, and relatively autonomous researchers. 2. In terms of their personal intellectual development, critical thinking helps students to bridge the gap between simply memorizing or passively accepting information (i.e., being heteronomous) and the greater challenge of being capable of critical analysis and synthesis (i.e. being autonomous). 3. Cognitively conceived, critical thinking aids in the intellectual development of the student through the appropriation of ‘thinking maps’ (cognitive schemata) which helps improve reasoning by asking key questions and using appropriate concepts of different types applied to the analysis, explanation, evaluation, and judgment of issues and problems. 4. Etymologically: As for the adjective ‘critical’ in the expression ‘critical thinking’: the word comes from a Greek word krinein, meaning ‘to separate’, ‘to choose’; it thus implies conscious, deliberate inquiry. Given this etymological derivation, forensic analysis is a necessary step in the process of critical – ultimately – judgmental inquiry. The latter in essence sums up the aim of an education in critical thinking. 5. Regarding operational rationality, critical thinking exemplifies the practice of reasoning in action its chief focus being how to analyze different kinds of arguments as they pertain to problems, issues and questions leading to the consequence of being able to come to informed judgments about them. 6. In a critical thinking context informal logic is not taught for its own sake but as a heuristic aid to help students make discoveries about their own argumentation and so to become more analytically aware of the strategies of argument used by different writers in composing different texts for different purposes. 7. Specifically, in that critical thinking deals with different patterns of reasoning and the standards which apply in different argumentative contexts, it gives students abundant practice in clarifying and interpreting ideas, and how to judge the credibility of claims, adjudicate between kinds of evidence, and appraise the conclusions that flow from premises in arguments. 8. The philosophical issue at stake running throughout these propositions is consideration of the aims of an education in critical thinking; but meritorious as the purpose of critical thinking promulgated in this theses appears, sociological realism is needed to appreciate the complexity of the field. 9. In the intellectual itinerary of critical thinking there have been four dispensations or problematics centered on (1) informal logic; (2) the liberal arts; (3) composition classes; and (4) a utilitarian conception of education. (1) Critical thinking qua informal logic emerged from questioning the usefulness of formal logic to understanding everyday reasoning. On this view informal logic has been viewed as being applicable to analyzing quotidian thinking with the emphasis on teaching the fallacies of ‘crooked’ thought. (2) Critical thinking as writing argumentative essays on composition courses – along with/after writing descriptive, classificatory, and narrative essays. (3) Critical thinking in a liberal arts context is seen as contributing to the development of the student as a whole person imbued with a liberal-humanist world outlook. The ratiocinative practice of informal logic is considered as contributing to shaping the student’s mind towards this assumed universalistic telos. These 18 theses are imbued with this viewpoint. (4) Utilitarian: In a world in which educational systems are faced with the imperative of being geared towards labor markets and economic growth, critical thinking is reduced to a skill set of argumentative devices useful in problem solving and decision making in the workplace – hence such programmatic titles as ‘Critical Thinking for Leadership/Professional Development’ along the lines of ESP, in this case critical thinking for special (job-oriented) purposes. 10. The intellectual history of critical thinking since the 1950s has been marked by these three problematics, but the emphasis in the current neoliberal economic situation is on the utilitarian approach. This being the case philosophical reflection on the aims of an education in critical thinking has to consider critically the uses and value of a functionalist-instrumentalist view of reason expressive, as it is, of the technocratic economism more or less ubiquitous worldwide. 11. The meta-critique of critical thinking cannot confine itself only to disputing aspects of the first three problematics considered above in thesis 9, namely those of informal logic and the liberal arts. What needs countering is the limiting of critical reasoning to a set of cognitive skills at the service of occupational roles that have little chance of actually being applied critically to call into question let alone change practices of the status quo in educational organizations and in the workplace. 12. A significant normatively-oriented aspect of an education in critical thinking is that it teaches students how to judge the credibility of prescriptive and proscriptive claims. Such an analytically-based evaluative skill is indubitably useful in the pragmatics of real-life arguing and debating about issues. 13. A curriculum that includes critical thinking as an indispensable component, then, implies an education in the principled critique of prejudice – of all biased, ideological positions passed off as supposed credible arguments, and also of misinformation and disinformation in the public sphere. 14. In Habermasian terms, these propositions argue that an education in critical thinking is oriented towards improving the ‘communicative rationality’ of students in their daily lives – beyond the academy – as active and reflective members of their society, whilst concomitantly being constitutive of their personal individuation process. 15. Ideally, an active education in critical thinking aids students in achieving autonomy, curiosity, reasonableness, creative openness, and making better, well informed life decisions. 16. An active (constitutive) education in critical thinking, attendant to the diversity in values and beliefs, teaches students to respond with cultural tolerance and sensitivity to alternative points of view and develop a solid intellective foundation for making personal choices about what to accept and what to reject on a principled, rational basis. 17. Existentially understood, critical thinking is instrumental in the student’s personal ratiocinative and ethical progress towards becoming a mature adult and responsible engaged citizen able to make better, well informed life decisions. 18. In sum: educationally, critical thinking is potentially constitutive of the individuation process of the student – of the personal intelligence and, indeed, of his/her reflective and/or active mental life and overall well-being.
Learning how to think and learning how to learn are core to the higher education process; and can be applied to the learning of any subject - but they won't give you automatic mastery over it: you still have to settle down and apply them to the study of a new subject. I should know, my first degree was botany and I am now a computer scientist (who incidentally teaches ethics to computer science students!).
As an ex-Chinese international student, I experienced two type of higher educations: the China's one values academic knowledge and problem-solving skills but not critical thinking skills and the UK one embeds critical thinking skills in curriculum to develop all rounded skill sets. Benefited from the undergraduate and masters education that I received in China, I became an excellent problem solver and was used to accept the authorities' opinion and expectations. It was not an easy process to change my mind setting and demonstrate critical thinking during my PhD journey. Based on my personal experience, I disagree to the author's statement that critical thinking skills can be learned relatively easily and cheaply. The lessons that we learnt from the USA's general election campaign and the BREXIT referendum campaign also prove that many general public did not have the critical thinking skills to identify the false claim such as how much money can be used in NHS after leaving the EU.
My field moves so fast that almost any subject knowledge you learn in the last year of your degree will be out of date before you've had time to put it into practice. So instead of trying to teach students more and more useless facts, we teach them how to teach themselves. How to keep up with the relevant scientific literature, not take what they are told in papers on face value, know how to assess the value of a particular piece of evidence supporting a particular claim, and who to design data collection to test an idea. All of this requires some basic field specific knowledge, but it absolutely doesn't require students to know the molecular weight of Taq polyermase or that IL-10 is an anti-inflammatory interleukin. You could argue that how to design an experiment is a peice of field knowledge, but I'd disagree. A good experimenter isn't told how to design an experiment, its not something you "know", like a formula. Its something you come to understand. A teacher can't tell you how to design an experiment but they can aid you in coming to your own understanding of it.
I don't have the research papers on hand at the moment but the current emerging research is that critical thinking is developed alongside the acquisition of subject specific knowledge. For example, people are more adept at critically thinking about subjects that they are expert in rather than subjects they know very little about. And that subject specific critical thinking often do not transfer to other subjects. Hence, we should think of developing critical thinking as a concurrent skill developed alongside the acquisition of subject specific knowledge (i.e., evidence suggest against an 'either-or' approach to 'both' approach, and against the concept of a 'general' skill of critical thinking).