Critical Thinking: Theory and Practice

Friday, December 01, 2006

Michael Rosen, writing in The Rocky Mountain News, discusses the latest concept to get completely mangled by our leftist education establishment: critical thinking.

Notably, he offers several examples of what public "educators" regard as classroom exercises in critical thinking. After citing some test answers graded as correct by a student whose ability to evaluate current events is the least of his worries (e.g., "Bushe cold have help the Katrina people whin it hapin."), Rosen cites the following.

In a freshmen geography class at East High School, students were instructed to "assume the personas of individuals in the next century or after, and write a letter to people in the 21st century, saying what they could and should have done to address global warming before its effects became so devastating." This is indoctrination. The question presumes an outcome that is debatable. Shouldn't a student have the option of questioning the premise? Isn't that a mainstay of critical thinking? How about writing a letter from the not-globally-warmed future thanking those in the early 21st century who had the foresight to resist unfounded claims of global-warming alarmists and avoid squandering trillions of dollars on a fool's errand? This is a possibility, too. How do you suppose that would be graded?

"Critical thinking" is too often a catchall buzzword to justify blatant propagandizing and political activism. That was the lame excuse Overland High School teacher Jay Bennish used to shield himself from accountability when he abused his students with a political tirade denouncing capitalism and comparing President Bush to Adolf Hitler. [bold added]
Students, it would appear, will continue being told what to think, rather than being taught how to think.

Setting aside the many other problems made obvious by our Bushe-hating scholar above, it certainly looks like the real purpose of the mavens of "critical thinking" is only to make students question any implicit assumptions they may have formed about the superiority of Western civilization and the advantages of maintaining it just long enough to allow them to dump the slush of political correctness into their skulls.

And this leads to the one criticism I have of Rosen's otherwise very good article. He does not go for the jugular, instead implying that leftists agree with the rest of us on what should constitute "critical thinking" when they are in fact also wrong there.
This is one of the more popular, trendy concepts in public education circles these days. In theory, it sounds like a wonderful idea. Teachers should lead students to suspend their beliefs, biases, preconceptions and conventional wisdom in order to evaluate information, ideas, theories, statements, propositions, historical events, political movements, individuals, etc., on the basis of facts, evidence, logic and reason. Who could disagree with this approach?
Many leftists would probably regard the belief in the validity of logic and sensory evidence as a "bias". Many would doubtless also question whether there is such a thing as a "fact" and whether reason is a valid means of grasping the truth, if they even accept the notion that truth exists. They are wrong on these counts, but in their error, they point out the real problem.

The concept of "critical thinking" is completely empty if it is being pushed by people who believe, as so many on the left do, that we can't actually think (i.e., use reason to uncover the truth). Whether there are facts, the senses are valid, and the mind can use logic to understand facts to reach the truth are all within the purview of that granddaddy of "critical thinking exercises", the discipline of philosophy. It is from philosophy that one learns of such things as the axioms one cannot simply classify as "biases" and toss out the window, of why the senses are valid, and of the rules of logic. It is in fact a rational philosophy, at least implicitly held, that allows us to engage in critical thinking at all, and it is such an outlook that the left is at war with.

Philosophy is certainly too abstract a subject to teach to children -- even those who can spell "Bush" -- but what it can and should be doing is providing the framework for how to teach children to reason from facts and logic in the first place. Such children would certainly be better-equipped than today's to be able to make the distinctions and integrations required to make rational judgements about all manner of things, of which the current preoccupations of the left are but a tiny subset. The real problem with the left's lip-service to critical thinking is that it is a lip-service to what should be the very foundation of the child's entire education! And it is being paid in order to disguise an attempt to undermine this foundation.

So Rosen is, if anything, being too kind to the education establishment. But in his defense, he closes with a little critical thinking exercise of his own:
I wonder if students are ever challenged with questions from the right, not just the left, such as:
  • Name fives ways teachers' unions might be obstacles to improving the quality of public education.
  • Critique Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and theorize about what motivates American leftists who obsess about their country's shortcomings while downplaying its greatness.
  • Explain why the ideology of socialism is in direct conflict with human nature and, consequently, perpetually doomed to failure.
  • Read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and give five examples of violations of individual rights in the name of "the common good."
  • The mainstream media largely ignore qualified global-warming skeptics. Name five scientists who dispute global-warming theory and explain their arguments.
I invite students, teachers and administrators to contact me with such classroom examples.
In doing so, Rosen shows the real beauty of critical thinking: Reason always eventually leads us to the correct answer which, in this case, is a question. He may not have gone down the avenue I would have liked him to, but the kinds of questions he asks will lead, sooner or later, to the right one: "Why do Americans not morally oppose a system that confiscates their money in the name of educating their children, but uses the funds to cripple their minds and entrench itself instead?"

-- CAV


Andrew Dalton said...

Another way in which I've seen people abuse "critical thinking" is to use it as an excuse for throwing up arbitrary assertions, typically in the form of a leftist conspiracy theory. If someone then calls their bluff and demands evidence, the conspiracy-pushers will take a step back and claim that they were merely "asking questions" and "examining all points of view."

This tactic has always struck me as particularly dishonest, because it serves as a smokescreen for moonbats to make reckless claims (which they damn well hope people will swallow) and then, if they are challenged, to deny having advocated those indefensible claims at all.

Gus Van Horn said...

Or, if they have been shown to attack an obvious or near-commonsensical position, they were "just playing devil's advocate".
In the end, we are left (again) with the "court jester's premise" -- only without even the humor.

Inspector said...

I like the Orwellian name they gave this one: calling it "critical thinking" when it is really an exercise in uncritically swallowing leftist propaganda.

Gus Van Horn said...

Inspector, you caused me to realize something by bringing up the fact that the opposite name is used to what is intended.

Everything I have said still applies, but with the term "critical thinking", you also have an implied argument from intimidation lurking beneath, in the sense that anyone who isn't buying the leftist line lock, stock, and barrel is somehow not really using his intellect. This is consistent with the practice of demonizing non-leftists as stupid (Bush is the best example of this by far.) The particular "beauty" for them is that they have captured in this phrase both a way to put things on the table without offering an intellectual defense and the argument from intimidation.

Of course, it's the same old game as before in method and in the fact that it is being repackaged.

Vigilis said...

Before school children can think critically, it is fundamentally necessary that they be conversant with the principles of mathematical logic. Unfortunately, many public school teachers today are not comfortable with either mathematics or basic logic.

The PhD academics who designed the touchy-feely (subjective personae) model Gus described are either intellectually bankrupt or ignorant of the rudiments of logic.
There is no doubt in my mind, however, that they are each consummate propagandists or bureaucratic enablers.

Taxpayers should test my hypothesis by obtaining a copy of
the illustrative logic model (teachers' guide) for this claptrap to dissect.

There is little doubt in my mind that the Dems aim has been to dumb down public education while still requiring substantial, mandatory taxpayer contributions to it. Because lawyers are crafty people, they realize dissatisfied parents are withdrawing students in growing numbers and the movement to dumb down is kept alive only by the courts (influential lawyers).

What token attraction will be offered to keep parents interested in public schools? These self-serving lawyers already know, and we will learn in the next 2-3 years.

Gus Van Horn said...

The problem lies far beyond just the foibles of many members of a single profession. None other than Thomas Jefferson made the mistake of supposing the state to be properly involved in education. He was right that the republic depends upon a well-educated populace, but mistaken in holding that the state should be involved in providing this service.

He was just as wrong as he would have been wrong to conclude that the state should provide any other material necessity (like shoes or food) other than the protection from criminals and foreign invasion for which government exists.

The fact that a huge, corrupt educational bureaucracy now exists is a direct effect of state involvement and the consequent removal of the educational system from the withering criticism of a free market. If you don't have to perform to continue seeing an income, what kind of employees will you attract? What incentive will you or they have to improve?

Inspector said...


Good point. I see this kind of thing all the time. In fact, just yesterday I was explaining to a co-worker how the entire environmentalist doctrine, including the idea that man is inherantly evil and must be wiped out, is compressed within the single phrase: "raping the earth of its resources."

It took about twenty minutes of explanation to uncompress it all, but in the end every last bit of it was there. I'm actually kind of impressed that they could fit so much evil, so many false premises, within a single phrase. But it is what they routinely do.

Gus Van Horn said...

Lots of that is possible in the first place simply due to the prevalence of altruistic premises and the sloppiness of intellectual discourse these days. Few will think to question whether personifying the earth by speaking of "rape" is really appropriate and, given that it has the status of "victim", its moral claim on mankind.

Vigilis said...

Gus, interesting piece, but it notes Horace Mann, not Jefferson, as the impetus for "a State Board of Education" to replace local school boards, with texts selected from a state approved list rather than by local choice. Mann also, wanted teachers trained at state "normal schools" rather than regular colleges and academies. Mann was a lawyer, Jefferson not.

"God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board." - Mark Twain

Gus Van Horn said...

Yes, but Jefferson did support the idea.

The Twain quote is choice!

Fnark said...

shee it, just another buncha anti everything male dorkuses. i guess being positive is too touchy feely fer yall.

oh btw, leftist leftist leftist. look under the bed, we may be there.

Gus Van Horn said...

Normally, Fnark, I simply delete asinine comments like this from the queue, but in this case, I'm making an exception because this is a nearly perfect example of what your ilk regard as "critical thinking" -- not to mention "being positive."

Thanks for standing up and being counted as Exhibit A.

Have a great day!