Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking


Having been a college teacher for more than twenty-five years, I see much to celebrate in the current generation of students. However, if I limit my attention to the intellectual qualities I see displayed in my classes, then it seems students are getting worse every year—with the current crop being the worst ever.

While a problem clearly exists, it is not clear to me that anyone is to blame for it. For example, whom would you blame for the fall of Rome. You could identify individuals who somewhat prominently enacted the fall, but it is hard to say that any individual was personally responsible for it. Instead, the collapse is better understood as systemic and historical, even inevitable. And so it is, I am suggesting, with the collapse of critical thinking in the classroom.

Most of my colleagues disagree with me on this. They say that the problem IS the students. In particular, they say that many students today lack the critical thinking skills necessary for higher learning. The solution, they say, is to teach these skills to them.

I agree that we need to do something about the ongoing decline of thinking in the classroom, but I also note that our best efforts to teach critical thinking are failing to make much of a difference. This suggests that a key part of the problem is how we currently think about the problem. We need to begin to think “out of the box” of our own thinking, cultivating what in Zen is called “beginner’s mind.” The idea is that if we could sit with this problem without assuming we know what the problem is or what we need to do about it, then the insights of a fresh view might germinate in the openness of our beginner’s mind. As Suzuki Roshi says, the expert recognizes only a few possibilities where the beginner recognizes many.

Another way of saying this is that we need to cultivate conceptual distance from our core assumptions. This is notoriously difficult to do because our core assumptions are mental constructs we look through rather than objects in our field of vision we look at. As the ancient Chinese proverb puts it, “We cannot see the face of Mount Lu when we are standing on it.” In order to become aware of our core assumptions, we must pull our awareness back from what we are seeing and redirect it inward to illuminate the mental constructs structuring how we are looking.

And so I have written this essay to challenge the almost automatic assumption that our students lack critical thinking skills. I suggest, to the contrary, that the “problem” of classroom idiocy and the “solution” of teaching critical thinking skills are better understood as political expressions performing a valuable function. The value of classroom idiocy is to insulate students from the hazards to the soul brought about by extended exposures to dysfunctional learning environments. The value of the genuinely earnest if mostly unsuccessful attempt to teach critical thinking skills is to insulate faculty from guilt or blame for the collapse of learning in their classrooms by displacing responsibility to the primary victims.

Morrie and Subcultures of Authenticity

While I was thinking this through I happened to read Tuesdays with Morrie. Something Morrie is quoted as saying clicked with me and helped me to clarify my own vague leanings relative to this problem. He suggested that when your culture is misdirected and flawed, as is the case at this time with our increasingly corporate mono-culture aggressively involved in the coco-colonization of the entire planet, you must invent your own subculture. At one point, close to his death, he explains what he means,

Here’s what I mean by building your own little subculture….I don’t mean you disregard every rule of your community. I don’t go around naked, for example. I don’t run through red lights. The little things I can obey. But the big things—how we think, what we value—those you must choose yourself. You can’t let anyone—or any society—determine those for you. (155)

This passage clarifies what I suspect about the seeming incapacity of so many students to think: that is, having a history of awful school experiences, they no longer connect thinking—which they often do wonderfully in other contexts—with the classroom. Thus they would seem to be creating their own subculture. In Morrie’s terms, they do not disregard every rule of the academic community but resist letting the academy determine the “big things” for themselves—namely, how they think and what they value.

I recall Thoureau’s quip—that if he knew that someone was coming to his front door in order to help him become a better person, he would rush out the back door lest any of the help rub off on him. Similarly, poor classroom performance may stem more from the intuitive resistance of students to our well-meaning efforts to “colonize” their minds than from an incapacity to think critically. Ironically, if this is so, then poor classroom performance may indicate a capacity to think critically rather than a lack of that capacity.

Critical Thinking Skills and Global Mind Change

A passage in another book I was reading at the time (Willis Harman, Global Mind Change) helped me to distill the thought that poor performance reflects a deep spiritual intuition and not just an incapacity to think. Harman opines that we in the modern period have become so impressed with the powers of what he calls “prediction and control science” that we have been seduced into accepting that this less than comprehensive approach could lead us to grasp the nature of the whole:

It is impossible to create a well-working society on a knowledge base that is fundamentally inadequate, seriously incomplete, and mistaken in its basic assumptions. Yet that is precisely what the modern world has been trying to do. If one takes seriously the implication that Western science is an artifact of Western society, based on implicit assumptions compatible with that society’s basic reality outlook, it follows that the primary impetus for a fundamental change in its underlying assumptions will not come from scientists, but from the surrounding culture. (116-117)

I draw attention to the notion that Western science is an “artifact” of Western culture, and that Western culture, being limited in its underlying assumptions, is currently undergoing a healthy and necessary process of deep adjustment and change in those assumptions. As Hartman says, this process is not being driven by the orthodox members of the specialized communities of scientific inquiry within the academy but from forces and people outside the academy.

By extension, our school structures—our curriculum, our pedagogy, our understanding of critical thinking—are artifacts of that same culture. And since we are in a time of deep change in the foundations of our culture, this process is wreaking havoc in the otherwise seemingly “neutral” areas as the curriculum, pedagogy, and critical thinking. And the havoc in these areas is mostly coming from outside the academy or from “outsiders” within the academy. Let me give three examples of what might count as havoc in neutral areas as it applies to ostensible student stupidity.

Havoc #1: Many students are beginning to note that the type of “critical thinking” fostered in the classroom is, relative to the larger context of the human urge to a good life, narrow and limited. As one student wit put it, “It won’t get me a job and it isn’t good for my soul.” More particularly, what is called critical thinking in the classroom tends to be reductionist (explaining complex phenomena in terms of more elemental events), positivistic (limiting the “real” to what is physically observable or which can be proved), and quantitative (understanding qualities in terms of quantities). This is not to suggest that this type of thinking is bad, just that it is incomplete. The picture of reality we get from it is not wrong, just partial. And the picture is most incomplete in the area of the greatest human importance, in the values, qualities, and purposes of human life itself.

Havoc #2: Many students have long since decided that, from the point of view of true learning, much of what goes on in the typical classroom is wasteful…if not destructive. Current educational research supports the students in this. It does not speak well for the critical environment of academia when students feel intuitively that they are not learning and current research supports them…and yet the waste continues.

Havoc #3: Many students are beginning to see that the doctor, as it were, is not healed. That is, students are noting that their teachers often do not model the life of the mind in its higher, more ideal aspects. Even worse, academia rarely functions as a learning community but rather as a mere association of isolated and hugely specialized hermits. You could say, then, that a fundamental experience of students is that while the outer machinery of our learning community is up and operating, the inner spirit is all too often down and absent. Students in large numbers are now declining the invitation to become academic thinkers. Significantly, “academic thinker” is now a term of approbation.

Creativity and Letting go into the Flow

In Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go, Shaun McNiff talks about his 20 plus years of experience working with people in creativity workshops. These workshops are designed to help the participants “let go” so they can allow the spontaneous process of creation to “flow” through them. McNiff reports that the people who generally have the most difficulty letting go in his workshops are teachers. Since we would ordinarily expect teachers to be the easiest to reach, McNiff wonders if their resistance is a result of the particular approach to learning emphasized in our educational systems:

It is intriguing how schoolteachers participating in my creative arts workshops are often the most resistant to free and open expression. Teachers are known for demanding clear directions and immediate applications because school is almost totally focused on training the literal mind. (23)

Exploring further the implications that teachers as a group have the greatest resistance to letting go into the flow, McNiff speculates about how conventional classroom pedagogy brings this resistance about:

There are many things that we teach in school that involve the mastery of sequential skills that build upon one another. Most of the educational system is established on the assumption that learning follows a logical and predicable pattern of acquiring knowledge. Educators are actually required to produce lesson plans and structure their classes around measurable outcomes. We then test students at various intervals to determine whether or not they are performing at acceptable standards.

In other words, McNiff identifies teachers’ expectation for linear, step-by-step instructions as an obstacle to their progress in art and creativity. Teachers have difficulty insofar as they expect step-by-step instructions. To be told simply to “let go” runs contrary to the culture of the classroom.

Significantly, many of those endeavoring to teach critical thinking are looking for the critical-thinking equivalent of precisely the same step-by-step instructions that the teachers in McNiff’s workshop are expecting for art. Many teachers assume that what they need in order to help students to think critically is a set of clear, linear, step-by-step instructions. This is the critical thinking equivalent of the fill in the numbers approach to art—an easy to follow technique that will enable the novice to produce minimally decent work by simply following the numbered steps. As one colleague put it in a First-Year Seminar workshop, “I want someone to teach me how to teach them how to think.”

The acceptance of a deep disjunction between creativity and criticism is so well established in academia that many academics have difficulty accepting that lessons from art might apply to problems in thinking. But in terms of cognitive functioning, criticism and creativity are quite similar, and what they both have in common is the exercise of imagination.

To clarify this, consider the following thought experiment. Imagine a group of creative artists and a group of critical thinkers have their attention drawn to the same thing. The artists paint what they see while the thinkers comment on what they see. Would not the result in each case be a diversity of responses of merit, where the responses of both artists and thinkers would diverge rather than converge? This is because in each case the responses had to be “imagined.”

Before the modern period it was thought that imagination was the primary means by which the mind came to discover and fashion truth. For example, Aristotle says in the Poetics that imagination is higher and more philosophical than history because it brings us beyond the particular sensual detail to the truth, which is something larger and more abstract than mere perception. But in the empirical tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, imagination is reduced to a capacity for “fancy.” In other words, imagination is no longer the capacity to look behind the particulars of what we are seeing to the substance, if you will, of things unseen, but is merely a “toy” of the mind. As John Locke famously put it in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, imagination is the power to rearrange sense data. For example, to fill in the shape of a horse with the color of gold vase is to “imagine” a golden horse.

I am challenging this view of imagination as fancy. I am suggesting instead that the pre-modern and Kantian influenced Romantic view is more useful—that imagination is an exalted power of the mind, the ability to look beyond what is given to find meaning when the available evidence is uncertain, ambiguous, and apparently confused. Thus, the interplay of imagination and uncertainty is the binding element between critical and creative thinking. To be critical is not simply to evaluate the given. It is to reshape it, to look behind it, to question it, to see into it, to move beyond it. Critical thinking, like creativity, is an imaginative response arising out of an encounter with uncertainty. Accordingly, in order to cultivate critical thinking, we have to foster calm and sustained encounters with uncertainty, and any endeavor to reduce critical thinking to a “skill” that can be mastered in a linear, step-by-step process is doomed to fail.

Unfortunately, our educational systems give little emphasis to educating the imagination. Even worse, since educating the imagination requires fostering large and sustained encounters with uncertainty, the education of the imagination actually runs counter to the culture of schooling.

Calculation and the Crisis of Humanity

Where McNiff suggests that we should not try to teach critical thinking as a linear skill, the implication in Heidegger’s late essay, “Discourse on Thinking,” is that we should not be trying to teach critical thinking at all.

Published in 1959, the “Discourse on Thinking” was originally a Memorial Address delivered to honor the German composer, Conradin Kreutzer. In this essay Heidegger contrasts “meditative thinking,” which he holds to be of the utmost importance to the human being, with “calculative thinking,” which he sees as coming to dominate all thinking in our increasingly instrumental/technical society. He is not opposed to calculative thinking; instead, he is opposed to the growing tendency in our society to limit what is called thinking to calculation merely.

Heidegger begins the essay by lamenting how “thought-poor” we contemporary people are coming to be:

Let us not fool ourselves. All of us, including those of us who think professionally, as it were, are often enough thought-poor; we all are far too easily thought-less. Thoughtlessness is an uncanny visitor who comes and goes everywhere in today’s world. (45)

Heidegger reflects on this growing tendency to “thoughtlessness” and concludes that the fact that people today are in flight from thinking, a flight that most of us “neither see nor admit” and often even “flatly deny,” means that this flight must spring from a deep and dark process. This process, further, “gnaws at the very marrow” of what it is to be human.

According to Heidegger, the dark process gnawing the marrow of humanity is the tendency to collapse all thinking to calculation. Heidegger then describes meditative thinking, contrasting it with calculative thinking. Where calculative thinking “plans and investigates,” meditative thinking “contemplates the meaning” of things. Heidegger laments the possibility that everything “will now fall into the clutches of planning and calculation, of organization and autonomy.” The totality of this collapse into calculation is a disaster because it involves the loss of humanity’s highest gift—the ability to discover meaning by being open to the abiding mystery of things.

Heidegger says the threat of annihilation posed by the atomic age is not our greatest danger. The greater danger is the monopolization of all thinking by calculative thinking. And accepting calculative thinking as the only way of thinking is a greater threat to humanity than even the threat of nuclear annihilation because in limiting thinking to calculation, the human being will “have denied and thrown away his own essential nature—that he is a meditative being.”

Heidegger closes by pointing out that the “releasement toward things” and the “openness to the mystery” which characterize meditative thinking will never happen by themselves. “They do not befall us accidentally. Both flourish only through persistent, courageous thinking.” (56)

Significantly, what counts as critical thinking in higher education is what Heidegger calls calculative thinking. Indeed, where in academia does meditative thinking have a home? Who has gotten tenure recently for meditating on the essence of things so successfully as to thereby manage to make a large, personal opening to their mystery! True, the ruminations of a few (mostly dead) thinkers are studied (mostly calculatively), but to ruminate oneself is not, generally speaking, honored.

In attempting to teach critical thinking, we may be functioning in the grand scheme to increase the hegemony of calculative thinking, the very thing that Heidegger identifies as the greatest threat to humanity at this time! The resistance to critical thinking that current students demonstrate aligns them, not us, with the movement of what the German metaphysical philosophers would have called the spirit of the times.

I add, parenthetically, that discussions of teaching versus research rarely consider whether research AND teaching may not BOTH be deeply flawed. If you consider the life of the mind in its fullest, most ethically transforming sense, then it is not clear that the current understanding of what constitutes research is an expression of the mind’s highest imperatives. From the point of view of an evolved understanding of culture and the higher mental pursuits, much of the life of research seems small, narrow, and contaminated with bad values.

Conversely, teaching is often thought of entirely in terms of skill in presenting the results of (or engendering an interest in) such research. The possibility that teaching could be truly critical (and therefore creative)—a form of alchemy in Jung’s sense—this is still not widely grasped as a possibility. What may be needed is not to continue trying to privilege teaching relative to research but to completely abandon them both.

Is Critical Thinking a Skill on the Decline?

Thomas Hobbes remarks in the Leviathan (which he took to be a truism) that people are often displeased with their relative endowment of wealth, talent, looks, or birth, but they are never displeased with their own measure of critical common sense. In a technical age, where “sizing up the world” is more a matter of technical skill than of common sense, Hobbes’ words may no longer seem a truism. But even in our technical age few people go around lamenting their lack of common sense. Even as the faculty laments students’ inability to think critically, students are not themselves lamenting their own inability to think critically.

This is significant. One untapped source of information regarding what is going wrong in the classroom is what the students themselves think! Some limited information comes in, mostly in the form of questions on course evaluation forms. The problem is that the evaluation forms reflect the very discomfort with uncertainty that McGriff identifies as a block to creativity. For example, students are asked whether their instructor comes to class prepared and whether the course was well laid out in advance, whether the requirements and expectations were made clear to them ahead of time, etc. Students are not, however, invited to tell their “stories” about the larger picture of what they see as going on.

At any rate, most students do not feel that they lack the capacity to be critical. Something close to the opposite is the case. Students generally feel they know perfectly well what is going on in school: they have concluded (with supporting evidence) that thinking for themselves is simply not the way to succeed in school.

Evidently a large communication disorder occurs in the classroom. From the faculty point of view, the presenting problem is that students lack the capacity to think critically. From the student point of view, however, the presenting problem is more that it is not safe in the classroom for them to think for themselves. Even when directly asked what they think, students tend to take the request as a coded invitation to parrot a predetermined thought sequence. Thus, where faculty see students as trying to think critically and failing, students see themselves as trying to parrot the classroom party line and, for the most part, succeeding.

Is the Problem Political?

It is well known that political disempowerment can produce evidence of idiocy, which can then be used to further justify disempowerment, thereby completing a self-fulfilling loop. Let me tell a couple of anecdotes to explore this tendency.

When I was teaching composition as a graduate student, I remember that the Teaching Assistants would often gather and swap stories about how dumb the students were. I remember thinking then that what I was experiencing in the classroom was so hugely and staggeringly dumb that something more than mere stupidity was required to account for it. Many of my students were functioning in a way that I described then as “dumber than dumb.” I am now convinced that what appeared to my colleagues then (and now) as a cognitive dysfunction is actually a political dysfunction. My suspicion is that many students, lacking safety and power in the classroom, are underfunctioning. Safety and power are political categories.

A second anecdote: I recall helping someone whose car would not start. I lifted up the hood and saw that the cable to the battery had come loose. Since the cable connection had cracked and no longer fit tightly, I tried to explain to the driver how to reattach the cable since it was likely to come loose again. She went into what I would now describe as a mild trance state and began to repeat like a mantra that she was not mechanically minded. I could readily accept that. But I also knew that even someone who was not mechanically could grasp the problem. She was not trying to understand and failing; she was blocking. Something other than mechanical incompetence was needed to explain her inability to grasp that she needed to attach the battery cable to the battery.

Something similar is the case with our students. Even someone who truly lacked critical thinking skills would do better in the critical thinking area in the classroom than our students are doing. Something other than the lack of a skill is needed to explain what is going on here.

I have a suggestion as to what it is.

Two Worlds means a Double Truth

When I lived in England I had a British friend who visited the Soviet Union a couple of years before its political collapse. He tells this fascinating story.

He visited the Soviet Union with his wife, an evangelical Christian. The two of them were part of a tour that had been assigned a guide to take them around Moscow. He said that for three days his wife badgered their guide with continual requests to visit a church. The guide patiently explained that churches were only needed in capitalist societies to promise “pie in the sky” as a compensation for the exploitation of capitalism. And so it went.

On Sunday morning the guide visited my friend’s hotel room. She had come, she said, to take the couple to worship services. The wife was stunned. “But you said all week that there were no churches!”

“Well of course,” the guide replied, “that is what my job requires me to say. However, since you indicated that you wanted to attend church services, I have come to offer to take you to my church.”

I suggest that both our students and that guide live in two worlds, each with its own truth, and they feel no inner imperative to reconcile the two. Thus, the lack of critical ability which students so frequently display, like the guide’s ostensible atheism, may have a different source than a lack of the capacity to be critical. Once again, the explanation for the lack of critical abilities may be more political than cognitive.

How Critical Are the Critical Thinkers Themselves?

To faculty students all too often seem only to care about their grade. How many of us have finished a scintillating explanation of an important point and, after asking for questions, have heard the inevitable, “Will this be on the exam?” (Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards is an excellent look at how standard grading, based on stimulus/response assumptions, generates disincentives to curiosity-driven learning.)

If you think of our promotion and tenure system as a grading system for faculty, then unpleasant similarities become evident. Just like the students, faculty are obsessed with what they will be tested on. Even worse, they subject their own learning interests through the filter of whether it will be on the tenure test. All too often, if it is not going to be on the test, then they drop their interest. Worst of all, some of those who follow the integrity of inner guidance end up paying for it on the test.

The worst behaviors of our students mirror our own. Whenever the patient’s illness mirrors that of the physician, the way forward is for the physicians to heal themselves. Sadly, physicians who set out to heal, so to speak, run the risk of being punished for their poor state of health.

Safe Spaces and Civil Classrooms

If my analysis is in the rough correct, that students can think critically perfectly well but are just not doing it in school, then we would need to bridge the gap between these two worlds.

I used to think that all we needed to do was cultivate a nurturing, accepting atmosphere in the classroom, what the Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh calls the feeling of “inter-being.” The idea is that when students feel safe, the natural critical capacities that they already have would begin to emerge. But Sharon Welch, in Sweet Dreams in America: Making Ethics and Spirituality Work, has some helpful things to say about the inadequacy of merely cultivating safe spaces. She recalls that a central goal of the consciousness-raising groups of the early women’s movement was the creation of “safe spaces.” In these safe spaces women could tell their stories without fear of criticism or invalidation. In this way women were able to learn that what they had experienced as personal suffering had a collective aspect. Also, many women had the powerful experience of being listened to for the first time. As Welch says, “Being silenced by men, afraid to speak, many women flourished in these settings, and discovered new insights about ourselves and our society.” (84)

There is a similarity with our classes. Many students have never had the experience of being listened to in a classroom because classroom speech is governed by the requirement to give the “right” answer, the assumption being that the purpose of speaking is to demonstrate that one can “perform” the right answer. In this sense, having an environment in which uncritical support is given for anything that may be said is helpful and healing.

But Welch points out that uncritical safe places only worked where there was not much diversity of experience. As soon as differences emerged, the concept of safety, understood as uncritical acceptance, functioned more to silence speech than to elicit it. “There was no room for women to speak who wanted to challenge what was said, who wanted to point out how they were limited and controlled not just by men but also by women, and sometimes by the women in the room.” (84)

Again, such is the experience in our classrooms. Diversity of viewpoint exists already, much of it highly polarized. In such a context, the notion of uncritically accepting anything that is said in order to preserve a “safe place” does not recommend itself. Welch says that she no longer tries to make her classes “safe” but instead tries to insure that they are “civil.” As she says, “We do not claim that the space here is ‘safe’; nor do we seek to humiliate people or elicit intense conflict. Instead, our goal is to learn how to grow from the process of open conflict and disagreement.”

This capacity to learn to grow from a civil process of open conflict and disagreement characterizes better what is needed in the classroom than the practice of uncritically accepting anything that may happen to be said.

Sadly, we have another “heal thyself” problem here. Often differences of vision, interpretation, or judgement among faculty are not articulated openly in a civil environment in which each is invited to persuade by making a case as well as being open to persuasion by hearing a case. Instead, faculty disagreements are often marked by bitterness and hidden agendas. We are not likely to have civil classrooms until we can be civil ourselves in the larger classroom of life.

As for the problem of how to create civil classrooms, there is no step-by-step formula by which to do so. A key idea is that students, once freed from the top-down authority of social discipline, can help co-design their class. Our task at this point, then, is not to identify or select methods or techniques to accomplish what we are trying to do but to challenge our understanding of what we are trying to do. If we change our emphasis from trying to teach thinking to that of cultivating it in ourselves and recognizing it in others, our problem may mostly take care of itself.

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