The Problem With Critical Thinking

Critical thinking. We humanities professors love to talk about it and love to teach our students how to do it. We like to deconstruct things. In fact, there are many of us who would not know what to do in the classroom if we had to stop teaching our students how to be critical of everything that they encounter in life.

And what would a Christian humanities professor talk about on the way home from church if he or she were no longer allowed to be a critical thinker?

Critical thinking is a good thing. Americans need to do more of it. But it is not, according to Michael S. Roth in a recent piece in The Chronicle Review, the only thing. Anyone who is not a humanities professor, but loves one, will thoroughly enjoy this article.

Roth begins with a topic that has received a lot of attention on this blog: “the anti-vocational dimension of the humanities.”

The persistence of this reputed uselessness is puzzling given the fact that an education in the humanities allows one to develop skills in reading, writing, reflection, and interpretation that are highly prized in our economy and culture. Sure, specific training in a discrete set of skills might prepare you for Day 1 of the worst job you’ll ever have (your first), but the humanities teach elements of mind and heart that you will draw upon for decades of innovative and focused work. But we do teach a set of skills, or an attitude, in the humanities that may have more to do with our antipractical reputation than the antivocational notion of freedom embedded in the liberal arts. This is the set of skills that usually goes under the rubric of critical thinking.

So critical thinking is part of the problem we have in justifying our existence in a higher education culture that, at perhaps more than any other time in American history, is stressing the applied majors and specific training.

Roth offers a nice definition of critical thinking as it plays out in the academy:

A common way to show that one has sharpened one’s critical thinking is to display an ability to see through or undermine statements made by (or beliefs held by) others. Thus, our best students are really good at one aspect of critical thinking­—being critical. For many students today, being smart means being critical. To be able to show that Hegel’s concept of narrative foreclosed the non-European, or that Butler’s stance on vulnerability contradicts her conception of performativity, or that a tenured professor has failed to account for his own “privilege”—these are marks of sophistication, signs of one’s ability to participate fully in the academic tribe. But this participation, being entirely negative, is not only seriously unsatisfying; it is ultimately counterproductive.

But is this all there is?

The skill at unmasking error, or simple intellectual one-upmanship, is not completely without value, but we should be wary of creating a class of self-satisfied debunkers or, to use a currently fashionable word on campuses, people who like to “trouble” ideas. In overdeveloping the capacity to show how texts, institutions, or people fail to accomplish what they set out to do, we may be depriving students of the capacity to learn as much as possible from what they study. In a humanities culture in which being smart often means being a critical unmasker, our students may become too good at showing how things
don’t make sense. That very skill may diminish their capacity to find or create meaning and direction in the books they read and the world in which they live. Once outside the university, our students continue to score points by displaying the critical prowess for which they were rewarded in school. They wind up contributing to a cultural climate that has little tolerance for finding or making meaning, whose intellectuals and cultural commentators delight in being able to show that somebody else is not to be believed.

Instead of critical thinking, perhaps the focus of a humanities education should be about developing empathy for those voices that are unfamiliar to our students.

As humanities teachers, however, we must find ways for our students to open themselves to the emotional and cognitive power of history and literature that might initially rub them the wrong way, or just seem foreign. Critical thinking is sterile without the capacity for empathy and comprehension that stretches the self.

One of the crucial tasks of the humanities should be to help students cultivate the willingness and ability to learn from material they might otherwise reject or ignore. This material will often surprise students and sometimes upset them. Students seem to have learned that teaching-evaluation committees take seriously the criticism that “the professor, or the material, made me uncomfortable.” This complaint is so toxic because being made uncomfortable may be a necessary component of an education in the humanities. Creating a humanistic culture that values the desire to learn from unexpected and uncomfortable sources as much as it values the critical faculties would be an important contribution to our academic and civic life.

Here at “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” we have been talking about these things, in the context of historical thinking, for a some time now. But it is always great to hear it again from a different voice.