“Critical Thinking” and the University

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Over at his blog Blue Book Diaries, Jonathan Wilson reminds us that the teaching of “critical thinking” skills is not the primary purpose of a college education. (Neither is job training). Here is a taste of his piece “The Most Understood Purpose of Higher Ed.”

Let’s be realistic. Most of the time, in most institutions, both the notion that the academy is a free-for-all of critical thinking and the notion that it’s a re-education camp for the politically incorrect are myths. This is not to deny that ideological abuses of power do happen, nor that many students have rational awakenings in college, but neither is a realistic description of most people’s experiences in practice. And I don’t think they’re good descriptions of the academy’s behavior in theory either.

So what kind of thinking does the academy promote when it’s doing its job especially well? (For simplicity, let’s stick close to undergraduate applications.)

The key to provisional collective best thinking practices is that knowledge means something special to scholars, including successful college students. For scholarly purposes—and I believe this is true across disciplines—professional knowledge consists not simply of true beliefs, but of true beliefs reached in a valid way. And validity is judged not by the individual, but by a community of scholars in an ongoing conversation.

Here’s where things get truly scary: For rigorous scholarly purposes, knowledge includes in its implicit definition the possibility that it might ultimately be proven false. That’s the “ongoing conversation” part. The only thing that scholars, as such, know for sure (however certain they may feel) is that their knowledge hasn’t been discredited by valid scholarship yet.

Wilson argues that colleges and universities do not teach “that certain ideas are ‘true’ in an academic sense–as far as we know, according to the best available evidence so far–because we have worked them out in a collective process of examination.”  He adds,  “We teach truths that are provisional but have been reached through the collective best thinking.”

Amen.  This is a great argument for the communal nature of higher education.  Wilson concludes: “…the mark of truly well-educated (as opposed to well-trained or well-spoken) people is their grasp of the way knowledge is collectively created….”

Two quick responses from where I sit, as a history professor at a private liberal arts college:

First, this is yet another argument for why the liberal arts classroom must not be a place of indoctrination.  Our job is not to tell students what to believe, but to teach them how knowledge is created so that they can make their own decisions about what to believe.  This is something that those on the Left and the Right must understand, but in the context of academia it is something that is more pertinent to the Left.  The classroom is not a place for preaching.

Second, Wilson seems to be making an indirect argument for the disciplines.  Each liberal arts discipline offers a different way of examining the world and the human experience.  Each discipline provides a different set of skills and thinking habits for arriving at knowledge.  This is what makes me nervous about introducing “interdisciplinary” learning to college students so early in their college and university experience.  How does one learn to think in an “interdisciplinary” fashion without first learning the thinking skills and practices associated with the individual disciplines?

4 thoughts on ““Critical Thinking” and the University

  1. Thanks. Sent this to friends I. Education..high school, medical school and residency training
    All fields require learning critical thinking and realzing information presently sanctified may be proven wrong. Columbia.neiroscientist wrote text “Ignorance”


  2. A liberal arts education is invaluable to the individual and the community. I have witnessed the demise of critical thinking over the last 20 years. It is most apparent in juries. Too often they lack the fundamental ability to think for themselves, and verdicts aren’t necessarily reasonable. This undermines the cornerstone of one of our great institutions.


  3. A hearty “Amen!” to your second point. People/students need to have a platform before they can start thinking about how the platform was constructed. But that’s in a little bit of tension with your first point, isn’t it? Or at least with some ways of interpreting what we mean if we say “the liberal arts classroom must not be a place of indoctrination.” Obviously, I hope, we’re not expecting anyone to accept anything “uncritically,” but I do want them to bow to objective reality in those cases where something meets the criteria for being considered “objective reality.” If someone wants to believe secession wasn’t about slavery but rather some abstract concept of states’ rights, I’m going to say “no,” and insist that they accept what the seceding states said about why they were seceding. If someone wants to argue no statements have distinctive meanings, that all meanings we derive from them are arbitrary, I’m going to ask them if that’s how they treat their contract with their plumber, their mortgage, their paycheck, etc. On some things, I do tell students what to believe–I tell them why, of course, but in those cases, I don’t usually see room for rejecting the evidence or arguments. A lot of what I do in my survey classes is of that nature. I don’t tell them they have to believe x is good or bad, but that they do need to reckon with the reality of x.

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  4. At the high school level we are doing more to teach inquiry using academic language in which to frame their questions. We also teach them how to question various points of view using academic language to afford them the opportunity chalkenge opposing view points while doing so where the information is challenged and not the speaker.

    Great read!

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