59: Critical Thinking--If Only
Not All That Critical
Thinking, unless you are a snarling pit bull of irrationality,
is an infinitely glorious thing. Well, that’s
what our public schools are telling kids and parents.
Thinking is said to be synonymous with fairness,
impartiality, science, logic, maturity, rationality, independence,
enlightenment, and Being Like Al (Einstein).
If you read some of
the literature on Critical Thinking,
you will have the sense that you are being welcomed into a new religion.
All pains and problems will be vanquished by this new and unique faith called Critical Thinking
In truth, that is a fairly accurate description
of this highly popular and much promoted
Now, let’s start looking at Critical Thinking
as if we, in fact, are critical thinkers.
The first thing that would need to be
stated is that Critical Thinking, after all is said and done, in merely endorsing the age-old values of being open-minded
and willing to consider all the evidence. Pretty much, that’s it.
But nobody disputes those virtues. So what are all the high-level educators going on about?
What is all this hype and hoopla? When supposedly smart, enlightened people carry on as if they are tipsy on something, you
should be on guard. Real critical thinking would dictate that, wouldn’t it?
Critical Thinking basically says to be
suspicious of everything, except the fad known as Critical Thinking. It is perhaps best understood as a new and watered-down
version of an earlier fad called Deconstruction. That was just a fancy word for debunking. Basically, Deconstruction told
college students to dismantle everything, everything except Deconstruction.
Yes, that’s what we’ve got here, another oh-so-clever and highly selective way to
encourage students to epatez les bourgeoisie and to tell Mom and Dad to take a hike.
After you strip away all the high-minded rhetoric, Critical Thinking is typically used to tell
students that they should not trust conventional wisdom, tradition, religion, parents, and all that irrelevant, old-fashioned
Critical Thinking, somewhat surprisingly,
also turns out to be highly contemptuous of facts and knowledge. The formulation in public schools goes like this: children
must learn how to think, not what to think. WHAT is, of course, all the academic content and scholarly knowledge that schools
used to teach.
Ahhh, now you may
be having a glimmer of where this thing leads. “What” is out, excluded, delegitimized. Students exist in a perpetual
state of “how.” They evaluate information, they juggle information, they do just about every imaginable thing
with information except know it, that is, make it their own.
Critical Thinking is very clear on this matter. Most facts are obsolete, they’re in a state of flux,
or they are readily available on the Internet. It all adds up to the same thing: students need not bother knowing any facts.
You discuss them. You don’t know them.
To the Education Establishment, knowledge is the perennial enemy for almost a century. To fight it, our top
educators come up with one sophistry after another. Critical Thinkng is the latest and perhaps slickest. Who will dare to
say they are against Critical Thinking?
Critical Thinking, we are told, is mankind’s
highest activity. Critical Thinkers, it’s repeated again and again, are a new and higher breed. They exist in a rarefied,
perpetual state of HOW. They don’t bother with WHAT.
Problem is, basic facts such as “Paris is the capital of France” are neither obsolete nor in the
process of change. They are old reliables and need to be acquired. Facts are things you have in your head so you can discuss
the evening news, European politics, or history. Critical Thinking says hell no to all that.
Critical Thinking is another of those alleged breakthroughs to enlightenment
that sweep through our schools every few years. Textbooks must be thrown out, teachers must forget what they know, education
schools must be revamped, classrooms must be rearranged and restructured. Everything starts over in Year Zero, and everyone
must serve the all-devouring needs of Critical Thinking. First step: don’t bother teaching anything.
Critical Thinking, which claims to increase
a child’s intellectual sophistication, is actually used to keep the child in a state of perpetual ignorance and shallowness.
They play with knowledge. They
don’t master it or acquire it.
the simplest examples. You want to learn to play the piano, to fly a plane, or to be a bartender. In every case, you have
to start acquiring the facts and skills that go with these jobs. You can’t sit around talking about the job in some
abstract realm, or discussing how it must feel to be a pianist or a bartender.
The point is, you have to get your hands dirty in the actual knowledge of the world, of the
field, of the discipline. It’s only when you know a lot of basic information that you could actually engage in genuine
Take something as
complex as a war or as simple as a poem. It’s only when you know lots of specifics about several wars or a group of
poems that you can start making smart comments. You can compare and contrast. You can rank. You can play armchair general
or be a literary critic. At this point you are actually engaged in real critical thinking. But Critical Thinking forecloses
this possibility because students are told not to learn the basic facts.
Do you think I exaggerate? Consider what
a school teacher wrote of his experiences in California’s public schools:
"It seemed that memorization of the times tables damaged
a child's ability to do critical thinking in math, that, for older kids, concepts like measuring one's distance from a celestial
object using parallax should never be taught, rather children should 'discover' or 'construct' it for themselves (an approach
called 'constructivism'), again to preserve 'critical thinking skills'....
I was directed in no uncertain terms to immediately cease all
instruction in phonics, spelling and grammar, as these would -- you guessed it -- destroy all hope of reading with critical
what I meant by the all-devouring needs of Critical Thinking. Note that anything the child actually learns or knows will get
in the way of the true goal, Critical Thinking. Students must essentially be ignorant primitives, as they struggle to reinvent
language and math for themselves. (Here you see that Critical Thinking aligns perfectly with the other big fad, Constructivism.**)
Here’s some puffery from a site
devoted to the techniques of Critical Thinking: “Socrates established the fact that one cannot depend upon those in
‘authority’ to have sound knowledge and insight. He demonstrated that persons may have power and high position
and yet be deeply confused and irrational. He established the importance of asking deep questions that probe profoundly into
thinking before we accept ideas as worthy of belief."
For me, that’s priceless. These poor sophists, unable to think critically, don’t see that their
pretext for Critical Thinking should first be applied to themselves. Are they not persons with power and high position who
may well be deeply confused and irrational? Have they really asked the deeper questions and probed profoundly?
No. That’s why they keep coming up with cynical education ideas that
prejudiced. But I suspect this essay is a better example of critical thinking than Critical Thinking is.
You don't need to be a weatherman to
know which way the wind blows. The Education Establishment wants to create content-light, always politically correct, almost
fact-free schools. Then they'll jury-rig "alternative assessment techniques" that give nearly every student a high
grade. They'll do that with big, impressive-sounding but ultimately not very substantial "projects." Parents will
be told that their children are learning the "critical thinking skills" vital for "success in the 21st century."
For example, what should students do if they see pollution in a nearby lake? Report it the proper authorities. Use the internet
to find out more about the factory on this lake. Start a pollution awareness campaign. Support the Green candidate in the
next election. That's good "critical thinking," so the students get an A. Which is not to say the students are educated.
greatest enemy of real critical thinking has not been mentioned. Our public schools have embraced an ethos of imprecision.
Close answers count. Sometimes correct answers don't count (students are graded on explaining the process). In many situations,
students are encouraged to guess. Correct grammar and spelling are not considered important. Throughout the system, under
one pretext or another, FUZZINESS is the name of the game. Fuzzy anything is the opposite of critical anything. That the same
people who accept all this fuzziness would turn around and embrace genuine critical thinking seems unlikely. (On the contrary,
we would anticipate their coming up with a half-hearted, ultimately fake attempt.) QED: if you want students to be capable
of critical thinking, we would first throw out the sloppy-fuzzy-mushy mentality. From the earliest grades, children would
learn to be precise and to enjoy this. That's the normal approach, since the beginning of history, in every good school.
NOTES FROM THE REAL WORLD
“I'm a 7th grade teacher in Los Angeles, and we are constantly under pressure to teach the kids 'not
what to think but how to think.' Sure, but they need some material to start with, and most of them right now have nothing
in their heads but Lady Gaga, Family Guy, and YouTube videos of kids falling off skateboards or beating each other up.“
IS A GIVEAWAY
From the web: “The intellectual roots of critical
thinking are as ancient as its etymology, traceable, ultimately, to the teaching practice and vision of Socrates 2,500 years
ago who discovered by a method of probing questioning that people could not rationally justify their confident claims to knowledge.
Confused meanings, inadequate evidence, or self-contradictory beliefs often lurked beneath smooth but largely empty rhetoric....
Socrates set the agenda for the tradition of critical thinking, namely, to
reflectively question common beliefs and explanations, carefully distinguishing those beliefs that are reasonable and logical
from those which — however appealing they may be to our native egocentrism, however much they serve our vested interests,
however comfortable or comforting they may be — lack adequate evidence or rational foundation to warrant our belief."
NO LOGIC, NO REASONING
seems to me that if you really wanted to teach someone critical thinking, the first thing you would do is to teach them
basic logic and elementary reasoning. You would read Aesop’s fables. You would have fun with riddles. You would discuss
mazes, optical illusions, paradoxes, the simplest syllogisms. The most elementary stuff could be used to warm up these young
minds and get them used to the idea that there is a better way to go from A to B. Little by little, you could introduce the
idea of the hypothesis, the thought experiment, the scientific method, the concept of evidence, and the notion of proof.
fruitful area is maxims and cliches, albeit often sneered at. Why does a rolling stone gather no moss? What does it mean to
say a stitch in time saves nine? Or that a fool and his money are soon parted? This stuff is the collected wisdom of the human
race. It is philosophy being born.
Critical Thinking, as hailed in public
schools, does not bother with any of this material, much of which is totally fascinating to people of all ages. Critical Thinking,
as hailed in public schools, is much more shallow and superficial. It’s sort of a checklist for polite discussion and
good study practices.
Consider these injunctions from a Critical
“Students should be routinely
called upon to: Summarize or put into their own words what the teacher or another student has said. Relate the issue or content
to their own knowledge and experience. Give examples to clarify or support what they have said. Make connections between related
concepts. Restate the instructions or assignment in their own words. State the question
at issue. Describe to what extent their point of view on the issue is different from
or similar to the point of view of the instructor, other students, the author, etc. Take a few minutes to write down any of
the above. Write down the most pressing question on their mind at this point. The instructor then uses the above tactics to
help students reason through the questions. Discuss any of the above with a partner and then participate in a group discussion
facilitated by the instructor."
This is all good stuff
but sort of basic, wouldn’t you say? You could keep kids busy all day, all week, all year, talking about some story
in the newspaper, carefully following these guidelines, and at the end, they wouldn’t necessarily know anything
more about the world than at the beginning.
That, as well as I can say it, is my main grievance against so-called Critical Thinking. It seems to be not
a way to acquire knowledge but a substitute for acquiring knowledge.
"CRITICAL THINKING" by
Moore and Parker
This is one of many
books with similar titles competing for the college market. This is a vast tome with almost 500 pages, and the first thing
a real critical thinker would think is: OVERKILL.
Here are the two most relevant paragraphs from my review on Amazon:
“My first thought is that anyone smart enough to grasp all this commentary does not need
this book. The people who do need this book first need a 40-page summary of the main points. (This book practices what Reform
Math calls "spiraling," a vicious little idea that says if you cover something 18 times from different directions,
at the end you will finally have mastered it. No, often you're just more confused than ever.)
My second thought is that I want to know what this book is displacing--what
course, what foreign language, what body of knowledge. I have grown to distrust the motives behind so-called 'critical thinking.'
In lower grades, kids are told to think deeply about things they know nothing about. In college, a scatter-shot course like
this steers students away from learning some more solid subject, such as history, philosophy, science, or anthropology. The
smartest thing in the book is on page 11: 'having a reservoir of information in your head helps to avoid being misled.'
Well, that's my big theme. Isn't it obvious that spending time on this course will guarantee that no such reservoir is ever
I see that I suggested
a “40-page summary.” Truth is, that’s still way too much. Even on the college level, it would be better
to have 20 pages of really distilled wisdom. Younger kids, on the first pass, should start with five pages. The essence
of real critical thinking is to cut to the heart and core of things, to immediately put your finger on the word or phrase
that is unclear or untrue. But this phony Critical Thinking is more like people discussing a chef's skill as they enjoy a good meal. Oh, they're conspicuously busy and talkative but probably at the end no better
at cooking than at the start.
IDEAS FOR THE CLASSROOM
1) LIES, DAMNED LIES, AND STATISTICS.
The way our media use polls is an endless assault on truth, justice, and common sense. Polls are rigged ("weighted")
to get certain results, and then the desired result is turned into a media story. If you want a poll to show support for your
candidate, go to neighborhoods that tend to have the sort of people who support him/her. Such shenanigans should be subjected
to real critical thinking. (This device is called messing with the sampling pool. Not explaining it to students is called
2) WHAT DO THE RESULTS EVEN MEAN? We've seen it a hundred times. 40% support the president's handling
of X, perhaps a war, while 60% DISAPPROVE, which is trumpeted. Let's break it down. What do the 60% disapprove of?? Typically,
a big group will be mad because the president is doing TOO MUCH, but another big group might be mad because the president
is NOT DOING ENOUGH. They might almost cancel each other out, but the media will make it seem that 60% are AGAINST X. Which
is just a damned lie. You can often manipulate the results you get by the questions you ask, and how you choose to interpret
the answers that people give. (This is called rigging the poll.)
3) WHAT'S UP WITH THAT? For several years, the president said he didn't have
the document that most people called a birth certificate (it lists height, weight, a doctor, etc.), and even if it was in
Hawaii somewhere, state laws prevented his getting it. But most Americans have obtained copies of their birth certificate,
easily, routinely. The president has travelled a great deal for decades; he must have a passport--how did he get that without
a birth certificate? A real media would ask. Then in 2011, he magically presented the document that he said didn't exist.
Why would he stall for three years and hurt himself in the polls if he had it all along? Any teacher claiming to teach critical thinking would want to discuss the president's
odd cover stories. Were there any such teachers? My impression is that Critical Thinking is normally used with great care
to target non-PC views. If this is true, then Critical Thinking is not an actual pedagogy; it's simply another small branch
of Social Studies, which is usually pushing an agenda.
SOME OF THE
RELATED ARTICLES ON THIS SITE ARE:
9: PHILOSOPHY WEEPS
22: ON BULLSH*T
**34: THE CON IN CONSTRUCTIVISM
45: THE CRUSADE AGAINST KNOWLEDGE--
THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST MEMORY
49: HOW DO
WE LEARN? HOW SHOULD WE TEACH?
AND WHY DO THE EXPERTS GET EVERYTHING WRONG?