Monday, November 17, 2008

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking

In spite of the praise for and embrace of “diversity” on nearly every campus in the nation, there is one orthodoxy upon which all campuses now largely and uniformly agree: the aim of a university education is to inculcate among students the skill of “critical thinking.” As various requirements in humanities, social sciences and the natural sciences are eliminated, reduced, or replaced by a set of “distribution requirements,” colleges and universities increasingly signal that it is less any particular content or specific knowledge that matters than the ability to think critically about any and all issues. The skills that one learns in any given course – whether geology, philosophy, literature, sociology, physics, theology or political science, and so on – are fungible and transportable, a set of tools that can be used to analyze any topic or idea that falls within the general family of inquiry that is learned in a given course. “Critical thinking” is now effectively the core curriculum, or its functional equivalent, at most of our colleges and universities.

This is a striking fact given that there is almost no discussion about what “critical thinking” is. There is a general low-level and largely underarticulated agreement that it is a good and desirable thing, and a shared sense that both “criticism” and “thinking” are praiseworthy, by themselves and especially in combination. In contrast to the curricular “culture wars” of the 1980s – during which debates over the content of curriculum were vehement and heated, stoked in part by protests against “Western Civ” and Allan Bloom’s broadside The Closing of the American Mind – there is today almost no discussion – whether national or local – about what is meant by “critical thinking.” This absence of discussion gives rise to the suspicion that what mattered for many participants in the “culture wars” was not so much the content of the curriculum per se than its ultimate evisceration. What is studiously avoided on most campuses today is a revival of the curricular debates that faded after their apogee in the 1980s, in the main because those debates have been decidedly won by the party that was ultimately devoted not to an alternative curriculum, but to its absence. What was sought was not the abandonment of certain books in favor of certain other books, but the abandonment of the idea that there were normative standards or moral lessons that could be drawn from books at all. What was sought was the defeat of the idea of education that involved moral formation based upon an inherited tradition discoverable by inquiry and reflection encouraged by the reading of great books, and instead its replacement by an ideal of a free-floating liberated “subject” who was capable of “thinking critically” about any and all subjects except the basic presuppositions of what constituted “critical thinking” and associated substantive commitments. The content of books was ultimately an obstacle to this goal, except inasmuch as books could serve as the raw material for the inculcation of “critical thinking.”

“Critical thinking” is a form of intentional deracination and displacement. Its basic assumption is that students enter college or university with a set of under-explored moral commitments that they have inherited from the broader culture. Most dangerous and of concern are those students who enter college with traditional, particularly religious commitments that represent an obstacle to “critical thinking.” The implicit opposite of “critical thinking” is faith, understood as an unreflective set of commitments to pre- or anti-rational beliefs. An education in critical thinking takes on the appearance of contentless inquiry, but is in fact deeply informed by a considerable set of Enlightenment beliefs, including the effort to inculcate deracinated reason, a conception of the individual as a monadic “self,” antipathy to culture and religion, philosophical skepticism, a deep-seated materialism, and a devotion to a cosmopolitan outlook that permits one to be comfortable everywhere and nowhere in particular. The vast panoply of our “diverse” institutions of higher education are increasingly dedicated to the uniform formation of this particular sort of human being, and in the absence of a good understanding of the implicit content of “critical thinking,” are successful in that endeavor.

This is particularly a striking fact at some of our leading Catholic colleges and universities which, in a pursuit to be seen as respectable by their secular and disaffiliated peers and attractive to contemporary faculty, students and parents, strive to embrace with the fervency of a convert the aim and implicit content of “critical thinking.” Avoiding with equal studiousness discussion of the desired content of remaining requirements in theology and philosophy – those remnants of an increasingly neglected core curriculum – contemporary Catholic administrators and faculty employed at Catholic institutions (fewer of them Catholic with each passing year) instead seek to ensure that our students are equipped with the requisite and valued skills of “critical thinking.” Viewed charitably, such an admonishment reflects the desire for leaders at Catholic educational institutions to prepare their charges for success in a world that requires deracinated, skeptical, materialist and rootless people. They are concerned with the ultimate success of their students. Certainly this aspiration cannot be condemned?

Unfortunately, such a defense is specious if not contradictory: the embrace of the amorphous and underdefined goal of “critical thinking” collides at Catholic schools with an inconvenient truth: the basis of Catholic education begins with an acknowledgment that such an education is devoted to the understanding and embrace of what is true. The charge to engage in limitless and even promiscuous forms of critical thinking runs up against a basic feature and aim of Catholic teaching: that there is a limit on what can be critically regarded – namely those truths articulated in the Nicene Creed, including belief in God and the Holy Trinity, the Resurrection of the body, the communion of the saints, and the promise of life in the world to come. Of course, few Catholic universities articulate explicit devotion to these truths, content instead to offer bromides about “spirituality” and “social justice” that seem to comport at some level with Catholic teachings. Questions raised about pedagogical and curricular approaches that contradict the Church’s teachings are inevitably met by, and defended in the name of, invocations of “academic freedom,” the doctrinal twin and umbrella defense of the goal of “critical thinking.” Thus, recently the President of Georgetown University could define the core goals of a Georgetown education to include the aim of “respecting academic freedom and discourse,” a particular form of respect that is shared by many if not most of the officials that lead or teach at Catholic institutions.

Ironically, this invocation of the fundamental inviolability of academic freedom was offered in the course of apparent fervent agreement with the main themes of Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture to Catholic university leaders, delivered on April 17, 2008 at the Catholic University of America. In that address the Pope announced that “I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you.” Doubtlessly many Catholic leaders were tempted to stop their hearing or reading of the Pope’s words here. However, His Holiness continued, “Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church’s munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.”

The concept of “critical thinking” has come to be an aim that comports with the questioning of all things, including the very truths that lie at the heart of Catholic belief. Such questioning takes place under the rubric of “academic freedom,” permitting faculty at Catholic institutions to engage in what are at times aggressive disagreements with Catholic belief inside and outside the classroom, and disallowing administrators to restrain or even reprimand faculty who engage in such forms of critique. While residual Catholic belief and habit might persist among some faculty and in the remnants of a core curriculum, in fact the trajectory of the adoption of the goal of “critical thinking” among leading Catholic universities – their faculty and administration – is ultimately to make those institutions indistinguishable from their secular and disaffiliated counterparts. This is an intended result of a university culture that demands diversity at every turn, but in fact seeks with ferocious devotion the achievement of a form of uniformity and monoculture.

The greatest irony is that an institution-wide devotion to and encouragement of Catholic belief would permit an actual form of critical thinking to flourish – a form of critical thinking that would be capable of raising fundamental questions about many of the deepest presuppositions of the dominant assumptions of current devotions to “critical thinking.” Catholic belief is now profoundly counter-cultural within the context of the general and widespread university culture. Catholic thought permits thinking critically – in the first instance – about what is meant by critical thinking. It permits those who are informed by its tradition to raise questions about some of the deeply individualistic assumptions at the heart of encouragement to “critical thinking.” It encourages questioning of its deracinating tendencies, its materialist biases, its anti-cultural presuppositions. It offers as witness of a way of life that is guided by a deeply moral and ultimately heaven-directed orientation, in contrast to the commitments of the wider culture. A set of strongly Catholic institutions would represent a true form of diversity in the midst of a dominant and increasingly monolithic set of educational presuppositions. Worth emphasizing is that this is not a debate between a form of religious orthodoxy and narrowing belief against a neutral tool that can be applied in an infinite variety of ways; rather, it is one system of belief against another system of belief, with the defenders of “critical thinking” hiding behind the purported neutrality of method that masks profoundly substantive commitments. The curricular debates of the 1980s had the virtue of forcing the various combatants to put their intellectual cards on the table; our remarkable placidity regarding the near-universal embrace of the goal of “critical thinking” is a reflection of increasing intellectual flaccidity.

Whether Catholic institutions of higher education – their leaders and faculty – will ultimately have the courage of their own convictions to combat this pernicious uniformity is a deeply worrisome question. Increasingly those convictions have been eviscerated or abandoned in the name of joining the chorus of those who would adopt “critical thinking” as our main academic ambition. In doing so, we deprive ourselves of the capacity to think truly critically, and instead tend toward a mind-deadening conformity that is neither capable of true criticism nor of any real independent thought.


Joan of Argghh! said...

I don't presume a discourse that approaches your level, but I will note a few thoughts:

My brother is a priest, a product of the Chicago school of the late 70's. I do not doubt either his faith, or his critical thinking skills.

I have ever and only been dismayed by his over-keen focus on the politics of injustice, which seem to short-circuit any other consideration. I doubt that there is any reasonable or critical answer to the dilemma of passion and its underlying impetus. But that is no argument against critical thinking but an example of the great need for its disciplines.

However, some do not survive the deconstruction and rebuilding of their critical faculties, and I think in some small way, my dear brother's passion serves as a protective wall around some tender scar inflicted during his seminary training.

His daily spiritual retreat is to minister to the poor and dying. Not a bad place to concentrate one's spiritual energy and quiet the outrageous incongruencies of thought.

Dr Lawry said...

Terrific analysis, Patrick. On a more mundane level, the current absolute value of Critical Thinking is part of the package imposed by accrediting agencies, along with others like "measurable outcomes" and "quality enhancement through technology." Small Protestant universities such as the one I teach for have to conform or lose the coveted accreditation. Shame on all of us for giving up and giving in.

Black Sea said...

Some readers may be interested in this article:

The upshot: teaching critical thinking as a sort of "process" apart from the study of an actual subject produces fairly meager results. People can typically think critically only about topics in wich they have fairly strong foundation of knowledge, and critical thinking doesn't carry over well from one discipline to another. In other words, an engineer who habitually and effectively thinks critically about engineering problems may fall back on gut instinct or irrational impulse when voting in an election, making an investment decision, or choosing a spouse.

Kevin J. Jones said...

R.R. Reno recently lectured at the University of Colorado at Boulder on the problems with "critical thinking."

He saw it as a result of rejecting the virtue of docility. Rather than seeing great men and women as sources of inspiration and models for emulation, the critical thinking process tries to reduce them into products of their time and reads their works as such. This hermetically seals students from their influence.

Perhaps you've seen it, but here are some of Reno's remarks in an earlier essay:

"The basic existential thrust of postmodern cultural study is to relax the power of any particular culture over the minds of students. The goal is obvious. A Harvard man or woman is not to be a member of a culture. He or she navigates cultures. With a critical grasp of the factory of meaning, he or she sets about to oversee production...

Will a person in a position of power who “reads” his fellow man, rather than listening to what he actually says, end up manipulating rather than serving?"

Anonymous said...

Re: Your lamentations about Catholic universities:

My time at Notre Dame revealed a certain sort of schizophrenia there, if not more systemic in Catholic higher education.

On the one hand, first, ND has the Program of Liberal Studies, in which I matriculated, wherein we followed a strict curriculum centered around the canon of Great Books, complemented with tutorials in philosophy, theology, history of science, and so forth. Moreover, Notre Dame (and, I hope, other Catholic universities!) requires that all students take a certain number of core arts/sciences/letters courses (although the diversity of permissible courses is probably too broad). Finally, the University has taken initiative, at least on paper, to increase the hiring of Catholic faculty to maintain an ostensible Catholic identity.

Then we have "academic freedom" galore, with a Queer Film Festival (or whatever it's been renamed) and annual performances of The Vagina Monologues, replete, one year, with a talk given on campus by Eve Ensler.

The balance is a fragile one, and I, for one, and am not convinced that any Catholic institution can maintain it for long without eventually capitulating the culture war.

Bruce Deitrick Price said...

From k to college, "critical thinking" is just another gimmick devised by our Education Establishment to make sure nobody is educated. Such a beautiful phrase. Poetry! Who could be against it? Compare: Whole Word, Constructivism, Cooperative Learning, Reform Math, Self Esteem, and 50 more. Not one increases education. Not one is intended to increase education. They are empty marketing slogans, and "critical thinking" may be the best of the bunch. I would suggest that the best defense is: 1) total contempt for the utter fraud of this little pimple; 2) a spirited attack on the "educators," as they dare to call themselves, who concoct this stuff. (I venture to mention a piece called "Thinking Critically About So-called Critical Thinking" that I have on AmericanChronicle. It's almost rude enough.)

Unknown said...

I think that your definition of critical thinking, and my definition of critical thinking differ in some fundamental ways.

My definition of critical thinking includes skepticism and rhetorical studies -- the ability to fairly evaluate competing claims.

Your definition of critical thinking seems to be some kind of anti-religious indoctrination.

I am all in favor of true critical thinking being taught at all levels of education; children need to be taught to be skeptical and understand common logic errors (in themselves and others) in order to survive in today's world.

This is not what's being taught?