Field of Science

Critical Thinking: Is it worth teaching?

This is the second in a series of responsive posts regarding 'critical thinking' in education. Previously, I discussed what 'critical thinking' means, at least to me. Briefly, I define 'critical thinking' as a skill set that give us both a deconstructive and constructive abilities in relation to assessing and developing 'truth' statements.

This post is to address the question "Is it important to teach 'critical thinking'?"

In the aforementioned post I took it as givens that: 'critical thinking' is a learning outcome students should attain; we value 'critical thinking' as a societal good; that it is possible to teach 'critical thinking'. (I realize the latter two givens are derivative from former given and probably redundant to state them. However, Im assuming ~0 of my 4-5 readers are philosophers nor is the writer, so deal with it.)

Based on these givens, it seems likely that I believe teaching 'critical thinking' is important. You would be correct, but this belief leads to some serious questions. For example, why is it important to teach 'critical thinking'? You don't need to think critically that much to learn your multiplication tables or a bunch of trivia facts about the state you live in (Maine has 16 counties, the capital is Augusta, the state bird is the chickadee, the state tree is the white pine, and schools in Aroostook county close for 2 weeks in the fall for the potato harvest). Part and parcel with the "Why is 'teaching critical thinking' important?" comes what happens if we don't? Just because something is important, does not mean we should be diverting limited resources to it.

Why is it important to teach 'critical thinking?'

Part of the 'importance in teaching critical thinking' sentiment harkens back to the idea that "an informed citizenry is the bulwark of democracy" (a quote generally attributed to Jefferson, regardless Jefferson was a strong and active supporter for publicly funded childhood education). This idea was reinforced in the Brown vs Board of Education decision where Chief Justice Warren wrote "Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education." (Here's an interesting aside: Chief Justice Warren wrote this opinion using a sexist voice (he, his, him), which may be considered normal for the time and/or venue. However, the plantiff, Brown, was Linda Brown.)

If we accept the precept that democracy requires an informed citizenry, and I think we can, then we can move on to how 'critical thinking' relates to this precept. At this point we have to define "informed" and I will say that I do not think "informed" is synonymous with educated, although being "educated" may generally facilitate the process of being "informed."

An example is probably in order to facilitate this point:

You may be part of the "informed citizenry" that knows Obama is not the legitimate president of the US because he was born in Kenya.

Now you know why 'critical thinking' is essential to having an 'informed citizenry' or you're a douchebag. We are constantly embattled by 'information' and that information often appeals and/or  directs our biases. Using the Obama birth certificate example, I may have the basic view point that members of our population with more melanin in their skin cells are not as 'good' as those with less. Even if this is subconscious, the idea that our 'black' president is illegitimate resonates. Damn! Where is the birth certificate? No, not that one, the 'real' one.

The citizenry that has this viewpoint (a whopping 58% of republicans question Obama's place of birth) demonstrates 'critical thinking' is critical to the informed citizenry.

To have the opinion like a majority of a major US political party (To the rest of the world: yes, you should be scared) you need to do the following. First, I expect most of these people are not fucking morons, generally speaking, but have turned off their 'critical thinking' responses. They accept the word of people that generally agree with them. Second, once these people have blindly accepted the premise, they look/find 'information' that supports their view; simultaneously, they ignore 'information' that invalidates their view. Third, once emotional energy has been used, there is an ego cost with admitting their error so heels are dug in even stronger. Fourth, repeat.

This is where 'critical thinking' comes in. If you are thinking critically, then you take the word of people you generally agree with a grain of salt, albeit a smaller grain of salt than those you generally disagree with. Still, you at least partially weigh the information. If you are thinking critically, then you evaluate the information that supports your view; you evaluate the information that invalidates your view. (Yes, we are all human so we likely evaluate the information that invalidates our preconceived notions more rigorously than the information that supports it, but at least we are trying.) If you are thinking critically, then you are aware that you want to be right and therefore try to be more rigorous evaluating supporting claims than invalidating claims (because as critical thinkers, we understand our own natural tendencies). If we are thinking critically, then we have invested our emotional energy in trying to reach the truth or at least covering our bases. Now, we are less likely to dig in our heels, because we are invested in being correct and have demonstrated that fact to our competitors. They cannot best us, because we are trying to do that to ourselves already, essentially our competitors are helping us succeed at what we are trying to do. Ergo, we already won.

This, I believe, highlights why Jefferson considered publicly funded education to the people is be essential. A vital and robust democracy requires an informed citizenry, because that citizenry can weigh information consider arguments and in general promote good policy decisions. However, when the citizenry cannot weigh information or consider arguments, then people promote policy decisions based on mob rule and gut reaction, which leads to a dying and frail democracy that teeters on the brink of collapse.

...and I think that addresses the question "Why is 'teaching critical thinking' important?" and considers the question "What happens if don't teach critical thinking?"

Finally, I want to reiterate Chief Justice Warren's other points for an educated populace (and thus 'critical thinking').
1. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. (Covered above)
2. It is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values. (For example, should committed homosexual couples have the same basic rights and protections as any heterosexual couple, including those that get married while drunk in Vegas?)
3. It prepares children for later professional training. (I know we despise elitists, but should we teach our children to not try to better than ourselves?)
4. It helps children adjust normally to his environment. (Shouldn't we aid our children in having the skills to respond to changes in the world around us, environmentally, politically, culturally, etc?) 
5. In total it is essential to succeed in life. (An outcome of points 1-4.)

The ability to think critically (ie to have a skill set that allows for constructive as well as deconstructive thinking) is important and should be taught. In a subsequent post I will address the question: "Can critical thinking be taught?"

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