Critical Thinking—Again?

By Norm Wallen

Critical thinking has a checkered history as an avowed objective of education in our nation—honored more in theory than practice. Teachers have worked hard at it with varying amounts of support and arguable outcomes. Recently it has been getting renewed attention, in articles in this magazine, online curricula, and, at least in my community, concern over its place in the current wave of enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.

In the public arena, some forms of critical thinking are widely accepted. Curricula designed to teach the rules of logic as well as the evaluation of source credibility and whether an argument is ambiguous or conclusions follow from it are well received. Less so is teaching students to recognize hidden agendas in advertising, the distraction games of politicians, or other Orwellian control devices. Enjoying the least support of all is teaching the questioning of assumptions, particularly those cherished by religion or patriotism. Perhaps most fundamentally unacceptable is critical thinking’s underlying commitment to inquiry at all levels of discourse.

In a recent issue of Academe (January–February 2013), Chad Hanson contends that critical thinking cannot be meaningfully pursued without being a “way of positioning oneself toward a problem.” In his view it must become a part of one’s identity; put another way, it must become an attitude, a habitual approach to life, not just a set of skills. Perhaps one reason this attitude has not flourished is the misperception that critical thinking is necessarily negative—pointing out contradictions, fact versus opinion, and so on. A more accurate description of critical thinking is that it centers on “sharpening one’s thinking.” Critical thinking is an essential part of the inquiry process and method from which all knowledge except divine revelation is generally considered to come. In short, the process is as follows: observation leads to curiosity or recognition of a problem; possible cause-effect connections are seen and tested through further observation or evidence; and those surviving examination are taken as tentative solutions or truth. This process includes deductive thinking but is fundamentally inductive. It can be quite simple (and therefore misleading, as with superstition) or very complex, as modern science has shown. By any standard, critical thinking is an essential ingredient to productive inquiry.

Our culture, by accident or design, has evolved so as to discourage rather than promote the attitude of inquiry. It is a commonplace that our citizenry, including college graduates, has largely replaced genuine inquiry with the search for simplistic answers. Our children are increasingly substituting both the intent and ability to engage in thoughtful analysis with sound-bite memory and low-level application of prescribed generalizations. Our schools have been major facilitators of this trend despite periodic efforts to counter it. Current efforts designed with (perhaps) good intentions promote the simplistic evaluation of students and schools under the guise of useful accountability. This state of affairs is ideally suited to oligarchy, corporate or otherwise.

We have largely replaced problem solving with argumentation. It is evident to most of us that we face urgent problems—energy depletion, global warming, dysfunctional families, economic crisis, and more. At the same time, we lament the decline in civility in our government, families, businesses, and daily life. Yet we find ourselves defending established positions rather than seeking solutions. It is not too much to suggest that inquiry and critical thinking offer a way out. We know from our own experience and from social science that problems are better solved when seen as something to be explored, that solutions become possible when we become informed and learn to discuss rather than debate to win or lose.

An example is the seemingly endless controversy over the role of athletics in high school and college. On one side are the fans and coaches, along with those administrators who see sports as a source of revenue. They argue for the character building, school morale, and community spirit instilled by sports, in addition to the participants’ enjoyment. Aligned against them are those parents and others who see sports as receiving too much emphasis and money. They argue that the benefits are debatable or exaggerated and detract from other priorities such as art and music. If both sides were to agree to replace argument with inquiry, they would begin by clarifying their opposing claims for sports versus other programs, then gather evidence from studies and informal experience. They would include a well-conducted survey of community opinion to replace the popularity contest at school board meetings. The result might of course be the usual board vote preceded by lobbying from both sides, but the successes of the now popular collaborative groups suggests that, even if a “solution” is not found, at least the alternative—political bargaining—leads to a better-informed populace.

Our argumentative experience is not universal. “Developing countries,” lacking our resources, history, or inclinations, often must rely on inquiry. Lacking easy, instant access to the age of information and disinformation, their people are notoriously better observers, more likely to figure out causal connections and reject failures—as Peace Corps volunteers and archeologists have discovered. This happens despite schooling often similar to ours. A reason for this is that their history, traditions, and religions have predisposed them to resist our adoration of science and technology. Yes, for this they have paid a great price in wealth and power. But we are coming to realize that their alternatives, direct connection to the land and respect for traditions, have much to teach us, not least about agriculture and community.

Reality is a much better breeding ground for inquiry than virtual reality. This does not mean that inquiry must begin with direct experience—that would mean intolerable inefficiency. It does mean that ways must be found to counter a disastrous trend away from inquiry that has reached a pinnacle in our nation.

The university by itself cannot reverse one hundred years of accelerating disinterest in serious thought, as eloquently described by Jacques Barzun (From Dawn to Decadence). This is especially true in a time when the university is underfunded and the humanities are fighting for survival. Nevertheless, of all our institutions, the university is the best suited to make the effort, in part because it has laid claim to critical thinking, though too often simply as skills and absent the necessary attitude. As our national focus on low-level intellectual abilities grew, many critics were proposing alternatives. John Dewey, Ben Bloom, Jerome Bruner, and Hilda Taba come immediately to mind. During the 1960s, the US Office of Education funded a number of inquiry curriculum development projects at the K–12 level in science, mathematics (the New Math), and social studies (“Man: A Course of Study” at Harvard, the Taba Curriculum at San Francisco State). Despite being well received by most educators, these efforts largely disappeared in the 1970s, done in by a combination of factors: the “back-to-basics” movement, educators who found the methods too unfamiliar or difficult, and, in the case of social studies, those parents and religious leaders who found them threatening as students began inquiring into sensitive issues. Attitude again.

All content areas of the university can, of course, foster critical thinking. Science and mathematics do so already to the extent that they teach the inquiry attitude as well as the application of established laws. Other disciplines offer fertile ground that has often not been labeled as “inquiry,” such as when students are asked to examine the implications of differing definitions of art. The humanities provide a crucial element, the application of inquiry directly to the human condition. History and literature, for example, offer unlimited material for exploring cause-effect and testing generalizations without the necessary investment in obtaining raw data required of the social sciences.

What is not known is the extent to which our educators and the broader society mean what they say or if they simply provide lip service to critical thinking and inquiry. Do parents want their children practicing a process they themselves are not very good at? Do employers and unions really want inquiry if it extends beyond production to management? Do authorities want citizen inquiry into their dealings? Will religious leaders feel threatened? Within academia, do enough faculty, administrators, and staff value inquiry sufficiently to fight for it despite its messiness? If so, the past provides many guidelines for implementation in both theory and practice.

The past also identifies likely obstacles. What is clear is that our societal commitment to science and technology, for all its successes and benefits, must not obscure our recognition that these disciplines do not have all the answers; we are going to need lots of inquiring minds in all fields of endeavor if we are to successfully address the future.


Norm Wallen is professor emeritus of interdisciplinary studies in education at San Francisco State University. He was director of the Taba Curriculum Development Project in Social Studies from 1967 to 1969 and is coauthor of two texts in educational research. His e-mail address is [email protected].