Quality thought is vital. So why don’t schools foster it?
By Linda Elder
Dillon Beach, Calif. - How can we hope to thoughtfully address the economic issues, conflicts, world poverty, and many other pressing concerns that trouble our planet, if we don't take the way we think seriously?
We can't. To effectively deal with these issues, we must cultivate the spirit of critical thinking throughout human societies.
Right now we are not even teaching the skills and dispositions of the critical mind in our schools. We are not cultivating the intellect.
Everyone thinks; but we don't always think well. In fact, much of our thinking, left to itself, is sloppy, distorted, partial, uninformed, or prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and all of the decisions we make depend precisely on the quality of our thought. At present, the act of thinking is virtually ignored.
Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking that aims to take the reasoning we all do naturally to a higher level. It is the art of analyzing and evaluating with the goal of improving thought. When making a decision, it is the difference between weighing information to come to a logical conclusion and making snap judgments without understanding the information.
Consider some of the great thinkers: H.L. Mencken, Tom Paine, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Bertrand Russell, and Jane Austen. They became some of the greatest thinkers by not accepting information at face value, but by thinking deeply for themselves, asking questions, and refining their thinking over time. It wasn't easy. Of his own thinking, Charles Darwin said: "I have as much difficulty as ever in expressing myself clearly and concisely; and this difficulty has caused me a very great loss of time, but it has had the compensating advantage of forcing me to think long and intently about every sentence, and thus I have been led to see errors in reasoning and in my own observations or those of others."
His diligence paid off. Darwin's critical thinking pushed the boundaries of science and society. And isn't the purpose of education to give students the tools to thoughtfully contribute (on a small or large scale) to society? Right now we are not doing that. With few exceptions, we are not teaching them how to fully and deeply comprehend what they read or write with clarity, precision, and purpose. We are not teaching students to integrate ideas within and among subjects. We are not teaching them to entertain (in good faith) viewpoints with which with they disagree.
We are failing them at the most fundamental level.
Some believe that critical thinking was once cultivated in schooling. But it is fair to ask if it has ever really been fostered in a meaningful way in mainstream schooling (and the standardized testing movement is only making it worse). Teachers, like students, live in a nonintellectual culture, one that, for the most part, neither values fair-minded critical thinking nor encourages it.
If we want to effectively deal with the tremendous problems we now face, we must begin teaching students to discipline their own thinking. Teachers must move beyond rote and merely active engagement, and work toward transforming how students reason through complex issues, to look beyond easy answers.
We must teach students that the only way to learn a subject or discipline is to learn to think within the logic of it, to focus on its purposes, questions, information, to think within its concepts and assumptions.
It is true that some students learn some critical thinking implicitly along the way. But, as is evident in the dismal state of affairs, our collective thinking simply isn't good enough.
There is some good news. Many global organizations such as the Peace Corps, UNICEF, and Amnesty International are promoting critical thinking within a particular area of importance. As part of their reaccreditations, the University of Louisville and Eastern Kentucky University are both making concerted efforts to bring critical thinking across the curriculum. But much work is still needed. William Graham Sumner, the Yale academic and essayist may have put it best when, in 1906, he said:
"The critical habit of thought, if usual in society, will pervade its entire mores, because it is a way of taking up the problems of life. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators.... They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices and all kinds of cajolery. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens."
His warning resonates today. Though there is no quick and easy fix, we can all start by beginning to think about how we think. We can question our purposes, our assumptions, our ideas, and our inferences. We can question whether we are considering the views of others to understand them, or to dismiss them. We can open our minds to the larger world with all of its complexities. If we are to reverse the downward spiral we are presently experiencing, we must begin to actively and deliberately foster fair-minded critical thinking in our schools, our homes, our social institutions, in government, and indeed, in every part of human life.
Linda Elder is the president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, an education nonprofit organization concerned with fostering fair-minded critical societies. She is an educational psychologist who has co-written four books on critical thinking and 20 thinker's guides.