THR Blog   /   August 13, 2019

On Critical Thinking

We can only think critically about things about which we have knowledge.

Johann N. Neem

( William of Nottingham lecturing to a group of students at Oxford or Cambridge (Jacobus le Palmer, c. 1350). Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Everywhere we turn these days, we hear that colleges are not teaching “critical thinking.” Employers want critical thinkers, but they cannot find them. Entire books conclude that colleges have failed to increase students’ critical thinking. Nicholas Lemann, former dean of Columbia’s School of Journalism, urges colleges to foreground method, not content, in their general education programs. Many high-profile reformers agree that professors too often focus on “content” over “skills,” thus failing to prepare students to be learners.

Advocates of critical thinking contrast thinking critically with learning knowledge. College professors, they proclaim, teach a bunch of stuff (facts, dates, formulae) that students don’t need and won’t use. Instead, students need to have intellectual and cognitive skills. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has proclaimed, “the world doesn’t care anymore what you know” but “what you can do.”

There are two problems with this perspective. First, it is fundamentally anti-intellectual. It presumes that the material colleges teach—the arts and sciences—does not matter, when, in fact, this is the very reason colleges exist. Second, these claims are wrong. Cognitive science demonstrates that if we want critical thinkers, we need to ensure that they have knowledge. Thinking cannot be separated from knowledge. Instead, critical thinking is learning to use our knowledge. The most effective critical thinkers, then, are those who learn history or physics. The stuff we learn about matters.

In many ways, the turn to skills is a defensive response. At a time when the humanities, in particular, are under attack, what better way to defend the humanities’ “useless knowledge” than by demonstrating that these are means to a larger end: critical thinking? However, one must acknowledge that these defenses reflect the capitulation of academics to utilitarian and pragmatic pressures. Lacking a convincing argument for the knowledge that anthropologists or historians have to offer, they instead proclaim that history and anthropology will serve employers’ needs better than will other fields. But if that’s the case, why does one really need to know anything about anthropology or history? Why should colleges hire anthropologists or historians instead of professors of critical thinking?

This is not an abstract question. When we turn from higher education to the K–12 system, we see that the focus on skills over knowledge has transformed the curriculum. Increasingly, especially under the Common Core State Standards, students devote their energies to learning skills, but they may not learn as much history or civics or science. Therefore, in contrast to the anti-intellectual rhetoric of many reformers, critical thinking must be defended because it encourages students to gain more insight from the arts and sciences.

Imagine your employer provided you with a manual dexterity class in which you learned to move your fingers about effectively. Now imagine that you came to a guitar teacher and asked for credit. Certainly, guitar players need to have manual dexterity, but the guitar teacher would wonder why you deserved credit. Learning dexterity absent actually playing guitar is not particularly valuable. It certainly does not mean that one can play guitar, nor that one has understood guitar or embraced the purpose of studying guitar. It’s a meaningless skill from the perspective of a guitar teacher. The same is true about critical thinking in the arts and sciences. Critical thinking is not enough and on its own, isolated from meaningful subject matter, is unimportant.

How, then, should colleges and universities understand skills? They should see them in relation to the goods of liberal education. This means that skills should be developed in the context of reading and writing about literature or history or engaging in scientific inquiry. Collegians care about the question, Critical thinking to what end? Colleges’ goal should be to encourage students and professors to gain as much insight from studying history or economics or physics or chemistry as possible. In other words, critical thinking is not a self-standing goal independent of the larger purpose of a college education; instead, it should be intimately connected to developing students’ intellectual virtues, habits, and knowledge.

Critical Thinking

What do we mean by critical thinking? Often, advocates of critical thinking portray it as an independent set of cognitive skills that are easily transferable. They advocate critical thinkers because employers and political leaders want people who can solve complex problems, but they do not care much about what students think about. Colleges do. As one skeptic of “critical thinking” has written, “if we describe college courses mainly as delivery mechanisms for skills to please a future employer, if we imply that history, literature, and linguistics are more or less interchangeable ‘content’ that convey the same mental tools, we oversimplify the intellectual complexity that makes a university education worthwhile in the first place.”

At a deeper, more profound level, critical thinking can be seen as a disciplined activity on its own terms. Indeed, one might understand it as a revival of the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. These were the original liberal arts, and the term arts meant techné, or techniques (think of artisans) to analyze texts and problems. In this sense, critical thinking can be understood as a deep activity, one that requires the development of new habits of mind. It is not something we can get without extensive study and practice. The skills that we apply to problems and texts, the capacity to understand arguments, to make sense of their strengths and weaknesses, and to offer new and creative solutions is gained by consistent and constant study over years.

Yet even this more profound understanding of critical thinking cannot be separated from learning subject matter in the arts and sciences. We can only think critically about things about which we have knowledge, and we can only make use of facts if we know how to think about them. As James Lang writes in Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, “knowledge is foundational: we won’t have the structures in place to do deep thinking if we haven’t spent time mastering a body of knowledge related to that thinking.” For example, the answer one might expect to the question, Why do we have global warming? would be very different from a student with background knowledge in chemistry or public policy or economics than from someone who had not studied these subjects. An ignorant person may well conclude, in a great demonstration of “critical thinking,” that the earth is getting warmer because the sun is getting hotter. It makes sense, it’s reasonable, and it is also wrong. The same is true for almost any sophisticated question.

This happens. When students graduating from Harvard College and ninth graders at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School were asked about the seasons, they demonstrated amazing levels of “critical thinking,” but they did not have the background knowledge to get the correct answer. Many believed that the seasons were caused by the Earth’s orbit. Some offered complicated responses that exhibited the students’ “critical thinking” and creativity. But they were wrong. If they had remembered that the seasons had something to do with the Earth’s tilted axis, they could have reasoned themselves to the correct answer.

One has to know things to answer things. This is true even in the age of Google. If one looks up something online, one needs to know a lot of background information to make sense of the definition and explanation—and given how unreliable many online sources are, without that background knowledge, one might be led astray. But perhaps most surprising, those with more knowledge can learn more when they look something up on Google. That’s because if they already have background knowledge, they can add to it the new information and insights from what they are learning. This means that someone who understands political science and has some knowledge of how parties function will learn more from an online news story about elections than someone lacking that knowledge. Those who know more learn more than those who do not.

In other words, intellectual skills and knowledge are not two distinct things. They must work together to produce critical thinkers. Put more baldly, despite all the rhetoric, there is no such thing as critical thinking in general. People think critically when they know how to use knowledge to solve problems and to generate new knowledge. At the heart of critical thinking, therefore, must be a resolute rejection of “critical thinking” in favor of enabling students to study and to master bodies of knowledge with which they can think critically—whether organic chemistry or the causes and consequences of the Boxer Rebellion. If we emphasize generic skills over learning specific subject matter, we will graduate worse critical thinkers. Paradoxically, to improve critical thinking, despite what the reformers and skeptics say, we need to abandon the idea that we can teach generic thinking skills and instead allow students to devote more time to learning “useless knowledge.”

This is an excerpt from Johann N. Neem’s What’s the Point of College?, available today from Johns Hopkins University Press.