A Critique of Critical Thinking 3

I am on the road so this will be brief, but I encourage everyone to take a look at this article in the Chronicle (it appears to be freely available and not behind a pay wall) by Michael Roth, “Beyond Critical Thinking.” He points out that while developing in ourselves and our students critical thinking skills (something we do actively and explicitly in our Presidential Leadership Academy) we are in danger of developing students who are able to critique but not construct meaning.

The skill at unmasking error, or simple intellectual one-upmanship, is not completely without value, but we should be wary of creating a class of self-satisfied debunkers or, to use a currently fashionable word on campuses, people who like to “trouble” ideas. In overdeveloping the capacity to show how texts, institutions, or people fail to accomplish what they set out to do, we may be depriving students of the capacity to learn as much as possible from what they study.

I don’t think we are in danger of that, but it is a good reminder and a helpful critique in itself. As someone in the humanities I particularly appreciated the call to those in our disciplines to be more constructive in educational roles.

If we humanities professors saw ourselves more often as explorers of the normative than as critics of normativity, we would have a better chance to reconnect our intellectual work to broader currents in public culture.

It is an excellent read, please take the time to do so.


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3 thoughts on “A Critique of Critical Thinking

  • Alex Lampros

    Nice post! I had a similar reflection a few months ago on my blog (http://alampros.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/lateral-thinking-class-phil-104/). I thought it was interesting that Penn State offers Critical Thinking courses (in the philosophy department) but no Lateral Thinking courses. Lateral thinking focuses on creativity and ‘outside the box’ thinking, a mental attitude that is refined and developed just like critical (or vertical) thinking skills are developed.

    The mind handles information by creating patterns out of its surroundings so that it may easily and efficiently negotiate its environment (with language symbols, memory patterns, ideological systems, and so on). For the most part, critical thinking handles this information by moving towards a conclusion by a series of justified steps, and is careful to be selective of only the necessary information needed to reach that conclusion (Ockhams razor). Lateral thinking is a different way of handling information, it focuses on restructuring patterns and creating new patterns, making it more generative, rather than selective, “In lateral thinking one may have to be wrong at some stage in order to achieve a correct solution; in vertical thinking (logic or mathematics) this would be impossible”. Yet both are equally necessary for the establishment and advancement of ideas – “Vertical thinking develops the ideas generated by lateral thinking” (Edward de Bono, “lateral thinking”, 1970).

    I wonder if we are overextending our demands on “critical thinking” in expecting that it can teach students to “construct meaning” (as opposed to analyzing it to pieces) – if we are simply making a category mistake? I don’t read Roth’s article as a “critique” of critical thinking at all. Quite the contrary, I think it points out that critical thinking in our education system has been wonderfully successful, but has had seemingly ‘negative’ results on students because it has not been balanced with complementary coursework in lateral thinking – the style of thought that focuses on constructions (rather than deductions or inductions). An unbalanced educational diet, methinks, is the cause of self-satisfied debunkers, not critical thinking alone!


    • BWH

      Alex, this reply is three years in the making, but . . .both you and Roth are operating under an impoverished idea of what critical thinking is. Many, in fact most, contemporary theorists agree that critical thinking involves important affective dimensions, such as imagination, creativity, and appreciation. It is not merely adversarial, and does not have inherent negative connotations. Roth is so off base in his characterization of what critical thinking is, he misquotes one of the leading theorists in the field, even while citing an article of that author’s (Ennis) that does not in any case represent Ennis’ current formulation of critical thinking. There are more reasons why Roth’s article belies an ignorance of what critical thinking is according to current theory. . . you can find those other reasons here: http://www.academia.edu/2401102/Critical_Thinking_and_Constructive_Critique_A_Reply_to_Roth

  • liz leblanc

    back in the 1990’s I attended a weeklong seminar at Bard college.The focus of the seminar was on critical thinking and writing.I was accepted into the seminar because of my work at the University of Chicago’s yearly symposium on this topic.Truthfullly, I didn’t know why I had been invited to Bard–except that I had achieved a limited reputation as a local poet in Chicago–with references from my teachers at the University of Illinois: Karl Shapiro and Paul Carroll. Why would the professors at Bard think that I would be a useful addtion to their developement of the teaching of writing using critical thinking ideas and methods?Well, while I was there at Bard swattiin mosquitoes in my room, I wrote a complete short story about secretly watering my vegetable garden in Union, Illinois that concluded with the discovery that all my neighbors had wells in their basements (houses in Union were veery old)and were keeping their gardens green, too. So all my feelings of guilt about breaking the drought laws that were then being inforced were lessened .When I read my story to our group on the final day nobody said anything. Why? What Critical Thinking leaves out is the education of students is the reality of adversity– which we as a race must learn to better confront. And also how to deal with unhappy surprises. I had no intention of abasing my companions with my achievement- no matter how slight it might have been. I just wrote the piece because the assignment was to write a story, poem or essay tellingg what I had learned about hunan experience from taking the seminar . I’ll leave you with a poem I just wrote: ” 1:44 Lindsay Vonn trembles in the start haus-/Her lips are thinned and grey/.She takes off/down the icy run at Whistler/on her big men’s skiis/HEADS/she’s favoring her injured left leg/lLndsay won the Womens’ Downhill/After her race time was announced/she broke down/enveloped in her husband’s embrace/Her eyes apologizing for their copious tears/Champion! Champion!/”Ahh–she’s just a woman,” the TV cameras lied. EL