By Peter A. Facione
The late George Carlin worked “critical thinking” into one of his comedic monologue rants on the perils of trusting our lives and fortunes to the decision making of people who were gullible, uninformed, and unreflective. Had he lived to experience the economic collapse of 2008 and 2009, he would have surely added more to his caustic but accurate assessments regarding how failing to anticipate the consequences of one’s decisions often leads to disastrous results not only for the decision maker, but for many other people as well. After years of viewing higher education is more of a private good which benefits only the student, we are again beginning to appreciate higher education as being also a public good which benefits society. Is it not a wiser social policy to invest in the education of the future workforce, rather than to suffer the financial costs and endure the fiscal and social burdens associated with economic weakness, public health problems, crime, and avoidable poverty?
Teach people to make good decisions and you equip them to improve their own futures and become contributing members of society, rather than burdens on society. Becoming educated and practicing good judgment does not absolutely guarantee a life of happiness, virtue, or economic success, but it surely offers a better chance at those things. And it is clearly better than enduring the consequences of making bad decisions and better than burdening friends, family, and all the rest of us with the unwanted and avoidable consequences of those poor choices.
Defining “Critical Thinking”
Yes, surely we have all heard business executives, policy makers, civic leaders, and educators talking about critical thinking. At times we found ourselves wondering exactly what critical thinking was and why is it considered so useful and important. This essay takes a deeper look at these questions.
But, rather than beginning with an abstract definition – as if critical thinking were about memorization, which is not the case – give this thought experiment a try: Imagine you have been invited to a movie by a friend. But it’s not a movie you want to see. So, your friend asks you why. You give your honest reason. The movie offends your sense of decency. Your friend asks you to clarify your reason by explaining what bothers you about the film. You reply that it is not the language used or the sexuality portrayed, but you find the violence in the film offensive.
Sure, that should be a good enough answer. But suppose your friend, perhaps being a bit philosophically inclined or simply curious or argumentative, pursues the matter further by asking you to define what you mean by “offensive violence.”
Take a minute and give it a try. How would you define “offensive violence” as it applies to movies? Can you write a characterization which captures what this commonly used concept contains? Take care, though, we would not want to make the definition so broad that all movie violence would be automatically “offensive.” And check to be sure your way of defining "offensive violence” fits with how the rest of the people who know and use English would understand the term. Otherwise they will not be able to understand what you mean when you use that expression. Did you come up with a definition that works? How do you know?
What you just did with the expression “offensive violence” is very much the same as what had to be done with the expression “critical thinking.” At one level we all know what “critical thinking” means — it means good thinking, almost the opposite of illogical, irrational, thinking. But when we test our understanding further, we run into questions. For example, is critical thinking the same as creative thinking, are they different, or is one part of the other? How do critical thinking and native intelligence or scholastic aptitude relate? Does critical thinking focus on the subject matter or content that you know or on the process you use when you reason about that content?
It might not hurt at all if you formed some tentative preliminary ideas about the questions we just raised. We humans learn better when we stop frequently to reflect, rather than just plowing from the top of the page to the bottom without coming up for air.
Fine. So how would you propose we go about defining “critical thinking.” You do not really want a definition plopped on the page for you to memorize, do you? That would be silly, almost counterproductive.
The goal here is to help you sharpen your critical thinking skills and cultivate your critical thinking spirit. While memorization definitely has many valuable uses, fostering critical thinking is not among them. So, let’s look back at what you might have done to define “offensive violence” and see if we can learn from you. Did you think of some scenes in movies that were offensively violent, and did you contrast them with other scenes that were either not violent or not offensively violent? If you did, good. That is one (but not the only) way to approach the problem. Technically it is called finding paradigm cases. Happily, like many things in life, you do not have to know its name to do it well.
Critical Thinking is my life, it's my philosophy of life. It's how I define myself… I'm an educator because I think these ideas have meaning. I'm convinced that what we believe in has to be able to stand the test of evaluation.
John Chaffee, author of Critical Thinking
Back to critical thinking. What might be some paradigm cases? How about the adroit and clever questioning of Socrates? Or, what about police detectives, crime scene analysts, or trial lawyers, as portrayed in TV dramas and movies? What about people working together to solve a problem? How about someone who is good at listening to all sides of a dispute, considering all the facts, and then deciding what is relevant and what is not, and then rendering a thoughtful judgment? And maybe too, someone who is able to summarize complex ideas clearly withfairness to all sides, or a person who can come up with the most coherent and justifiable explanation of what a passage of written material means? Or the person who can readily devise sensible alternatives to explore, but who does not become defensive about abandoning them if they do not work? And also the person who can explain exactly how a particular conclusion was reached, or why certain criteria apply?
An international group of experts was asked to try to form a consensus about the meaning of critical thinking.1 One f the first things they did was to ask themselves the question: Who are the best critical thinkers we know and what is it about them that leads us to consider them the best?
So, who are the best critical thinkers you know? Why do you think they are good critical thinkers? Can you draw from those examples a description that is more abstract? For example, consider effective trial lawyers, apart from how they conduct their personal lives or whether their client is really guilty or innocent, just look at how the lawyers develop their cases in court. They use reasons to try to convince the judge and jury of their client’s claim to guilt or innocence. They offer evidence and evaluate the significance of the evidence presented by the opposition lawyers. They interpret testimony. They analyze and evaluate the arguments advanced by the other side.
Now, consider the example of the team of people trying to solve a problem. The team members, unlike the courtroom’s adversarial situation, try to collaborate. The members of an effective team do not compete against each other. They work in concert, like colleagues, for the common goal. Unless they solve the problem, none of them has won. When they find the way to solve the problem, they all have won. So, from analyzing just two examples we can generalize something very important: critical thinking is thinking that has a purpose (proving a point, interpreting what something means, solving a problem), but critical thinking can be a collaborative, noncompetitive endeavor. And, by the way, even lawyers collaborate. They can work together on a common defense or a joint prosecution, and they can also cooperate with each other to get at the truth so that justice is done.
We will come to a more precise definition of critical thinking soon enough. But first, there is something else we can learn from paradigm examples. When you were thinking about “offensive violence” did you come up with any examples that were tough to classify? Borderline cases, as it were — an example that one person might consider offensive but another might reasonably regard as non-offensive. Yes, well, so did we. This is going to happen with all abstract concepts. It happens with the concept of critical thinking as well.
There are people of whom we would say, on certain occasions this person is a good thinker, clear, logical, thoughtful, attentive to the facts, open to alternatives, but, wow, at other times, look out! When you get this person on such-and-such a topic, well it is all over then. You have pushed some kind of button and the person does not want to hear what anybody else has to say. The person’s mind is made up ahead of time. New facts are pushed aside. No other point of view is tolerated.
Do you know any people that might fit that general description? Good. What can we learn about critical thinking from such a case? Maybe more than we can learn from just looking at the easy cases. For when a case is on the borderline, it forces us to make important distinctions. It confronts us and demands a decision: In or Out! And not just that, but why? So, our friend who is fair-minded about some things, but close-minded about others, what to do? Let’s take the parts we approve of because they seem to us to contribute to acting rationally and logically and include those in the concept of critical thinking, and let’s take the parts that work against reason, that close the mind to the possibility of new and relevant information, that blindly deny even the possibility that the other side might have merit, and call those poor, counterproductive, or uncritical thinking.
Now, formulate a list of cases —people that are clearly good critical thinkers and clearly poor critical thinkers and some who are on the borderline. Considering all those cases, what is it about them that led you to decide which were which?
Suggestion: What can the good critical thinkers do (what mental abilities do they have), that the poor critical thinkers have trouble doing? What attitudes or approaches do the good critical thinkers habitually seem to exhibit which the poor critical thinkers seem not to possess?
Very few really seek knowledge in this world. Mortal or immortal, few really ask. On the contrary, they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds – justification, explanations, forms of consolation without which they can’t go on. To really ask is to open the door to the whirlwind. The answer may annihilate the question and the questioner.
Spoken by the Vampire Marius in Ann Rice’s book The Vampire Lestat
Ballantine Books. New York, NY. 1985