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By Peter Facione
We used the expression “strong critical thinker” to contrast with the expression “weak critical thinker.” But you will find people who drop the adjective “strong” (or “good”) and just say that someone is a “critical thinker” or not. It is like saying that a soccer (European “football”) player is a “defender” or “not a defender”, instead of saying the player’s skills at playing defense are strong or weak.
People use the word “defender” in place of the phrase “is good at playing defense.” Similarly, people use “critical thinker” in place of “is a good critical thinker” or “has strong critical thinking skills.” This is not only a helpful conversational shortcut, it suggests that to many people “critical thinker” has a laudatory sense. The word can be used to praise someone at the same time that it identifies the person, as in “Look at that play. That’s what I call a defender!”
“If we were compelled to make a choice
between these personal attributes and knowledge about the
principles of logical reasoning together with some degree of
technical skill in manipulating special logical processes, we
should decide for the former.”
John Dewey, How We Think, 1909. Republished as How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educational Process. D. C. Heath Publishing. Lexington, MA. 1933
We said the experts did not come to full agreement on something. That thing has to do with the concept of a “good critical thinker.” This time the emphasis is on the word “good” because of a crucial ambiguity it contains. A person can be good at critical thinking, meaning that the person can have the appropriate dispositions and be adept at the cognitive processes, while still not being a good (in the moral sense) critical thinker. For example, a person can be adept at developing arguments and then, unethically, use this skill to mislead and exploit a gullible person, perpetrate a fraud, or deliberately confuse and confound, and frustrate a project.
The experts were faced with an interesting problem. Some, a minority, would prefer to think that critical thinking, by its very nature, is inconsistent with the kinds of unethical and deliberately counterproductive examples given. They find it hard to imagine a person who was good at critical thinking not also being good in the broader personal and social sense. In other words, if a person were “really” a “good critical thinker” in the procedural sense and if the person had all the appropriate dispositions, then the person simply would not do those kinds of exploitive and aggravating things.
The large majority, however, hold the opposite judgment. They are firm in the view that good critical thinking has nothing to do with any given set of cultural beliefs, religious tenants, ethical values, social mores, political orientations, or orthodoxies of any kind. Rather, the commitment one makes as a good critical thinker is to always seek the truth with objectivity, integrity, and fair-mindedness. The majority of experts maintain that critical thinking conceived of as we have described it above, is, regrettably, not inconsistent with abusing one’s knowledge, skills, or power. There have been people with superior thinking skills and strong habits of mind who, unfortunately, have used their talents for ruthless, horrific, and immoral purposes.
Would that it were not so. Would that experience, knowledge, mental horsepower, and ethical virtue were all one and the same. But from the time of Socrates, if not thousands of years before that, humans have known that many of us have one or more of these without having the full set.
Any tool, any approach to situations, can go either way, ethically speaking, depending on the character, integrity, and principles of the persons who possess them. So, in the final analysis the majority of experts maintained that we cannot say a person is not thinking critically simply because we disapprove ethically of what the person is doing. The majority concluded that, “what ‘critical thinking’ means, why it is of value, and the ethics of its use are best regarded as three distinct concerns.”
Perhaps this realization forms part of the basis for why people these days are demanding a broader range of learning outcomes from our schools and colleges. “Knowledge and skills,” the staples of the educational philosophy of the mid-twentieth century, are not sufficient. We must look to a broader set of outcomes including habits of mind and dispositions, such as civic engagement, concern for the common good, and social responsibility.
“Thinking” in Popular Culture
We have said so many good things about critical thinking that you might have the impression that “critical thinking” and “good thinking” mean the same thing. But that is not what the experts said. They see critical thinking as making up part of what we mean by good thinking, but not as being the only kind of good thinking. For example, they would have included creative thinking as part of good thinking.
Creative or innovative thinking is the kind of thinking that leads to new insights, novel approaches, fresh perspectives, whole new ways of understanding and conceiving of things. The products of creative thought include some obvious things like music, poetry, dance, dramatic literature, inventions, and technical innovations. But there are some not so obvious examples as well, such as ways of putting a question that expand the horizons of possible solutions, or ways of conceiving of relationships which challenge presuppositions and lead one to see the world in imaginative and different ways.
The experts working on the concept of critical thinking wisely left open the entire question of what the other forms good thinking might take. Creative thinking is only one example. There is a kind of purposive, kinetic thinking that instantly coordinates movement and intention as, for example, when an athlete dribbles a soccer ball down the field during a match. There is a kind of meditative thinking which may lead to a sense of inner peace or to profound insights about human existence.
In contrast, there is a kind of hyper-alert, instinctive thinking needed by soldiers in battle. In the context of popular culture one finds people proposing all kinds of thinking or this-kind of intelligence or that-kind of intelligence. Some times it is hard to sort out the science from the pseudo-science – the kernel of enduring truth from the latest cocktail party banter.