Critical Thinking: What It Is And Why It Counts

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By Peter Facione

From professors. Actually from dependence on professors so that they no longer stand as infallible authorities delivering opinions beyond our capacity to challenge, question, and dissent. In fact, this is exactly what the professors want. They want their students to excel on their own, to go beyond what is currently known, to make their own contributions to knowledge and to society. [Being a professor is a curious job — the more effective you are as a teacher, less your students require your aid in learning.

Liberal education is about learning to learn, to think for yourself, on your own and in collaboration with others. Liberal education leads us away from naive acceptance of authority, above self defeating relativism, and beyond ambiguous contextualism. It culminates in principled reflective judgment. Learning critical thinking, cultivating the critical spirit, is not just a means to this end, it is part of the goal itself. People who are poor critical thinkers, who lack the dispositions and skills described, cannot be said to be liberally educated, regardless of the academic degrees they may hold.

Yes, there is much more to a liberal education, than critical thinking. There is an understanding of the methods, principles, theories and ways of achieving knowledge which are proper to the different intellectual realms. There is an encounter with the cultural, artistic and spiritual dimensions of life. There is the evolution of one’s decision making to the level of principled integrity and concern for the common good and social justice. There is the realization of the ways all our lives are shaped by global as well as local political, social, psychological, economic, environmental, and physical forces.

There is the growth that comes from the interaction with cultures, languages, ethnic groups, religions, nationalities, and social classes other than one’s own. There is the refinement of one’s humane sensibilities through reflection on the recurring questions of human existence, meaning, love, life and death. There is the sensitivity, appreciation and critical appraisal of all that is good and all that is bad in the human condition. As the mind awakens and matures, and the proper nurturing and educational nourishment is provided, these others central parts of a liberal education develop as well. Critical thinking plays an essential role in achieving these purposes.

Any thing else? What about going beyond the individual to the community?

The experts say critical thinking is fundamental to, if not essential for, “a rational and democratic society.” What might the experts mean by this?

Well, how wise would democracy be if people abandoned critical thinking? Imagine an electorate that cared not for the facts, that did not wish to consider the pros and cons of the issues, or if they did, had not the brain power to do so. Imagine your life and the lives of your friends and family placed in the hands of juries and judges who let their biases and stereotypes govern their decisions, who do not attend to the evidence, who are not interested in reasoned inquiry, who do not know how to draw an inference or evaluate one.

Without critical thinking people would be more easily exploited not only politically but economically. The impact of abandoning critical thinking would not be confined to the micro-economics of the household checking account. Suppose the people involved in international commerce were lacking in critical thinking skills, they would be unable to analyze and interpret the market trends, evaluate the implications of interest fluctuations, or explain the potential impact of those factors which influence large scale production and distribution of goods and materials. Suppose these people were unable to draw the proper inferences from the economic facts, or unable to properly evaluate the claims made by the unscrupulous and misinformed. In such a situation serious economic mistakes would be made. Whole sectors of the economy would become unpredictable, and large scale economic disaster would become extremely likely. So, given a society that does not value and cultivate critical thinking, we might reasonably expect that in time the judicial system and the economic system would collapse. And, in such a society, one that does not liberate its citizens by teaching them to think critically for themselves, it would be madness to advocate democratic forms of government.

Is it any wonder that business and civic leaders are maybe even more interested in critical thinking than educators? Critical thinking employed by an informed citizenry is a necessary condition for the success of democratic institutions and for competitive free-market economic enterprise. These values are so important that it is in the national interest that we should try to educate all citizens so that they can learn to think critically. Not just for their own personal good, but for the good of the rest of us too.

Generalizing, imagine a society, say, for example, the millions of people living in the Los angeles basin, or in New York and along the east coast, or in Chicago, or Mexico City, Cairo, Rome, Tokyo, Baghdad, Moscow, Beijing, or Hong Kong. They are, de facto, entirely dependent upon one another, and on hundreds of thousands of other people as well for their external supplies of food and water, for their survival. Now imagine that these millions permitted their schools and colleges to stop teaching people how to think critically and effectively. Imagine that because of war, or AIDS, or famine, or religious conviction, parents could not or would not teach their children how to think critically. Imagine the social and political strife, the falling apart of fundamental systems of public safety and public health, the loss of any scientific understanding of disease control or agricultural productivity, the emergence of paramilitary gangs, strong men, and petty warlords seeking to protect themselves and their own by acquiring control over what food and resources they can and destroying those who stand in their path.

Look at what has happened around the world in places devastated by economic embargoes, one-sided warfare, or the AIDS epidemic. Or, consider the problem of global warming, and how important it is for all of us to cooperate with efforts to curtail our uses of fossil fuels in order to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

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