Dave Duckett - Essay

Taxonomy of Thinking

As I began to survey books about critical thinking, it was clear that there were multifarious conceptions of it. Most commonly, the term “critical thinking” referred to judging the validity of information in an argument. In philosophy, “critical thinking” was a form of careful analytical reasoning: the ability to identify reasons and conclusions, as well as to evaluate them. An online document outlining Virginia Tech’s core competencies described critical thinking as “a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion (AAC&U Critical Thinking Rubric)” (“Virginia”). Among authors there were sometimes subtle and sometimes significant differences in interpretations of critical thinking. For instance, where one author believed critical thinking was a certain disposition and identity (Richard Paul), another believed that critical thinking was rationality that was well-informed by discipline-specific knowledge (John McPeck). The array of books that professed to teach critical thinking took different approaches as well. One book approached the teaching of critical thinking by having readers investigate the workings of language, identify self-contradiction and fallacies, and practice inductive and deductive thinking (The Voice of Reason: Fundamentals of Critical Thinking by Burton Porter), while another book outlined habits of mind and character that are conducive to critical thinking (Critical thinking: tools for taking charge of your professional and personal life by Richard Paul). In yet another book, critical thinking was considered a “thinking style” and was described as being analogous to panning for gold (distinguishing the quality of knowledge and carefully sifting through information) in opposition to a “sponge” thinking model focused on acquiring and amassing knowledge (Browne 3). The approach of this particular book was to teach critical thinking by explaining how to identify reasons, conclusions, assumptions, or flaws in reasoning; clarify ambiguity; assess the accuracy of analogies; and investigate personal biases in interpreting an argument (Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking by M. Neil Browne). So far, what has distinguished critical thinking from other types of thinking is its focus on knowledge evaluation—the diligence of a thinker to stand vigilantly at the gates of the mind and carefully examine every thought that passes. Aside from these texts, my own conception of critical thinking was that it involved the ability to find alternative sources of information, to not accept information at face value, to carefully question beliefs, and to reflect on one’s own thinking and process of attaining knowledge—at its root, critical thinking seemed to be the search for what was not said or mentioned: to search beyond given evidence with care.

Certain fields in academics have engaged in an endless cycle of redefinition (as we see from the introductions of many academic articles in the humanities, the first task is to define terms). The nature of words, of language, is such that new meanings are constantly developing, and this indicates that, in attempts to define words, no closure or set-in-stone conclusion is possible. It is true that I may have a dictionary definition of critical thinking, but this definition may be interpreted myriad ways. We are dealing with what Karl Popper calls methodological essentialism (and compares to the social sciences): “His [the social scientist’s] whole field of interest is changing. There are no permanent entities in the social realm, where everything is under the sway of historical flux…. We must grasp their essence, so the historicist argument concludes, and lay it down in the form of a definition” (33). Popper negatively views this approach (as opposed to methodological nominalism), but I think he is too ready to move forward into the realm of practical usage before considering effects and worth; although, critical thinking seems to have fallen into a gray area between methodological nominalism and essentialism. Yet I can see the perceived problems for both sides: methodological nominalists are afraid that nothing will ever get done, while methodological essentialists are afraid that undefined and unexamined endeavors will be in vain (or have destructive consequences). The problem with critical thinking is that it seems common-sense in theory (of course people should evaluate all evidence available to them to the best of their ability), but in practice this is a whole other matter (locating the information, knowing enough about a subject to know what is relevant, finding a representative sample of information, and deciding whether information is reliable and accurate). In light of all this, I cannot discount the clear purpose of critical thinking that surfaces from what I’ve read: the goal of critical thinking is to teach us how to evaluate information (whether for research, argumentation, or decision-making).

Surveying a small portion of writing about critical thinking, I noticed that there was an insistence by most thinkers that critical thinking was a worthwhile quality and connected to creating intelligent citizens or improving quality of life. An example of discourse in which critical thinking was cited as a way to create global citizens was Martha Nussbaum’s book Not for Profit: “As this bad example [politically biased textbooks in India that interpreted world history in light of Hindu supremacy], and the good examples of FPSPI and Model UN, show us, world history, geography, and cultural study will promote human development only if they are taught in a way that is infused by searching, critical thinking” (88). She goes on to sketch out what this kind of teaching involves: “Good teaching requires teaching children to see how history is put together from sources and evidence of many kinds, to learn to evaluate evidence, and to learn how to evaluate one historical narrative against another. Criticism also enters into classroom discussion about what has been learned” (89). According to Nussbaum’s account, critical thinking is necessary to resist propaganda and to eliminate credulity—it is a way in which the individual can react against the avalanche of information encountered daily. Richard Paul, one of the key figures of the critical thinking movement, suggests that critical thinking is a key to improving students’ quality of life: “Critical thinking implies a fundamental, overriding goal for education in school and in the workplace: always to teach so as to help students improve their own thinking. As students learn to take command of their thinking and continually to improve its quality, they learn to take command of their lives, continually improving the quality of their lives” (Paul 20). Paul implies that critical thinking fosters an independence that the student can go on to cultivate. He also conceives of critical thinking as a response to the problems of “accelerating change and intensifying complexity” in the world (1), yet critical thinking also has an economic goal for Paul, as he suggests that in order for America to compete in a global economy, workers will need an enhanced capacity to solve problems—to use old knowledge creatively and effectively (7). The focus here is on open-mindedness and willingness to adapt—to think in different ways and reevaluate what one does. While this has to do with argumentation, there is also the implication that critical thinking is the ability to adopt and discard perspectives as needed. One thing to note about Paul is that he perceives of critical thinking as “thinking” with certain qualities and characteristics. Rather than being a set of methods, for Paul, critical thinking is a way of living every day, a habit of the mind. Another author, Berry Beyer, suggests that “Whenever we evaluate our own cooking, someone else’s performance of a task, the accuracy of a newspaper or TV account, a work of art, or a researcher’s conclusion, we are applying criteria to make a judgment—we are engaged in critical or criteria, thinking” (9). What is clear from each of these accounts is that critical thinking is a skill used daily and that it is valuable for social, ethical, and economic reasons.

Critical thinking is not without its critics. One author who critiques critical thinking is the feminist Barbara Thayer-Bacon. She notes that the Greek model of critical thinking is of “a solitary person with a furrowed brow, deep in thought” (17). Such a model promotes individual thinking over collaborative thinking, encouraging us to rely wholly on ourselves to evaluate decisions—the danger of this model is that we are unable to relate to perspectives outside of our own (perhaps another person can offer a more insightful interpretation to evidence). Thayer-Bacon also suggests that critical thinking has a specific democratic political agenda: “Ennis began writing about critical thinking during a time in America's history when the majority of Americans were worried about the threat of communism and the need to protect democracy. Critical thinking was viewed as an invaluable tool necessary to protect us from indoctrination and help us determine truth and justice” (1). This is largely why critical thinking is so often claimed to be an integral skill for citizens (in a democratic sense). An anthropologist, Johnathan Larson, shares a similar criticism. One of the materials he cites gives the following as reasons to encourage critical thinking: “[t]he first [reason] is political: active learning and critical thinking promote and sustain democratic citizenship and aid in the transition to open societies because schools that value these practices turn out citizens who think for themselves and can cooperate with others, even others different from themselves” (qtd. in Larson). In response to such reasoning, Larson says, ironically, that “it would behoove us to pay greater (if critical) attention to the circulation of critical thinking itself.” Critical thinking does not necessarily lead to an embrace of democratic values, and the fact that there is a political ideology underlying it implies that certain value judgments are involved when evaluating information (in other words, critical thinking is not objective). Also, it is questionable whether telling someone how to critically think is not imposing a certain kind of thinking on someone else (thus not allowing someone else to think independently).

Strategies for teaching critical thinking have involved multiple approaches, such as refusing to “teach” students, asking the students to evaluate their own success in performing a task, or even purposely making mistakes in teaching to encourage students to first identify problems and then have the courage and confidence to challenge them (Cory). One of my favored exercises for critical thinking is questioning of assumptions (primarily the students own assumptions about the world around them). As John McPeck argues in Teaching Critical Thinking, “The second point about looking for ‘unstated assumptions’ is that when a single argument is being examined, such as one finds on an editorial page, there is no method for determining what assumptions the author might actually be making. And short of being psychic, there can be no such method” (8). This leads to what McPeck calls assumption hunting, or the creation of assumptions that twist the argument so that it aligns with our favored interpretation. In retrospect, I begin to see McPeck’s point and concede that there is a lot of grasping in the dark to locate assumptions (or, in the sense of rhetorical situation, determine audience) that is likely a fruitless endeavor. More honest though is McPeck’s discussion of critical thinking as applied to everyday problems. He uses the example of a speech in which Ronald Reagan said that the economy was doing well and inflation was going down. Democrats, however, pointed to unemployment, bankruptcies, and other negative economic factors to suggest that the economy was in fact doing very poorly. McPeck, after listening to both arguments, could discover no fallacies in either argument and went on a search for correct information. He ends up in the midst of information that he cannot understand: “immersed in Laffer curves, zero-sum systems, monetary versus fiscal policies, and various other concepts and propositions which I was not sure I could even understand, much less determine whether they were in fact true” (11). From this example, he reasons that problem in logic and critical thinking was “not in establishing validity, but of establishing soundness” (McPeck 10). This is likely why McPeck, unlike Paul, believes that critical thinking should be taught differently in each discipline and should be based around domain-specific knowledge. If you can’t understand the information you’re given, how can you expect to evaluate it?

The aforementioned conceptions and criticisms of critical thinking are grossly over-simplified, but I wanted to give a general impression of “critical thinking.” But I think my admittance to oversimplification intimates why there is increasing insistence to teach “critical thinking”—the sheer amount of information available to the modern person renders any attempts to explain movements or ideas as simplified in the same way that a paraphrase can subtly miss the essence of an argument or a citation can decontextualize information. The conception of critical thinking that seems to have an outpost on the hill of every institution or corporation seems to be a safeguard against groupthink or gullibility. It seems that our society wants to always be on the cutting-edge, creating new solutions to problems, but to minimize the effect of poor decision-making. Yet the fact that there is an agenda behind critical thinking contradicts the process of creating the ideal critical thinker—we want a certain outcome from a very uncertain process—the thought is that a practitioner of critical thinking becomes a citizen instead of a rebel and becomes cognizant of different perspectives instead of confused.

I am writing this paper mainly as a way to revisit and aggressively inquire into what I profess and attempt to teach my students. I’ll admit that I have unrealistic expectations regarding my students. I want them to be upstanding individuals, to make the best decisions (or at least learn from the negative consequences of previous decisions), to be curious and motivated, to investigate and inquire, and to be capable of writing succinctly and lucidly. Yet “best decisions,” “curiosity,” “inquiry,” and “motivation” carry with them distinct value implications. What I reason to be the “best” decision may not be the same as that of my students. I also believe that “curiosity” has certain limits—that there are places the human mind should not go (or should tread carefully). How then do I compare by knowledge to theirs? These expectations are loaded with my own projections of what the ideal educated person is. My goal in education is less about raising intelligence or sharing knowledge, but more about focusing on ways of living, examining wisdom, and trying to maintain a realistic understanding of the world. Honestly, I am unsure how one teaches these things; my approach has been to provide an example of my own thinking and the way I live. Problematically, this would imply that my way is “right” or “best.” Yet I am also assuming that I have a significant influence on the way my students live, which I do not.

I conclude this paper on a sorry note, very much baffled by teaching, my students, the university, and its goals. Close friends and relations accuse me of being too self-critical or self-disparaging. It is not that I lack confidence, motivation, and aspirations, but I am unsure of where to direct them. I often feel that I ask a billion questions and come to no solutions. This having been an informal paper, I would like to take the informality one step further (though I have strayed far from the matter at hand). I grew up with parents who valued my education, who read to me as a child, who took time aside to help with my homework, and who encouraged me to learn. Around the age of seven, I discovered computer games and, until a few years ago, I was addicted to games and played incessantly. My parents tried to put a stop to it, but to no avail. I was only concerned with doing the minimum amount of work to keep my grades up. As I grew up, I like to think that I woke up to the world. I realized that many of my peers had far surpassed me in learning, but I also recognized a lot more of my peers remained in the same cycle I had gotten caught in. I tell this story because I do not think critical thinking is the issue at stake—thinking is at stake. Thinking is sometimes rewarding, sometimes painful. It is much easier to sit and watch television, not ask questions or dwell on life, and to take much of the world for granted. John McPeck stated that “We all want to produce autonomous thinkers who are not taken in by faulty argument, weak evidence, or ‘trendy’ opinions, and can face life’s problems as people capable of making their own rational decisions about whatever should confront them…. We agree that ignorance, indoctrination, and unreflective conformity are the enemy” (35). I would add entertainment as another enemy to that list; it is a way to put thinking aside and to distract oneself. It is easier to face what we can manage, to go places where we won’t be hurt, to not pursue paths that have no guarantees, and to watch the news at night instead of realizing that we make the news by our everyday actions. Walking forward with the rest of the crowd, how do you turn 180 and walk in the other direction? A rational question might be why would you want to change or learn new points of view when you’re secure and happy with the ones you have? At the end, the clarion call that breaks through the mist of my mind calls attention to the fact that we are swamped with information in a complicated world and that much is out of our control, but we are unwilling to accept or admit it. The question comes down to whether the call for critical thinking is actually a call for thinking.

Works Cited

Beyer, Barry K. Critical Thinking. Bloomington, Ind: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1995. Print.
Browne, M N, and Stuart M. Keeley. Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall, 1990. Print.

Cory, Hugh. “Critical Thinking.” Humanising Language Teaching. HLT Magazine and Pilgrims Limited, 2009. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. http://www.hltmag.co.uk/feb09/sart03.htm.

Larson, Jonathan L. “Circulation of Critical Thinking.” Anthropology news (Arlington, Va.) 52.2 01 Feb 2011: 7-7. American Anthropological Association. 17 Oct 2011.

McPeck, John E. Teaching Critical Thinking: Dialogue and Dialectic. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010. Print.

Paul, Richard, Jane Willsen, and A J. A. Binker. Critical Thinking: How to Prepare Students for a Rapidly Changing World. Santa Rosa, Ca: Foundation for Critical Thinking, 1993. Print.

Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1963. Print.

Porter, Burton F. The Voice of Reason: Fundamentals of Critical Thinking. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

Thayer-Bacon, Barbara J. Transforming Critical Thinking: Thinking Constructively. New York: Teachers College Press, 2000. Print.

“Virginia Public Higher Education Policy on the Assessment of Student Learning Template for Reporting Assessment Plans: Virginia Tech.” State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Virginia.gov. Web. 15 Oct. 2011. http://www.schev.edu/AdminFaculty/VAG/4%20year/AccessVT.pdf.

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