Culture & Society

The Politics of Critical Thinking

Redefining critical thinking and encouraging its widespread adoption could lead to a healthier and more productive public discourse

Image Credit: Lajos Kolozsváry, Hungarian, (1871-1937), “Talking People” / Wikimedia Commons

If there were a single, low-cost strategy we could implement that could both soften the sharper edges of our political divide and diminish the hostility in our national conversations, would we do it? And if the same strategy might lead to a more engaged and productive discourse, would we jump at the chance? I would love to say yes, but I’d be wrong.

People of different political convictions don’t agree on much these days. From minor issues—whether Ellen’s apology was heartfelt—to major ones—how to proceed with filling the Supreme Court spot left vacant by the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—there’s precious little common ground.

Given how far apart the two sides are, one would be forgiven for assuming we’d do everything possible to move forward in any area where we found common ground. One of those rare areas, at least in principle, is the need for a populace capable of critical thinking. Critical thinking is necessary for businesses to remain competitive by fostering innovation, and it’s essential for the health of our society through supporting democratic norms of debate and dissent. However, it turns out that this most fundamental skill has itself fallen victim to politics.

And yet it’s clear that, when it comes to our conversations on sensitive social and political issues, we have a real problem—one that critical thinking could help solve. Too often, conversations deteriorate into name-calling and bad-faith assessments of the other person’s motivations. These interactions can only be productive when advocates of the ideas in question allow them to be subject to criticism and debate rather than placing them on a pedestal. Ideas are meant to be scrutinized, examined, and challenged.

The antidote to treating ideas as though they’re exempt from scrutiny—the discourse-killing approach referenced above—is critical thinking. But critical thinking is a slippery term. How else could we describe something that everyone thinks should be a priority, yet somehow few people seem to be able to do? (More on that claim in a minute.) It’s probably not due to a lack of goodwill. After all, I’d be shocked to find any educator who doesn’t value or encourage critical thinking by students. So, what’s going on?

In articles and studies in which authors express concern about low levels of critical thinking skills, they’re usually referring to something specific. Frequently, it’s folded in with the related skills of reasoning and problem-solving. This is almost certainly the definition used in the 2011 book Academically Adrift. In that study, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa used data from student surveys and the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to evaluate what exactly students are learning in college. According to a review in “Inside Higher Education,” the authors found that, “45 percent of students ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ during the first two years of college” and “36 percent of students ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ over four years of college.” In that same review, Arum states his concern as follows: “You can’t have a democratic society when the elite—the college-educated kids—don’t have these abilities to think critically.”

Yet, as grim as Arum and Roksa’s portrait is, the situation is arguably even worse. The CLA measured critical thinking and problem-solving together, using well-known sample performance tasks. In these tasks, students were given a set of information and asked to solve a problem drawing on the information provided. As shocking as it is to learn that many students struggled with this charge, an even more alarming finding with direct political implications has become apparent: Many students lack a basic ability to criticize ideas.

A article from Sept. 21, 2020, puts this in perspective while spotlighting an important asymmetry. The headline reads “Trump’s Patriot History Lessons Or Critical Thinking: You Can’t Have Both.” The article referred to an executive order to create the 1776 Commission to promote “patriotic education” in U.S. schools. This commission is widely seen as a countermove to the popular 1619 Project, which some see as advocating a wrong-headed view of America that runs counter to its founding values.

The author is, of course, correct. You can’t have both. Imbuing school curricula with a reflexively patriotic and hagiographic view of this country’s history isn’t accurate. But neither is the view put forth by the 1619 Project, which has itself been adopted by various schools and received no analogous criticism by the author.

Critical thinking has to cut both ways—through all the political posturing, not just the posturing of the side you don’t agree with. The reason the author cited above is correct about “Trump’s Patriot History Lessons” being incompatible with critical thinking is because such an approach doesn’t leave room for people to learn to debate the spin being put on history and learning. However, that same logic has to be applied universally.

My evidence for how well (or poorly, in this case) we’re teaching this skill comes from my experience as an educator. In several of my classes, we look at a few controversial ideas as critical thinking test cases. For instance, when I ask students to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the idea of a meritocracy, they can usually do so with little trouble. They describe how the idea that people are compensated or rewarded based on their contributions or their competence makes sense.

Sometimes, they’ll give the example of grades—they get the grade they earned in a particular class. The grade reflects the effort and the degree of mastery. At least that’s the hope. They also can describe the ways in which the meritocracy falls short. They talk in detail about the barriers faced by members of underrepresented groups and how they don’t always have the same opportunities to succeed. All in all, they do a decent job of describing the advantages and disadvantages of the concept.

However, there are clear constraints to how widely this is applied. For example, I get very different responses when, instead of asking about a meritocracy, I ask students about microaggressions, colorblind racism, or white privilege. To be sure, they are able to speak comfortably and with depth about the advantages of each of these concepts. Microaggressions provide a language for people to talk about the small instances of racism that members of minority groups face every day. Colorblind racism denies the true experiences of oppression and discrimination that minorities face. And white privilege is crucial to our collective understanding of inequality because it helps people recognize some of their unearned advantage and gives a way to have conversations about what that advantage means. All reasonable responses as far as I am concerned.

The evidence of our collective failure is on display when I ask them whether they can criticize any of those topics. The vast majority of students I encounter, in the multiple times I have posed this question, are unable to come up with a clear answer or one that they don’t dismiss out loud before it has become a completed sentence. Sometimes they raise points like “White privilege might be viewed as denying the difficulties that some white people face,” but more often than not, they’re stumped. Apparently, they are only taught to criticize certain ideas. But this is unsustainable if for no other reason than the following: Reasonable people can and do think differently about these topics. When it comes to instruction, if critical thinking won out over facts, then now we’re doing neither well.

True critical thinking would involve a deeper understanding of these issues. For instance, what assumptions does a particular perspective make? Is that assumption controversial? Why might two people of reasonable minds come to different conclusions about it? What are the implications of pursuing any particular line of thinking? These questions should be applied universally and with vigor. We need a citizenry that understands that even—or especially—the most cherished ideas need to be held up to the light, examined, inspected, and challenged.

Changing the norms about how we think and talk about ideas is central to shifting how we think and talk about social problems more broadly. After all, the more time we spend talking about the relative merits of different ideas, the less focused we are on impugning the motives of others. If they took this lesson to heart, our political and cultural leaders could transform the dialogue on issues that really matter—whether it’s how to respond to a crisis or how to solve a seemingly intractable problem. And that shift would leave us all better off.


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