Critical Thinking, Higher Education

The Optimistic Critical Thinker

And we’re off.  The spring semester has begun at WCSU and most other universities in the US.  Faculty have passed out their syllabi and done their best to set expectations and inspire their students to embrace the learning ahead. Students are purchasing course materials (or finding free alternatives, if they’re lucky) and preparing for their best semester ever.  It is how we all want to begin, with optimism and a desire to get the most out of our learning experiences.

As we start the semester, I’ve been reflecting on the notion of “critical thinking.” We’ve had a lot of conversation on our campus about the meaning of those words. When we transitioned to our new general education curriculum a few years ago, we included a critical thinking competency in our requirements.  We then launched into debates about what courses do and do not teach critical thinking.  The problem seemed to be not one of inclusion, but rather a lack of ability to exclude courses from this category.

As I see it, the heart of the problem lay in the distinction between teaching students foundational tools for evaluating arguments of all kinds vs. the overall outcomes of a liberal arts degree.  In a nutshell, a general education course with a critical thinking designation should spend some time on the components of an argument, the concept of paradox or logical contradiction, and the evaluation of evidence.  This is distinct from the many (all) classes that rely on critical thinking skills to properly engage course material.  The ability to use critical thinking skills is indeed an important outcome of an undergraduate degree, but I argue that using the skills and introducing them are not the same thing.

There was more to this argument, of course.  After all, we are the academy.  We live to dig into the fine points, find the contradictions or lack of specificity, and identify next questions.  We are professional critical thinkers and we are never done. This is fine for faculty and administration, but when it comes to students, I think we need to be a little gentler.

Let me be clear, I think all students should be exposed to good, healthy skepticism and debate. Higher education has an obligation to demonstrate this, both to support good habits of mind and to serve as a counter-weight to a media environment that promotes both cynicism and gullibility. In a world where our social media routinely move us into echo chambers, instead of diverse opinions and ideas, this obligation has reached a level of urgency like never before.

But, we have to be careful.  Identifying evidence as untrustworthy can easily spiral into conversations about not being able to trust any evidence. Showing our students that long-held theories have been proven false, can lead to a feeling that no theories should be trusted.  Finding logical paradoxes can lead to a sense that nothing is resolvable.  In other words, the important habits of mind that we aim to cultivate, the habits that empower our students to make reasoned arguments and informed decisions, can also lead to a sense of hopelessness and cynicism.

So, how to move forward?  As we teach our students the histories of the ideas that we no longer find productive or true, we must also teach them the arguments that led to their failure and the paths forward.   We must teach them to ask why it might have been reasonable to think the idea was good or true?  What new evidence or thinking or event helped to undermine that idea or theory? What progress, if any, resulted from the change?  We have to help our students see the progress in the falling of old truths. It is that sense of progress that helps us protect ourselves from cynicism.

Then we have to ask our students the next question: where are the seeds of doubt in the new theory, idea, or fact? We have to help them start to explore that new question, at least in small ways, so that they have a sense that they can search for answers.  This is where the true value of an undergraduate degree lies.  We are not charged with the distribution of facts, those are available everywhere, we are charged with cultivating the understanding of how to challenge facts in ways that produce new answers and possibilities.

This is where I see the heart of teaching critical thinking. We must develop in our students the confidence and skills necessary to challenge facts and evidence and the desire to pursue the next set of answers. The belief that there are answers to be pursued and that those answers might be within our grasp is about as optimistic as any rational person can be.

So here’s to an optimistic semester, filled with questions, contradictions, and the desire for more understanding.