The Critique of Critical Thinking
In promoting the value of critical thinking people too often forget that critical thinking is itself something that needs to be thought about critically. There is a risk that we, as teachers, organise activities which require students to do things like check facts, look for assumptions, sift out opinions and prejudices, and identify vested interests, and so on, complacently assuming that we are being true to the values making critique so urgent. But are we?
The currently dominant notion of critical thinking reduces critique to a universally applicable method. It has its roots in the mentality articulated perfectly by Descartes in the early 17th century when he wrote his Discourse on Method. The aim of Descartes and the other Enlightenment rationalists was to find a method of thinking that would free us from prejudice, bias and the contingencies of our epoch so we could draw conclusions that any rational, thinking being could recognise as valid, and we could then use those as foundational principles for a bright, new, rational social order.
From a website that is at the top of page one for searches online for “critical thinking”:
People who think critically are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked. They strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and sociocentric tendencies. They use the intellectual tools that critical thinking offers [to] improve their reasoning abilities and [avoid falling] prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest.
Critical thinking is a tool – a tool to be used to fend off the forces of individualism and of a society whose received ideas have not yet been scrutinised by the power of a universalising intellect. This is critical thinking of the sort that carries on the crusade of the Enlightenment. At secondary school level, however, a lite version is more common, replacing the crusading spirit with a concern to ensure that students have the tools to succeed in the world of work. A good example from another education website begins: “As educators, we constantly strive to prepare our students for the ‘real world’ that exists around them.” The blog post continues by stressing the impossibility of knowing the world the students are being prepared for, and the phrase “real world” is put in quotation marks, indicating that we are not sure what deserves to be called real any longer. As teachers, we are “preparing students for the unknown.” A difficult task. But thankfully, the author informs us, someone with impeccable qualifications from Harvard University has identified seven skills which we know students will need to succeed in that unknowable world with its doubtful sense of reality. The first of those is: critical thinking. “Regardless of the field they choose to enter for their careers, the ability to think and act quickly is an indispensable tool for the future.”
Gone is the vision of a society moving out of a dark past towards a brighter, more rational order – a vision which, in any case, came to look ridiculous after the gulags, the perfectly organised concentration camps, and the Hiroshimas prepared for by some of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century. The lite version of critical thinking is more in tune with a society that no longer has a vision of itself – a social mechanism running instead on auto-pilot. The real world is now an unknowable world talked of as if it were a jungle in which people need survival skills. And insofar as this way of framing things is communicated to students, they learn that they are on their own, thrown into a hostile environment, where only those with specialised training will stand a chance of making it.
In the 18th century the Enlightenment advocates of critical thinking took it for granted that advances in thinking would spearhead tremendous social progress – not so much technical progress as a moral progress in which the good would finally prevail. Kant, with his essay defining the Enlightenment as the epoch in which people would at last begin to think for themselves, assumed this would move the world closer to a state of universal peace. How different things are now, when the best we can hope is that our students will survive in a digitally-enhanced jungle.
If someone insisted now that a course in critical thinking must also be a peace studies course, would people not be frowning, wondering what the connection was? The value is now not peace or a world in which the good prevails, but survival – survival in a world which is as dark and unknown as the one the Enlightenment believed it was banishing for ever. Or the value is success – reaping the rewards of a job well done in the service of that dark and unknown world.
This way of framing critical thinking is complicit in the perpetuation of the very thing that calls for critique: an untrue world. What sort of world will our former-students be perpetuating when they are focusing so narrowly – so mindlessly – on survival or success? Critique has been cut short when critical thinking activities are framed to promote the very values that cry out for critique, and students are, in effect, being trained to keep their heads down, concentrating – the perfect preparation for a future in which they will be obliged to accept minor positions in an incomprehensible division of labour, skillfully solving the problems posed as quickly and efficiently as possible, hoping to reap the rewards of a job well done, never worrying how that individual success might be advancing a social – a global – failure.
Students are taught to think outside the box only to the degree that they will be better adapted to living inside a box.
To think more intelligently about critical thinking we have to go back to what it is that calls for critique. What is it? What do we need to be most critical of at this point in history? There is no single answer, but surely one of our concerns has to be with a world that reduces human life to a struggle for survival and leaves students with nothing that speaks against the hideous domination of a mindless notion of success.
An intelligent education for critique has to be one that enables students to do two things that contradict the very way in which critical thinking is currently framed: Firstly, it needs to help students appreciate values that are higher than those of survival and mindless success; and, secondly, it needs to challenge the idea that the world is unknowable. As we have argued in our post about a Delphic approach to education, students cannot hope to critically engage with the world in which they live if they do not have a framework within which to make sense of it, and with which they can begin to intelligently consider what lies in store for us if we all continue keeping our heads down, performing our tiny parts in the division of labour as skillfully as possible.
Critical thinking regresses when it is framed uncritically as a mere tool. It must become a way of comprehending the folly of a world in which the only things that matter are tools for advancing an end that no one any longer has the faintest idea of.