Overview:

So what if teaching critical thinking is hard and there's no time in school anyway? Without it we're teaching kids it's okay to be ignorant.

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American public schools are teaching our kids too much and too little simultaneously. It’s too much what to think and not enough how—like how to think critically, analytically, about all the factual information they’re being taught.

The critical “how” responsibility of education is being lost in the crowded shuffle of coursework.

Before you learn how to think you must first learn how to stop unthinking.

Frank Macleod, assistant professor, Faulkner University School of Law, Alabama

Almost by definition, a pre-college “liberal education” is perhaps already overly broad, necessarily demanding virtually all available class time. Unfortunately, this leaves the teaching of essential critical analysis skills for another day—when such lifelong habits will presumably be harder to establish.

As defined below by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), a liberal education comprises:

… the learning all students need for success in an uncertain future and for addressing the compelling issues we face as a democracy and as a global community—regardless of where they study, what they major in, or what their career goals are.”

An ‘enormous breadth’ of subject matter

According to the AAC&C, this encompasses an enormous breadth of curricula, including science and mathematics, social studies, humanities, history, languages, and the arts, not to mention literacy, critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, and problem-solving, as well as “civic knowledge and engagement (local and global), intercultural knowledge and competence, ethical reasoning and action, and foundations and skills for lifelong learning.”

Whew!

Of course, it’s a good and valuable thing to present such important and varied knowledge to students through their school years. However, a very strong argument could be made that its effective impact is greatly diluted by withholding from students the very skills that would allow them to vigorously test the validity of this knowledge—and the validity of all other “received wisdom” throughout their lives.

If it’s essential to be able to think critically—to reasonably test and interpret information and mitigate bias to identify truth—then why isn’t it taught as standard curricula now and why hasn’t it been taught in U.S. schools since the republic’s beginnings?

One reason, as I wrote in my 2020 book, Holy Smoke: How Christianity Smothered the True American Dream, is that for more than a century the U.S. educational establishment was wary of recommending that philosophy—and its critical-thinking ethos—be included in standard school curricula. The education elite worried that teaching children to question everything, particularly religion, would undermine mostly Christian parental authority. Another reason is that philosophy and critical thinking are very hard to teach. Yet another is status quo inertia.

Lack of critical-thinking instruction ‘a damning indictment’

Frank Breslin, a retired high school teacher, contended in a 2016 Huffpost blog post that this critical-thinking-instruction deficit in American schools was “a damning indictment of an educational policy that compels teachers to become unwillingly complicit in brainwashing students in a one-view understanding of everything.” He added that teachers would much prefer to teach,

“… alternative views to avoid such mindlessness but cannot for lack of time. This policy of haste and superficiality that trivializes learning instead of making it come alive in all its complexity is easily remedied. Government has only to alter its policy.

“… The sheer bulk of material necessarily inhibits its critical treatment, which requires time to explore rival explanations so that students can grasp the excitement of learning and the contentious world of ongoing scholarship. Rather than partaking of a sumptuous banquet, students receive only a very thin gruel, insufficient nourishment for questing young minds.”

Breslin calls the current status quo the “mile-wide, inch-deep” educational model that fails to acknowledge the critical need for teaching students critical-thinking skills.

“The essence of an education— the ability to think critically and protect oneself from falsehood and lies— may once have been taught in American schools, but, with few exceptions, is today a lost art,” Breslin emphasizes. “This is unfortunate for it is precisely this skill that is of transcendent importance for students in defending themselves. …

“The school owes its students to teach them how to think, not what to think; to question whatever they read, and never to accept any claim blindly; to suspend judgment until they’ve heard all sides of a question, and interrogate whatever claims to be true, since the truth can withstand any scrutiny. Critical thinking is life’s indispensable survival skill, compared to which everything else is an educational frill!”

Critical thinking should be standard, not an afterthought

If this is true (and I absolutely think it is), critical thinking should be as essential to any curriculum as science and math, and taught with the same rigor and emphasis—not as a lightweight afterthought, if at all.

So students are being taught too much by rote while, at the same time, taught too little critical analysis.

Breslin’s solution is that teachers should be able to “critically treat in-depth as many of the course essentials as possible, omitting what couldn’t be taught in the time remaining.”

“If we want to raise a more reflective generation, critical treatment of material trumps ‘material covered’ every time,” Breslin contends.

This critical-thinking deficit is not just evident in schools but colleges and universities as well, and some professors are working hard to mitigate that.

Professor: Most students ‘cannot think’

Adam MacLeod, an associate professor at Faulkner University’s Jones School of Law, lamented in a 2017 New Boston Post article, titled “Undoing the Dis-Education of Millennials”:

“For several years now my students have been mostly Millennials. Contrary to stereotype, I have found that the vast majority of them want to learn. But true to stereotype, I increasingly find that most of them cannot think, don’t know very much, and are enslaved to their appetites and feelings. Their minds are held hostage in a prison fashioned by elite culture and their undergraduate professors. They cannot learn until their minds are freed from that prison.”

In 2017, just before beginning his course’s annual unit on legal reasoning, he gave a speech to his students outlining his scholastic ground rules.

“Before I can teach you how to reason, I must first teach you how to rid yourself of unreason,” he told his students. “For many of you have not yet been educated. You have been dis-educated. To put it bluntly, you have been indoctrinated. Before you learn how to think you must first learn how to stop unthinking.”

He informed students that they would be admonished for thinking uncritically, for regurgitating their intuitive biases rather than rational, considered opinions based on evidence and facts.

“If you ever begin a statement with the words ‘I feel,’ before continuing you must cluck like a chicken or make some other suitable animal sound,” he warned, not metaphorically. “To their credit, the students received the speech well. And so far this semester, only two students have been required to cluck like chickens.”

The only allowable ‘ism’: syllogism

MacLeod instructed his students that “the only ‘ism’ I ever want to come out of your mouth is a syllogism,” a formal form of reasoning in which conclusions are drawn from two propositions. He explained that other ‘isms,” such as racism, classism, and communism were inherently imprecise and often misleading, requiring a deeper, critical dive to understand what is actually being described.

The professor also required that students immediately explain three facets of any term they used in a criticism—e.g., “fair,” “diversity,” or “equality”—or forfeit the privilege of commenting in class for the rest of the semester.

After all, objectively considering all concepts and propositions from all angles is the soul of critical thinking. Considering a thing subjectively, intuitively, from one angle is just opinion, not cumulative knowledge.

So I favor the too-little educational model rather than the too-much. More critical analysis and less rote paralysis, not the other way around.

Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...