Jan 19, 2009

Critical thinking in education

Over the new year I went to a party and met Andrew, a distinguished intellectual and teacher. Our conversation turned to education.

I casually remarked that schools are good at teaching facts and figures. But, in this test-score driven system, they do a poor job teaching critical thinking.

Poppycock, responded Andrew. Critical thinking is overrated. Everyone in education says critical thinking is important. Its so easy to say, nobody would disagree with you. But it is a platitude. What does it really mean to teach critical thinking.

I took the bait. Critical thinking means knowing what an argument is, being able to break an argument into its constituent claims, then being able to analyze those claims. It means recognizing the difference between reason and rhetoric. This is what is not taught. For example, Obama in his speech in Berlin said "because of these aspirations all free people - everywhere - became citizens of Berlin." That was a powerful moment because it clearly connected to Kennedy, and his "I am a Berliner" statement. Obama was updating that concept, broadening the idea. Rather than declaring his own unity with Berlin, he was saying, we are, all of us, Berliners. The historical linkage to Kennedy is what gave his statement rhetorical force. But the statement is actually assimilationist, it erases difference. And of course it isn't true. If I turned up in Berlin and said "because of my aspirations I am a Berliner" they wouldn't hand over citizenship papers. We are so easily persuaded by things that aren't true - recognizing this requires critical thinking.

Yes. But the voters of this country didn't need classes in critical thinking to know to vote for Obama. They figured it out on their own. Thinking, yes, we need thinking. But don't applying your elitist ideals to everyone.

So what would you suggest instead. If we agree that teaching just facts and figures is not enough, what is needed?

Me? I'm just a curious bystander. I watch the world go by. I write articles. I don't need to prescribe anything.


Of course, afterwards I wanted to point out that Andrew was, himself, using the tools of critical thinking to construct an argument.

But something in his words stuck. As Obama prepares to make his inaugural address, I'm still pondering whether critical thinking is overrated.

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