The Disposition Toward Critical Thinking

What kind of a person would be apt to use their critical thinking skills? The experts poetically describe such a person as having "a critical spirit." Having a critical spirit does not mean that the person is always negative and hypercritical of everyone and everything. The experts use the metaphorical phrase critical spirit in a positive sense. By it they mean "a probing inquisitiveness, a keenness of mind, a zealous dedication to reason, and a hunger or eagerness for reliable information." Almost sounds like Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor or Sherlock Holmes The kind of person being described here is the kind that always wants to ask "Why?" or "How?" or "What happens if?". The one key difference, however, is that in fiction Sherlock always solves the mystery, while in the real world there is no guarantee. Critical thinking is about how you approach problems, questions, issues. It is the best way we know of to get to the truth. But! There still are no guarantees — no answers in the back of the book of real life. Does this characterization, that good critical thinkers possess a "critical spirit, a probing inquisitiveness, a keenness of mind..." fit with your examples of people you would call good critical thinkers?

But, you might say, I know people who have skills but don*t use them. We can*t call someone a good critical thinker just because she or he has these cognitive skills, however important they might be, because what if they just don*t bother to apply them?

One response is to say that it is hard to imagine an accomplished dancer who never dances. After working to develop those skills it seems such a shame to let them grow weak with lack of practice. But dancers get tired. And they surrender to the stiffness of age or the fear of injury. In the case of critical thinking skills, we might argue that not using them once you have them is hard to imagine. It*s hard to imagine a person deciding not to think.

Considered as a form of thoughtful judgment or reflective decision-making, in a very real sense critical thinking is pervasive. There is hardly a time or a place where it would not seem to be of potential value. As long as people have purposes in mind and wish to judge how to accomplish them, as long as people wonder what*s true and what*s not, what to believe and what to reject, good critical thinking is going to be necessary.

And yet weird things happen, so it*s probably true that some people might let their thinking skills grow dull. It*s easier to imagine times when people are just too tired, too lax, or too frightened. But imagine it you can, Young Skywalker, so there has to be more to critical thinking than just the list of cognitive skills. Human beings are more than thinking machines. And this brings us back to those all-important attitudes which the experts called "dispositions."

The experts were persuaded that critical thinking is a pervasive and purposeful human phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker can be characterized not merely by her or his cognitive skills but also by how she or he approaches life and living in general. This is a bold claim. Critical thinking goes way beyond the classroom. In fact, many of the experts fear that some of the things people experience in school are actually harmful to the development and cultivation of good critical thinking. Critical thinking came before schooling was ever invented, it lies at the very roots of civilization. It is a corner stone in the journey human kind is taking from beastly savagery to global sensitivity. Consider what life would be like without the things on this list and we think you will understand. The approaches to life and living which characterize critical thinking include:

  • inquisitiveness with regard to a wide range of issues,
  • concern to become and remain well-informed,
  • alertness to opportunities to use critical thinking,
  • trust in the processes of reasoned inquiry,
  • self-confidence in one*s own abilities to reason,
  • open-mindedness regarding divergent world views,
  • flexibility in considering alternatives and opinions
  • understanding of the opinions of other people,
  • fair-mindedness in appraising reasoning,
  • honesty in facing one*s own biases, prejudices, stereotypes, or egocentric tendencies,
  • prudence in suspending, making or altering judgments,
  • willingness to reconsider and revise views where honest reflection suggests that change is warranted.

What would someone be like who lacked those dispositions?

It might be someone who does not care about much of anything, is not interested in the facts, prefers not to think, mistrusts reasoning as a way of finding things out or solving problems, holds his or her own reasoning abilities in low esteem, is close-minded, inflexible, insensitive, can*t understand what others think, is unfair when it comes to judging the quality of arguments, denies his or her own biases, jumps to conclusions or delays too long in making judgments, and never is willing to reconsider an opinion. Not someone prudent people would want to elect to public office or to ask to manage their investments!

The experts went beyond approaches to life and living in general to emphasize that good critical thinkers can also be described in terms of how they approach specific issues, questions, or problems. The experts said you would find these sorts of characteristics:

  • clarity in stating the question or concern,
  • orderliness in working with complexity,
  • diligence in seeking relevant information,
  • reasonableness in selecting and applying criteria,
  • care in focusing attention on the concern at hand,
  • persistence though difficulties are encountered,
  • precision to the degree permitted by the subject and the circumstances.

So, how would a poor critical thinker approach specific problems or issues? Obviously, by being muddle-headed about what he or she is doing, disorganized and overly simplistic, spotty about getting the facts, apt to apply unreasonable criteria, easily distracted, ready to give up at the least hint of difficulty, intent on a solution that is more detailed than is possible, or being satisfied with an overly generalized and uselessly vague response. Remind you of anyone you know?

Someone strongly disposed toward critical thinking would probably agree with statements like these:

  • "I hate talk shows where people shout their opinions but never give any reasons at all."
  • "Figuring out what people really mean by what they say is important to me."
  • "I always do better in jobs where I'm expected to think things out for myself."
  • "I hold off making decisions until I have thought through my options."
  • "Rather than relying on someone else's notes, I prefer to read the material myself."
  • "I try to see the merit in another’s opinion, even if I reject it later."
  • "Even if a problem is tougher than I expected, I will keep working on it."
  • "Making intelligent decisions is more important than winning arguments."

A person with weak critical thinking dispositions would probably disagree with the statements above but be likely to agree with these:

  • "I prefer jobs where the supervisor says exactly what to do and exactly how to do it."
  • "No matter how complex the problem, you can bet there will be a simple solution."
  • "I don't waste time looking things up."
  • "I hate when teachers discuss problems instead of just giving the answers."
  • "If my belief is truly sincere, evidence to the contrary is irrelevant."
  • "Selling an idea is like selling cars, you say whatever works."

We used the expression "strong critical thinker" to contrast with the expression "weak critical thinker." But you will find people who drop the adjective "strong" (or "good") and just say that someone is a "critical thinker" or not. It is like saying that a soccer (European "football") player is a "defender" or "not a defender", instead of saying the player’s skills at playing defense are strong or weak. People use the word "defender" in place of the phrase "is good at playing defense." Similarly, people use "critical thinker" in place of "is a good critical thinker" or "has strong critical thinking skills." This is not only a helpful conversational shortcut, it suggests that to many people "critical thinker" has a laudatory sense. The word can be used to praise someone at the same time that it identifies the person, as in "Look at that play. That’s what I call a defender!"

"If we were compelled to make a choice between these personal attributes and knowledge about the principles of logical reasoning together with some degree of technical skill in manipulating special logical processes, we should decide for the former."
John Dewey, How We Think, 1909. Republished as How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educational Process. D. C. Heath Publishing. Lexington, MA. 1933.

We said the experts did not come to full agreement on something. That thing has to do with the concept of a "good critical thinker." This time the emphasis is on the word "good" because of a crucial ambiguity it contains. A person can be good at critical thinking, meaning that the person can have the appropriate dispositions and be adept at the cognitive processes, while still not being a good (in the moral sense) critical thinker. For example, a person can be adept at developing arguments and then, unethically, use this skill to mislead and exploit a gullible person, perpetrate a fraud, or deliberately confuse and confound, and frustrate a project.

The experts were faced with an interesting problem. Some, a minority, would prefer to think that critical thinking, by its very nature, is inconsistent with the kinds of unethical and deliberately counterproductive examples given. They find it hard to imagine a person who was good at critical thinking not also being good in the broader personal and social sense. In other words, if a person were "really" a "good critical thinker" in the procedural sense and if the person had all the appropriate dispositions, then the person simply would not do those kinds of exploitive and aggravating things.

The large majority, however, hold the opposite judgment. They are firm in the view that good critical thinking has nothing to do with any given set of cultural beliefs, religious tenants, ethical values, social mores, political orientations, or orthodoxies of any kind. Rather, the commitment one makes as a good critical thinker is to always seek the truth with objectivity, integrity, and fair-mindedness. The majority of experts maintain that critical thinking conceived of as we have described it above, is, regrettably, not inconsistent with abusing one’s knowledge, skills, or power. There have been people with superior thinking skills and strong habits of mind who, unfortunately, have used their talents for ruthless, horrific, and immoral purposes. Would that it were not so. Would that experience, knowledge, mental horsepower, and ethical virtue were all one and the same. But from the time of Socrates, if not thousands of years before that, humans have known that many of us have one or more of these without having the full set.

Any tool, any approach to situations, can go either way, ethically speaking, depending on the character, integrity, and principles of the persons who possess them. So, in the final analysis the majority of experts maintained that we cannot say a person is not thinking critically simply because we disapprove ethically of what the person is doing. The majority concluded that, "what ‘critical thinking’ means, why it is of value, and the ethics of its use are best regarded as three distinct concerns."

Perhaps this realization forms part of the basis for why people these days are demanding a broader range of learning outcomes from our schools and colleges. "Knowledge and skills," the staples of the educational philosophy of the mid-twentieth century, are not sufficient. We must look to a broader set of outcomes including habits of mind and dispositions, such as civic engagement, concern for the common good, and social responsibility.


Critical Thinking Skills Back Next "Thinking" in Popular Culture

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