The Value of Critical Thinking

Let us start with you first. Why would it be of value to you to have the cognitive skills of interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self- regulation?

Why would it be of value to you to learn to approach life and to approach specific concerns with the critical thinking dispositions listed above? Would you have greater success in your work? Would you get better grades?

Actually the answer to the grades question, scientifically speaking, is very possibly, Yes! A study of over 1100 college students shows that scores on a college level critical thinking skills test significantly correlated with college GPA. [5] It has also been shown that critical thinking skills can be learned, which suggests that as one learns them one’s GPA might well improve. In further support of this hypothesis is the significant correlation between critical thinking and reading comprehension. Improvements in the one are paralleled by improvements in the other. Now if you can read better and think better, might you not do better in your classes, learn more, and get better grades. It is, to say the least, very plausible.

Learning, Critical Thinking, and Our Nation’s Future "The future now belongs to societies that organize themselves for learning... nations that want high incomes and full employment must develop policies that emphasize the acquisition of knowledge and skills by everyone, not just a select few."
Ray Marshall & Marc Tucker, Thinking For A Living: Education And The Wealth of Nations, Basic Books. New York. 1992.

But what a limited benefit — better grades. Who really cares in the long run? Two years after college, five years out, what does GPA really mean? Right now college level technical and professional programs have a half-life of about four years, which means that the technical content is expanding so fast and changing so much that in about four years after graduation your professional training will be in serious need of renewal. So, if the only thing a college is good for is to get the entry level training and the credential needed for some job, then college would be a time-limited value.

"Critical thinking is the process of purposeful, self- regulatory judgment. This process reasoned consideration to evidence, context, conceptualizations, methods, and criteria."
The APA Delphi Report, Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction 1990 ERIC Doc. NO.: ED 315 423

Is that the whole story? A job is a good thing, but is that what a college education is all about, getting started in a good job? Maybe some cannot see its further value, but many do. A main purpose, if not the main purpose, of the collegiate experience, at either the two-year or the four-year level, is to achieve what people have called a "liberal education." Not liberal in the sense of a smattering of this and that for no particular purpose except to fulfill the unit requirement. But liberal in the sense of "liberating." And who is being liberated? You! Liberated from a kind of slavery. But from whom?

From professors. Actually from dependence on professors so that they no longer stand as infallible authorities delivering opinions beyond our capacity to challenge, question, and dissent. In fact, this is exactly what the professors want. They want their students to excel on their own, to go beyond what is currently known, to make their own contributions to knowledge and to society. [Being a professor is a curious job — the more effective you are as a teacher, less your students require your aid in learning.]

Liberal education is about learning to learn, to think for yourself, on your own and in collaboration with others. Liberal education leads us away from naive acceptance of authority, above self- defeating relativism, and beyond ambiguous contextualism. It culminates in principled reflective judgment. Learning critical thinking, cultivating the critical spirit, is not just a means to this end, it is part of the goal itself. People who are poor critical thinkers, who lack the dispositions and skills described, cannot be said to be liberally educated, regardless of the academic degrees they may hold.

Yes, there is much more to a liberal education, than critical thinking. There is an understanding of the methods, principles, theories and ways of achieving knowledge which are proper to the different intellectual realms. There is an encounter with the cultural, artistic and spiritual dimensions of life. There is the evolution of one’s decision making to the level of principled integrity and concern for the common good and social justice. There is the realization of the ways all our lives are shaped by global as well as local political, social, psychological, economic, environmental, and physical forces. There is the growth that comes from the interaction with cultures, languages, ethnic groups, religions, nationalities, and social classes other than one’s own. There is the refinement of one’s humane sensibilities through reflection on the recurring questions of human existence, meaning, love, life and death. There is the sensitivity, appreciation and critical appraisal of all that is good and all that is bad in the human condition. As the mind awakens and matures, and the proper nurturing and educational nourishment is provided, these others central parts of a liberal education develop as well. Critical thinking plays an essential role in achieving these purposes.

Any thing else? What about going beyond the individual to the community?

The experts say critical thinking is fundamental to, if not essential for, "a rational and democratic society." What might the experts mean by this? Well, how wise would democracy be if people abandoned critical thinking? Imagine an electorate that cared not for the facts, that did not wish to consider the pros and cons of the issues, or if they did, had not the brain power to do so. Imagine your life and the lives of your friends and family placed in the hands of juries and judges who let their biases and stereotypes govern their decisions, who do not attend to the evidence, who are not interested in reasoned inquiry, who do not know how to draw an inference or evaluate one. Without critical thinking people would be more easily exploited not only politically but economically. The impact of abandoning critical thinking would not be confined to the micro-economics of the household checking account. Suppose the people involved in international commerce were lacking in critical thinking skills, they would be unable to analyze and interpret the market trends, evaluate the implications of interest fluctuations, or explain the potential impact of those factors which influence large scale production and distribution of goods and materials. Suppose these people were unable to draw the proper inferences from the economic facts, or unable to properly evaluate the claims made by the unscrupulous and misinformed. In such a situation serious economic mistakes would be made. Whole sectors of the economy would become unpredictable, and large scale economic disaster would become extremely likely. So, given a society that does not value and cultivate critical thinking, we might reasonably expect that in time the judicial system and the economic system would collapse. And, in such a society, one that does not liberate its citizens by teaching them to think critically for themselves, it would be madness to advocate democratic forms of government.

Is it any wonder that business and civic leaders are maybe even more interested in critical thinking than educators? Critical thinking employed by an informed citizenry is a necessary condition for the success of democratic institutions and for competitive free-market economic enterprise. These values are so important that it is in the national interest that we should try to educate all citizens so that they can learn to think critically. Not just for their own personal good, but for the good of the rest of us too.

Generalizing, imagine a society, say, for example, the millions of people living in the Los Angeles basin, or in New York and along the east coast, or in Chicago, or Mexico City, Cairo, Rome, Tokyo, Baghdad, Moscow, Beijing, or Hong Kong. They are, de facto, entirely dependent upon one another, and on hundreds of thousands of other people as well for their external supplies of food and water, for their survival. Now imagine that these millions permitted their schools and colleges to stop teaching people how to think critically and effectively. Imagine that because of war, or AIDS, or famine, or religious conviction, parents could not or would not teach their children how to think critically. Imagine the social and political strife, the falling apart of fundamental systems of public safety and public health, the loss of any scientific understanding of disease control or agricultural productivity, the emergence of paramilitary gangs, strong men, and petty warlords seeking to protect themselves and their own by acquiring control over what food and resources they can and destroying those who stand in their path.

Look at what has happened around the world in places devastated by economic embargoes, one-sided warfare, or the AIDS epidemic. Or, consider the problem of global warming, and how important it is for all of us to cooperate with efforts to curtail our uses of fossil fuels in order to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Consider the "cultural revolutions" undertaken by totalitarian rulers. Notice how in virtually every case absolutist and dictatorial despots seek ever more severe limitations on free expression. They label "liberal" intellectuals "dangers to society" and expel "radical" professors from teaching posts because they might "corrupt the youth." Some use the power of their governmental or religious authority to crush not only their opposition but the moderates as well -- all in the name of maintaining the purity of their movement. They intimidate journalists and those media outlets which dare to comment "negatively" on their political and cultural goals or their heavy handed methods.

The historical evidence is there for us to see what happens when schools are closed or converted from places of education to places for indoctrination. We know what happens when children are no longer being taught truth-seeking, the skills of good reasoning, or the lessons of human history and basic science: Cultures disintegrate; communities collapse; the machinery of civilization fails; massive numbers of people die; and sooner or later social and political chaos ensues.

Or, imagine a media, a religious or political hegemony which cultivated, instead of critical thinking, all the opposite dispositions? Or consider if that hegemony reinforced uncritical, impulsive decision making and the "ready-shoot-aim" approach to executive action. Imagine governmental structures, administrators, and community leaders who, instead of encouraging critical thinking, were content to make knowingly irrational, illogical, prejudicial, unreflective, short-sighted, and unreasonable decisions.

How long might it take for the people in this society which does not value critical thinking to be at serious risk of foolishly harming themselves and each other?

Currently, world news reports speek of school buildings and teachers being shot terrorists and violently extreme religious zealots. Education which includes a good measure of critical thinking skills and dispositions like truth-seeking and open- mindedness, is a problem for terrorists and extremists because they want to have complete control of what people think. Their methods include indoctrination, intimidation, and the strictest authoritarian orthodoxy. In the "black-and-white" world of "us vs. them" a good education would mean that the people might begin to think for themselves. And that is something these extremists do not want.

History shows that assaults on learning, whether by book burning, exile of intellectuals, or regulations aimed at suppressing research and frustrating the fair-minded, evidence-based, and unfettered pursuit of knowledge, can happen wherever and whenever people are not vigilant defenders of open, objective, and independent inquiry.

Does this mean that society should place a very high value on critical thinking?


Does this mean society has the right to force someone to learn to think critically?


But, really, should we have to?

Expert Consensus Statement Regarding Critical Thinking and the Ideal Critical Thinker

"We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. CT is essential as a tool of inquiry. As such, CT is a liberating force in education and a powerful resource in one’s personal and civic life. While not synonymous with good thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open- minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. Thus, educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It combines developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society."


"Thinking" in Cognitive Science Back Next Six Steps to Effective Thinking and Problem-Solving

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