Wednesday, January 06, 2016

A Discourse on "Critical Thinking"

On a Christmas vacation road trip, I had a chance to listen to the audiobook of Russell Shorto's informative Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason.

Descartes' Bones is a historical detective story which traces the missing skull and bones of the father of philosophical rationalism, scientific method and the Enlightenment. In Shorto's account, Descartes is a secular saint whose relics became objects of devotion for the French, the Swedes (Queen Christina was an admirer), the Catholic Church as well as modern Science (his skull is in the anthropological collection of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris).

Descartes was famous for his declaration: "Cogito ergo sum" (I think therefore I am). This became the basis of both metaphysical skepticism, Cartesian dualism, and the unity of scientific knowledge that led to the Age of Reason, the American and French Revolutions, and the modern world.  Quote:

Thus, all Philosophy is like a tree, of which Metaphysics is the root, Physics the trunk, and all the other sciences the branches that grow out of this trunk, which are reduced to three principals, namely, Medicine, Mechanics, and Ethics. By the science of Morals, I understand the highest and most perfect which, presupposing an entire knowledge of the other sciences, is the last degree of wisdom.

In Shorto's view, today's way of life in America and Europe likewise grows like a tree from Descartes's Method, and the Enlightenment undergirds Western Civilization under challenge from Islamic Fundamentalism. The story of Descartes' bones is intended to remind us of the roots of our way of thinking.  The bones were swept up in the conflicts of the era. Likewise,  during his lifetime Descartes had fled France and Holland to die in Sweden, because of hostility to his ideas from Catholic clerics.

Shorto concludes his tale with an interview of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch Somali Member of Parliament who fled Holland for the United States under threat of death after the murder of her artistic collaborator Theo van Gogh, following release of their 2004 anti-Fundamentalist film, Submission

For Descartes, thinking was enough to bring about a revolution. The noun sufficed, without adjectival assistance (although Descartes did have a Method).

Today, it appears, not so much. Currently, thinking appears to have been replaced by so-called "Critical Thinking." At least as taught in schools, colleges, universities, as well as in business around the world. In England, there are GCE exams (A-levels) H052 and H452 in Critical Thinking--but not in Thinking. According to the website:

Critical Thinking is a skills-based rather than content-based A Level. It develops the ability to interpret, analyse and evaluate ideas and arguments and can support thinking skills in all subject areas, from arts and humanities to sciences.

On its face, it seems that there would be little room for objection to the Cambridge exam description, (except for the typo):

The Cambridge Assessment definition of Critical Thinking
Critical Thinking is the analytical thinking which underlies all rational discourse and enquiry. It is characterised by a meticulous and rigorous approach.
As and (sic) academic discipline, it is unique in that it explicitly focuses on the processes involved in being rational.
These processes include:
  • analysing arguments
  • judging the relevance and significance of information
  • evaluating claims, inferences, arguments and explanations
  • constructing clear and coherent arguments
  • forming well-reasoned judgements and decisions.
Being rational also requires an open-minded yet critical approach to one’s own thinking as well as that of others.

The study of critical thinking will equip candidates with reasoning skills to use in life, work and further academic study. It provides opportunities for candidates to think deeply, and in a structured way, about issues that are key to participating in society, e.g. ethical questions, cultural issues and issues of personal responsibility. It enables them to make reasoned decisions that are based on evidence and argument rather than assumption and prejudice.

The Advanced Subsidiary GCE specification gives an introduction to the concepts, principles and techniques that underlie critical thinking and expands their application to a range of contexts. It provides a discrete package of material, providing those candidates who do not wish to progress to A2 with a knowledge and understanding of critical thinking that is applicable to the study of a range of academic and vocational subjects.

The A2 part of the Advanced GCE specification incorporates greater depth of understanding, analysis and evaluation across a range of wider and more challenging contexts. It provides a foundation for further study of academic and vocational subjects, as well as forming part of a general education, or an enrichment programme, at Advanced Level. Candidates will find critical thinking skills of great benefit in preparing for a wide range of careers, including the fields of law, academic research (e.g. in the disciplines of science, arts and humanities), social science, journalism, medicine, business, accounting and engineering

The official definition echoes the promotion of "Critical Thinking" as a once-upon-a-time classically liberal response to the rise of Fascism and Stalinism during World War II, drawing upon progressive educational ideas of John Dewey. 

In this sense,  Edward Maynard Glaser's 1941 publication, An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, was seminal.  Obviously, the issue at the time was how to develop fair-minded and independent thinkers who would not fall under the sway of authoritarian or totalitarian ideologies sweeping the globe. 

Education in "Critical Thinking" was therefore intended as a continuation of the Enlightenment, of the liberal arts as artes liberales--arts worthy of free people; that is, knowledge needed to participate in civic other words: Civilization. 

However, while many lay persons may still understand "Critical Thinking" in these traditional terms, and some tests used by business, like the Glaser-Watson instrument, concentrate on fairly objective problem-solving techniques; by the 1960s, changes in the social sciences had begun to shift the tectonic plates of education. 

Robert H. Ennis's 1962 article, A Concept of Critical Thinking, published in the Harvard Educational Review, was a little more complicated and indeed mystifying:

The author has attempted to fill a gap which he perceives to exist in the literature on thinking. He has identified twelve aspects of critical thinking (construed as ‘the correct assessing of statements’) and elaborated a system of criteria to be applied in it. The relevance of his enquiry for the schools is implied in the title and is close to the author's attention throughout the article. 

These efforts corresponded with the introduction of so-called "New Math," SRA Readers, and other attempts to replace traditional subjects with more scientific and technologically advanced skill-sets. Thinking had been narrowed to "critical thinking," that is, "the correct assessing of statements." It was a way of avoiding ideological conflicts in what Daniel Bell had asserted was a post-ideological age (conveniently, a way to avoid dealing with the Red Menace of the the McCarthy Era). Where "Critical Thinking" had once been seen a bulwark of freedom, it now would become a value-free technique.

Bad enough on its face, rather like the replacement of belle lettres with "New Criticism," or philosophical concerns about the "Good Life" with dry British Analytic, Ordinary Language Philosophy...but that was not the end of the story.

The next stage was transformation of the meaning of the word "critical." Instead of referring to  criticism of ideas and arguments, the new "Critical Thinkers" would criticize social classes--they would apply Marxist critique, based upon a form of "Critical Theory" employed by Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, and Herbert Marcuse, among others. 

As Stephen Brookfield concludes in The Praeger Handbook of Education and Psychology, "how the term critical is used inevitably reflects the ideology and worldview of the user." He goes on to explain that analytic approaches merely attempt to explain the world--while critical approaches evaluate "how they maintain an unjust status quo." Criticism is re-defined in class terms as "critical distancing from, and then oppositional engagement with, the dominant culture."  That is to say: 

As an educational activity ideology critique focuses on an awareness of how capitalism shapes social relations and imposes--often without our knowledge--belief systems and assumptions that justify and maintain political and economic inequity. Conceptualizing critical thinking within this tradition unites cognition with political consciousness to define it as the ability to recognize and challenge oppressive practices. When informed by ideology critique one could argue that a prime indicator of critical thinking would be skepticism of the very standardized critical thinking tests generally used to assess it!

In other worlds, the liberal anti-authoritarian concept of critical thinking developed to fight Fascism has been transformed into an anti-liberal concept employed to fight classical Liberalism. "Critical Thinking" had turned Thinking on its head--the term transformed into tool employed to discredit rational thought and logical analysis...a precursor to what eventually became known as "Political Correctness."

One simple solution would to be to return to traditional conceptions of Thinking, to teach students how to think for themselves and express their own ideas in writing, and thereby return education to the study of classical liberal arts, artes liberales for a free people; focusing the curriculum on liberating subjects based upon Enlightenment principles that inspired Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza.

In conclusion: "Critical Thinking" as a euphemism for Marxist indoctrination has no place in the school curricula of a free society.