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Rethinking Critical Thinking: Values and Attitudes

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
510

Critical thinking is, to put it bluntly, much more than the ability to recognize a fallacy when you see one. But the hard part is to move beyond this and spell out what that "something more" is. I want to suggest two important aspects of a fuller understanding of critical thinking, which may inform how we approach our teaching: Good critical thinking is not value-neutral, nor is it merely instrumental; it is intimately connected with both values and attitudes.

Folks:

The posting below looks at some key components of critical thinking. It is from an essay by Richard A. Lynch, (lynchr@wabash.edu) research fellow,The Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts , Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana. Reprinted with permission.

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

 

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RETHINKING CRITICAL THINKING - VALUES AND ATTITUDES

Richard A. Lynch

 

"What is the mark of a liberally educated person?" Many of the answers to this question converge upon a common theme: critical thinking. One 1981 study, for example, notes that "Critical thinking is perhaps the most general term for the intellectual abilities that are supposed to be characteristic of the liberally educated person." The problem, however, is that-like the term "liberal education" itself-"critical thinking" is understood to mean a wide variety of more or less closely related things. Winter, McClelland and Stewart, analyzing the different senses of the term in higher education literature, identify seven distinct qualities that are characterized as "critical thinking" (including "differentiation and discrimination within a broad range of particular phenomena" and "articulation and communication of abstract concepts"), that cluster around what they describe as "the skill of advanced concept formation" (pp. 12, 27). Another (undated, but post-1995) study employs a "mimimalist" concept of critical thinking: "The critical thinking tradition seeks ways of understanding the mind and then training the intellect so that such 'errors', 'blunders', and 'distortions' of thought are minimized.? [T]hose who think critically characteristically strive, for such intellectual ends as clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, and logicalness."

Something is lost when "critical thinking"-which we so often claim is one of the most important things students should learn-becomes reduced to these kinds of cognitive, often more precisely logical, functions. (Most university courses on "critical thinking," for example, are typically courses in informal logic.) This is unfortunate because, despite this tendency to reduce critical thinking to such a least common denominator, the term remains-and the activity is-both rich and provocative. Critical thinking is, to put it bluntly, much more than the ability to recognize a fallacy when you see one. But the hard part is to move beyond this and spell out what that "something more" is. I want to suggest two important aspects of a fuller understanding of critical thinking, which may inform how we approach our teaching: Good critical thinking is not value-neutral, nor is it merely instrumental; it is intimately connected with both values and attitudes.

How is critical thinking connected with values? In at least two ways. First of all, critical thinking presupposes values at the heart of its activity. How can one make a good judgment or assessment of virtually any of the problems and dilemmas that call for critical thinking, without an evaluative basis for that decision? But by itself, that is not enough: good critical thinking does not just accept a set of values "uncritically." So the second important way in which critical thinking is connected to values-without which, the first connection becomes a sham-is in challenging and reevaluating the very values that it takes as its basis for judgment. One important component of critical thinking, then, is some understanding of one's starting points-who one is, what one believes, and why. Critical thinking is thus both reflective and evaluative-and raises the possibility that both the critical thinker and her milieu will be challenged, unsettled, and perhaps changed.

This reflexive-and potentially disruptive-feature reveals how critical thinking is intimately connected with attitudes. For Immanuel Kant, "Enlightenment," or "emergence from a self-incurred immaturity," meant the willingness to think for oneself, to think critically. This willingness is an attitude that opens things up to challenge. Perhaps most fundamentally, good critical thinking entails what we might describe as an attitude of "reflective openness and challenge." What I mean here is a willingness to genuinely consider new perspectives-to try to understand them from the inside-and, at least for a little while, to step outside of one's own views and acknowledge that one's perspectives, assumptions, and outlook are vulnerable, perhaps even mistaken or incomplete. A critical thinker is willing to turn that criticism upon both these new approaches and herself, and sometimes even to change what she's doing or what she believes in light of these critical insights. This core attitude may in fact be what makes critical thinking "critical"-without it, critical thinking becomes a hollow shell, a mere analytic tool applied to externally determined ends.

Warren Nord offers a compelling redefinition of critical thinking, that moves it, I think, closer to these deepening relationships with values and attitudes: " Critical thinking is not just a matter of applying the rules of logic (much less scientific method). It is a matter of thinking and feeling empathetically with others, of engaging one's imagination, of having access to a wealth of facts about the possible effects of alternative actions, of discerning patterns of meaning in experience, of looking at the world from different perspectives." Scientific method and logical reasoning can be good examples of critical thinking, and are important aspects of it, but are not adequate in themselves-both can be done in rote, unreflective ways, ways that aren't really open. For students to develop as critical thinkers, they must be willing to reflect upon and articulate their own starting beliefs and assumptions (whether these are scientific, moral, cultural, etc.), genuinely open themselves to other approaches or worldviews, to new ways of understanding what they took for granted, and then carefully consider the consequences of this reflection.

Critical thinking, then, is not a merely logical exercise, but is a practice richly imbued with a set of values and attitudes. Nord notes that, "Of course, all of this makes critical moral thinking difficult and controversial." It also underscores the need to begin rethinking, and deepening, the ways in which we teach "critical thinking." We should not be content to teach logical reasoning skills but must also work to encourage self-reflective, challenging, yet open attitudes on the part of our students. Helping students to develop these attitudes ought not be the province of "critical thinking" courses, but should be an aim of just about any course in the undergraduate curriculum. "Teaching attitudes" like this must not be confused with "indoctrination." For we will not be telling our students that they must subscribe to any particular outcome or belief; rather we will help them to develop a full set of tools for drawing their own conclusions, for what Kant called "Enlightenment." The task may be difficult and controversial, but in a diverse and complex society, it seems essential.

(1) D. Winter, D. McClelland, and A. Stewart, A New Case for the Liberal Arts (Jossey-Bass, 1981), p. 27

(2) R. Paul, L. Elder, T. Bartell, " Study of 38 Public Universities and 28 Private Universities To Determine Faculty Emphasis on Critical Thinking In Instruction: Executive Summary" http://www.criticalthinking.org/schoolstudy.htm

(3) I. Kant, "What is Enlightenment?" (1784)

(4) W. Nord, Religion & American Education (University of North Carolina Press, 1995), p. 346.