June 10th, 2009

Against Critical Thinking


I enjoyed as an especially well-written commentary by Miriam Marty Clark in the current issue of Pedagogy. She confesses to a “growing skepticism” she has come to feel about critical thinking “and the place it holds in discussions of university education.” (p. 326)

She writes that she’s not against critical thinking at all. “I subscribe wholeheartedly to my university’s commitment to produce competent, reasonable and engaged global citizens.” Rather, it’s about how critical thinking has become a common ground—something about which all within a department can agree, even when they disagree about materials, methods and theoretical perspectives. She sites a figure offered by Derek Bok: 90 percent of faculty consider critical thinking the most significant goal of a university education. She claims that when critical thinking is a “default term,” it’s emptied of meaning. “At worst, it’s disingenuously advanced to conceal the fact that faculty can’t agree on what knowledge, skills, and attitudes students should acquire in their college courses.” (pp. 326-327)

Clark thinks the emphasis on critical thinking causes many faculty to ignore the value of teaching students appreciation. She’s writing about her field, English, but her point applies to many disciplines. “If our teaching helps out students to become adults who read widely and with engagement, who take pleasure in thinking about what they read and sometimes make connections between it and their own lives—we might in fact be accomplishing something deeply worthwhile.” (p. 326) She notes that “intellectual life is large.” “Alongside reason there is room for contemplation, strong feeling, unironic laughter, even tears.” (p.330)

Reference: Clark, M. M. (2009). Beyond critical thinking. Pedagogy, 9 (2), 325-330.

—Maryellen Weimer

  • Carl Isaacson

    While this brief report can't do justice to Clark's full reflection, it does seem to me that much of what we have been advocating for in instructional practice (that students learn in multiple modalities) is lost if we insist that there is only one way to be rational, one way to be critical. It is possible to be critical – by which I mean look and listen for credibility, evidence, logic and analyze that – and still be appreciative.

    Michael and Susan Osborne, in their text on Public Speaking, offer a "ladder of listening" which implies that one can only be appreciative after one has been critical. We can, in other words, only appreciate a thing deeply when we are able to see how the object, discourse, poem, was constructed and how it holds together as a unity.