At Two-Year Colleges, Critical Thinking is Critical Indeed

Community colleges are notorious for embracing pedagogical fads—what faculty members sometimes refer to derisively as “the flavor of the month.”

A decade ago that “flavor” was critical thinking. We attended workshops and seminars, listened to keynotes and consultants, all so we could help students learn to think critically. Then the fervor died down as the next fad swept in.

Academically Adrift

Apparently that brief flirtation wasn’t enough. According to authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, 45% of college students “show no significant improvement in … critical thinking …during their first two years.” Although they included no community colleges in their sample—does anyone think we would have fared better? — Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses has profound implications for those of us who teach on two-year campuses. For many students, we are “their first two years.”

Some might suppose that critical thinking isn’t important for our students. After all, they’re at a community college. If popular media portrayals are to be believed, they’re not too bright anyway and are probably doomed to a life of failure and borderline poverty.

Community college faculty know better. Not only can our students learn to think critically, but it’s crucial that they do. Those planning to transfer will need that skill to succeed in upper division courses, while for those going directly into the work force, our classrooms represent the last time they’ll ever encounter critical thinking in a formal setting.

This book should serve as a wake-up call for all of us. Community colleges must re-commit to teaching critical thinking—not as a fad, but as an integral part of the curriculum. We have to reinforce critical thinking skills in every course we offer, at the expense of content if necessary.

Otherwise, our students, like the ones in Arum’s and Roksa’s study, will truly be academically adrift.

Rob Jenkins is an Associate Professor of English and the Director of The Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta