Critical Thinking: Higher Good, Hoax, or…What?

We live in a day of buzz words. Corporate America has bled over into our culture at large with its tendency to wrap complex ideas and methods into neatly packaged, tidy sayings. These buzz words are then to serve as a company’s rallying cry and unifying theme.

In our culture, buzz words serve to encapsulate one’s core values-those ideas by which one structures their life or one seeks to attain. “Tolerance,” “blessed,” and “disruptive” are thrown about in every mode of media with the intention of communicating ideas worth buying into. Unfortunately, buzzwords—without context—are nothing but vague words that allow an individual to shape them into one’s own mold.

Critical Thinking: Higher Good or Hoax?

In the Winter 2018 edition of The Classical Teacher, Martin Cothran pens a short piece titled “The Critical Thinking Skills Hoax” in which he addresses a prevalent buzzword in American education—“critical thinking skills.” Cothran notes that every 25 years since the 1920s, the American education system goes through “an education reform spasm” during which the establishment throws out well-meaning but empty slogans. In our current “education reform spasm,” “critical thinking skills”[1] is the rallying cry of reform. For an educational program or institution to be relevant, it must incorporate and train students to develop critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is the higher good for which education is to aim.

On the surface, developing critical thinking skills sounds like a good thing—and, in fact, it is. It is a good think to reflect upon what one believes, to think through what one encounters, to correct incorrect beliefs, and to further establish correct beliefs. The problem, however, is not in the ideal of critical thinking; rather, it is its use devoid of content. For Cothran, modern educators call for critical thinking skills without being able to define what they mean by “critical thinking.” In short, educators are chanting the equivalent of the cheer “rah-rah, sis-boom-bah” (32).

Modern emphasis on critical thinking, then, is a hoax, for it divorces thinking from basic factual knowledge (32). For instance, in many science classes, students are no longer “asked to name, identify, classify, or describe any natural object” (32). Instead, students are to learn through discovery (my observation). Instead of students being guided to knowledge, they are encouraged to use an “amorphous” concept as their ideal (32).

How, then, does Cothran define “critical thinking”? In short, critical thinking is “logic” (32). This term, rooted in classical learning, is concrete, for “it implies learning and being able to use a specific system of rational rules that can be taught” (32). Contra modern educators who emphasizes skill over knowledge, Cothran asserts that critical thinking skills are “domain-specific”—that is, skills can vary depending on the field of study (33). As such, knowledge cannot be de-emphasized nor divorced from critical thinking skills.

What is Critical Thinking?

The concept of critical thinking is near and dear to me. I’ve taught critical thinking courses at the college level since 2008 and have sought to employ critical thinking concepts in every course that I teach. Further, my PhD in philosophy only strengthened my interest in critical thinking. As such, Cothran’s article caught my eye. While I agree with Cothran for the most part, I believe he fails to adequately answer the question, “What is critical thinking?”

The term “critical thinking” is indeed a vague one. When I was developing a critical thinking course in 2008, my research led me to the reality that there is no one, agreed-upon definition of critical thinking. One can read five books on critical thinking, and each author will use a different definition. Granted, some definitions closely overlap, but many definitions vary widely in what constitutes critical thinking.

Cothran’s definition of “critical thinking” is a good start for it points to something with which most people are familiar—logic. However, it is problematic as well, for the term “logic” is plagued with ambiguity. “Logic” can refer to the discipline of logic wherein one learns symbolic logic in all of its forms. It can also refer to more informal logic where informal fallacies and inductive logic are covered. “Logic,” however,” can also be used in a more general sense where it describes the general process of providing reasons for an assertion. Further, “logic” can be used adjectively, where one is being “logical”—that is, the arguments they proclaim make sense and match reality. Finally, “logic” can refer to that which aligns with common sense. To define “critical thinking” as “logic,” then, requires further clarification.

In my opinion, defining critical thinking as “logic” is to give a too narrow view of critical thinking. Logic (as understood in its classical sense) is not so much an approach to thinking than a tool to utilize in the process of thinking critically. Logic is something one uses to assess the strength, validity, cogency, and coherency of arguments. Logic is limited, however, in what it can do, for it cannot determine the truth of one’s reasoning. That is, and argument’s being logical and truthful are two separate (but related) issues.[2] As such, critical thinking needs to be more than just “logic.”

How, then, are we to answer the question, “What is critical thinking?” When I taught critical thinking, I defined critical thinking as:

Fair-minded thinking that is self-guided and self-disciplined, purposeful and goal-oriented, and that performs at the highest level of quality.

This definition is a combination of two definitions provided by leading scholars on critical thinking: Richard Paul and Linda Elder of, and Denise Halpern of Thought and Knowledge, An Introduction to Critical Thinking [if you want to have substantive work on what critical thinking is, then I suggest looking at Paul and Elder, and Halpern]. I believe that the definition I developed from their work helps to encapsulate the idea that critical thinking isn’t something that just do, it also entails one’s attitude.

In order to avoid any misunderstandings, allow me to explain what the components of my definition entail.

  • Fair-minded: today, “fair-minded” alludes to “tolerance,” or viewing all ideas as equally valid. This is NOT what I mean here. Rather, “fair-minded” includes the ideas of:
    • Accountability: being willing to self-correct when needed.
    • Flexibility: looking at new ideas, reconsidering old ideas in a new light, or be willing to suspend judgment until you obtain more information.

Being fair-minded, then, entails that one practices epistemic humility when it comes to knowing—doggedly pursuing truth while being humble enough to correct when wrong.

  • Self-guided and Self-disciplined: the idea behind these two words is that no one can make you practice critical thinking. You can be taught what critical thinking is and how you practice critical thinking skills; however, you and you alone are responsible for utilizing these skills. The idea of “self,” then, is no that one is a lone ranger; rather, it communicates that an individual is responsible for one’s own thinking.
  • Purposesful and Goal-oriented: thinking is not an end unto itself. Why are you thinking through a particular issue? What do you seek to accomplish? Critical thinking is teleological—it is purposeful.
  • High quality: granted not every matter requires extensive, deep thinking. There are varying degrees of effort and time put into thinking through matters. The point behind “highest level of quality” is that one seeks to do their best in every situation; lazy and fallacious thinking ought to be avoided.

Critical thinking, then, is more than a collection of skills or how one thinks. To think critically entails one’s attitude, purpose, and effort—in short, it includes their approach to ideas and matters.

What I have presented here is only the beginning of how one answers the question “What is critical thinking”? Beliefs one accepts as presuppositions to their worldview and ideals one values play crucial roles in how one utilizes critical thinking. Nevertheless, what I’ve given here is the first step in utilizing critical thinking, understanding what it is.

[1] Related popular buzzwords are “problem-solving skills,” “inferencing skills,” “main idea finding,” and “higher-order skills” (32-33).

[2] More can be said (and should be said) about this, but it will have to wait for another post.


2 thoughts on “Critical Thinking: Higher Good, Hoax, or…What?

  1. Danny,

    This is helpful. I agree that logic cannot quite cover everything we think we mean by “critical thinking skills.” I would have to go back to the article, but I think I went beyond the simple term “logic” (which is what I said on television) and expanded it to “the liberal arts,” which consist of the universal language and mathematical skills, in my definition.

    But even these don’t quite capture it because the liberal arts is just a listing of subjects in which critical thinking skills occur and their learning facilitated.

    I will have to think more about what you say here, but I wonder if saying simply “analysis and synthesis” would cover the gamut of skills–being able to make distinctions and see resemblances, contrast and comparison, taking things apart and putting them together again. It seems to me that would cover everything in its most basic aspect, but I have not totally thought that through.

    I would appreciate your views on that. Thanks. / credentials can be used.

    • Thank you for your comment, Martin! First, I hope my tone was not one of disrespect. I did appreciate your article and feel that you touched on something that I have been thinking for quite some time – the empty appeal to “critical thinking.” While there is no consensus on defining critical thinking, this is not really a problem since other disciplines (like philosophy) don’t necessarily have an agreed upon definition. The real problem with “critical thinking” is what you address – the empty use of the phrase without any context. So, your article was very helpful and – I believe – needed.

      What I was hoping to do with my post was to build upon what you wrote. When I’ve taught critical thinking courses, I’ve spent the first lecture hammering out what critical thinking means so that my students understand the direction we’re headed. So, what I sought to do was build upon your definition.

      I think what you say regarding “analysis and synthesis” is very helpful as it encapsulates well what critical thinking entails. I wonder what else could be said to avoid what many in education do – appeal to critical thinking as if it’s a magic solution to finding knowledge. I’m having a hard time putting into words what I’m thinking, but I get the sense that many educators see critical thinking as prior to knowledge. However, as you mention in your article, critical thinking cannot be accomplished without first having some level of knowledge. Does this make sense?

      Thank you for commenting! I hope we can dialogue more in the future.


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