Rethinking Critical Thinking: Values and Attitudes

“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.

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