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A Brief History of the Idea of Critical Thinking

Defining Critical Thinking

Our Concept of Critical Thinking

 

Why Critical Thinking?

The Problem

Everyone thinks. It is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced. Yet, the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make,or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.

A Definition

Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content,or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.

 

To Analyze Thinking

Identify its purpose, and question at issue, as well as its information, inferences(s), assumptions, implications, main concept(s), and point of view.

To Assess Thinking

Check it for clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance, logic, and fairness.

The Result

A well-cultivated critical thinker:

  • Raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely
  • Gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively
  • Comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards
  • Thinks openmindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as needs be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences
  • Communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems

The Etymology & Dictionary Definition of "Critical Thinking"

The concept of critical thinking we adhere to reflects a concept embedded not only in a core body of research over the last 30 to 50 years but also derived from roots in ancient Greek. The word ’’critical’’ derives etymologically from two Greek roots: "kriticos" (meaning discerning judgment) and "kriterion" (meaning standards). Etymologically, then, the word implies the development of "discerning judgment based on standards."

In Webster’s New World Dictionary, the relevant entry reads "characterized by careful analysis and judgment" and is followed by the gloss, "critical — in its strictest sense — implies an attempt at objective judgment so as to determine both merits and faults." Applied to thinking, then, we might provisionally define critical thinking as thinking that explicitly aims at well-founded judgment and hence utilizes appropriate evaluative standards in the attempt to determine the true worth, merit, or value of something.

The tradition of research into critical thinking reflects the common perception that human thinking left to itself often gravitates toward prejudice, over-generalization, common fallacies, self-deception, rigidity, and narrowness.

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. It assumes that the capacity of humans for good reasoning can be nurtured and developed by an educational process aimed directly at that end.

The history of critical thinking documents the development of this insight in a variety of subject matter domains and in a variety of social situations. Each major dimension of critical thinking has been carved out in intellectual debate and dispute through 2400 years of intellectual history.

That history allows us to distinguish two contradictory intellectual tendencies: a tendency on the part of the large majority to uncritically accept whatever was presently believed as more or less eternal truth and a conflicting tendency on the part of a small minority — those who thought critically — to systematically question what was commonly accepted and seek, as a result, to establish sounder, more reflective criteria and standards for judging what it does and does not make sense to accept as true.

Our basic concept of critical thinking is, at root, simple. We could define it as the art of taking charge of your own mind. Its value is also at root simple: if we can take charge of our own minds, we can take charge of our lives; we can improve them, bringing them under our self command and direction. Of course, this requires that we learn self-discipline and the art of self-examination. This involves becoming interested in how our minds work, how we can monitor, fine tune, and modify their operations for the better. It involves getting into the habit of reflectively examining our impulsive and accustomed ways of thinking and acting in every dimension of our lives.

All that we do, we do on the basis of some motivations or reasons. But we rarely examine our motivations to see if they make sense. We rarely scrutinize our reasons critically to see if they are rationally justified. As consumers we sometimes buy things impulsively and uncritically, without stopping to determine whether we really need what we are inclined to buy or whether we can afford it or whether it’s good for our health or whether the price is competitive. As parents we often respond to our children impulsively and uncritically, without stopping to determine whether our actions are consistent with how we want to act as parents or whether we are contributing to their self esteem or whether we are discouraging them from thinking or from taking responsibility for their own behavior.

As citizens, too often we vote impulsively and uncritically, without taking the time to familiarize ourselves with the relevant issues and positions, without thinking about the long-run implications of what is being proposed, without paying attention to how politicians manipulate us by flattery or vague and empty promises. As friends, too often we become the victims of our own infantile needs, "getting involved" with people who bring out the worst in us or who stimulate us to act in ways that we have been trying to change. As husbands or wives, too often we think only of our own desires and points of view, uncritically ignoring the needs and perspectives of our mates, assuming that what we want and what we think is clearly justified and true, and that when they disagree with us they are being unreasonable and unfair.

As patients, too often we allow ourselves to become passive and uncritical in our health care, not establishing good habits of eating and exercise, not questioning what our doctor says, not designing or following good plans for our own wellness. As teachers, too often we allow ourselves to uncritically teach as we have been taught, giving assignments that students can mindlessly do, inadvertently discouraging their initiative and independence, missing opportunities to cultivate their self-discipline and thoughtfulness.

It is quite possible and, unfortunately, quite "natural" to live an unexamined life; to live in a more or less automated, uncritical way. It is possible to live, in other words, without really taking charge of the persons we are becoming; without developing or acting upon the skills and insights we are capable of. However, if we allow ourselves to become unreflective persons — or rather, to the extent that we do — we are likely to do injury to ourselves and others, and to miss many opportunities to make our own lives, and the lives of others, fuller, happier, and more productive.

On this view, as you can see, critical thinking is an eminently practical goal and value. It is focused on an ancient Greek ideal of "living an examined life". It is based on the skills, the insights, and the values essential to that end. It is a way of going about living and learning that empowers us and our students in quite practical ways. When taken seriously, it can transform every dimension of school life: how we formulate and promulgate rules; how we relate to our students; how we encourage them to relate to each other; how we cultivate their reading, writing, speaking, and listening; what we model for them in and outside the classroom, and how we do each of these things.

Of course, we are likely to make critical thinking a basic value in school only insofar as we make it a basic value in our own lives. Therefore, to become adept at teaching so as to foster critical thinking, we must become committed to thinking critically and reflectively about our own lives and the lives of those around us. We must become active, daily, practitioners of critical thought. We must regularly model for our students what it is to reflectively examine, critically assess, and effectively improve the way we live.

Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism

 

 

Critical Societies: Thoughts from the Past

Critical Thinking, the Educated Mind, and the Creation of Critical Societies…

Thoughts from the Past

Commentary by Linda Elder and Rush Cosgrove

 

The critical habit of thought, if usual in society, will pervade all its mores, because it is a way of taking up the problems of life. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators ... They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices and all kinds of cajolery. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                William Graham Sumner, 1906

             Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.     Leo Tolstoy

 

A critical society is a community of people who value critical thinking and value those who practice it.  It is a society continually improving.  Its most distinguishing characteristic is its emphasis on thinking as the key to the emancipation of the mind, to the creation of just practices, to the preservation and development of the species.

Unfortunately there are no critical societies in the world.  Nor have there ever been.  The idea represents an ideal not yet achieved, a possibility not yet actualized.  There is no culture on earth where critical thought is characteristic of everyday personal and social life.

On the contrary, the world is filled with superficiality, prejudice, bias, distortions, lies, deception, manipulation, short sightedness, close-mindedness, righteousness, hypocrisy, on and on, in every culture in every country throughout the world.  These problems in thinking lead to untold negative implications - fear, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness, pain, suffering, injustices of every imaginable kind.

Yet humans have great capacity for rationality and reasonability.  The history of human accomplishments, achievements and contributions well documents this fact.  But for the most part this capacity must be developed, actively, by the mind.  It is our second, not our first, nature.

What is more natural to the mind, what comes first in terms of human tendencies, and often takes precedence, is an orientation focused on self-gratification, self-interest, self-protection.  This perspective is innate, and many would say, necessary for survival.  Still it leads to many problems and ultimately stands as a barrier to the development of fairminded critical societies.

To envision a critical society, imagine a world in which problems are routinely solved through reasoning based on openmindedness and mutual respect, rather than vested interest and power.  Imagine a world which protects maximum freedoms and liberties, a world free from hunger and homelessness, a world in which people work to understand the viewpoints of others, especially those with whom they disagree.  Imagine a world in which people are encouraged to think for themselves, rather than mindlessly conform. 

There has never before been a more important time to foster and develop critical societies.  With the dwindling of the earth’s resources, with vast declines in natural habitats, with impending extinctions of growing numbers of animals, with the melting of arctic ice, with wars and hunger and hopelessness on the part of so many, with all of the monumental problems we now face, it is vital that we turn things around and get them right.  Whether and the extent to which we do will depend directly on our ability to solve the complex problems before us, to follow out the implications of our actions, to develop and use our collective intelligence in doing so.

To fix the problems looming before us, there is one thing we must get command of – our thinking.  Everything we do is determined by some thinking we do.  Critical societies can and will emerge only to the extent that human thinking becomes a primary interest of people living in societies, only to the extent that thinking comes to be understood as a complex phenomenon routinely highlighted and discussed and critiqued in every relationship, in every family, in every business, in every organization, in every field and discipline, in every part of the culture.  In short, because the human mind is naturally riddled with problems, the creation of critical societies depends upon people within the societies taking thinking seriously, studying its problems, its tricks and stratagems, its weaknesses and strengths, its native tendencies, its rational capacities. 

Many important thinkers throughout history have contributed to the idea of the critical society through emphasis on the educated mind, freedom of thought, the cultivation of the intellect, and barriers to human development. We have pulled together some quotes from these thinkers for you here, and provided some little commentary in places.  When we weave these ideas together with similar ideas from other great thinkers, a rich tapestry emerges, a vibrant guiding concept of the critical society. We see what we are reaching for, and the traps to be avoided.

 



John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill, an important 19th century Utilitarian, concerned to help create a critical society, feared conformism among the masses, what he saw as sheep-like uniformity which imposed narrow parochial views and arbitrary rules on those more enlightened. On Mill’s view, a critical society would necessarily entail freedom of thought and the granting of fundamental human rights. In speaking of human freedom, in his classic essay entitled On Liberty, Mill says:

[The appropriate region of human liberty] comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions…is practically inseparable from it. Second, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow; without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong…No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it (p. 50). 

There is also in the world at large an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the forces of opinion and even by that of legislation; and as the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society, and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not only of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary to grow more and more formidable. The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow-citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anyone but want of power; and as the power is not declining, but growing, unless a strong barrier of moral conviction can be raised against the mischief, we must expect, in the present circumstances of the world, to see it increase (pp. 51-52)

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind…the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error (p. 53).

We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course, deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure it is false, is assuming that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility…on any matter not self-evident, there are ninety-nine persons incapable of judging of it for one who is capable; and the capacity of the hundredth person is only comparative; for the majority of the eminent men of every past generation held many opinions now known to be erroneous, and did or approved numerous things which no one will now justify.  (p. 54-56).

 

John Henry Newman

To create a critical society, we must foster educated minds. In 1851, John Henry Newman wrote his famous set of lectures, Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education, which in 1852 became The Idea of a University. Consider his conception of the educated person, found in these lectures:

 

Truth, of whatever kind, is the proper object of the intellect; its cultivation then lies in fitting it to apprehend and contemplate truth... the intellect in its present state, ...does not discern truth intuitively, or as a whole. We know, not by a direct and simple vision, not at a glance, but, as it were, by piecemeal and accumulation, by a mental process, by going round an object, by the comparison, the combination, the mutual correction, the continual adaptation, of many partial notions, by the employment, concentration, and joint action of many faculties and exercises of mind. Such a union and concert of the intellectual powers, such an enlargement and development, such a comprehensiveness, is necessarily a matter of training. And again, such a training is a matter of rule; it is not mere application, however exemplary, which introduces the mind to truth, nor the reading of many books, nor the getting up of many subjects, nor the witnessing many experiments, nor attending many lectures. All this is short of enough; a man may have done it all, yet be lingering in the vestibule of knowledge: he may not realize what his mouth utters; he may not see with his mental eye what confronts him; he may have no grasp of things as they are; or at least he may have no power at all of advancing one step forward of himself, in consequence of what he has already acquired, no power of discriminating between truth and falsehood, of sifting out the grains of truth from the mass, of arranging things according to the their real value. Such a power is an acquired faculty of judgment, of clearsightedness, of sagacity, of wisdom, ...and of intellectual self-possession and repose - qualities which do not come of mere acquirement. The eye of the mind, of which the object is truth, is the work of discipline and habit (p. 109).

I will tell you, Gentlemen, what has been the practical error of the last twenty years – not to load the memory of the student with a mass of undigested knowledge, but to force upon him so much that he has rejected all. It has been the error of distracting and enfeebling the mind by an unmeaning profusion of subjects; of implying that a smattering in a dozen branches of study is not shallowness, which it really is, but enlargement, which it is not; of considering an acquaintance with the learned names of things and persons, and the possession of the clever duodecimos, and attendance on eloquent lecturers, and membership with scientific institutions, and the sight of the experiments of a platform and the specimens of a museum, that all this was not dissipation of mind, but progress. All things now are to be learned at once, not first one thing and then the other, not one well, but many badly. Learning is to be without exertion, without attention, without toil; without grounding, without advance, without finishing. There is to be nothing individual in it; and this, forsooth, is the wonder of the age. What the steam engine does with matter, the printing press is to do with the mind; it is to act mechanically, and the population is to be passively, almost unconsciously enlightened (p. 103).

I protest to you, Gentlemen, that if I had to choose between a so-called University, which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects, and a University which had no professors or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young men together for three or four years, and then sent them away as the University of Oxford is said to have done some sixty years since, if I were asked which of these two methods was the better discipline of the intellect…if I must determine which of the two courses was the more successful in training, moulding, enlarging the mind, which sent out men the more fitted for their secular duties, which produced better public men, men of the world, men whose names would descend to posterity, I have no hesitation in giving the preference to that University which did nothing, over that which exacted of its members an acquaintance with every science under the sun. (p. 105).

All I say is, call things by their right names, and do not confuse together ideas which are essentially different. A thorough knowledge of one science and a superficial acquaintance with many, are not the same thing; a smattering of a hundred things or a memory for detail, is not a philosophical or comprehensive view. Recreations are not education; accomplishments are not education. Do not say, the people must be educated, when, after all, you only mean, amused, refreshed, soothed, put into good spirits and good humour, or kept from vicious excesses. I do not say that such amusements, such occupations of mind, are not a great gain; but they are not education. You may as well call drawing and fencing education, as a general knowledge of botany or conchology.

Stuffing birds or playing stringed instruments is an elegant pastime, and a resource to the idle, but it is not education; it does not form or cultivate the intellect (p. 104).

Education is a high word; it is the preparation for knowledge, and it is the imparting of knowledge in proportion to that preparation. We require intellectual eyes to know withal, as bodily eyes for sight. We need both objects and organs intellectual; we cannot gain them without setting about it; we cannot gain them in our sleep, or by hap-hazard (p. 104).

...the intellect, which has been disciplined to the perfection of its powers, which knows, and thinks while it knows, which has learned to leaven the dense mass of facts and events with the elastic force of reason, such an intellect cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands, and how its path lies from one point to another (p. 100).     

It is education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them.  It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.  It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility. It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them.. ...he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently, and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself (p.

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