A Philosopher's Blog

College & Critical Thinking

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 29, 2013
Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines

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With the ever increasing cost of college education there is ever more reason to consider whether or not college is worth it. While much of this assessment can be in terms of income, there is also the academic question  of whether or not students actually benefit intellectually from college.

The 2011 study Academically Adrift showed that a significant percentage of students received little or no benefit from college, which is obviously a matter of considerable concern. Not surprisingly, there have been additional studies aimed at assessing this matter. Of special concern to me is the claim that a new study shows that students do improve in critical thinking skills. While this study can be questioned, I will attest to the fact that the weight of evidence shows that American college students are generally weak at critical thinking. This is hardly shocking given that most people are weak at critical thinking.

My university, like so many others, has engaged in a concerted effort to enhance the critical thinking skills of students. However, there are reasonable concerns regarding the methodology used in such attempts. There is also the concern as to whether or not it is even possible, in practical terms, to significantly enhance the critical thinking skills of college students over the span of the two or four (or more) degree.  While I am something of an expert at critical thinking (I mean actual critical thinking, not the stuff that sprung up so people could profit from being “critical thinking” experts), my optimism in this matter is somewhat weak. This is because I have given due consideration to the practical problem of this matter and have been teaching this subject for over two decades.

As with any form of education, it is wise to begin by considering the general qualities of human beings. For example, if humans are naturally good, then teaching virtue would be easier. In the case at hand, the question would be whether or not humans (in general) are naturally good at critical thinking.

While Aristotle famously regarded humans as rational animals, he also noted that most people are not swayed by arguments or fine ideals. Rather, they are dominated by their emotions and must be ruled by pain. While I will not comment on ruling with pain, I will note that Aristotle’s view about human rationality has been borne out by experience. To fast forward to now, experts speak of the various cognitive biases and emotional factors that impede human rationality. This matches my own experience and I am confident that it matches that of others. To misquote Lincoln, some people are irrational all the time and all the people are irrational some of the time. As such, trying to transform people into competent  critical thinkers will generally be very difficult, perhaps as hard as making people virtuous.

In addition to the biological foundation, there is also the matter of preparation. For most students, their first exposure to a substantial course or even coverage of critical thinking occurs in college. It seems unlikely that students who have gone almost two decades without proper training in critical thinking will be significantly altered by college. One obvious solution, taken from Aristotle, is to begin proper training in critical thinking at an early age.

Another matter of serious concern is the fact that students are exposed to influences that discourage critical thinking and actually provide irrational influences. One example of this is the domain of politics. Political discourse tends to be, at best rhetoric, and typically involves the use of a wide range of fallacies such as the straw man, scare tactics and ad hominems of all varieties. For those who are ill-prepared in critical thinking, exposure to these influences can have a very detrimental effect and they can be led far away from reason. I would call for politicians to cease this behavior, but they seem devoted to the tools of irrationality. There is a certain irony in politicians who exploit and encourage poor reasoning being among those lamenting the weak critical thinking skills of students and endeavoring to blame colleges for the problems they themselves have helped create.

Another example of this is the domain of entertainment. As Plato argued in the Republic,  exposure to corrupting influences can corrupt. While the usual arguments about corruption from entertainment  focus on violence and sexuality, it is also important to consider the impact of certain amusements upon the reasoning skills of students.  Television, which has long been said to “rot the brain”, certainly seems to shovel forth fare that is hardly contributing to good reasoning. While I would not suggest censorship, I would encourage students to discriminate and steer clear of shows that seem likely to have a corrosive impact on reasoning. While it might be an overstatement to claim that entertainment can corrode reason, it does seem sensible to note that much of it contributes nothing positive to a person’s mind.

A third example of this is advertising. As with politics, advertising is the domain of persuasion. While good reasoning can persuade, it is (for most people) the weakest tool of persuasion. As such, advertisers flood us with ads employing what they regard as effective tools of persuasion. These typically involve various rhetorical devices and also the use of fallacies. Sadly, the bad logic of fallacies is generally far more persuasive than good reasoning. Students are generally exposed to significant amounts of advertising (they no doubt spend more time exposed to ads than critical thinking) and it makes sense that this exposure would impact them in detrimental ways, at least if they are not already equipped to properly assess such ads with critical thinking skills.

A final example is, of course, everyday life. Students will typically be exposed to significant amounts of poor reasoning and this will have a significant influence on them. Students will also learn what the politicians and advertisers know: the tools of irrational persuasion will serve them better in our society than the tools of reason.

Given these anti-critical thinking influences, it is something of a wonder that students develop any critical thinking skills.

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18 Responses

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  1. Aphrodite said, on May 29, 2013 at 8:57 am

    Nice article you wrote. I couldn’t agree more! Students aren’t trained to think critically.
    I have the feeling we are rather trained to conform. Ahh…. people would be better of if they were more rational.
    While reading this, a thought about Ken Robinson came in to mind. I don’t know if you wrote something about education and creativity already, but I wonder what you think of his thoughts and ideas.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 29, 2013 at 10:56 am

      The fact that so many influences are aimed at creating uncritical consumers of products such as phones and politicians does make teaching critical thinking very difficult.

  2. FRE said, on May 29, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    Unfortunately, most of what you wrote certainly is true. But I do think that teaching critical thinking skills early can help.

    When I was in high school in Manitowoc, WI, back in the 1950s, we were taught critical thinking skills, at least to some degree. We were taught how propaganda works and given examples. We learned how syllogisms work and were given examples. We were shown how when a syllogism had emotional content, people failed to reach a logical conclusion. We learned how when men evaluated pictures of women for attractiveness, the names associated with the women influenced the outcome.

    I have no way to evaluate the effectiveness of the above, but I assume that it was effective for at least a few of the students. Probably teaching critical thinking should begin earlier than high school, perhaps in grade school or even in kindergarden. The importance of critical thinking for our own individual benefit, for the benefit of the country, and for the benefit of the world, is too important to ignore. Many of the world’s problems are directly the result of failure to think logically and critically.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 30, 2013 at 6:12 am

      I do agree that critical thinking should be taught early on. After all, kids start learning math right away. I’d like to see more emphasis on reasoning and less on standardized tests. Unfortunately, there is money in standardized tests, so they are probably locked into education as long as that lobby keeps its influence.

  3. wtp said, on May 29, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    an essay on critical thinking, critical thinking at universities no less, from a man with narcissistic tendencies who can’t handle criticism himself. Stand back, the internet just might implode on itself here.

    • FRE said, on May 30, 2013 at 1:17 am

      Exactly what does that add to the discussion? Is it the result of careful thinking and consideration? Are we supposed to find it edifying or enlightening? Or is it mere name calling, which is a well-known propaganda technique?

      • WTP said, on May 30, 2013 at 6:14 am

        Depends. When and where we want to have such a discussion. I’m all for it. You in or will you cop out like Mike has in the past, or resort to mere name calling other well-known propaganda techniques that the biomasses and ajm’s are wont to do?

        OK, sorry, that’s unfair to you FRE as you have not demonstrated as much here. Are you game? Let’s start at the end here, as most of Mike’s articles are so full of uncritical thought, naivety, equivocation, and such that I it’s like trying to nail jello to a wall. Let’s just take this statement in context of critical thinking…

        “The fact that so many influences are aimed at creating uncritical consumers of products such as phones …”

        We’ll leave the politicians out, a whole other can of worms, as they’re preceded by an “and” and thus this part should theoretically stand on its own. Where is the “fact” determined that influences are “aimed at creating” these “uncritical consumers”? Do such consumers not already exist? Where is the proof of this “fact” that the (alleged) advertising being referred to is not simply aimed at people who, for whatever reason, are not that interested in over analyzing (or analyzing at all) the decision to purchase a phone? And of all products to choose as an example, today’s phones are very complex products that people need to feel good about using before pouring a lot of money/commitment into them. A tremendous amount of research goes into user interface design which is extremely critical for usability. Appealing to the non-critical thinking aspects of selling such a product is a perfectly rational approach to both the producer and consumer.

        Is this statement itself not a typical bolierplate leftist rant about “consumerism”, as if such a thing is a problem? Where is the critical thinking in this statement? It shows a considerable lack of self-awareness.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on May 30, 2013 at 10:04 am

    I’m frankly not too worried that the average person does not use critical thinking when it comes to what brand of toothpaste he uses.

    What worries me far more is that the policy makers in Washington do not apply critical thinking when it comes to policies such as quantitative easing, Keynesian economics, and the impact of illegal immigration on low wage American workers.

    Also, I’m curious to know if Mike holds universities up as models of critical thinking?

    From the Instapundit:

    REMEMBER, EDUCATORS CLAIM THAT THEIR WORK IS IMPORTANT BECAUSE THEY TEACH CRITICAL THINKING: Class “Traumatized” By Tiny Toy Gun. “It’s from a G.I. Joe action figure. It’s less than 2 inches long, and the boy is 6.”

    Here is the link about the toy gun: http://bostonherald.com/news_opinion/columnists/margery_eagan/2013/05/eagan_tiny_toy_gun_triggers_major_incident

  5. WTP said, on May 30, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    TJ, I don’t think you understand. “Critical Thinking” is a synonym lefties use for “not thinking like us”. See, they’ve done all the critical thinking and come to the proper conclusions regarding quantitative easing, Keynesian economics, and the impact of illegal immigration on low wage American workers. OK, the immigration thing is up in the air depending on what lefty you talk to in what context on what day. Your skepticism regarding the above is a sign you lack CT skills. One wonders how you can perform your job (as an engineer?).

    BTW, your example is gonna get torn apart. Many CT flaws with that. Of course the general point is valid, but you need iron-proof examples when discussing CT with “CT”ers.

  6. FRE said, on May 30, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    “‘Critical Thinking” is a synonym lefties use for ‘not thinking like us'”.

    A more objective sentence would be, “Critical Thinking is OFTEN or SOMETIMES a synonym lefties use ….” Without the added words, the implication is that the term “critical thinking” is used only by “lefties” to discredit everyone else.

    “Critical Thinking” is not a bad term. Doing critical thinking is necessary if we are really serious about making good decisions; it should not be discouraged, treated as a pejorative, or apologized for. Instead, it should be taught and encouraged.

    • WTP said, on May 30, 2013 at 4:22 pm

      Agreed. Was not arguing philosophically, just in context of where TJ and I mostly are coming from. Sloppy writing either way. I was in no way disparaging crtiical thinking. I’m a big fan. My concern is that certain quarters feel like they own the word.

  7. FRE said, on May 30, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    It is possible that I would be considered to be a “lefty.” However, I do not believe that only people of certain political persuasions have a legitimate monopoly on critical thinking, although I am well aware that people of certain political persuasions disparage the thinking quality of everyone else. Because I strongly support nuclear energy (although not the particular nuclear technology that we have chosen, which I see as a serious mistake), I am well aware that many in the anti-nuclear crowd refuse to read anything that opposes their existing viewpoint and will viscously attack anyone who disagrees with them. Obviously they are either incapable of critical thinking or refuse to think critically and consider all viewpoints. A similar situation exists with other subjects.

    Often we have to make decisions before it is possible to have all the facts. Other times, there are so many variables that analyzing them correctly in a mathematical sense is impossible. In those cases, even people who are capable of critical thinking may disagree. In some very specialized fields, we do not have the expertise to understand the issue in which case we have little choice but to defer to experts and hope that they are right; that also leads to disagreements.

    Regardless of the subject, we should endeavor to evaluate all options before making a decision and should be willing to change our decisions if we receive additional information. Much has been said about a foolish consistency.

    • WTP said, on May 30, 2013 at 9:21 pm

      OK, so I agree. I would likely disagree with you on where these lines are drawn. Often such disagreements themselves are simply, as you state, the reality of dealing with so many variables that analyzing them correctly in a mathematical sense is impossible.

      My concern is that the endpoint of much of what is generally presented as critical thinking is little more than the hobgoblin of a weak mind.

  8. T. J. Babson said, on June 1, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    Let’s apply critical thinking here:

    A Canadian shipment of relief goods bound for storm-ravaged Oklahoma has been stopped at the Canada-U.S. border in Windsor, Ont.

    American officials will not allow the 20,000 kilograms of food, blankets and diapers into the country until every item on board is itemized in alphabetical order and has the country of origin of every product noted.

    Dennis Sauve, the volunteer co-ordinator for Windsor Lifeline Outreach and the food bank co-ordinator at the Windsor Christian Fellowship, the two organizations that gathered the goods, said it’s a “physical impossibility” to do the paperwork required in time to get the perishable food to Oklahoma before it spoils.

    Because U.S. President Barack Obama hasn’t declared Moore, Okla., tornado a disaster area, the 52-foot trailer of goods is considered a commercial shipment rather than humanitarian aid.


    Democrats at work!

    • FRE said, on June 3, 2013 at 2:42 pm

      Obviously there is something very wrong. Any one should be able to see that, regardless of political party affiliation.

  9. WTP said, on June 6, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    Critical thinking educators in action:

    A schoolboy who bravely tackled a knife-wielding pupil who was threatening a classmate was punished because such heroic actions are strictly banned.
    Briar MacLean, 13, stepped in after he spotted an argument was quickly beginning to escalate between two boys at Sir John A. Macdonald school in Alberta, Canada.
    Suddenly one of the boys pulled out a knife and began to threaten the other turning an scuffle into a potentially deadly situation.

    The heroic teenager charged and tackled the knife-brandishing youngster into a wall sending both attacker and knife falling to the floor.

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2334321/Heroic-Canadian-schoolboy-disciplined-disarming-knife-wielding-classmate-broke-school-rules.html#ixzz2VUZd0kWt
    Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

  10. WTP said, on July 1, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    Here’s some critical thinking all too common on many college campuses,


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