In a recent post on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, frequent contributor and NAS president Peter Wood laments:
“We have elevated “critical thinking” as the chief and worthiest end of a liberal education. Perhaps it is time for a reassessment. The critical thinker who is deaf to culture’s deeper appeals is impoverished in some profound ways. He is equipped to take everything apart but not to put anything together. We need more minds capable of moving at ease and grasping the whole.”
Wood’s complaint about critical thinking is the punchline to a piece that is largely about how much of intellectual worth is lost when scholars and societies view culture (any culture) through a myopic, modern lens. To assess this complaint fairly one has to have an idea as to what Wood means by the much vexed term “critical thinking”. Thankfully, he tells us what he means in another posting on the Chronicle website:
“The stance of generalized antagonism to the whole of Western civilization and the elevation of “critical thinking” in the sense of facile reductionism (everything at bottom is about race-gender-class hierarchy) makes the university function more and more as our society’ chief source of anti-intellectualism.”
It is hard to disagree with the substance of Wood’s assertion here. Though it is important to take account of how gender, race, and class might exert distorting effects on one’s thinking, critical thinking certainly does not reduce to such considerations, simpliciter. But why think that it does in the first place? Wood’s assertions here and elsewhere (for example, here) seem to presuppose that everyone in the academy (at least in the US) thinks of critical thinking in this way.
But they don’t.
In fact, at first blush Wood’s definition of the problematic sort of critical thinking (is there an unproblematic sort on his view?), the one that “academics uncritically cite as the supreme virtue of higher education”, struck me as being as novel as it was misguided. Certainly philosophers who actively work on critical thinking–especially those with ties to the informal logic movement like Bob Ennis, Donald Hatcher, David Hitchcock, Mark Weinstein, Harvey Siegel, Sharon Bailin, and Donald Lazere don’t conceive of it in this way, nor do cognitive scientists like Deanna Kuhn. And these folks actually do talk to each other. Having worked my way through a good deal of the corpus represented here, I can certainly attest that when academics like these stand up to promote critical thinking, they do not intend to promote a decidedly uncritical repudiation of Western culture in all its forms.
That said, Wood has a point. There’s no denying that ‘critical thinking’ is the worst kind of political football in higher education. It’s a term that everyone claims because, as Wood seems to recognize, it’s one of those few values that persons outside the academy (i.e. persons with money or the power to deliver it to colleges and universities through policy-making) can readily believe that they and others understand and that they can publicly endorse without offending anyone. (Being against critical thinking is rather like being against brushing one’s teeth, though tooth decay has its proponents too.) This is a large part of the problem, actually. Especially in the US, with its perennial anti-intellectual currents, higher education lives in a perpetual state of political siege. The deeply pragmatic American public demands that its children be taught something “useful”, usually meaning something that will help them get a job. Critical thinking seems to hit the sweet spot between intellectual respectability and just this kind of pragmatic cache. Hence its terrible ubiquity in these hard-pressed economic times.
Ubiquitous as it may be, however, there is a real “there“, there when it comes to critical thinking. It’s just not what Wood thinks it is. Rather, it’s what those in the informal logic movement and their allies have been working on for ages. Unfortunately, the politics around the term and a largely hostile reception inside philosophy have clouded that work, as have largely ridiculous (and impenetrable, to outsiders) internal frictions between (typically, in North America) analytically inclined philosophy departments and (again typically, in North America) largely post-Structuralist departments of English and other humanities disciplines. It is divides of this sort that I think really lie behind Wood’s assessment of what he sees as “critical thinking”. He rightly decries the trend in his own discipline to define critical thinking in an absurd way, but he fails to reach across the disciplinary divide and see how 30 years of hard work–not just in the humanities but in the social sciences too–might provide at least part of the cure for those ills.
Of course, Wood is not alone in this. As Cate Hundleby rightly points out here on RAIL, much “mainstream” philosophy is guilty of a similar sin.
When I consider this aspect of the problem, what worries me most is that the doom of the humanities will not be spelled by the corporatization of the academy, anti-intellecutalism, politicization, general cultural rot or some combination of all of these, but our inability inside the academy to rise above our own disciplinary prejudices so that we may work to solve what is, in the end, a common problem in the widest sense: the problem of how to conceptualize and teach the sort of critical thinking and dialectical engagement that contemporary democracy needs to survive. Loudly and (apparently, categorically) declaiming ‘critical thinking’ as an intellectually bankrupt ideal won’t help us do that.