Critical Thinking as Purposeful Questions

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To what extent is critical thinking moving us to answers?

Does critical thinking cut me off from the insights of others?

In his recent essay in the NEW YORK TIMES ,  the president of Wesleyan University, Michael Roth, argues that many of his best students have learned to think critically, but that they do not make use of arguments to find and create meaning in their lives.  I was not entirely impressed with the President's reasoning. 

  1. To think critically is distinct from making critical comments. Were I to announce that Justice Scalia relies on a subjectively narrow understanding of natural law, my comment is certainly critical, but I see little critical thinking therein.  The illustrations Professor Roth provides in his essay reduce critical thinking to important, but relatively minor, critical thinking moves, such as identifying internal contradiction in an argument.. Critical thinking in my understanding is a combination of attitudes and skills that are primary, but highly incomplete, avenues toward answer construction. When I think critically, my objective is not to reach a destination where I have a mental gem in my possession.  Instead, I am using the aforementioned attitudes and skills to reduce the domain of answers to those that show respect for specific intellectual criteria such as clarity, relevance, and respect for reason and evidence.
  2. Professor Roth is very careful to NOT say that most students whom he teaches have critical thinking tendencies. He seems to be responding to the few in his classes who are the most visible by their behavior. My experience (as well as that of Harvard President Derek Bok) with students at schools perhaps even more elite than those at Wesleyan suggests to me that almost none of the students reflect critical thinking training. Hence, I have a hard time getting agitated about the hyper-critical students being referenced in the essay.
  3. President Roth is bothered by critical thinking behavior that exclusively reflects a battle mentality wherein one uses critical thinking skills to debunk or demolish other arguments. But with the exception of a few popular books that seem to think winning every argument is an ethical and wise goal, I am unaware of any scholarly material or critical thinking texts that advocate encouraging the kind of critical thinking that professor Roth deplores.
  4. Professor Roth's argument rests on the incredibly generous assumption that those who make spurious arguments may well already be aware of the flaws in their argument, but that they are using sloppy thinking to cause us to re-examine fundamental questions or dilemmas. In other words, when thinking is weak, there is much to gain by searching for its strengths. I want to say something positive about this concern of President Roth's later, but for now I want to make the point that in the words of Jerome Bruner, law professor at NYU, humans are quite naturally homo credens . Or If you prefer a similar thought stimulus from a more pop culture source, the play, The Book of Mormon,  contains a song with the constant refrain, "Mormons just believe." And I know of no reason to think that this observation applies any less to non-Mormons. Hence, Professor Roth's concern that arguments will be dismissed prematurely seems applicable to a select few students whose mentors sold critical thinking as a male domination motif.

Instead of derogating critical thinking with a  caricature that almost no one would acknowledge owning, I wish Professor Roth would have made the central point he seemed to want to make in a different manner, one that both of us would support. He recognizes correctly that critical thinking is not an integrative process whereby thoughtful answers and human meaning are constructed. In his own way, he is making the same point that the influential WOMEN'S WAYS OF KNOWING was making when it claimed that women think with others, and men think against others. Although professor Roth was not bringing sex differences into his argument, he was similarly arguing that critical thinking does not itself serve as a belief or meaning creation process because it is busily establishing whether there are serious flaws in an argument. I agree and am aghast when critical thinking, unalloyed with creative thinking, is treated as a synonym for sophisticated cognition. But at the same time, I cannot imagine circumspect thinking without the assistance of critical thinking.

Suppose we were to follow President Roth's advice. Humans generally are eager to believe what they hear, especially the last things they have heard. SO were we not to apply critical thinking when we encounter an argument, our minds would be a jumble, a mess. I suppose we could take that mess, and, as Roth says, mine it for assistance in creating meaning in our lives. But wouldn't it make a whole lot more sense to construct meaning from claims that had passed the kinds of intellectual filters associated with critical thinking? 

Is it possible for us to see critical thinking as an act of friendship, stimulating improvements in the thinking of the person offering the argument, as well as in our own thinking?

Are most of us so unwilling to admit our fallibility that any act of critical thinking applied to our thinking will inextricably anger us so much that the potentially constructive part of critical thinking is weakened?

AuthorM Neil Browne