‘Critical Thinking’: An Educational Shock Collar
Rather than teaching students to interrogate all premises, “critical thinking” demands they adopt a position of unwavering faith in liberal conventions.
The rigor and excellence of the American education system is in steady decline. At every level—primary schools, middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities—academic performance has been deprioritized in favor of ideological indoctrination. Properly understood, 2020 was the culmination of a covert revolution that was decades in the making. Now, the institutional left is so firmly entrenched in American schools that they believe they cannot be dislodged or expelled. For those who paid minimal attention to our schools before 2020, this hostile takeover seemed to come out of nowhere. But it didn’t. The signs of the revolution have been evident for decades—if you knew how to interpret them.
And yet, even after Americans have been awakened to the conquest of the schools, there is one sign that remains unacknowledged by the general public. This is the educational emphasis on “critical thinking,” which casual observers still view as harmless, if not an absolute good. Understanding the ideological baggage that this term carries will be essential if we are to mount any meaningful attempt to reclaim American education.
“Critical thinking” is so incessantly cited as a goal for schooling writ large that almost no one thinks to ask exactly what it means. Again and again and again, “thinking critically” is held up as the learning outcome at which all instruction aims. The student who can think critically, we are assured, is the educated student. Almost no reasonable person would say that critical thinking is a bad learning outcome for students, which is why the term escapes our attention. After all, what could possibly be wrong with thinking about things critically?
When most people hear the term critical thinking, they assume it means good thinking, or rigorous thinking. But if this is all that is meant by the term, it wouldn’t be so frequently invoked by educators—in class, in mission statements, in course materials, and in curricular design. It wouldn’t need to be invoked because everyone already agrees that good, rigorous habits of thought are…well, good.
It seems, then, that the word critical (when coupled with “thinking”) must mean something else. Critical can mean “essential” or “necessary,” but that doesn’t make sense either. No one can avoid thinking; in some sense, thinking is a defining component of what it is to be human. Thought happens. So, the “critical” in “critical thinking” must not mean “essential.”
In truth, when educators talk about “critical” thinking, they are implicitly referring to a particular mental attitude—one defined by a radical hostility and skepticism towards ideas and values that are viewed as “common sense” or “inherited wisdom.” This view of critical thinking owes its heritage to two opposing intellectual traditions. The first is the tradition of Enlightenment empiricism and reason, which holds that the strongest forms of inquiry are those that begin from a position of disbelief and the assumption that nothing can be held as true until it can be logically proven as such.
The second tradition is that of so-called “critical theory”—a left-intellectual form of philosophical skepticism that took hold in Europe after World War II, and then immigrated to America. Critical theory often attacks the very pursuit of truth that Enlightenment rationality celebrated; its adherents insist that truth itself is a “socially constructed” concept that is utilized to justify unjust forms of cultural and political power. The task for critical theorists, then, is to expose the myth of truth in an effort to weaken public confidence in institutional power—a process they hope might ultimately topple the existing order, so that a new society can be built that affirms a dogmatic view of “social justice.”
The intermingling of these two schools of thought in American education—one that demands a radical skepticism in pursuit of truth, one that insists that objective truth doesn’t exist—helps explain the nihilism and solipsism that flourishes in our schools. When administrators and teachers say that they want to teach students to think critically, they don’t mean they want to “teach them to be good thinkers.” On the contrary, they mean that they intend to teach them a radical skepticism toward tradition and common values, as if they were inherently irrational.
Of course, the sphere where this skepticism should be applied is very narrowly defined, and students are tasked with learning its scope. They should be extremely skeptical about Russia’s actions, which constitute an assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty, for example, but they should never ask whether illegal immigration from Central America represents a violation of U.S. sovereignty. Students should be skeptical about whether race is a legitimate concept, but they shouldn’t be skeptical about whether race-based entitlements should be written into public policy. In other words, the truth of traditional values and ideas is subjected to withering doubt and open disdain, while left-liberal ones are assumed to be objectively true and are placed neatly beyond the scope of any serious intellectual consideration.
Thus, “critical thinking” offers precisely the opposite of what it advertises. Rather than teaching students to be strong thinkers who are prepared to interrogate any and all premises, “critical thinking” demands that students adopt a position of unwavering faith in the truth claims of those in positions of institutional authority, which finally results in a reflexive disdain for any real thought at all. “Critical thinking” really seeks to create thinkers who can readily deduce what opinions and ideas they are expected to hold in favor or disdain, and who will eagerly comply.
Some readers might wonder: Can it really be that my daughter’s eighth grade teacher, when she is extolling the merits of “critical thinking” on Parents’ Night, is quietly announcing her intent to indoctrinate the children through some combination of Enlightenment empiricism and postmodern French philosophy? No. Your daughter’s eighth grade teacher probably can’t say when or what the Enlightenment was. She also doesn’t know what “empiricism” is, and she has never read thinkers like Herbert Marcuse or Antonio Gramsci.
But this means the situation is actually worse than if she had. It is not just the students—the teachers are also ignorant. They passively imbibed the same habits of mind they are passing along to their students. Through high school and college, America’s educators have intuitively grasped that these contradictory habits of thought (and the ideology that they are meant to protect) are good–and that embracing those habits are what it means to be an intelligent, well-schooled person. Over the course of their own schooling, they have learned when the radical skepticism should be applied, and when the abject credulity is called for.
Thus, their own education was a process not unlike how a dog wearing a shock collar learns to navigate a yard with an invisible fence. They aren’t rewarded for staying in-bounds; rather, they are punished for testing the lines. This is what passes for “learning.”
This process, applied to humans, amounts to a kind of intellectual abuse and handicapping. What it actually teaches is obedience. And it is achieved by coercion. Sadly, this form of training is the top priority in most American schools now, from kindergarten to doctoral programs. Even as they promise to make students better thinkers, many unwittingly set themselves to the business of teaching them to think less.
Critical thinking, properly understood, is an intellectual virtue. It is necessary for any society to flourish, especially democratic ones where the common person is called upon to play some role in public deliberation.
In contrast, “critical thinking,” the celebrated goal of modern, progressive “education,” is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Rather than equip people for liberated thought, it covertly aims to make the public intellectually unfit to govern themselves. Thus, it represents a threat to the health of the nation. The first step in fighting it is training ourselves to hear the term for the first time. When the ideologues give it lip service, we need to tell them that we know what they really mean—even if they don’t.
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