Friday, April 6, 2012

Should You Learn How to Think Critically?

It’s an article of faith. It’s pedagogical gospel. Everyone embraces it as transcendent wisdom.

Ask anyone why a college student should study receive a proper liberal arts education and he will reply that it will teach how to think critically.

Everyone believes that the best thing your can do with your mind is to think critically.

As happens in any marketplace, something that is so widely embraced should probably be rejected. In this case it is feels so sane and sensible that it is probably hiding an agenda that is anything but anodyne.

Strangely, no one ever thinks critically about the idea that students must think critically.

Some do ask the other relevant question: about what must one think critically?

When they do they will tell you that we need to think critically about traditional wisdom, about religious faith, about patriotism, the free enterprise system, and about liberal democracy.

Otherwise we might accept dogmatic beliefs or even traditional wisdom uncritically. We all know how bad that is.

Critical thinking is supposed to be an adjunct to independent thinking,  as though you cannot be an independent thinker if you agree with the wisdom of the ages.

At this point it begins to dawn on all of us that, as practiced in today’s Humanities programs, critical thinking is designed to undermine your allegiance to God and Country.

If you do not believe me, tell me how often critical thinkers challenge and/or find fault with leftist pieties. How much critical thinking is directed at socialism, feminism, environmentalism, and the Obama administration?

By all appearances critical thinking seems to involve stealth indoctrination. 

Of course, I did not want to caricature critical thinking, so I turned to the extensive Wikipedia entry on the topic. I came away dazed and confused.

Great critical thinkers have defined their activity so vaguely and imprecisely that it seems to involve just about every manner of cognitive activity. The term is defined so broadly that, at first glance, it doesn’t seem to be saying much of anything at all.

Which makes a certain amount of sense. If you want to perfect the art of critical thinking you will have to disembarrass yourself of your tendency to be clear, concise, cogent… to promote or propose a policy or an idea that might lead to action.

Critical theory is not about saying what you believe. It is not really about doing anything. It is about finding what is wrong in what other people believe or do. This makes it superbly derivative and dependent.

Before wading into the philosophical swamp, let’s observe that the word “critical” is not a technical term. It is used commonly in the English language.

We all know what it means. Any dictionary will tell you that critical means: finding fault.

This allows us to examine the value of everyday critical thinking in everyday life.

Once you learn how to criticize great ideas you are invariably going to start criticizing other people. You might even try to justify your activity by saying that you are trying to offer constructive advice.

Some people think that it’s constructive to find fault with what other people do or do not do. I believe that the common phrase, “constructive criticism” is a contradiction in terms.

If you want someone to improve his behavior it is best not to be too critical. Criticism demoralizes. A demoralized individual becomes defensive. The more defensive he is the less likely he will be to change his behavior. He will cling bitterly to his remaining pride by refusing to be pushed around by someone who finds fault with him.

Let’s say that you are going to a job interview. Will you improve your chances of being hired if you demonstrate an ability to find fault with the interviewer or the company?

People who are too critical are malcontents, not team players. You will improve your chances for being hired if you embrace the company culture, instead of sitting on the sidelines criticizing the silly things that everyone else is doing to enhance team spirit.

Or else, think about the man who likes to criticize his wife. He finds her lacking as a wife and mother, a poor homemaker, inadequate at cleaning the bathroom. He finds fault with her all the time and does not understand why she does not take his criticism as a chance to improve her wifely and motherly skills.

How well do you think that is going to work?

You will say that colleges do not teach you to think critically about your boyfriend or girlfriend. Yet, once you acquire the habit of critical thinking you will be inclined to use it everywhere, to your overall detriment.

In my view, Humanities students who learn to think critically will be less desirable in the job market than students who have majored in engineering.

Engineering students learn how to put things together and how to get things done. Humanities students have no idea about how to put things together or how to get things done. They know how to ensure that nothing gets done.

Of course, serious critical thinkers are perfectly capable of praising good work. Unfortunately, they do not know how to produce good work. They are too distracted by the effort to tear apart what is bad.

A drama critic might very well like a play. A book critic might enjoy reading a book. But if they want to retain their membership in the critics’ circle, they will always add on some comments about what doesn’t work. They might tell you that they are being balanced, but balancing criticism with praise often feels like destroying nicely.

Most importantly, being a critic does not involve writing and producing drama. In recent times some literary critics, a bit full of themselves, have been asserting that their critical essays rise to the level of literature, but still, critics do not create or produce or direct.

When we think of criticism as a discipline, we think first of the arts. Literary critics, art critics, theatre critics, music critics… they tell us what we should or not consume in the way of culture, but they find fault as much as they praise.

When they analyze or criticize a work of art they judge it according to principles of internal consistency and coherence. This aspect of their work dates to Socrates. As you know Socrates could make you believe that whatever you believed was inconsistent and incoherent. Invariably, you would end up believing what Socrates wanted you to believe, only you would think that it was your own idea.

Art cannot be judged against reality. It is not like advertising or politics or engineering.  

If you engineer a motor the value of your plans lies in whether or not it works, how well it works, for how long, and whether or not anyone buys it.

When you draw up an advertising campaign, the aesthetics of the plan pale into insignificance when compared with whether or not the campaign helps your client to sell soap or whiskey.

Political candidates must do better than merely to criticize their opponents. They must offer a positive action agenda. It does not have to be aesthetically pleasing but it must be understandable to everyone.

Even so, policy is judged in the marketplace, by whether or not it works in reality.

For a generation brought up to think critically a show like Mad Men must be a breath of fresh air. The show offers a critical view of Don Draper, but still, he is presented as a creative guru. He comes up with the kinds of ideas that others would never think of while they are indulging in their critical thinking.

Recently, Drew Magary wrote a fascinating screed—[warning: it’s laced with profanity]-- about why people should work in advertising. As you probably know, advertising is held in low esteem by those who refuse to allow the marketplace to judge their brilliance.

Some who feel contempt for advertising prefer to see young people become starving artists living in squalor.

Magary explains that if you do advertising, and not critical thinking, you will be obliged to get to the point, express yourself clearly and concisely, and offer something of yourself.

You cannot BS an advertising slogan.

Moreover, advertising is high concept: you need to express the most with the fewest words and images. And, and you need to dramatize your ideas, the better to reach your audience. Too much so-called critical thinking is pseudo-sophisticated bloviating.

If you want to function in the world, whether in politics or advertising or engineering or public relations, you would do better to avoid critical thinking. And if you want to improve your relationships with other members of the human species, I highly recommend that you think more like an ad-man and less like a critical thinker.


Robert Pearson said...

One should think critically about every advertisement one sees or hears...

Stuart Schneiderman said...

True enough. Happily advertisements compete against other advertisements-- for every ad for one kind of soap there's an ad for another kind of soap. In the long run these force us all to think and question before we purchase.

Or, is that too naive?

Ares Olympus said...

C.S. Lewis is always a great source of perspective, as a critical thinker who as well can debunk poor critical thinking! I could recommend "The absolition of man", and the key idea I remember is his criticism of literary analysis that I'd define as "Objective analysis reducing the subject to object, losing the entire message!

So my take is that every subject has a "soul", an interior content that can't be seen or measured in the abstract, but can only be known to the degree it can be subjectively connected inside of us.

E.F. Schumacher also has a lot to say about the ideas of "Principle of Adequateness" in how what we are capable of seeing, and how scientific perspective gets stuck in the objective view like above(!), all from another favorite book of mine:

Robert Pearson said...


To expand: "critical thinking" merely means, to me, that statements from authority (scientific, political, cultural, educational) should always be tested for logic, reason and accuracy against reality.

If President Obama says, "Give me $900 billion and happy days will be here again," and one thinks Obama is God, one's critical thinking is turned off. Critical thinking (of my kind) needs to be applied to people we agree with just as strongly, or more so, than those we do not.

We tend to make our biggest mistakes when we accept statements made from authority by those we like and respect. All scientific findings, public policy proposals and yes, advertisements need to be critically considered, or tested. That's my definition of critical thinking, which I hope is more precise and helpful than Wikipedia's.

David Foster said...

See the smart-talk trap

Malcolm said...

Here is some critical thinking

n.n said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
n.n said...

Thinking occurs within a frame of reference. The frame is defined by an individual's faith or philosophical axioms. It is normally circumscribed by a common reality. However, it can deviate when perception is influenced by either internal (e.g. prejudice) or external (e.g. authority, experts) factors. Critical thinking refers to processing and integration of information within that frame of reference.

With the above definition in mind, critical thinking is tempered and made useful when individuals voluntarily align their frames of reference with each other. For example: the role of standards is to explicitly force a common frame of reference. There is also the process of normalization in a society, which is also intended to align its members' frames of reference. Finally, there are objective orders, especially the natural order, which constrains our behavior and frame of reference.

I think the definition proposed above is consistent with the observations and evidence you have described.

I refer to individuals you described early as generational progressives or rebels with a cause and without a clue. They are motivated by differentiating themselves and, presumably, surpassing their parents and ancestors. This behavior is justified through the belief that the human condition has either changed or escaped the comprehension of their predecessors.

It's interesting to consider that the progression has lead these rebels to reject objective boundaries set by nature and enlightenment as overly conservative or restrictive (not liberal at all). Reality (defined by two orders: natural and enlightened or conscious) harshes their mellow and so they respond with an attempt to reform it to suit their desires. The deviation, which can be measured in degrees, can be described as progressive corruption.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Great comments, thanks all.

I like David's and Malcolm's links. David made the point several years ago that people criticize the ideas and proposals of other people because it makes them appear to be smart. Malcolm linked an article by Barry Rubin along the same lines.

As David pointed out, the practice is also encouraged in business schools where students are taught to tear things down, rather than to propose new solutions or to explain how something would work.

I think it fair to add that if you are a manager and know you are going to have to present your idea to a group that is trying to show off by criticizing your ideas, then you are going to be more cautious and less bold, more inhibited and less daring.

The other day I say posting about the Michael Phelps training regimen-- among its characteristics is that every day when he goes to sleep and he wakes up Phelps envisions himself succeeding. He does not think about what can go wrong in a race; he thinks about it going right. Interestingly, this talent helps him to soldier on when things do go wrong.