The Critical Thinking Crisis | KERA News

The Critical Thinking Crisis

Nov 7, 2012

You'd think someone who earns admission into college is ready to handle the work they are assigned. But commentator Stephen Whitley doesn't agree.

While driving through the university campus where I attend graduate school and work as the Director of the Writing Center, I saw lots of new students moving into dorms.  They come with hopes and dreams and ideas about what a university education will help them achieve.  But many of these students are not prepared for the important task of critical thinking and analysis that is required for college level work.  These students are being ill served by current trends in education that de-emphasize critical thinking skills and the view of education as a business by many legislators.  The sacrifices students and their parents make for college make it imperative that we provide them with the critical thinking tools they need to be productive citizens.

John Henry Newman describes the university as “a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse,” yet most of our students don’t see the university as a way to learn more about the world.  They see it as a training ground for a career, a hoop they must jump through to get to the next level.  A college degree should be about the experience of learning, about committing to something and following it through, and learning how to think, not just how to act and behave in a job.  For profit universities have added to this view of the university as a commodity rather than an experience.  For profit universities are selling a diploma that says their students are entitled to a more privileged place in society yet degrees from places like University of Phoenix or Kaplan University are often looked down upon in the job market. But that’s not the worst of it.

The Texas Republican Party recently listed as part of their platform opposition to teaching “higher order thinking skills” or critical thinking, which they say “focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”  For those of us in academia, it’s a frightening world they want to create.  The focus on standardized testing required by No Child Left Behind does a disservice to students who are entering the university.  “Teaching to the test” does not develop important analytical skills that employers look for.  Distance learning, for profit education, the move toward “school choice” and for profit charter schools seek all to redefine the very idea of public education in the US.

But if we see the university, as I do, as a place to teach the next generation how to think on their own and how to question the world around them, then critical thinking and analysis is exactly what we should be teaching. Beginning in kindergarten, we should be teaching students how to think, not what to think.   Encouraging young students to ask questions of their teachers and of each other will help develop critical thinking skills.  In older students, moving toward a pedagogy based on the Socratic method, where students are taught to defend their views and to analyze the views of others, will help develop their analytical skills. 

Any education system that does not teach critical thinking skills will not prepare students for competition in the global economy, and for me, and the thousands of students and parents who are depending on a college degree to change their lives, that’s not acceptable.

Stephen Whitley is a writer from Commerce.