The many fractious factions in the American education wars fight over standardized tests, teacher pay and whether we are dumber than India and China or much, much dumber than India and China. But they all agree on a single criticism of public schooling in the United States: Not enough critical thinking is being taught in our classrooms.
In pure lexical terms, “critical thinking” is “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.” Translated into pedagogy, it’s teaching students to be intellectual mavericks, cognitive cowboys who poke bullet holes into every received concept, who duel with Aristotle and Dickinson, who are never complacent, submissive or even quiet. They brim with what Walt Whitman called “original energy.”
Our students, according to pretty much everyone, are crappy critical thinkers. President Obama, who has generally aligned himself with education reformers and charter school advocates, has said critical thinking is a “21st-century skill” American students lack. His sometime ideological opponent, American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten, agrees, despite discounting much else in his reformist policies. Critical thinking is necessary, she said last year, “to prepare for life and citizenship, college and career.” Last year, the State University of New York at Stony Brook started a new course in news literacy, under the belief that “every student in America should acquire the critical thinking skills of a journalist.”
Stony Brook might be aghast to learn that I somehow managed to snag a desk in a newsroom without ever flashing my critical-thinking abilities, latent or otherwise, though I suspect knowing how to write a complex-compound sentence helped matters. Before turning to journalism, I taught at a selective but not quite prestigious high school in Brooklyn (it has since become the latter, in no part due to my work there). I can’t remember “critical thinking” exerting much of an influence in my English classroom. We read books, learned new words, dissected sentences to reveal the syntactic beauties underneath. Sometimes ideas were debated, but not always. Sometimes, I simply told my students things with the expectation that they accepted, remembered and, at some point, regurgitated them—like when Virgil wrote The Aeneid or the difference between who and whom. Not much critical thinking needed there.
I never praised a student for her critical thinking, nor was asked by a student about, say, critical thinking as it pertained to the third book of The Odyssey. Parents always wanted to know how their children were doing, but none ever asked about their critical thinking. It seemed, then, that critical thinking was as relevant to the English classroom as a student’s time on the mile.
Much has changed, at least in the national discussion. Today, critical thinking is often treated like a panacea, the been-there-all-along salve for our myriad pedagogical boo-boos. Common Core, the federal curriculum guidelines adopted by the vast majority of states, describes itself as “developing the critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills students will need to be successful.” The International Center for the Assessment of Higher Order Thinking, which promotes critical thinking in the classroom, says on its website that “the problems we now face, and will increasingly face, require a radically different form of thinking, thinking that is more complex, more adaptable, more sensitive to divergent points of view.”
I would more readily believe that if I understood what “critical thinking” meant. Its obverse, I suppose, is uncritical thinking, the unquestioning reception and retention of facts. Which, I hate to tell you, is supremely important in mastering any field of knowledge. Uncritical thinking is pretty unsexy, often requiring rote memorization, deadening repetition and, not infrequently, humility before intellects greater than your own (whether Louise Erdrich’s or Albert Einstein’s or just Mr. Greenberg’s during third-period geometry class). Only someone who has uncritically mastered the intricacies of Shakespeare’s verse, the social subtexts of Elizabethan society and the historical background of Hamlet is going to have any original or even interesting thoughts about the play. Everything else is just uninformed opinion lacking intellectual valence.
Look, you can be the most original, iconoclastic thinker out there. You can have deeply contrarian opinions. And those may be impressive, on the surface. But if you really want to impress me and, more important, the engineering department at Google, go ahead and think your way through this:
To take the derivative of that function—the way I am sure most serious 16-year-olds in Shanghai, Helsinki and Mumbai can—you will have to have spent dozens of hours doing work of the decidedly uncritical kind, learning trigonometric rules that have been around for centuries and will almost certainly outlast your earthly existence. This is true for any discipline, whether biology or Spanish literature. There is a lot more to absorb than to critique. Before becoming a thinker, you have to be a learner.
Critical thinking, though, is sexy. It appeals to the American spirit, always in love with innovation and iconoclasm, the triumph of the individual over history and destiny, over the hoary traditions of Europe. Oh, sure, Leibniz invented calculus, but I’m pretty certain there’s an easier way to do this. We are a nation that wants to hack everything, including learning.
But despite the profusion of voices clamoring about critical thinking, a few perceptive observers have noted that an emphasis on that got us into trouble in the first place. Writing in The Boston Globe in 2009, education historian Diane Ravitch argued that “we have ignored what matters most. We have neglected to teach them that one cannot think critically without quite a lot of knowledge to think about. Thinking critically involves comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. And a great deal of knowledge is necessary before one can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations.”
Melissa Korn wrote in The Wall Street Journal last year that “mentions of critical thinking in job postings have doubled since 2009” and that in single week in October 2014, a job search site had “more than 21,000 health-care and 6,700 management postings [that] contained some reference to the skill.” Nevertheless, Korn found that “bosses stumble when pressed to describe exactly what skills make critical thinkers.”
I can’t describe a critical thinker, either. And, yeah, sure, a student who accepts everything and challenges nothing is rarely fun in the classroom, though she might be learning more than you suppose and is merely keeping quiet about it, letting her own ideas ferment in the depths of her frontal cortex. I think I can safely speak for many teachers when I reveal that nothing is more obnoxious, or ruinous, than the student so in love with his own thoughts, his own critical thinking prowess, that he drowns out all others and learns nothing as he waxes about how Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is, like, totally a riff on The Canterbury Tales.
Just shut up, dude. Please. You might actually learn something.
This article is part of the Newsweek High School Rankings series. Read more: