The Great Critical Thinking Dodge

On an open house day at a private school in the area I once heard a teacher describe the course she taught as "Math With Numbers". Huh? It would have been a couple of minutes of real fun getting her to explain how you could do math without numbers but I didn’t have the energy for it. Progressives, especially Progressive educators (which most are) are blatherskites. They specialize in terms like "ability status" (unwarranted pride in getting a good mark) or confusing labels like "Sociolinguistics" (hint: another term for the same thing is "communicative competence".) They bang on and on about a fourth grader’s “portfolio” and write a 75,000-word thesis for their doctorate on the spacing of monkey bars.

There’s nothing, I’ve often reflected, that you’re going to learn from the way these people think in any language you’re going to understand and so, I don’t chat them up.

But I’ve always allowed that there was hope in their preoccupation with "critical thinking". Because while developing a child’s “critical thinking” skills always seemed to be the excuse for some absurdity in education I had always taken the term to mean an intellectual proficiency which helps one sift through available evidence until arriving at the truth of some matter.

But then I read an article in the Guardian online by Bobby Scott a black U.S. Congressman titled: “America's Schools Are Still Segregated by Race and Class.That Has To End”.

Scott’s argument is the really old and really weird one many Conservatives are familiar with, i.e.; that the government should do something about the fact that in some mostly black districts and/or neighborhoods there weren’t enough white students to go around. Implying of course, that black students cannot excel in school work without enough Whites faces in the classroom.


But instead of laughing and moving on I found myself reading and rereading the following paragraph:

Thanks in large part to federal intervention in the decades following Brown, students experienced indisputable academic and social benefits inherent to racially and socioeconomically diverse learning environments. A recent report by the Century Foundation affirms that learning in diverse environments improves critical thinking and problem solving. But as time marched on, deliberate government action and meaningful federal oversight fell by the wayside in many communities.

Because the second sentence contained the term I had never heard a politician use before -- critical thinking. More than just that he was using the term as a substitute for what he should have been saying if he had any argument at all, i.e. that math scores improved, reading comprehension took a tick up, or that students had a better grasp of history or a foreign language with whites in the classroom. Some concrete measure of improvement.

Which got me thinking -- critically. Just what was "critical thinking"?

So I decided to do some research and found I had been flummoxed as Hercule Poirot would say, “by the simple cunning of vacant minds.” Critical thinking has nothing whatsoever to do with intellectual proficiency. Instead it’s the left’s means by which they shut out and shout down a procedure which should be both taught and encouraged in the young: the scientific method.

To recap: the scientific method is the process by which knowledge advances. One develops a hypothesis and then endeavors to prove it by carefully constructing an experiment which may be replicated by others, carries it out and tests the result. (I’m simplifying here.) For example, I posit that a pot of water when put over a flame will warm up. And so I put water in a pot, put it over the flame, and measure the change, if any, in temperature. Temperature goes up and voila -- if others get the same result my hypothesis is proved (again I’m simplifying).

But critical thinking asks something different of you. It asks if you want the temperature of the water in the pot to go up.

Think I’m kidding? Google it.

No explanation I could find focused on finding the truth and all agree the purpose of critical thinking is rather, for you to decide what to believe or do. One explanation, maybe the clearest, suggests that critical thinking is composed of five elements:

1. Suspending judgment to check the validity of a proposition or action

2. Taking into consideration multiple perspectives

3. Examining implications and consequences of a belief or action

4. Using reason and evidence to resolve disagreements

5. Re-evaluating a point of view in light of new information

Nothing about experiments or objective tests, just conflict resolution, taking other’s opinions into account and of course “examining [the] implications and consequences of a belief or action.

Let’s try a real world example. Since Lyndon B. Johnson’s War On Poverty began in the 1960s we have roughly spent an amount equal the national debt (20 trillion) on eliminating poverty and have not done so, indeed by some measures it’s gotten worse.

The scientific method would shut the thing down because the experiment has failed.

On the other hand, the application of critical thinking would provoke this reaction to the problem:

Don’t do anything rash. (suspend judgement) Other people have other opinions about whether or not it has failed. (Take into consideration multiple perspectives) Think about what happens to the people now getting checks and shouldn’t they have a voice in whether or not to shut the system down? (Examining implications and consequences of a belief or action) Isn’t it reasonable to assume that if you give people money that they must not be poor any longer. (Using reason and evidence to resolve disagreements) Maybe there’s some different way in which we can give this money away? (Re-evaluating a point of view in light of new information)

And so you’ll never shut down the system, as the scientific method tells you you should. Because no human being will ever clearly and conclusively resolve issues like these.

So there you have the answer to both the question of what critical thinking really is and why it’s so dear to the left-wing liberal heart. Because if that is the way people are taught to think they’ll never develop any understanding that left-wing policies are both moral and economic disasters.

Final point. The scientific method is the engine of Western progress these last three hundred years or so. If Western thought had been organized around the lines defined by the critical thinking now being taught our children, we’d still have horses pulling plows and would have to go to sleep when the sun went down, we’d still be dying of diseases long since conquered, and we certainly never would have landed on the moon.

And your children, my friends, belong on the moon.

Richard F. Miniter is the author of The Things I Want Most, Random House, BDD See it Here. He lives and writes in the colonial era hamlet of Stone Ridge, New York, blogs here and can also be reached at