Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On the Absence of Critical Thinking


There's been a study done that tracks the development of critical thinking skills among some 2,200 college students which finds that... many don't learn critical thinking skills in college and university.

This ties in with a post I made at the beginning of the year discussing what I regarded as the very deliberate determination by the Powers That Be (specifically Reaganists) toward the end of the Sixties to disable the critical thinking capabilities of public school students once and for all -- so as to make it impossible for public school students every to rise up again.

It's been successful.

One of the interesting aspects of the study is that, apparently, the researchers assumed students entered college and university without critical thinking skills, and they were supposed to learn them while in college/university.

The point I tried to make was that these skills were taught in public schools, at least in California, well before college, in my recollection beginning in junior high school. By the time I got to high school, practically every course reinforced and expanded critical thinking as part of the fundamental process of education.

There was a problem, however. If students as young as seventh or eighth grade could at least begin to apply critical thinking to what they were being taught in school and to what they were being told in the News, they would shortly come to the conclusion that they were being lied to, propagandized, and manipulated to become willing little servants of the Corporate State. (Yes, even then, we knew what and who was really in charge.)

And that would generally lead to rebellion, as it did among America's students throughout the mid-and-later Sixties.

So. What do you do if you want to suppress rebellion? You make it difficult or impossible for students to learn critical thinking skills.

Sure enough.

One of the key factors of the study is that:

Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn't determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.

Read more:

Indeed. That's the point.

If someone is incapable of sorting fact from opinion or speculation, then "all things are true, all things are false." This is where the "he said/she said" false equivalence reporting so beloved of the Post-Modern Press comes from.

I found it interesting too that business, social science work, and communications majors had the most difficult time understanding and using critical thinking skills.

It does explain a great deal about why so much of the "discussion" these days is so strange and so pointless.


  1. Che,
    I stopped by UT for the first time in a while and clicked your sig to get to the "what passes-for-left" blog posting you cited and ended up here.
    You write; "I found it interesting too that business, social science, and communications majors had the most difficult time understanding and using critical thinking skills." (BTW, you need to change "social science" to "social work" to be accurate to the article.)
    All of the conclusions are interesting but none of them strike me, and I'm sure you either, as counter-intuitive. This paragraph also tells us what we would have guessed without empirical data:
    "Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills."
    The most interesting element is how the details of the study reflect the institutional priorities (educational and corporate -- one and the same) of our society, as you point out. It's an important subject to reflect on and I'm glad you wrote about it. I hope it gets more attention.
    The study and your commentary about it reminded me of a anecdote that I recounted on a UT thread a couple of years ago. Here's the relevant part:
    "An aquaintance of mine - a bread deliveryman, btw - who had majored in English and Russian Lit., sent his daughter to St. Andrews. When she graduated and asked him what pragmatic good it was to have gotten that liberal arts degree, he told her (paraphrasing) "It doesn't matter what job you take or what graduate degree you pursue because you can do anything now that you've learned how to critically think." Now that's a good father and a good man, imho.

    This acquaintance also on a couple of occassions discussed with me his theory about how Corporate America, reacting to the turbulence of the 60's, made a conscious effort to purge their upper management of the critically thinking type of individuals who, up until that point, they felt were the type of visionary leaders most likely to ensure progress and success."

  2. Reilly,

    Thanks for the correction about social work vs social science majors and their comparative ability to think critically according to this study.

    The more I think back on the critical thinking lessons I was exposed to in public school well before college (this would be in the early-to-mid sixties) the more I recognize that I was in a special program for college-bound students. It was very rigorous. By the time I got to college, "higher education" was a piece of cake. Well, relatively speaking.

    "You can do anything now that you've learned to think critically." Sometimes it's a curse. Really. Because you learn to question everything, to examine issues and questions from as many perspectives as possible, and you learn to weigh plausibilities as well as possibilities, it can sometimes be difficult to reach a conclusion when one is needed (oh, I've been there!) and it is frequently -- in my experience -- embarrassing for higher ups when you point out there's another way to look at the problem, and that initial conclusions are very often wrong.

    Critical thinking ability has largely been replaced with a herd mentality which is always useful for the Powers That Be.

    I'm pretty well convinced the failure of critical thinking is responsible for our continuing political, economic, and social nightmare, yet at this point, I don't know what would be the most appropriate replacement for the Herd.

    On the assumption we can't go back to what was.

    Hope you'll come around now and again. I appreciate your comment.


  3. "I don't know what would be the most appropriate replacement for the Herd."
    Barring some exogenous eye-opening event or exponential evolutionary acceleration, I got nothing.
    One more anecdote, which in fact involves the previous one. This past week a casual acquaintance was relating to me her anxiety over the fact that her daughter, who is attending Boston U., hasn't yet chosen a major. I told her the story of the bread deliveryman (sans his theory on Corporate control) thinking it would be inspirational. And why not? Blue collar/service industry middle class working stiff saves money to send his daughter to one of the premier academies in the world, puts no pressure or expectations on her as far as career, and assuages her insecurities about her future by telling her, basically, that her education was an end in itself, something for her person rather than a stepping stone or obligatory prerequisite for employment marketability, but something that, additionally, has equipped her to go on to whatever she chooses.
    After I relate the story, this woman replies "Yeah, right. She needs to find a major that's going to earn her enough money to pay back those student loans."
    No need for me to elaborate on the obvious -- how capitalism closes the circle with the willing, if unwitting, participation of the masses.

  4. was an end in itself, something for her person rather than a stepping stone or obligatory prerequisite for employment marketability, but something that, additionally, has equipped her to go on to whatever she chooses.

    Yep, that's exactly how I was taught to regard education, as an end in itself, for its own sake. And I still believe it.

    But you saw how the glory of that ultimate reward (sometimes a curse!) has been twisted into nothing more than making money.

    Sad, very sad. But I know it's true.