The trouble with critical thinking

Published 11:17 am Saturday, October 4, 2014

by Clay Scott

Educators can’t stop talking about critical thinking. Educating to develop critical thinkers has become a foregone conclusion. Ironically, it isn’t even questioned. So, what is critical thinking? Well, truthfully — nobody knows!

Most of the definitions I’ve seen are lengthy, complicated and seldom agree with each other. Despite the negative connotation attached to the word “critical,” the dictionary definition is neither positive nor negative. The word comes from the Greek kritikos meaning “able to discern.” So if critical thinking is thinking that allows you to discern — what should we be discerning? As stated, answers vary. However, there are at least two nearly universal components: assumptions and biases. A good critical thinker can identify assumptions and biases in his own thinking and that of others.

Identifying assumptions and biases (as well as other components) is a good thing to do and a worthwhile exercise. The trouble with critical thinking is that any truly critical thinker would recognize that it has so fully overwhelmed our education system that one would be apt to believe that no other type of thinking exists.

Critical thinking is a method of analyzing the way things make sense to us. It does this by developing a negative feedback system in thought patterns. A negative feedback system is one that identifies the bad and accepts what is left over as good. An example of this is how pilots are constantly correcting their course. In a way, critical thinking is “course correcting” in your brain. “Bad” thoughts, those heading off-course, are those that have unacceptable assumptions and biases. This is an effective, albeit slow, way to get to reasonable conclusions. However, you can see how “critical” has developed a negative connotation. The critical thinker uses negative markers in his thinking with the expectation that as long as she doesn’t veer beyond them, she can arrive at a good thought.

The trouble with critical thinking is that it doesn’t really do what it aims to do. The fact of the matter is that any meaningful idea includes both assumptions and biases. More often than not, when you start thinking critically you end up “chasing your tail.” Worse than that, it frequently leads to tangential arguments. Questions of right or wrong become matters of rational vs. irrational. Meanwhile rationality is judged on the strength of the argument. The end result is that truth is determined by whoever has the better argument.

Pushing critical thinking in schools has not gotten us anywhere. I say we scrap the whole idea and get back to “good, old-fashioned” thinking. It starts by training students to recognize the good, the beautiful, and the virtuous (This will upset the relativists, which might be reason enough to do it.). An individual with a rich understanding of beauty will easily identify ugliness. A student trained in virtue will effortlessly recognize vice. A person who knows lots of things and knows their value can use these as markers in his or her thinking. Good thinking identifies the good and questions that which does not fit. How could one argue that such a thinker is not discerning?

While the critical thinker strives to navigate the paralyzing labyrinth of paradoxes that is the value-neutral world, the good thinker moves confidently through life. The critical thinker is incapable of recognizing truth, beauty, or virtue because he is trained to treat these as relative values rather than principles of nature. He is questioning these at every turn. The good thinker uses them as guideposts. Imagine finding and address in an unfamiliar city. Now imagine doing it with a deep disbelief of maps and street signs. This is how a critical thinker reaches conclusions.

In the true sense of the word, being “critical” is not necessarily about pointing out the bad in things. A good critic can identify both the good and the bad. When necessary, a good thinker can apply her process to her own thinking, thus, in the words of one proponent of critical thinking “awakening…the intellect to the study of itself.” Thus a good thinker is also critical, but a critical thinker is not necessarily good. Let’s get our priorities straight and forget about critical thinking until we’ve mastered good thinking.

CLAY SCOTT is a former teacher from Southampton Academy and Franklin High School, and he was also an administrator at SA. He is the co-founder of Telios Academy and a doctoral candidate at George Washington University. He can be reached at