Beyond Critical Thinking

For those of you who attended our panel discussion on Critical Thinking today (1/28/10), Vera Jakoby mentioned THIS article from the Chronicle: “Beyond Critical Thinking” by Michael Roth.

Peter Bradley mentioned that we want to start discussing McDaniel’s collective decision of what constitutes critical thinking for us. We’ll be in touch about how to make that work. Until then, comments may be left here on Michael Roth’s piece.

Thank you to the panelists: Susan Parrish, Bryn Upton, and Christianna Leahy. And to Peter for moderating the panel.

Thanks, too, to all of you who attended.

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2 Responses to Beyond Critical Thinking

  1. Bob Trader says:

    Critical thinking is basically a form of quality control. We are hardwired to perceive the phenomenological universe with flawed equipment, limited in capacity both in terms of the sensory organs used to acquire sensory information (we can neither perceive nor attend all possible data at all possible times) and in terms of the mental processes such as working memory and information processing (the brain is a limited capacity processor) that are used to turn sensory data into meaning. We seem to have a predilection for sense making (finding meaning/patterns/significance even in undeniably meaningless/random data sets—apophenia; read http://www.amazon.com/How-Know-What-Isnt-Fallibility/dp/0029117062 for example). For these reasons, it seems necessary to develop some type of quality control mechanism to monitor our thinking, to test our assumptions, and to enlighten our decision making processes. Yet, there are also limits beyond which critical thinking cannot take us.

    There seems to be an absolutist underpinning to much of our thoughts on how the world works–one way, one right, perfect, absolute… “My way is the right way.” “Might is right.” “Majority rules.” It seems to me that the world we live in is inherently imperfect and ever changing and that we are imperfect and ever changing beings. The key question seems to be whether or not we have any control over the changes that occur both in ourselves and the world around us and whether we can direct the changes in ourselves and the world around us in positive directions (whatever these positive directions may be). The main complaint against “critical theory” is that it deconstructs and destroys and offers nothing in place of that which it negates. This seems to lead us no where if the critical inquiry, learning, education, problem solving process or whatever one wants to call it ends here at mere critique. A college that changes lives obviously does not change lives blindly nor for the worse (at least, one would hope that the changes are in some way positive or an improvement over what was there before). Yet, there is a fine line between guiding/molding and imposing/subjugating. Perhaps the goal of a liberal arts education and its critical thinking component is to guide individuals in the process of determining what the world should be rather than merely critiquing what the world already is or has been in the past. Of course, the past and the present provide some indication of what works and what doesn’t and those who ignore history are doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again or doomed to continuously reinventing the wheel. Yet, it seems to me that the major goal of higher education is to expose students to the wide range of possibilities about what the world and life on it can be like. No possibility is perfect, and it seems to me that the individual should be required to find their stance, their voice, their vision, their meaning and to be prepared to defend it in recognition that the stance taken will not be perfect, will not please everyone, and will come with some price or consequence. Unfortunately, the message that seems to come from higher education is one of futility—1) our voice doesn’t matter, 2) some other proposed solution is inherently better, and 3) we can never please everyone (and “all people are going to do is tear apart my ideas anyway”) so we might as well not even try.

    Perhaps an alternative approach to higher education could be found in kaizen–cultivation of a culture of continuous improvement. How do we improve our skills, our habits, our thinking, our writing, our understanding, our knowledge, our solutions…? Where is the culture of improvement on our campus and in our classrooms? How much real feedback do we give our students about how to improve? How much real feedback do students give us on how to improve? How much feedback do we give each other? And how much feedback do we give ourselves?

    So my stance on critical thinking is favorable if critical thinking is not 1) the only goal or the end goal of our curriculum and thus 2) if critical thinking is treated as part of the process of problem solving, a tool used for quality control in the search for ways to improve (to some degree setting the agenda for things to improve upon).

  2. Elizabeth van den Berg says:

    I enjoyed reading the Critical Thinking section in Hain’s book after the panel presentation on Thursday, and reflecting on both.
    and, really Gretchen, I’m reading these, just don’t always have something to say.
    But I do want to know where to post my answers to question #6…:)

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