College & Critical Thinking



A look at some factors that might explain the apparent low level of success in teaching critical thinking.

With the ever increasing cost of college education there is ever more reason to consider whether or not college is worth it. While much of this assessment can be in terms of income, there is also the academic question  of whether or not students actually benefit intellectually from college.

The 2011 study Academically Adrift showed that a significant percentage of students received little or no benefit from college, which is obviously a matter of considerable concern. Not surprisingly, there have been additional studies aimed at assessing this matter. Of special concern to me is the claim that a new study shows that students do improve in critical thinking skills. While this study can be questioned, I will attest to the fact that the weight of evidence shows that American college students are generally weak at critical thinking. This is hardly shocking given that most people are weak at critical thinking.

My university, like so many others, has engaged in a concerted effort to enhance the critical thinking skills of students. However, there are reasonable concerns regarding the methodology used in such attempts. There is also the concern as to whether or not it is even possible, in practical terms, to significantly enhance the critical thinking skills of college students over the span of the two or four (or more) degree.  While I am something of an expert at critical thinking (I mean actual critical thinking, not the stuff that sprung up so people could profit from being "critical thinking" experts), my optimism in this matter is somewhat weak. This is because I have given due consideration to the practical problem of this matter and have been teaching this subject for over two decades.

As with any form of education, it is wise to begin by considering the general qualities of human beings. For example, if humans are naturally good, then teaching virtue would be easier. In the case at hand, the question would be whether or not humans (in general) are naturally good at critical thinking.

While Aristotle famously regarded humans as rational animals, he also noted that most people are not swayed by arguments or fine ideals. Rather, they are dominated by their emotions and must be ruled by pain. While I will not comment on ruling with pain, I will note that Aristotle's view about human rationality has been borne out by experience. To fast forward to now, experts speak of the various cognitive biases and emotional factors that impede human rationality. This matches my own experience and I am confident that it matches that of others. To misquote Lincoln, some people are irrational all the time and all the people are irrational some of the time. As such, trying to transform people into competent  critical thinkers will generally be very difficult, perhaps as hard as making people virtuous.

In addition to the biological foundation, there is also the matter of preparation. For most students, their first exposure to a substantial course or even coverage of critical thinking occurs in college. It seems unlikely that students who have gone almost two decades without proper training in critical thinking will be significantly altered by college. One obvious solution, taken from Aristotle, is to begin proper training in critical thinking at an early age.

Another matter of serious concern is the fact that students are exposed to influences that discourage critical thinking and actually provide irrational influences. One example of this is the domain of politics. Political discourse tends to be, at best rhetoric, and typically involves the use of a wide range of fallacies such as the straw man, scare tactics and ad hominems of all varieties. For those who are ill-prepared in critical thinking, exposure to these influences can have a very detrimental effect and they can be led far away from reason. I would call for politicians to cease this behavior, but they seem devoted to the tools of irrationality. There is a certain irony in politicians who exploit and encourage poor reasoning being among those lamenting the weak critical thinking skills of students and endeavoring to blame colleges for the problems they themselves have helped create.

Another example of this is the domain of entertainment. As Plato argued in the Republic,  exposure to corrupting influences can corrupt. While the usual arguments about corruption from entertainment  focus on violence and sexuality, it is also important to consider the impact of certain amusements upon the reasoning skills of students.  Television, which has long been said to "rot the brain", certainly seems to shovel forth fare that is hardly contributing to good reasoning. While I would not suggest censorship, I would encourage students to discriminate and steer clear of shows that seem likely to have a corrosive impact on reasoning. While it might be an overstatement to claim that entertainment can corrode reason, it does seem sensible to note that much of it contributes nothing positive to a person's mind.

A third example of this is advertising. As with politics, advertising is the domain of persuasion. While good reasoning can persuade, it is (for most people) the weakest tool of persuasion. As such, advertisers flood us with ads employing what they regard as effective tools of persuasion. These typically involve various rhetorical devices and also the use of fallacies. Sadly, the bad logic of fallacies is generally far more persuasive than good reasoning. Students are generally exposed to significant amounts of advertising (they no doubt spend more time exposed to ads than critical thinking) and it makes sense that this exposure would impact them in detrimental ways, at least if they are not already equipped to properly assess such ads with critical thinking skills.

A final example is, of course, everyday life. Students will typically be exposed to significant amounts of poor reasoning and this will have a significant influence on them. Students will also learn what the politicians and advertisers know: the tools of irrational persuasion will serve them better in our society than the tools of reason.

Given these anti-critical thinking influences, it is something of a wonder that students develop any critical thinking skills.

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Tags: academics, college, critical thinking, education, reason

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