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Friday, May 1, 2015

Critical Thinking

Most people would agree that critical thinking is to be encouraged, don't they? Certainly over uncritical thinking or not thinking at all. Or is that just an assumption of elitist academics pushing "liberal" education which is what the just-follow-your-common-sense Cousin Vinnies of the world might assert?

What is critical thinking? Why is it important? How can it be fostered?

Here is a brief definition of critical thinking from the Foundation for Critical Thinking:

"Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness..."

The notion of "critical"  comes from the Greek kriticon (discerning judgment) and kriterion (standards)--both of which are indicated in the above definition.

Some of the elements in critical thinking are:
  • a fair and open mind; that is, able to change with new evidence, able to listen and enter into opposing viewpoints.
  • expression of the question for inquiry or problem to be solved with recognition of the limits of inquiry and solution.
  • continuous observation and exploration; that is, research and further inquiry.
  • expression of conclusions that are tentative and testable.
  • experimentation; that is trying out conclusions to see if they work objectively with others.
  • response to challenges by peers with noted adaptations and new questions and problems.
Critical thinking implies the questioning of all belief systems, all previously affirmed conclusions, all assumptions, all doctrines. It means ongoing inquiry based on the desire to know, not the desire to uphold some existing position.

Without critical thinking, we are hung up in the status quo. We are stuck in old thinking, in the habits that maintain what is, in keeping things the way they are insofar as they keep us in control. We are kept comfortable without tension, without contradiction, without thinking. Critical thinking makes us uncomfortable with where we are and what we know. Critical thinking prompts and excites us towards new possibilities.

Without critical thinking we are who we are, but not who we might be. Without critical thinking, we are caught in what is, and blocked from what could be.

What makes thinking critical is that it questions thinking itself and the products of that thinking whether it is in religion, science, philosophy, economics, politics, or day to day life. What makes thinking critical is that it is engaged in action to change the world and be changed by the world.