“People tend to say ‘I like independent thinkers but they must think what I want them to think independently’” – Rassool Jibraeel Snyman
Pundits, skeptics, and the educators of America are largely convinced that belief in strange phenomena, illogical political choices, and all manner of social ills are the result of a generalized poverty in an elusive and ambiguously defined faculty called “critical thinking”, a phrase which has come to mean pretty much whatever we want it to mean, as long as you agree with me. Apparently there is a mysterious meta-discipline out there reputed to arm the unwary with the tools to think properly, to deftly discern fact from fiction, and cut to the chase that is reality, allowing its acolytes to not just gather the appropriate facts, but also to analyze them without being handicapped by nebulous and pernicious influences such as culture, bias, and indeterminacy.
Woe is us, the great unwashed who never learned to fire our neurons in the right order, and thus are prisoners of our own stupidity, fantasy, or madness. Science is of course held to be the great equalizer, providing an epistemology that actively promotes critical thinking. Sadly, not everyone can be a scientist, including many scientists. Enter the professionalized skeptic, who convinced of the mental inferiority of most of the human race recognizes we cannot train every Tom, Dick, and Harriet in scientific method for application in daily life when we mostly just want to get our bagels toasted and get on with our business, and despairingly promise that much of our uncertainty, the ambiguity of human existence, the vertigo-inducing ebb and flow of cultural norms and values, the mismatch between our dreams and our reality can be swept aside if we simply promote this white rabbit called critical thinking.
When directed towards anomalies, strange phenomena, psychic powers, ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, you’ll be pleased to hear that the application of critical thinking to the matter has abundantly elucidated their ontological status to the satisfaction of the skeptic. They just don’t exist, no doubt a great comfort to those who have perceived, encountered, or otherwise interacted with the weirdness of the universe. Were they only more rigorous in their application of critical thinking, they could have saved themselves a lot of heartache, psychiatrist’s bills, and time spent watching reality television.
There are a minority of pedagogical scholars out there that have temperamentally raised the question of what the hell critical thinking actually is and why we are so convinced that it will solve all our problems? This is quite understandable as “a close reading of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects, Grades K–12, reveals that nowhere in the sixty-six page document do the literacy standards define or address what “critical thinking” is (Anderson, 2015, p83). This has certainly not prevented skeptics from pursuing it as the Holy Grail of their agenda, that is, a population armored with acceptable facts, steeped in critical thinking skills, hell bent on dismissing anything unnatural as misperception of the natural or wishful thinking. Oh, what paradise on Earth it would be.
The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, which one would assume has a pretty good grasp on what the proclivities we wish to instill are, defines critical thinking as 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.” Nice and broad. In fact, the rest of us just call it “thinking”, skillfully or otherwise.
As each generation looks around at the mess we’ve made of the world, they inevitably come to the conclusion that the real problem is the youngsters of the age are lacking in some fundamental faculty that guided their wiser elders. Critical Thinking is just the latest popular label for this intellectual will-o-wisp, a content-free, imaginary standard of rationality that allows one to identify an organic cause for why someone doesn’t agree with me. Marshalling one’s forces behind the cause of “critical thinking” is a desperate plea for certainty in an uncertain universe. The Information Age, once heralded as a means for every individual to access data needed to make informed decisions, thereby decreasing ambiguity and uncertainty in our assessment of the world around us, has simply increased uncertainty, as multitudinous voices compete for our mind-space, lauding their own brand of analysis as the true bastion of “critical thinking” while the rest of us are mired in the Dark Ages of Fake News, Media Bubbles, Belief Systems, and an inability to realize and appreciate the genius of the skeptic in piercing through all these ideologies to the underlying reality. Critical Thinking, rather than an exhortation to expand and entertain a thought or idea without necessarily accepting it, is yet another attempt to establish the boundaries of the discussion or as philosopher Henri Bergson said, “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”
Anderson, Morgan. “The Case against Critical Thinking Skills: In Pursuit of a Humanizing Pedagogy”. Philosophical Studies in Education, v46, p83-89, 2015.
I actually have built a working time machine. Problem is it only goes forward and can’t go faster than time passes so its very subtle.
This is a really good and thought provoking essay. (Ha! Dare I say ‘thought provoking’? Dare I think for myself??) The thing that amazes me most is that true critical thinking seems to wane away as the days go by. This is sad.
A great and important piece.
I’m struck that Critical Thinking is being prescribed as the cure for not signing-up for the skeptic’s consensus reality at the same time as we see the rise of Mindfulness (another meta-thinking discipline) being prescribed as the cure for various malaises. (Both are inevitably getting diluted the further they ripple out.) I wonder if it’s a coincidence, or whether there’s a common source for their insistence that one can and must up-by-one’s-bootstraps solve one’s own mental heresies / ills.