Most schools and universities in the Western world today seem to emphasize critical thinking. I'm pretty sure it's on the list of skills I'm supposed to help students develop by the end of the semester.
So hopefully it won't endanger my employment when I admit that I'm not 100% sure what critical thinking is.
Partly, I think it means this: by default, people tend to let messages wash over them in the hopes that they'll absorb something useful in the process. Critical thinking is a term we invented to say: pay attention and evaluate a message before you swallow it!
If this is what critical thinking means, my parents taught it to me out of necessity to counteract TV advertisements. I can certainly see why it would be a particularly useful skill in the information age. And even the scriptures place a high value on the gift of discernment, which is the ability to tell truth from error and wrong from right. Is that the same as critical thinking?
I suspect that when we say we'll teach critical thinking, we do mean we'll help strengthen students' gift of discernment. But I worry that instead of discernment, they're mostly learning dismissiveness.
After all, we teachers of critical thinking tend to place a high value on students' ability to see through or reject a bad argument. So is it any surprise when students rush to reject things? When they take pride in their ability to scorn?
And maybe we're not as vigilant as we should be in pointing out that just because one person made a bad argument for something doesn't mean the principle itself is bad. So should we be surprised that students often use their critical thinking skills to find some dirt in the bathwater and promptly throw out the baby?
Liberals like to blame conservatives for our polarized political discourse today. Conservatives prefer to blame liberals. But what if the fault lies with English teachers like me, who taught people to feel intelligent when they point out the weakness in the other side?
One strength of critical thinking when we are awash with information is that its emphasis on deciding which claims to accept and which to reject can help cut down on our mental clutter. But that de-cluttering can become a problem when we achieve it by cutting down and dismissing the perspectives of friends and neighbors, of God's children and sometimes even of God's servants.
I worry, in brief, that our emphasis on critical thinking is making us unproductively critical.
So what if we emphasized thorough and charitable thinking instead? What if instead of focusing on the accept-or-reject outcome of a reasoning process, we focused on helping students understand the arguments on both sides of issues?
Imagine how the world might be different if we required students to offer compelling pro and con lists for multiple sides of an issue rather than arguing one side, if we graded them less on their ability to support their own viewpoint well and more on their ability to understand an issue from many different sides.
Maybe another way of saying this is that true discernment requires empathy. And that the intellectual pride that often comes with our emphasis on critical thinking works against the attitude of charity we need to develop empathy.
Obviously, not everyone is right. There are ideas we ought to reject. But I think we are better off if we can understand them first, if we can have a realistic understanding for why others are drawn to them.
The scriptures tell us that the wisdom of the wise will perish and that even prophecies will fail, but that "charity never faileth."
We usually think of charity as a physical action, but can it sometimes also be a thorough way of thinking that takes seriously the perspectives of others?