Sunday, November 21, 2010

What's Wrong with Critical Thinking?

In my last post — sad to say, over a month ago — I began the process of questioning whether or not my writing about complex thought was loose and vague. To my mind, it is not. However, I do believe that it is a bit too abstract, and I wish to bring it down to earth, to the specific classroom, to specific people trying to learn specific things.

My colleagues and I in Albany State's QEP program have just spent two months talking about how to integrate critical thinking into the college classroom. We ended the discussion with a specific deliverable: a statement about critical thinking for our QEP syllabi that would be intuitively obvious to the average college student, accompanied with an evaluation rubric that detailed how we teachers intended to assess the students' use of critical thinking in the class. I think all of us were surprised by the intractability of the issue. We found it quite difficult to identify just what we meant by the term critical thinking for our own specific classes, and we never did arrive at a single definition that satisfied all of us. We also had difficulty finding language for the students.

However, all of our various definitions of critical thinking shared the common assumption that critical thinking is the function of a single mind acting upon ideas, arguments, and evidence with the intention of clarifying, ordering, and assessing them. We accepted the Cartesian separation between subject/knower and object/known and the resultant reductionism and fragmentation of knowledge that separation leads to. I am dissatisfied with this consequence of our work, and I want to explore Morin's ideas about how to develop complex thought.

In his short book Homeland Earth, Morin calls for a reform in thinking as a necessary precursor to saving humanity and our planet. He grounds his shift in thinking in very practical terms and towards very practical goals, and his example may be useful to me. First, I am attracted to his discussion of the problems with the scientific and technical systems of thought that have dominated much of the world and almost all of the Academy for the past three hundred years. According to Morin, reductionist, fragmented thinking has given rise to specialization of knowledge, along with the subsequent specialization of research, work, business, and too much else of life. This specialization abstracts knowledge from its context, essentially removing it from that which gives it meaning. The bit of abstracted knowledge becomes incredibly clear in its isolation, but also increasingly meaningless. As Morin says:
Specialization abs-tracts, that is, it extracts an object from a given field, rejects the links and interconnections with its environment, and inserts it in the abstract conceptual zone of the compartmentalized discipline, whose boundaries arbitrarily break the systemicity (the relation of a part to the whole) and the multidimensionality of phenomena. It leads to mathematical abstraction that splits itself off from the concrete, in part by favoring everything that is calculable and formalizable and for the rest by ignoring the context necessary for the intelligibility of its objects (123, 124).
Thus, a discipline such as economics, "which is the most advanced of the social sciences in terms of mathematics, is the most socially and humanly backward of the sciences, as it abstracts itself from the social, historical, political, psychological, and ecological conditions that are inseparable from economic activities" (124). The resulting blindness and incompetence with the economy, Morin insists, is a major problem for our world. The skin-on-skin exchange of money in a business transaction cannot be reduced simply to numbers and cannot be separated from the psychological, social, environmental, and spiritual context in which one person meets another person to trade money for a good or a service.

Of course, it is easy to see this same blindness and incompetence in education. The visceral engagement of a student with her world in order to learn about that world cannot be reduced to a number or letter grade and cannot be separated from the psychological, social, environmental, economic, and spiritual context in which that student engages her world. Meaningful learning for the student depends both on the discrete, individual chunk of knowledge engaged AND on the links and interconnections that embed that chunk of knowledge into an ecosystem along with the student. And this embedding into an ecosystem is complex as it extends equally into the external ecosystem, the world, and the internal ecosystem, our bodies, especially our brains. This complex embedding results in each of us being embedded into the world through our learning, and the more we learn, the more we are embedded into — not separated from — the world we are learning. We ingest our learning, literally into our guts and brains, and through that learning, the world ingests us.

The problem I see with critical thinking is that it mostly encourages and serves this reductionist, fragmented way of thinking. The role of analysis, for instance, is to reduce any issue or thing into its constituent parts, to separate those parts, to clarify them, and to arrange them logically. This makes great sense, as I have said in an earlier post, and can provide genuine insight, but ultimately it leads to what Morin calls a blind knowledge. This is most easily seen in the biology class as the professor dissects an anesthetized but still live frog into its constituent parts, naming each, describing its functions, and telling how it fits into the other parts. All the while, the professor is blind to the fact that the frog is no longer a frog. It was no longer a frog the moment it was removed from its frog ecosystem. There is so much more to know about the frog than its weight. And we can see this same reductionism at work in the literature class as the professor dissects an anesthetized but still live sonnet into its constituent parts, naming each, describing its functions, and telling how it fits into the other parts. Again, the professor is blind to the fact that the sonnet is no longer a sonnet. It was no longer a sonnet the moment it was removed from its sonnet ecosystem. There is so much more to know about a sonnet than the name of its author and its meter and rhyme scheme.

Now, am I attacking analysis? No, I am not. Analysis is incredibly useful and can provide genuine insight into both frogs and sonnets. As Morin notes, "thinking that compartmentalizes, divides, and isolates allows the specialists and experts to be very effective in their compartments and to cooperate efficiently in noncomplex areas of knowledge, especially those having to do with the functioning of artificial machines" (124,125). However, by itself, analysis can lead only to blind knowledge that has incredible acuity and efficacy within a very narrow discipline, but that is benignly meaningless or randomly harmful in life with all its rich, complex, and unpredictable interconnections and interactions. We need a complex critical thinking that can reconnect the products of our analyses into the interconnected, rich ecosystems of mind and world. In my next post, I want to explore what some of those kinds of thinking might be.


  1. Thank-you for your insightful observations. I am currently involved in a school which is really leaning towards training our students to be critical thinkers (notice I emphasize the word training). Like you, I felt my first obstacle was trying to define just exactly what was critical thinking. I decided to just go along with the definition I was told to use. My colleagues stress that we need to have our students hone their critical thinking skills. I have found that the students seemed to have lost some of their enthusiasm for their studies in the process of becoming critical thinkers. There’s less excitement and joy in the classroom. I’m not basing that conclusion on any critical analysis; let’s just say it’s a gut feeling.

  2. Thanks, G. At least some of the problem with training people to think critically stems from the fact that most of us don't like practice, especially if we never get to play. All work and no play makes all of us dull. No one enjoys being or feeling dull, I don't think.