Any business executive will tell you that critical thinking is essential in reaching sound decisions in today’s sophisticated private sector economy. Such decisions are soon tested for economic and other realities by the competitive marketplace. In the American Management Association’s 2010 Critical Skills Survey of 2,100 executives and managers, the most important skill identified was critical thinking. As I noted in Jobs, columnist Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times reports that employers “are all looking for the same kind of people…who…have the critical thinking skills to do the value-adding jobs that technology can’t.”
For this article, I define “critical thinking” as reaching discerning judgments through: the use of logic (reason); analysis of relevant information (evidence) and assumptions; application of past learning (knowledge) and experience (intuition), including social and historical awareness; and elimination of unfounded influences (biases and false beliefs). I am not addressing the specialized critical thinking required in the technical professions or the approach taught in most philosophy departments.
The National Governors Association (NGA), in Degrees for What Jobs? (March 2011), identified the twenty-first-century skills employers need in college graduates to help drive economic growth. The NGA indicated that 40 percent of graduates available to private sector employers do not have the necessary applied skills to meet their needs. NGA highlighted the need for “critical thinking—knowledge, that is.”
The education establishment dismissed the NGA appeal out of hand for “rejecting the value of what has differentiated U. S. higher education and made it an intellectual powerhouse and an economic driver.” (See my article Education) But in Academically Adrift (2011), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that “45 percent of students demonstrated no significant improvement in a range of skills—including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing—during their first two years of college. Similarly, the AACU report College Learning for the New Global Century (2007) found that only six percent of college seniors were “proficient” in critical thinking; 77 percent were “not proficient.”
In Some Critical Thoughts, Peter Wood comments that
the intellectual profligacy of our time is the use of the term ‘critical thinking’ as a rubric for the application of cookie-cutter ideologies. When the term is employed on many college campuses, at least in the humanities, it often stands for a shallow and reductionist formula that refers to almost all forms of cultural expression as masks of power or hierarchy, and that finds themes of race, class, and gender are the most important elements in this masquerade.
The heart of the problem is that ‘critical thinking’ is and always had been fused with rigorous instruction in the sciences and humanities. The effort to change this by making it a general education requirement backfired. The backfire came because with the mass organization of higher education…came a vast dilution of the curriculum. Lots of new courses, many of them rooted in identity politics, others remedial, and still other thinly disguised vocational preparation, crowded the scene. The new ‘critical thinking’ requirement proved to be little more than an accelerant for this academic conflagration.
In A Better Way to Educate Professionals, Douglas Campbell and James E. Fletcher point out that management and business majors are taught critical thinking in their professional schools since
liberal arts programs have lost their once deserved reputation for rationality, igniting the imagination, and searching for the truth and an understanding of human achievements because they have been infiltrated by radical collectivists and anti-capitalists who adhere to a doctrine of the truth is relative, facts are just perceptions and the end justifies the means.
As long as the legacy of postmodern multiculturalism continues to dominate higher and public education, the academic conceit of critical thinking from today’s liberal education will continue to be an ironic oxymoron. For postmodern multiculturalism dismisses Western reason, evidence, science, and knowledge, the very foundations of critical thinking.
Postmodernism posits that there are no objective facts, moral universals, or fundamental realities. All knowledge is relative and socially constructed. Postmodern thinkers construct a subjective bubble of their own personal opinion or ideal reality not to be penetrated by the logic of reason or the truths of evidence.
Beginning with the counterculture of the 1960s, postmodern academic thinking came to dismiss the “rationalistic” mentality associated with scientific mechanism and materialism, what Theodore Roszak derided as “objective consciousness.” Gender feminism is founded on the belief that the underlying malignancy that deforms human enterprise is masculine rationality.
Multiculturalism replaces Western knowledge with cultural relativism, which underlies the doctrine of political correctness. One must embrace multiculturalism’s moral absolutes: diversity, choice, tolerance, and sexuality. Allan Bloom argued in The Closing of the American Mind (1987) that openness and relativism deny and render ineffective the power and use of reason, which has been replaced by the belief that nothing is right or wrong—it is simply relative.
Multiculturalism holds that only cultural artifacts and particulars such as ritual, superstition, kin relationships, dress, diet, and sex are important. The transcendent ideals, abstract ideas, and traditional wisdom of Western civilization that provided Americans with the knowledge required for critical thinking have been exorcised and replaced by the superficial detail of everyday life.
As Robert Nisbet observed in History of the Idea of Progress (1980), William James contrasted “knowledge about” with “knowledge of.” The first is the province of the scholar, scientist, historian, philosopher, technologist, and others whose primary function is to advance our knowledge about the cosmos, society, and man. The second is the common possession of all living beings and describes simply the habits, adjustments, and techniques we employ in the business of living. Multiculturalism has turned both our schooling and our culture from “knowledge about” to “knowledge of.”
New standards of cultural and moral relativism—expressed through political correctness—have been propagated by our college-educated elites and the media to society as a whole. Knowledge has no warrant beyond individual opinion.
To engage in genuine critical thinking, the mind must use quality information and analytical methods stored in memory—cumulative knowledge acquired from education and experience. American public education fails from the start to inculcate knowledge that fosters this kind of critical thinking. Popular culture and multicultural trivia, as well as “social justice,” are emphasized rather than disciplined ways of thinking. Most high school graduates lack the literacy needed for critical thought as adults: reading literacy from exposure to intellectually challenging material; mathematical and scientific literacy through mastery of concepts and principles; and historical literacy from understanding of real Western and American history. They lack even the basic vocabulary with which to think properly. Such a stock of knowledge cannot later be imparted and is thus unavailable to the poorly educated person who seeks to claim the capability of critical thinking.
Tragically, and for the foreseeable future, the evidence above from NAS and others shows that capitalism and business cannot look to the academy’s liberal education to provide the habits of mind or learning needed for critical thinking. To the contrary, the critical thinking peddled by the academy would harm rather than help business performance. While the kind of collaboration suggested by Campbell and Fletcher might change that situation over time, it seems clear that the skills needed for critical thinking must continue to be taught in professional schools and tailored to the needs of contemporary business enterprises.
In the longer run, at least the best and brightest Americans should be schooled from the beginning—as I argued in Knowledge Workers—in the thought processes and knowledge required to become critical thinkers as adults, to advance growth in the private sector economy.
Next week’s article will address liberal education and management and business graduates.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).