Critically Thinking about Critical Thinking

Robert Weissberg

“Critical thinking” has mesmerized academics across the political spectrum; even high school students are now being called upon to “think critically.” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s widely praised Academically Adrift favorably cites the term some eighty-seven times while excoriating contemporary higher education.1 In “The Evidence of Things Unnoticed: An Interpretive Preface to the National Association of Scholars’ Report What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students,” Peter Wood criticizes Bowdoin for replacing critical thinking with a grab bag of trendy notions such as “social justice” and “sustainability.”2 It is no exaggeration to say that “critical thinking” has quickly evolved into a scholarly industry.3 As of April 11, 2013, lists some 48,559 titles on critical thinking. To be sure, scholars can battle over whether the Left or Right “owns” critical thinking,4 but everyone agrees that like apple pie and motherhood, critical thinking is an unquestionable “good” and universities—even high schools—need to do more to foster this skill.

Unfortunately, calls for students to “think critically” almost always sidestep the prodigious problem of transforming a high-sounding idea into something that can be usefully interjected into lessons, let alone calibrated to show progress (or failure). Yes, we all agree that critical thinking is an honored element of Western thought, even traceable to Socrates, but it hardly follows that most people, including a majority of college students, can master this skill. Indeed, acquiring it may be impossible or largely cost-ineffective. Worse, given all the documented deficiencies of today’s college students, the critical thinking crusade may entail unrecognized opportunity costs to the neglect of more valuable lessons.

Skepticism acknowledged, let me offer a brief tour of the obstacles awaiting those who want to do more than admonish fellow professors to teach “critical thinking.”

Defining and Measuring

Definitions of critical thinking abound, but all share certain traits, notably an ability to use reason to move beyond the acquisition of facts to uncover deep meaning. For illustrative purposes, here’s a detailed (but quite typical) definition offered by a website devoted to explicating the term:

It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking—in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes—is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.

Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior. It is thus to be contrasted with: 1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated; 2) the mere possession of a set of skills, because it involves the continual use of them; and 3) the mere use of those skills (“as an exercise”) without acceptance of their results.5

Quite a mouthful of verbiage, but to put some meat on these abstract bones, let me recall my own effort to impart these skills when I taught graduate seminars on American electoral politics. One weekly topic was the perennial effort to limit money in elections. I began by highlighting past failed campaign finance reforms, stressing the obstacles of enforcing laws that made it a crime for those who wrote the laws (Congress) to receive certain donations. Then I discussed First Amendment guarantees of free speech where monetary contributions were defined as “speech.” I pointed out how money was only one of multiple campaign-related resources (including, for example, celebrity status, possessing an eminent name, or access to ample volunteer labor), so limiting cash donations hardly leveled the playing field. Lectures further explained how the complexity of campaign finance laws might prove troublesome (including criminal penalties) for cash-poor candidates unable to hire skilled staff to ensure compliance. Then on to how restricting contributions meant that candidates must now target many more (small) donors than in the past and this, in turn, makes fund-raising far more time-consuming while requiring professional assistance. The impetus for endless pandering was also mentioned, along with how contribution limits helped incumbents and therefore perpetuated the status quo. I continued with how exemptions for spending one’s own fortune would encourage rich people to seek office, since they would be immune to laws restricting donations. This hardly ended it and I went on for at least two hours connecting dozens of nonobvious but politically important “dots.”

This snippet illustrates my personal effort to teach by example. And I followed the same “connect-the-nonobvious-dots” approach in an additional thirteen lectures, all the while encouraging students to attempt what I was demonstrating.

My experience was not a happy one. Boredom and confusion seemed common. I invited students to figure out the implications of a particular law or policy, but with little success. Students were also encouraged to discuss possible trade-offs between, say, free speech and limiting donations, while I put critical thinking questions on the take-home essay examinations. Despite my efforts, when all was said and done, I conceded defeat—only a handful apparently benefited. Yes, most probably enjoyed the exercise and learned something new, but when prodded to perform similar analyses on topics not yet covered in class, the results, including exams, were dismal.

Now, I confess that my pedagogical techniques may have been deficient, but my sad experience raises the issue of assessing success in thousands of very different schools and varied majors. And what about instructors who themselves lack this skill or just disdain it?

How, then, are educators to teach critical thinking? Can we boil down these long, often kitchen sink-style definitions into tests that can be administered to students of different abilities and interests? That definitions are generally similar but differ in key details only exacerbates this measurement quandary.

Not surprisingly, admonitions to teach critical thinking far exceed well-crafted, demonstrably valid tests calibrating it. Perhaps it is assumed that critical thinking is so obvious that it hardly requires scientific measurement. But there is some good news. Arum and Roksa describe such an instrument that they and others use—the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA)—and for better or worse, this one instrument must suffice for our analysis.6 According to its proponents, the CLA is designed to tap general skills, not specific knowledge. That is, unlike other SAT-like tests the CLA does not consist of multiple clear-cut questions that can be scored objectively that are independent of one another. Instead, what is assessed is a student’s ability to integrate complex material holistically to reach a reasoned conclusion.

Specifically, students are given three complicated case studies, fictitious but realistic. Factual background material is included in the test. Students are given ninety minutes to write these essays. The data reported by Arum and Roksa derive from a sample of 2,322 students from similar backgrounds at four-year institutions on twenty-four campuses. The test is given to freshmen and repeated when those same students become sophomores. Considerable effort is made to sort out possible confounding factors like race/ethnicity, SAT scores, familiarity with English, and high school curriculum. The student sample was drawn from highly selective, selective, and less selective schools.

In one required essay students are asked to advise a firm named DynaTech about purchasing a new airplane, although one of them had recently crashed. The various pros and cons are offered and students must sort out the conflicting evidence and arguments. Another case study asks students to compose a memo regarding reducing crime, and again, various pieces of conflicting information are provided.

All three student essays are evaluated according to a detailed scoring manual: how facts are applied, quality and clarity of arguments, reliability of supplied evidence, ability to synthesize complex information, and soundness of the recommendations. All and all, Arum and Roksa stress, these tasks are “real-world” related and differ from conventional course examinations, for which students learn specific material to be regurgitated during testing. Arum and Roksa also provide statistical evidence that the CLA is reliable and valid. To simplify matters, we’ll take their word that the CLA satisfies the technical requirement of a “good measure,” though compared to other standardized tests the CLA is still in its infancy.

Does the University Really Need Instruction in Critical Thinking?

What might motivate a professor to add critical thinking to a syllabus, especially since professors are already pressured to embrace lots of other “good ideas” such as multiculturalism and diversity in course offerings? Going one step further, while covering, say, the contribution of women to the American Revolution is relatively straightforward, how are the habits of critical thinking to be taught? Translating any typically complicated definition into something tangible is no simple matter. Should enlightened administrators hire self-designated experts on critical thinking to coach befuddled professors? Might schools implore college textbook publishers to include critical thinking exercises in introductory texts? What about resistance from teachers who already feel overburdened by administrative dictates regarding the insertion of multiculturalism, sustainability, social justice, and similar ideologically infused material that may have little to do with substantive course content?

Underlying these practical issues are more serious academic freedom issues. College professors are not K–12 teachers whose lesson plans are determined by administrators or state legislators with scarcely any room for deviation. A huge gap exists between acknowledging the importance of critical thinking versus requiring it across the board regardless of discipline or the professor’s teaching agenda. Speaking personally and as a critical thinking fan, I would resist any administrator dictating my lectures, just as I would refuse to follow gratuitous orders to insert the alleged benefits of diversity into coursework. And I suspect many academics share my view regarding professional independence.

Compounding the situation is the fuzzy, often vacuous nature of critical thinking. A professor might insist, “Yes I teach it,” while an outside observer unfamiliar with the subject matter might disagree. And how much class time should professors devote to critical thinking? Twenty minutes on day one and that’s that? Might critical thinking, like multiculturalism, infuse everything? Moreover, with so many varying definitions of “critical thinking” out there, who will impose one out of dozens as the gold standard? And how do we deal with the ideologically driven teacher who twists teaching critical thinking into a weapon to attack pet hates? After all, critical thinking requires being “critical.” Clearly, this is a bureaucratic mess that may require endless acrimonious meetings before anything of practical use emerges.

All of this brings us to one easily avoided, overriding question: Why? It is not cynical to argue that fans of teaching critical thinking see it as something akin to how the cultural Left views diversity—a virtue so imperative to a “healthy” society that it is a compelling state interest to impose it on hapless students regardless of their perspectives? Now for the bad news: justifications are moral in character—an “ought” lacking scientific basis. To appreciate this nonempirical justification, here’s what Arum and Roksa offer:

In a rapidly changing economy and society, there is widespread agreement that these individual capacities are the foundation for effective democratic citizenship and economic productivity. “With all the controversy over the college curriculum,” Derek Bok has commented, “it is impressive to find faculty members agreeing almost unanimously that teaching students to think critically is the principal aim of undergraduate education.” Institutional mission statements also echo this widespread commitment to developing students’ critical thinking. They typically include a pledge, for example, that schools will work to challenge students to “think critically and intuitively,” and to ensure that graduates will become adept at “critical, analytical, and logical thinking.” These mission statements align with the idea that educational institutions serve to enhance students’ human capital—knowledge, skills, and capacities that will be rewarded in the labor market.7

This hardly ends their catalog of benefits, but this snippet should suffice. Alas, the entire justification rests on appeal to authority, namely other academics who, like Arum and Roksa, lack empirical evidence—or to be a bit kinder, evidence that is not cited or remains to be discovered. When did imparting a knack for critical thinking become “the principal aim of undergraduate education”? I entered college in 1959 and only recently encountered this imperative. Did Derek Bok survey a random sample of professors about spending class time on teaching critical thinking? One can only be reminded of all the diversity champions who insist that its self-evident virtues make scientific documentation superfluous.

A little thought suggests that American democracy and our economy hardly rests on critical thinking. First, and speaking as one who has written about democracy for decades, I fail to see any connection between an ability to think critically and the survival of American democratic institutions. Reasonably honest elections, majority rule and minority rights, the rule of law, due process, and all the rest that defines our democratic political order hardly requires millions of citizens who think critically. Scholars have long supplied compendiums of democratic citizenship, but I have never seen “critical thinking” on the list. If it deserves inclusion, the justification for it must be provided, not merely asserted.

Nor, for that matter, can I see a purely logical link between critical thinking and democracy. If anything, the voting literature abounds with data demonstrating that the majority of voters do not choose candidates by thinking critically. Visceral voting choices or reliance on partisan affiliation are far more common. If a widespread ability to think critically is vital to democratic governance, we are doomed and democracy’s two-century survival in the U.S. must be judged a mystery.

Ditto for any self-evident link between critical thinking and prosperity. Yes, a plausible case can be made that some high-level jobs might occasionally require critical thinking, but I can think of no reason why most positions require this ability. I’d guess that less than a quarter of jobs demand critical thinking, and even then this trait may be far subordinated to reliability, tenacity, a penchant for cooperative behavior, and solid communication skills, among many other attributes with a clear vocational benefit. Again, this is truth by assertion and not a very convincing one at that.

It is equally plausible that our economy requires only a small number of critical thinkers who are surrounded by armies lacking this skill but more adept at other tasks. Apple and Microsoft hardly need five thousand or more critical thinkers to flourish—and remember that Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, so where did he acquire his knack for critical thinking? A better case can be made that American universities would help the economy more by inculcating a knack for painful drudgery and persistence, the famous ratio of 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. Even Steve Jobs confessed to being a grind.

Moreover, if, as is claimed, critical thinking is central to the American economy, where are the critical thinking tests to screen thousands of job applicants? Well, to be fair, firms are not exactly ignoring this ability. Rather, organizations that demand critical thinking have better, far cheaper, and more accessible proxies to assess this skill. Goldman Sachs and the like hardly need a ninety-minute exam about whether to buy crash-prone airplanes. Instead they interview graduates from elite schools knowing full well that these applicants possess the intellectual skills necessary to pass tough courses.

In fact, if critical thinking is as valuable economically as is claimed, the best test of this proposition would be a five-year follow-up on those who have mastered that skill versus those who did not, while holding constant the prestige of the degree, major, and similar factors relevant to career success. Technically, this is predictive validity and essential to trying to convince undergraduates to sharpen their thinking skills. Alas, we know nothing about this outcome, but yet again, it is happily assumed.

All this adds up to a weak case for the CLA, since its value, whether for promoting democracy or helping students land a job, is highly speculative. This iffy usefulness is especially relevant as universities seek to trim budgets. Imagine a school defending its plan to test two thousand students a year on the CLA and paying to train dozens of newly hired employees to evaluate and score the essays? I suspect that the only motivation might be if some journalism school ranking service (e.g., U.S. News & World Report) suddenly included CLA scores in their ratings. But even then, with so many other off-the-shelf indicators available, why would a school spend a small fortune for yet another, particularly since it is pointless unless hundreds of other schools likewise provide CLA data to facilitate comparisons?

Can Critical Thinking Be Taught?

Let’s for the moment assume that teaching critical thinking becomes the latest educational trend. Would American education benefit?

Obviously, answers must be speculative, but I’d guess that the benefits would be minimal, while a Pandora’s box of political consequences would be opened. Let’s start with the information necessary to think critically. Recall that the CLA test provided copious information to help students devise policy recommendations. Yes, everything provided was realistic, but what is not realistic is having ample and freely supplied information at one’s fingertips. More realistic would be to give students a few days to collect their own data, a task that would undoubtedly increase the range of test scores. Better students would find more information while slackers would be satisfied with far less. This is, of course, exactly what occurs with paper assignments.

Their lack of basic knowledge was apparent to me when I encouraged students to think critically about U.S. elections. Judging by their puzzled looks, it soon became apparent that many students lacked even the most rudimentary political knowledge, things like how primary elections work.8 Many were even clueless about recent presidential elections. These facts had to be inserted into class discussion, so what began as an exercise in critical thinking quickly regressed into a time-consuming tutorial on American politics.

Paucity of elementary factual information among students acknowledged, what is a professor to do when attempting to teach critical thinking to the poorly informed? Require students to take remedial classes in what should have been learned in high school? Assign basic background readings at the beginning of the semester? Unfortunately, these solutions optimistically assume that students are motivated to catch up while simultaneously mastering the more advanced substantive material. The only solution that I can imagine is to limit the teaching of critical thinking to more advanced classes (akin to high school AP classes), but this elitist approach is hardly what fans of critical thinking demand. Most enthusiasts see critical thinking as a trait teachable to all students.

What this lack of knowledge suggests is that a capacity for critical thinking may be closely related to cognitive ability in general. After all, absorbing copious amounts of information quickly, organizing it, dealing with abstractions, and then drawing out implications is the common element in both IQ and critical thinking. Arum and Roksa’s own data suggest this link between high intelligence and skill at thinking critically: nearly half of all students did not add to their critical thinking capacity over the first two years of college, students at elite schools out-performed those a few notches below, and students from racial and ethnic groups that generally lag academically also lagged in acquiring this skill.9

To be politically incorrect, if a capacity for critical thinking mirrors IQ (and I think it does) then efforts to foster this skill will fail just as every past intervention to increase IQ has come up short. Worse, from the perspective of critical thinking fans, previous interventions to boost IQ had the advantage of beginning very early (e.g., Head Start), while efforts to develop critical thinking target college-age students, and even then, for at most a few hours per week. Thus understood, teaching critical thinking is redundant for the smart and pointless for the less talented, although, conceivably, a few middling students might pick up a thing or two.

If the past is any guide to the future, the current infatuation with critical thinking will follow a familiar though unwelcome trajectory. That is, egalitarians who peruse critical thinking test scores will, guaranteed, discover “troubling” gaps in this talent. Yet more task forces will be appointed, expensive recommendations will emerge, critical thinking coaches will be hired and thousands of hours and lots of money will be spent for zero progress. And rest assured, campus egalitarians will pour over these CLA essays to expunge hidden racial bias from the test and scoring method. I can already see ambitious but underemployed bureaucrats waiting for their gaps-in-critical thinking ship to arrive so as to organize a three-day conference.


What does this pursuit tell us about the modern academy? Two lessons are clear. First, it yet again exposes the academy’s vulnerability to questionable fads, a willingness to spend lavishly despite shaky evidence of value (a parallel is the infatuation with diversity et al.). This is not to say that critical thinking champions are fashion-minded opportunists—although I suspect a few are of the catch-the-fad and advance-one’s-career variety.

Actually, getting in on the ground floor of a trend long before its demonstrated failure is just about de rigueur in education. Today’s bureaucratically infused campus culture invites it—why struggle with thorny research problems or spend hours trying to teach writing when embracing fashionable nonsense is a far superior career option? Imagine the consequences if the latest educational panacea were a drug required to pass FDA-like scrutiny before being implemented while advocates were liable for damages if the scheme turned sour. The campus newspaper would overflow with ads like: “Did you pay thousands of dollars on a course that stressed ‘critical thinking’ only to discover that you learned nothing of intellectual or vocational value? Call Gonif and Gonif and join our class action lawsuit and recover lost tuition plus punitive damages. We have already won millions for students like you.”

The second point is an irony: Champions of critical thinking have failed to apply their own medicine. Didn’t they stop to consider the net value of this instruction given its easily foreseen tangible and intellectual costs? How much time is to be wasted on this project that could have been spent on substantive learning? What about yet more bureaucratic expansion when administrative overhead increasingly devours the university’s core mission? And what does a resource-eating critical thinking test add when this talent can already be assessed from a verbal SAT score that closely mirrors IQ? Might attempting to teach critical thinking be pointless for mediocre students? How can one possibly assert the link between critical ability and democracy when we have zero data on this nexus? Worse, why do champions of critical thinking ignore the absence of data on any alleged beneficial impact? Why the disdain for science? And on and on. Obviously, we need critical thinking for those who advocate critical thinking.

Let me end by reiterating my own commitment to critical thinking. I am not opposed to it; rather I view it as appropriate to only the brightest, most motivated students, less a skill that can be successfully taught to millions of mediocre students (including high school students who struggle with basic literacy). Moreover, even with topnotch students I’m not sure that critical thinking is the highest priority. Speaking personally, I would subordinate it to other skills, namely the ability to write and speak well and to apply the scientific method, familiarity with history and literature, and a Calvinist work ethic. Let’s not assume that just because a particular skill is valuable—and critical thinking certainly is—it should be pushed at the expense of other intellectual skills. This, I might add, is a conclusion that comes with a little critical thinking.

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