Critical Thoughtlessness

Peter Wood

Temple University English professor Stephen Zelnick writing at the Pope Center website offers a succinct take-down of the cult of “critical thinking” that so many colleges and universities now substitute for a real curriculum. Take-away sentence: “The original meaning of ‘critical thinking’ has been confused with thinking that is critical of American values and institutions, a mode of thought that reflects the left orthodoxy of the university community itself.” Zelnick goes on to examine some of the outrageously biased textbooks at use in Temple University courses that ostensibly serve the goal of enhancing students’ critical thinking but which seem better designed to ensure blind credulity.

NAS has looked at the mischief behind the term “critical thinking” several times. Keith Whitaker’s “Critical Thinking in the Ivory Tower” (Academic Questions, Winter 2002/2003) describes the “critical thinking” extolled in the academy as a combination of “mischief and malice.” Whitaker’s article provides a valuable history of the movement and deserves to be better known. (It’s available online to NAS members and AQ subscribers. To learn how to access Academic Questions articles online, click here.)   Michael Booker in “A Roof without Walls” (Academic Questions, Fall 2007) adds another important chapter to this history by tracing the elevation of “critical thinking” to a meeting of the American Psychological Association in Boston in 1948, which eventually gave rise to something called “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” (No, not that Bloom.)   In its origins, the taxonomy treated “critical thinking” as a skill that develops as a culmination of knowledge, comprehension, application. But over time, educators decided not to waste too much time on preliminary stages. Now we frequently witness the spectacle pointed out by Professor Zelnick in which “critical thinking” is supposed to proceed in what amounts to pristine ignorance of intellectually alternative ways to consider a subject.

When I hear academics uncritically cite “critical thinking” as the supreme virtue of higher education, I reach for my Nerf™ pistol. And I’m a dead aim.

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