I teach critical thinking. Or try to, anyway. It's a tough job; most students want nothing to do with it. They think it involves conflict, which is taboo in our culture. They also don't care if something makes sense or not. We see this happening in our everyday lives and it's a bit disturbing. Let's face it: America's critical thinking skills are toast.
Critical thinking simply means drawing an objective conclusion from a set of facts. Doesn't sound too difficult, yet human beings are not naturally critical thinkers. In fact, learning to think critically is as difficult as learning a foreign language and requires lifelong practice. It comes with some difficult values to absorb: curious humility; absolute honesty and integrity; the willingness to admit being wrong; seeking a wide range of information regarding the subject; being patient with the information; trusting the processes with "good faith"; remaining open-minded; and examining (i.e., listening to) others' interpretations of interpretations of all the elements that make up the story. That's not easy.
The central focus, first, must be on getting the facts straight and understanding the story as clearly and completely as possible, without bias. This is especially true in the health sciences, where individuals do research on life-or-death issues, or social policy that influences people's livelihoods. Of course, there are many other disciplines that rely on CT. Second, it is about finding and understanding those facts through valid means. Third, it involves logically examining facts, statistics, testimony and expert analysis. Fourth, it succeeds by analyzing, interpreting, synthesizing and drawing conclusions from those practices.
I think we've gotten lazy and bitter. As a result, we find it a lot easier to rely on others to discern what is right and true, to rely on stereotypes and biases to decide what to do, and to pry open conclusions with a crowbar and stuff premises into them so they fit enough to align with our already predetermined thoughts and ideas.
Here are the three central problems with our thinking:
(1) Either/or. This is simple. Either you agree with the conclusion or you believe the opposite, which becomes black/white thinking.
(2) Ad hominem. This means focusing on the person and not the message. Is it important to check an individual's credentials and possibly challenge their conclusions? Yes, but the point still remains: What is the message? We've turned name-calling into a dirty art in this country, and quite frankly, it's entertaining listening to people attack one another for their personal foibles. It probably makes lots of money. However, it's not critical thinking.
Finally (3) — and I think this is the most disturbing, since it does have its roots in "hypotheses": It has become the norm to begin with a conclusion and track back all the information one can find to validate that conclusion — i.e., to believe the conclusion is true so whatever has happened to lead up to that conclusion must be true as well. This thinking can lead to the opposite of truth. Or, to put it another way: Whatever one thinks is true is true. And what is that? The end of critical thinking, which leads to what we're seeing today: violence.
In our culture, truth-tellers don't last very long; they get cast off the manure wagon. In the long run, their seeds grow up and overtake us simpletons. But by then it is too late. And yet, two recent experiences have given me hope that our culture might be changing.
The George Floyd trial was a showcase in critical thinking. We saw facts, statistics, expert testimony, lots of analysis and many conclusions drawn that were corroborated by professionals.
The second experience involves teaching. Almost all of my students (first-years) this spring attended every class (hybrid), performed all the tasks I required of them at high levels, produced stellar work and demonstrated not only their growth as critical thinkers but more importantly their strong desire to become (and remain) critical thinkers.
Hope is not part of the critical-thinking process, but critical thinking can lead to hope, and after watching the trial and spending an entire semester with a group of young adults laser-focused on objectively seeking fact-based conclusions, I've become just a bit of an idealist once again.
Steven Backus, of Cloquet, Minn., is director of the Rose Frenzel Warner Writing and Critical Thinking Center at the College of St. Scholastica.