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Should we stop teaching critical thinking? Meant as a prompt to further discussion, Critical Condition questions the assumption that every student should be turned into a "critical thinker."
Two public events have caught my attention (along with millions of other citizens in several countries) this week. One, here in Canada, our Parliament is debating a bill to authorize more spying and additional powers for police to protect us from terrorists. The down side, of course, is a serious reduction of civil liberties. Two, the President of the United States has just announced a framework for a negotiated nuclear settlement with Iran to protect us from nuclear holocaust.
The interesting aspect of these two "debates" in the context of this review of Finn's book is that in both cases there really is no creative discussion but only shouted criticisms. Several members of the opposition parties in Canada have produced warnings and arguments opposing the bill to no avail because the Conservatives have a majority. Watching the "discussion" on television is like watching a bad shouting match at a fast and furious event. Speakers shout over each other. In the USA the critics are lining up on Fox News to attack the president and the plan on the grounds of his being weak, or being a secret Moslem, or some irrelevant and often ad-hominem attack. Substantive discussion in politics is rare.
Finn's book, to be released in May, is announced by the publisher like this:
Recent developments have seen critical thinking become an ideology rather than a critical practice, with levels of debate devolving to the point where most debate becomes ad hominem. Far from arguing that we abandon critical inquiry, the author suggests that we emphasize a more open, loving system of engagement that is not only less inherently violent but also more robust when dealing with vastly more complex networks of information.
This book challenges long-held beliefs about the benefits of critical thinking, which is shown to be far too linear to deal with the twenty-first century world. Critical Condition is a call to action unlike any other.
His thesis: "The heart of the idea I want to share is that we have more to gain from creative, contributory engagement than through the traditional attack and parry of critical thinking. That said, I feel a duty to make my ideas clear so those who wish to disagree have something tangible to which to respond." His notion is that critical thinking is the problem, is the default position taken by most of us when approaching a problem -- although "we are living in the time of the single greatest change in the way that human beings communicate" we nevertheless follow our default mind set and treat "all incoming information as if it were coming from a hostile witness in a jury trial." As a result we have learned to be critical, to be adversarial, but rarely creative in our discussions. Finn argues that "a creative or contributory way of thinking would encourage sharing by providing a forum for discussion that privileged the creation of ideas rather than their destruction through narrowly focused rhetorical attacks."
The chapter titles provide a sense of the educational enterprise that Professor Finn is championing in the university.
Chapter 1 A Foolish Question: Isn't It Time We Replaced Critical Thinking?
Chapter 2 The Baby and the Bathwater: The Birth of Critical Thinking
Chapter 3 A Hitch or Two: Polemic, Violence, and the Case for Critical Thinking
Chapter 4 We Can't Go On Together (with Suspicious Minds)
Chapter 5 An Immodest Proposal: Let's Replace Critical Thinking with Creative, Loving, Open-Source Thought
Chapter 6 "Sure, It Works in Practice, but Will It Work in Theory?"
Chapter 7 Conclusion: An Open Invitation--Some Final Ideas and Questions
The book is an attempt to engage the academy in a discussion of critical thinking as a serious mistake and as being responsible for the many ills of the day. Finn gave a TEDx talk, called "Loving Communication" some time ago [Go watch it here.] In it he attacks critical thinking as a negative, combative, destructive tool that leads to violent attack. He claims that critical thought is "rooted in suspicion." Looking back to the ancient Greeks Finn argues that it's all Plato's fault. Plato wanted to control information while Aristotle wanted to free it for the good of society. Augustine, he argues, was one of the first to commit time to critical argument in the service of church doctrine -- training a critical eye on faith and knowledge, God and truth.
Critical thinking is judgmental and negative. What is needed is loving communication that will provide for sharing and creativity. We tend to begin all conversation with the language of suspicion and violence. Critical thinking is conservative, not progressive. He writes, "The balance between the critical and the creative is at the heart of my proposal. Why not place creative, innovative, and inventive thought at the heart of the university and dramatically scale back critical thinking." He makes some good points and provides some excellent examples, e.g., "Is it not strange that governments, which contend they represent the will of the people, have a position known as the whip, whose job it is to ensure that everyone in the party supports the message they are told to support?" In spite of the examples of the negative aspects of much of our discourse, I am not convinced that critical thinking is the problem that Finn makes it out to be. Because isn't critical thinking the active, persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or form of knowledge, the grounds that support it, and the conclusions that follow. It involves analyzing and evaluating one's own thinking and that of others. It is a filter to be employed.
In the context of college teaching and learning, critical thinking deliberately and actively engages students in:
• Raising vital questions and problems and formulating these clearly and precisely;
• Gathering and assessing relevant information, and using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively;
• Reaching well-reasoned conclusions and solutions and testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
• Openly considering alternative systems of thought; and
• Effectively communicating to others the analysis of and proposed solutions to complex challenges.
Creative thinking is the generation of new ideas within or across domains of knowledge, drawing upon or intentionally breaking with established symbolic rules and procedures. It usually involves the behaviors of preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, elaboration, and communication. In the context of college teaching and learning, creative thinking deliberately and actively engages students in:
• Bringing together existing ideas into new configurations;
• Developing new properties or possibilities for something that already exists; and
• Discovering or imagining something entirely new.
(Definitions adapted from John Dewey; Richard Paul and Lind Elder; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and M.A. Rosenman and J. S. Gero.)
Finn has been influenced by Sir Ken Robinson and his TED talks urging educational reform. The 2006 TED talk has been viewed by over 32 million viewers (all of Canada?!) and his two follow-up talks by large numbers. If you have not seen them go here.
Critical Condition is a good read! Philosophers will hate it. Critics will hate it. But the ideas presented are well worth considering. And it is fun to read.
Finn does a good job of destroying his straw man version of critical thinking.
© 2015 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is Professor Emeritus, Philosophy and Literature, at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.