The trouble with critical thinking

Just a few months ago, a Tumbler user uploaded an image of a dress that instantly went viral. Some saw a gold and white dress; others a blue and black dress. A consensus emerged: Everyone Sees the World Differently was the Huffington Post’s take on the phenomenon.

I feel this way when I read about or talk with academic colleagues about critical thinking. We know it’s important and we are confident we are teaching it at the community college level; it’s just: what is it? And more importantly: what is it good for?

I take Justice Stewart Potter’s I-know-it-when-I-see-it approach to critical thinking. With such a broad range of student capabilities and backgrounds in my classes, I operate in a reductive world. I work through sentence and paragraph development like a math teacher approaching a proof, calling attention to patterns and clever technique that students can use in their essays.

Here are a few points about critical thinking that I’ve learned from my students and professional experiences:

Critical thinking isn’t about being critical. Perhaps a better composite descriptor for this important capability is analytical, rational, persuasive and expository skills—a mouthful, but more to the point. These skills transcend both humanities and science, and a well-rounded student should be able to apply them across subjects in quantitative and humanistic realms—successful employees in most any profession today are masters of integrating both realms. In fact, we do a disservice to students if we do not show the interconnectedness of these skills across subject domains. (Aren’t numbers just words with extraordinary properties?)

Critical thinking skills are fundamental in how we approach life. It’s a challenge teaching these skills because they provide the underpinnings for our worldview. They strike at our belief systems, social and cultural conventions and innate abilities and limitations. By the time many community college students land in our classes, they are hard wired in how they approach problems (and so are we!). For these individuals, we are introducing changes and alternatives to effective ways of dealing with their lives. Bad habits are hard to shake—especially if the habits seem to work. Up until 1697, the western world thought only white swans existed, and then naturalists spotted black swans in Australia. As Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan reveals what had been thought to be unimaginable was soon to be ho hum—a thesis he extends to stock market crashes and other unexpected events and then to the human condition.

Shortcomings in critical thinking skills can be exposed through edge cases. An edge case is an engineering term for a problem or situation that occurs at an extreme condition. These conditions require special attention, and good engineers and programmers usually develop a range of ways to deal with them—quite often using a tried-and-true process called the scientific method, but not always. Much of one’s career in a technical or scientific profession centers on accumulating methods to either identify, manage or exploit edge cases. How we resolve these conditions provides great insight into how we think and how we respond to the unpredictability of life.

Luckily, the humanities also deal with edge cases, and nontechnical folks have a toolbox as well: we use a careful analysis of context, logic, rhetorical technique and many common narrative and creative structures to represent our solutions for expository and/or creative intentions. Each of these macro categories has its traditions—drawing from literature, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, psychology and oratory. And then to further complicate a student’s life, on a micro level, mistakes in spelling, grammar, and syntax erode credibility and effectiveness.

Effective communication has many moving parts in multiple dimensions and levels. As students form a response to the different world they observe, seeing a different colored dress is just the start of a complex process to express meaning—especially for those whose first language isn’t English. Providing community college students with a comprehensive toolbox to accomplish this task is daunting. As I see it, that’s the trouble with critical thinking.

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