What’s Happened to Critical Thinking in Our Culture? | The Editor | 6 Min Read

“Build that wall,” and “stop the steal,” are popular media phrases that are designed to evoke an extreme response. If the voice of reason responded to some, it might say: 

  1. If it were true that immigrants from the southern border are criminals and take jobs from tax-paying citizens, “build that wall” would be a legitimate policy alternative.
  2. If it were true that there were wide discrepancies in the validity of mail-in ballots, lax systems to track unregistered and dead voters, and tampered/hacked voting machines, “stop the steal” would be a legitimate possibility.

You can see where this analysis is going. One segment of our society will argue that the facts don’t support the inherent claims, and therefore the arguments are not valid. That would be a tidy way of explaining away misinformation. However, a second segment of society operates with another set of claims, and they are grounded in beliefs rather than verifiable facts. Will critical thinking help us resolve the conflict?

  • Smart America,” the group of college-educated recipients of meritocracy, would opt for the critical thinking model. The claims supported by facts will always take the day. 
  • Real America,” the less-formally educated group that has been impacted by the loss of manufacturing jobs and feels disdain from “Smart America,” would argue that facts are in the eyes of the beholder because Smart America is always manipulating the facts for Real America to enhance their own economic situation. Real America would therefore be likely to support the two arguments above. And they are not simply barstool arguments such as whose softball team is better. These are life or death, zero-sum, cultural arguments that are as polarized as the North and South in the Civil War. 

With such an acute division in views, where does critical thinking stand?

Our friends at ThinkerAnalytix have done a great job of explaining the critical thinking process that would presumably debunk any of the statements in question. In the third article this week, however, they take the critical thinking process one step further by introducing the concept of empathy in argumentation, and they explain intellectual charity in one of the PD Lite videos. Both pieces are designed to diffuse the perceived attitude of contempt from Smart America for those who may not agree because they see the world differently. The ThinkerAnalytix contention is that, when arguing, putting yourself in the shoes of the other side, will help you to understand your differences rather than rejecting them outright (and you may find some commonalities). Furthermore, there are charitable ways of probing the opposition argument that make the debate less contentious. In a polarized society, those strategies are often ignored.

Further complicating critical thinking is the assumption that it is frequently cast as a binary set of solutions to important questions. Formal debates are the model for such binary propositions: Resolved… that the filibuster is an essential component of the legislative process in a partisan Congress. In reality, this issue, like many others, is much more nuanced concerning solutions and even the “yes” or “no” questions can have multiple flavors. When teaching critical thinking, we sometimes avoid these types of issues because they add layers of complexity to an already challenging skill. Imagine an argument map with eight alternative arguments, 24 claims, 24 counterclaims, and 72 pieces of evidence. It would be difficult to develop and more difficult to follow because comparisons would be hard to visualize. For example, a frequent and controversial proposition today is: inflation will continue to rise because economic demand is overheating and many industries have been slow to recover, creating a supply shortage. Economists point to over 20 different factors that might influence the answer to that question. To date, however, nobody has been able to evaluate all of the options and synthesize them into a single forecast. In short, some of today’s issues are so complex that sometimes it seems critical thinking could get lost in the weeds. How do we overcome such a possibility?

Returning to our complex arguments, preserving the filibuster or current prospects for inflation, there is a scaffolded approach to take with students. Start with some more basic claims and build out the argument map as each branch is taken to its logical conclusion. Perhaps one student per team will be assigned to each scenario and associated claims. The process follows the same Socratic method that we often use for discussion in the classroom. Every response from a student is met by another question from the teacher or another student until there is no stone left unturned. And what if that process does not convince some of the students (or other adults)? Does that mean we’ve hit a dead-end and have to settle for polarization? Not yet. Many issues can be rationally argued from both sides. We started with issues that are more difficult because the claims of one side are based on beliefs rather than verifiable facts. That doesn’t make the belief side “wrong,” it means that important emotions are driving those beliefs and rejection of facts. Rejecting those emotions will result in deeper division. Empathy and intellectual charity are good next steps, but there is always the possibility that these divisions exist as badges of political and cultural polarization rather than to bring opposing facts to bear. “Stop the steal” differs from the filibuster because the latter does have two rational, opposing arguments validated by sound claims and evidence.

The crown jewel of issues with multiple rational arguments is abortion legislation, a case that the Supreme Court will hear again in their next session. One might think that the justices understand rational arguments in their reading of the Constitution, and thus should be able to rule in a manner that will satisfy the most people. At the root of the two arguments is a woman’s right to choose contrasted with the rights of the fetus. Here is a case in which critical thinking might provide us with an argument map, but may not reveal a satisfactory solution. The question then becomes whether critical thinking is designed to find a resolution or whether it simply guides us to consider all of the claims, and creatively determine how to satisfy the interests and needs of the largest group of people. That determination may bear little resemblance to any state or federal legislation, but it will enhance understanding of the issue, and that is really what critical thinking is all about.

If we want to help our students cope with the world in which they live, we need to step up our teaching of critical thinking skills, both to fully integrate humility and to provide a context that is relevant to the kinds of problems they will be asked to solve. In debates, we may identify winners or losers, but not because they have proven their argument beyond a shadow of a doubt, but because they proved it better than their opponent. Nuance reduces certainty, and that is a lesson for critical thinkers. The goal is understanding; action requires still another set of skills. 

Some prognosticators have argued that today’s students lack the perseverance, patience, and attention to tackle difficult problems. That would be surprising given what some of these kids have accomplished. It’s more likely that the kinds of problems they are asked to solve lack context and relevance in their lives. And most importantly, we haven’t defined the outcomes we want our students to master as citizens of this future world, challenged by climate change, the slowing of population growth, lack of a public health policy, and an authoritarian challenge to democracy. Let’s revive a version of critical thinking that relies on empathy, clarity of thought, and a solid grounding in evidence rather than identifying winners and losers. Today’s zero-sum game is a product of classical economics. We can all be winners if we reorient how we use critical thinking so that understanding issues will lead to creative solutions.

Joel Backon

Joel Backon has been the Editor of Intrepid Ed News since its inception in January 2021, responsible for all educator content on the website. He joined the OESIS Network, owner of Intrepid, in 2019 as Vice President. Joel spent much of his career at Choate Rosemary Hall (CT) where for 27 years he held founding roles in Information and Academic Technology, as well as being a classroom teacher, curriculum designer, coach, dorm head, and student adviser. Prior to Choate, Joel spent 15 years in the printing and publishing industry educating printers on how to maximize their strengths and minimize weaknesses. He has crusaded to achieve consensus on the question of why we educate kids in an effort to meet the learning needs of every student.

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