Against Critical Thinking
Reclaiming the Transformative Purpose of the Liberal Arts
Critical thinking is the foundational dogma of contemporary American education. Probably no student today obtains his high school diploma without having been exposed, in one form or another, to the ideal of critical thinking or critical reading. In the modern classroom, we are told, the student learns to analyze texts critically, to discern their faults and expose their contradictions. A Critical Thinking Education (CTE) prepares us to make informed decisions in future careers by teaching us the skills to distinguish truth from falsehood, perhaps even right from wrong. The idea of CTE is today the defining feature of the philosophy of education in American classrooms, and accordingly exerts a profound influence on the course of the education of children and young adults. For evidence of the prevalence of this educational principle one need not look beyond the educational institutions of Massachusetts, particularly its high-ranking private secondary schools. The “Vision and Values” page of the Andover Phillips Academy website proudly asserts that “[students] are guided by educators who foster independent learning, critical thinking, creative collaboration, and personal well-being.”1 The website of Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the nation’s most prestigious secondary schools, reports that “In every discipline and at every level within our curriculum we inspire students to develop critical thinking skills and seek complex truths.”2 The mission statement of Boston University Academy, an elite private high school attached to Boston University, asserts that “in our caring high school community, students who love learning are challenged to think critically and deeply, and to explore adventurously the wider world of learning at Boston University.”3 The website of the English department of the Commonwealth School, another prestigious Boston private secondary school, boasts that “from the very first day of English 9, the emphasis in our English courses is on careful reading and critical thinking.”4
By viewing texts primarily as targets of attack rather than potential sources of truth, we lose the opportunity to use assigned texts as guides and counselors for our own lives.
It should be no surprise given its popularity that critical thinking qua philosophy of education offers substantial incentives to institutions and teachers that embrace it. The slogan of critical thinking allows educators almost unlimited freedom in shaping their curricula. In the context of an English course, for example, one can sidestep the inevitable and unanswerable question of which texts to assign, because what is taught is not the point: any text can serve as an exercise in how to think. One can just as well assign Cicero as J.K. Rowling or Toni Morrison, because as long as the text is read critically, its content is irrelevant. Furthermore, because students are not learning the content of the assigned texts per se, but rather how to analyze their content, there is no need to concern oneself with the treacherous questions of morality or relative quality. “Not what to think, but how to think,” the defining mantra of CTE, means that educators do not need to impose their own moral opinions, or any moral opinions, on their students. This permits a truce between parents and educators: if a curriculum assumes the attitude of complete moral neutrality, then it cannot impinge on the parent’s right to impart his values to his children.
Perhaps most importantly, CTE is a way of defending apparently useless pursuits, such as analyzing literature, from the ruthless criticism of budget-conscious administrators. The ideal of critical thinking is regularly deployed by humanities departments seeking to justify their own existence in the face of the apparently superior utility of STEM courses. STEM courses evidently teach content, content that proves to be extremely valuable in the future careers in which students tend to show the most interest: computer science, engineering, medicine, and other high-prestige occupations. The content of English courses, meanwhile, appears to be purely aesthetic and therefore purely relative. Thus, English teachers feel obliged to excuse themselves for their vacuous subject by the claim that they teach, not content, but skills, resulting in the familiar expansion of “critical thinking” to “critical thinking skills” in the rhetoric of beleaguered liberal arts departments.
Implicit in this kind of rhetoric is, of course, the admission that literary content has no value. In the absence of a substantial defense of literary value, teachers of literature are obliged to justify their work as training for the scientists and civil servants who will go on to rule the state bureaucracy. This observation should be for us the first warning sign that perhaps all is not as it seems with critical thinking. It suggests that the glossy promises of complete neutrality and universal utility should not be taken at face value. Indeed, the doctrine of critical thinking, as applied to the education of American children, actually poisons comprehension, prevents deep learning, and encourages students to live exactly the kind of unreflective, uncritical lives that it is intended to prevent.
Critical thinking, by encouraging students to adopt a pretense of neutrality, leads them to accept their unconscious prejudices as absolute, neutral truth.
In light of the great value that has historically been attached to the content of literature as a means of shaping character as well as sharpening wit, we can begin our critique by recognizing the flaws of the reductively skill-oriented pedagogy of critical thinking. By viewing texts primarily as targets of attack rather than potential sources of truth, we lose the opportunity to use assigned texts as guides and counselors for our own lives. Good literature, selected and refined by generations of readers, can be trusted as well as critiqued—trusted to serve as a capable guide for living a respectable life, for cultivating reliable dispositions and achieving personal excellence. To ignore the content of literature as something unimportant is to ignore one of the primary tools of moral education. Therefore, do not critique the text—not at first, not reactively, not thoughtlessly. Let the text critique you.
This sort of learning—transformative learning—does not only help the student in the pursuit of personal excellence. It also leads students to a deeper, more accurate understanding of the text than the critical approach. Critical thinking, as practiced, incentivizes the student to read the text unsympathetically and often unfairly and to invent contradictions where there are none in order to participate in classroom discussions where criticism of the text is encouraged. We should expect exactly this when we ask students to critique the greatest thinkers of their civilization: when a 16-year-old is put up against Aristotle and asked to start throwing punches, it should come as no surprise that he resorts to dirty tricks. Indeed, the desire to prove the text wrong, combined with the inability to find its real problems, leads students to misunderstand the text so as to make its arguments weaker than they are. The real contradictions in a thinker like Plato lie deep beneath the surface, but the average student never gets that deep, because he spends all his time at the surface creating a strawman to knock down in class. The consequence of critical reading as applied in the classroom is that great thinkers and great works are systematically misunderstood. Students dismiss the texts they read as contradiction-riddled bundles of garbage, and so they never bother to acquire the deep comprehension that could allow them to understand the real insights as well as the real problems. The result of this is that they learn little: they spend their education knocking down one imaginary phantom after another, without understanding or engaging with what they read.
I became familiar with this attitude not only by observing it in my peers, but by applying it myself as I learned it from my instructors. I discovered, at length, that the method suffered from severe defects, not in reading evaluation, but in the far more crucial area of reading comprehension. Understanding comes not only from critique, but from trust. Charitable reading is the best response to critical reading. By looking for insight, not for contradictions, the student can achieve a deep understanding of a text, one that will ultimately allow him to recognize its flaws far better than a nominally “critical” reader. Having reached this understanding, the student will be empowered to form sophisticated evaluations of other viewpoints in light of opinions he has already encountered. This approach, shedding the specious neutrality of CTE, allows for real intellectual honesty: it recognizes that we can understand new ideas only through the concepts, attitudes, and prejudgments we have already acquired.
This leads us to recognize the danger implicit in recommending critical thinking to young students as a guiding principle of textual interpretation. Because all interpretation of new content can only take place in the context of an existing worldview, the quest for neutrality is ultimately fruitless. When students are asked to approach texts critically, they naturally resort to a standard by which to criticize, an ink-line to set the text straight. This ink-line consists of what the student takes to be unquestionably true and therefore “neutral.” In other words, he reverts to the unreflective assumptions he ought to question. Critical thinking, by encouraging students to adopt a pretense of neutrality, leads them to accept their unconscious prejudices as absolute, neutral truth. Critical thinking prompts students to criticize anything and everything except themselves and their beliefs. Criticism, which comes from the Greek word for judgment, is unilateral: it places the student above the text like a judge above a convict, assumed guilty with no chance of acquittal. The evident consequence is that the student cannot himself be judged—after all, he is completely impartial, aloof, critical. In this way, critical thinking provides students with all the tools they need to demolish challenges to their worldview, without leading them to question their own views or improve their own lives. We should expect such an educational approach to produce, more than anything else, petty, stagnant, narrow-minded, aggressive thinkers lost in a web of unexamined assumptions they are unwilling to acknowledge. The critique of the Critical Thinking Education culminates in this conclusion: critical thinking not only stultifies reading, prevents understanding, and strangles self-improvement, but also leads to uncritical, unthinking lives.
Instead of critical reading and critical thinking, then, we should call for transformative reading and transformative learning. Unabashedly moral in outlook, transformative learning approaches texts, especially the texts of antiquity, not from a position of feigned superiority, but of reverence. It views the past not as intellectual target practice, but as a mentor. We do not, on this basis, need to rely dogmatically on received wisdom. We must, however, put our received ideas into conversation with new ideas, rather than pretending that our received ideas do not influence our judgment. Education takes place through dialogue as much as through criticism. It lives in the confrontation between the student’s existing beliefs and the perspective of the text. Each side’s point of view is tested and reshaped by the other. The result is that the student’s nature is shaped by what he reads, leading him to reform his life and beliefs. He does not accept teaching dogmatically, but respectfully. The result, when a student is put into sincere and respectful conversation with the wisdom of antiquity, can be nothing short of transformative.
A version of this article originally appeared in Republic of Letters, the February 2022 print issue of the Salient.
“Vision and Values,” Phillips Andover Academy, n.d. Emphasis added.
“The Academy’s Mission and Values,” Phillips Exeter Academy, 2023. Emphasis added.
Chris Kolovos, “About Us,” Boston University Academy, n.d. Emphasis added.
“English,” Commonwealth School, n.d. Emphasis added.