Critics of Students’ Critical Thinking Skills Ain’t Either

Critics of students’ critical thinking skills ain’t so critical themselves

February 24, 2011

Back in the 1980s, Harvard University President Derek Bok, addressing an assembly of educators, uncritically recited the “top problems of public schools in 1940” (talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in halls, getting out of turn in line, etc.) versus those of the 1980s (drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, etc.) as if it were revealed generational wisdom. The eagerly-quoted “list” proved to be a crude hoax manufactured by a troubled religious zealot.

Now Bok–who apparently doesn’t like students from any era–is featured in a lengthy interview in the March 2011Miller-McCune magazine (whose editors seem to crave mindless youth bashing) on the “crisis in critical thinking” among modern students, in which Bok (typically) praises himself and (typically) blames new media like Facebook, computer games, iPhones, and so on. The magazine’s other article critical of students’ lack of critical thinking, “Whatever happened to academic rigor?” reviews presents a pie chart from an apocalyptic-alarmism book,Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, showing that students spend “only” a little over half their waking hours (around 42 hours a week–about the same employed adults spend working at jobs) on attending classes and labs, studying, employment, and working and volunteering for student business and clubs.  The book also claimed that nearly half of undergradaute students show no improvement in critical thinking scores during their college years.

The claim that students today–unlike students of the past, unlike professors, reporters, and other adults–lack critical thinking and reasoning skills ignited a flurry of articles in, among others, The Huffington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, National Public Radio, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Fox News, NBC News, Slate, and USA Today. These articles, quoting educators, experts, and the reporters themselves on this new “crisis,” contained a major irony, evident from reviewing the Foundation for Critical Thinking‘s definition of “critical thinking” as the intellectual scrutiny of a given statement’s “purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference.”

Our review of the Miller-McCune and other media reports found that none of these articles or the sources quoted displayed critical thinking themselves. There was no questioning of the assumptions, grounding, reasoning, frame of reference, or potential purposes behind the dire conclusions about students’ critical thinking gains, and objections from alternative viewpoints were virtually nonexistent.  In every case, and nearly every source, reporters and authorities uncritically accepted the Academically Adrift authors’ conclusions without any searching examination. Instead, all commentators praised themselves as the epitome of critical and complex reasoning supposedly found in students of some unnamed past era–without actually going to the trouble of displaying these reasoning rigors themselves.

True critical thinking requires the most rigor when the thinker’s most cherished notions (such as one’s own moral and intellectual superiority to young people today) are at issue. I’d be the first to lament that critical thinking is in short supply, not just among students, but also the sanctimonious academics and commentators who most claim the commodity. Even though long-term surveys such as the Higher Education Research Institute’s The American Freshman do not show deteriorations in students’ academic habits over the last 40 years despite widening socioeconomic disparities, continued alarms alleging “crises” and student slacking continue to be hyped decade after decade–with remarkably little critical scrutiny.