Old books on shelf
Image by Gerhard Gellinger from Pixabay

Martin Center column warns against a ‘cult of critical thinking’

Alex Sosler writes for the Martin Center about the problems associated with an overemphasis on critical thinking in education.

To speak against critical thinking in today’s academy is comparable to denying the divinity of Jesus in the medieval church—it’s heterodox. Not only does it rail against the values of contemporary scholarship, it may even be foolish in light of today’s students. Isn’t the lack of critical thinking the problem in modern society?

Here’s how one student textbook on critical thinking begins:

“This book is about the power of disciplined thinking. It’s about learning to think for yourself and being your own person. It’s about the personal empowerment and enrichment that result from learning to use your mind to its fullest potential. In short, it’s about critical thinking.”

Who doesn’t want empowerment and freedom? These are the mantras of modern individualism. Another author describes critical thinking as “self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking.” The aspect emphasized here is the self: by delving deeply into the self, one can critique their own thought patterns.

However, this overwhelming focus on critical thinking as the right approach for education isn’t as strong as its supporters believe. What is lacking in education today is anchoring the search for knowledge in a charitable outlook, one that emphasizes care and respect over suspicion and critique.

René Descartes can be seen as a champion of critical thinking. Descartes arrived at his conclusions through crisis, doubt, and skepticism. He was on a quest for truth—a task that resonates with colleges today. The question he sought to answer was, “How can humans know anything with certainty?” Even a statement such as, “I am writing at my desk” was riddled with doubt because he could be dreaming or imagining. Perhaps Descartes eternally existed in self-deception.

The idea that emerged from Descartes’ wrestle with doubt was doubt itself. The only reliable aspect of reality is doubt.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

Reader Comments