Do we—can we—teach critical thinking?

Economist Robert Gordon’s critique of the education system—and part of his rationale for pessimism about America’s future, along with his much-more discussed technopessimist perspective—is that it does a lousy job teaching “cognitive abilities and problem-solving” (this is Michael Walden’s gloss in North Carolina Beyond the Connected Age… my copy of Gordon’s Rise and Fall of American Growth is in my work office).

This is not a new critique of the American educational system. The idea that the U.S. needs to teach critical thinking in public schools goes back a long way. In many respects, it’s central to John Dewey’s thinking about the purpose of schools in society, but we can more clearly see that effort in the 1960s and especially the 1970s. It became much more mainstream in the 1980s and by the 1990s, it was a common place. My own introduction to the history of education came through John Taylor Gatto, writing in Harper’s Magazine, who bottled many of these ideas, of the old rote education system to produce factory cogs that needed to teach more creative, independent workers for the future.

If we move into the academic literature on education, we see how damn hard it is to teach critical thinking. Certainly it’s hard to measure, whether we’re trying to measure critical thinking in students and especially if we’re trying to measure whether teachers are doing a good job of it.

And yet, despite these long-standing concerns that we fail at teaching critical thinking, we need only look at Korean, Chinese, and Japanese critiques of their own education systems to see that they think the U.S. does a much better job at producing free thinkers, innovators, inventors.

All of this is a way of saying that I struggle to imagine what it is that our schools should be, when it comes to critical thinking. I design my own courses to foster it, but I have a hard time judging whether students have made progress. At best, I try to impart habits of inquiry, of skepticism, but not nihilism. Still, I’m not completely confident that I’m doing students a service by developing the nagging skeptic, always demanding to see the original evidence, liable to unravel a confident ball of energy into a puddled thread incapable of contributing to the work we need done.

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