Thursday, February 7, 2019
From the Chronicle of Higher Ed and relevant to all legal educators:
"Critical thinking" is one of the most prevalent buzzwords in the academy, but what does it mean? We all want our students to be critical thinkers, but we are collectively unable to say with any degree of precision what that actually entails.
Given this confusion, it is a common assumption that all professors teach critical thinking, and that no one discipline has any special claim to expertise in this area. Physicists argue that students absorb this skill while investigating the results of high-speed electron collisions; engineers point to the intrinsic problem-solving nature of engineering as evidence that the discipline teaches critical thinking. A member of our psychology department once told us, "Anyone can teach critical thinking."
The word "critical" comes from the classical Greek words krinein or kritikos, which refer to judging, discerning, or estimating the value of something. A critical thinker, then, is a critic of thought in much the way that a film critic is a critic of film. A good film critic must have appropriate criteria to use in evaluating film, which are then applied to a given work, ideally in conjunction with honesty and fair-mindedness. In the same way, critical thinking involves thinking about thinking itself. Let’s take the following definition: Critical thinking is the conscious, deliberate, rational evaluation of claims according to clearly identified standards of proof.
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The teaching of critical thinking as a life skill requires teaching students the underlying grammar of rational thought, which is operative across disciplines. When students enter college, we are inviting them to participate in a culture of evidence. Courses in critical thinking (or "Reasoning," "Practical Reasoning," "Informal Logic," or "Introduction to Logic"), when they exist in a course catalog, demonstrate the importance of providing evidence for any claim to knowledge. Such claims are, of course, the putative conclusions of arguments, and the evidence for these claims are the premises. The specific content of the premises varies. This is the part of critical thinking that is discipline-specific. Determining whether or not a set of premises is true requires prior knowledge of the subject matter. Does an interpretation of a historical event rely on a discredited source? Ask a historian.
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