Five Critical Thoughts about Critical Thinking

Pitfalls of critical thinking which prevent the development of intelligent citizens

One of the most popular concepts in modern educational thought and maybe modern thought in general is the vague but attractive concept of “critical thinking.” It gestures at the desire to shed old beliefs and prejudices, the need to seek out truth, and the yearning for a better world. In order to make something new and better, the thinking goes, we must undermine and destroy the old.

But while critical thinking is unquestionably important and has led to many positive developments in our world – ending many of those aforementioned prejudices being one of them – basing education solely or even primarily on the concept contains quite a few pitfalls for becoming a properly adjusted, intelligent citizen and individual.

I will try and list some of these below, in the form of “theses for debate and discussion.”

Critical Thinking is Too Easy

We live a few centuries removed from the birth of modernity and enlightenment. Instinctive skepticism, born of science and Enlightenment thinking, as well as our democratic heritage and distrust of authority, is in our blood. There are thus few things easier in our time than to question things. 

You don’t need to actually know anything about the subject. You don’t need to have thought about the subject. You don’t need to learn any of the arguments or care about the result in any direction. Far from being an impressive trait, critical thinking is now often an atrophied, lazy instinct of people who don’t care to do the work to think well — even critically. 

Critical Thinking is Too Hard (Without Knowledge)

To be able to think critically about something, certainly to think well, you need to be able to have the time, patience, and discipline to properly learn about a subject. That requires good, even very good baseline literacy skills and broad knowledge. I assume my readers have read widely, and I’m sure you can agree with me that the best critical observers – regardless of politics or beliefs – were people who possessed both these skills.

In much the same way that you need to first erect the skeleton of a building before engaging in all the design choices, students need to have a proper command of these core skills before they can take the next step. One who wishes to think critically about something must first properly understand it.

Just as importantly, kids shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel on issues, and they don’t have to. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants, and many and probably most of the arguments they make about anything have already been made, and better, by the great thinkers of the past and present. Learning knowledge is thus not just rote memorization, but also building the foundation so they can see further.

Critical Thinking Isn’t Sufficiently Self-Critical

As I said, we live with our feet planted firmly in the modern age, and with an expectation that ideas will generally progress in a linear direction, with what needs to be discarded being abandoned by the roadside. But this idea in itself is open to serious critique and challenge – how do we know that what won out, deserved to? How do we know that we didn’t toss babies out with the sludgy bathwater?

And even setting that aside – who said that any ideas that are new are necessarily good? Take the current craze for DEI and what has been broadly known as “critical theory” as developed in academia for the past several decades. These arguments are plenty critical of other received or widespread ideas – but who says that critical theory isn’t open to criticism? Just because a position takes the stance of the opposition against the established way of thinking doesn’t mean it’s ipso facto correct; such a claim remains to be proven. 

Real critical thinking would include being self-critical about critical positions.

Critical Thinking Can Become Too Nihilistic

Another problem of critical thinking is the opposite: being critical about *everything*. Remember what I said about critical thinking being too easy? There is nothing easier than for critical thinking to move from qualified belief in things to outright skepticism and even nihilism regarding pretty much everything. I’ve spent enough time on Twitter to see many an educated, intelligent individual move from healthy skepticism of authority to simple refusal to believe *anything* said on authority. If thinking is solely critical and not balanced by other virtues, that slope is not so much slippery as a sheer cliff.

People arguing for critical thinking usually mean they want critical thinking about something, towards positive ends. But thinking critically, in general, requires no such thing. You can “think critically” about democracy, comic books, or someone’s fashion choices. Even if you don’t want to tell kids what to think, you need to make a positive case for what they should think about.

That case will have its issues. It will be open to “critical” challenge. But do it properly, and students will understand the value of positive ideas and concepts and outlooks, even if these are not analytically bullet-proof (no concept or idea is, really). 

Critical Thinking Alone Crowds Out Life

But even if we allow for all that and develop a new, better, deeper form of critical thinking for students and adults, that still leaves the reality that man and woman cannot live on criticism alone. Life is not just about critical scrutiny, but also appreciation – of beauty, of traditions, of ideas, of stories, of other people. It is, or should be, about the things we have or want, not just the things we don’t have or the things that go wrong.

An attitude that is constantly critical is like a force field, repelling or at least screening out the good things in life, or what we might consider the good things in life. A disposition that constantly criticizes may be expert at picking things apart, but it loses the capacity and skill to marvel and wonder and just observe. If we do not learn to balance criticism with those other virtues, then our life may be an examined one – but it would be one far too cold and inhuman, too cocooned and jaundiced.

In sum, critical thinking is an important part of life. It is not life itself, and that’s what should be taught in class, in all its glory and weirdness.

Avi Woolf
Avi Woolf is an editor and translator who hosts an ongoing series on the Gilded Age entitled Stumbling Colossus at Avi’s Conversational Corner.