Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking: Then and Now

Once again, I am writing about Richard Paul’s work on critical thinking. He wrote a whole lot about it and had excellent things to say. I would strongly recommend checking out the source of what I am briefly touching on here, because he goes into much more detail and depth than I can here.

There’s a form of the argument from antiquity that I hear which goes along the lines of “If it worked for us in the past, why should we change it now?” Often said in reference to a historical or “evolutionary” (evolution in this case being used as a justification by non-evolutionary scientists to justify some cultural practice they ascribe to) behavior, it does nevertheless bring up useful questions. Why did we change the way we did things, and is our current way really better?

When it comes to critical thinking, Paul explained in Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World, “We are not truth seekers by nature but functional knowledge seekers.” Historically, schools taught functional information, regardless of whether it was true or not. If everyone in a given society believed the same things, regardless of those things’ truth or bias, societies tended to function.

Granted, there have always been problems, and always been some who dared to think critically about the situations they found themselves in. But on the whole, “belief” and “truth” rarely needed to be distinguished because they were viewed as the same thing, even when they really weren’t.

So what changed? And why do we need critical thinking now?

Globalization and its causes are big reasons for that. In the past, localized events affected things on a local scale, but now there is a much bigger potential for local situations to become international affairs. As Paul describes, interdependence has played a significant role in this.

The mere existence of intercultural communication means that we can no longer afford to take our cultural beliefs for granted. We can’t just all agree to hold mutually exclusive beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality and expect to function as a society. Whether we like it or not, our local cultures are diversifying. We can no longer accept arguments from authority and mere “beliefs” as our truths. We need critical thinking, and schools are in a unique position to facilitate it for our future.

(Though this seems like an obvious point to make. My teachers’ failures to give satisfactory answers to questions like this when I was younger drove me to seek out answers in all the wrong places and caused me to spend years as an adult untangling my beliefs from a lot of nonsense I had learned. Had I only been introduced to Paul as a teenager, I may have avoided years of belief in BS and all the harms it caused.)

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

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