Modern educators love to talk about “critical thinking skills,” but not one in a hundred even knows what he means by this term. Every time our country goes through an education reform spasm-which it has experienced about every twenty-five years since the 1920s- the education establishment trots out a set of slogans that always sound good but don’t really mean anything.
In fact, the next time you hear an educator use the term “critical thinking skills,” ask him what he means and see what happens. You get the same reaction you would get if you were to politely interrupt a cheerleader in the middle of her routine and ask, “When you say ‘rah-rah, sis-boom-bah,’ exactly what do you mean?” You would get a blank stare. The words have no substance in themselves; they are meant merely to elicit positive emotions. It is the same with the term “critical thinking skills.” It is the educational equivalent of shaking pom-poms. To say you are in favor of critical thinking skills is the educational equivalent of saying, “Have a nice day.”
I recently participated in a televised debate on national science standards being implemented in my home state of Kentucky. I pointed out that the standards did nothing to encourage the acquisition of a knowledge of nature. There is a pronounced tendency in progressive education to downplay basic factual knowledge- particularly if such knowledge is gained through that process which is anathema to progressive educators: memorization. In the science standards, students are never asked to name, identify, classify, or describe any natural object. In fact, the words “mammal,” “fish,” “reptile,” and “amphibian” are never mentioned in the standards- nor are such basic scientific terms as “hormone,” “kinesis,” lymphatic,” “neuron,” “nucleotide,” “osmosis,” “Celsius,” “Fahrenheit,” “plasma,” “vaccine,” “protozoa,” or “enzyme.”
When I pointed this out during the debate, my two opponents, one a college biology professor and the other the chairman of the State House Education Committee, argued that the reason for excluding these things was that they were trying to teach students “critical thinking skills.” It is a little frightening when educational policymakers think that, in order to teach thinking skills, they need first to exclude knowledge. I said that I doubted whether they even knew what “critical thinking skills” were. And as it turned out, they couldn’t give a definition. When the moderator of the debate asked me what my definition of critical thinking skills was, I answered: “Logic.”
It is an interesting fact that the people who say that they want to improve our schools spend so much time talking about “critical thinking skills” and so little about logic. One of the reasons is undoubtedly that the word “logic” is much more concrete. It implies learning and being able to use a specific system of rational rules that can be taught- what the ancients called an “art.” Logic has an actual history of having been taught, and taught in a certain way. It is not nearly so amorphous as the term “critical thinking skills.”
But for propoganda purposes, it is less useful to use exact words. Vague words with indeterminate meanings are much to be preferred. “Thinking skills, thinking skills, rah-rah-rah!” In fact, “thinking skills” is only one of the terms in a constellation of vague promotional phrases used by education reformers. Others include “problem-solving skills,” “inferencing skills,” main idea finding,” and “higher-order skills.” Again, these sound good, but what exactly do they mean?
And these share with “critical thinking skills” the same problems. Not only are they ill-defined, but in a sense they really don’t exist, at least not as separate areas of study.
Knowledge is unnecessary, goes the thinking of progressive educators, because the only thing necessary is skills. And so we think we can divorce skills from knowledge. Here is what the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance has to say about the idea that skills can be taught and learned in a content vacuum:
Research clearly rejects the classical views* on human cognition in which general abilities such as learning, reasoning, problem solving, and concept formation correspond to capacities and abilities that can be studied independently of the content domains.
In E. D. Hirsch’s recent book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Education Theories, he makes the case that psychological and educational research is fairly unanimous on this point: Skills are “domain-specific.” In other words, you have to study skills in the context of some specific subject.
And “problem solving”? “There exists,” Hirsch says, “no consistent all-purpose problem-solving skill, independent of domain-specific knowledge.” Hirsch cites study after study showing that, on tests of particular skills like “reading skills,” students with less developed skills but who know the subject of a text outperform those who have more developed reading skills but who don’t know the subject. Knowledge matters.
When the television moderator asked me the question about what “critical thinking skills” were, instead of merely mentioning logic, I could just as easily have said “the liberal arts” (of which logic is a part). The liberal arts include the trivium (the three language subjects) and the quadrivium (the four mathematical subjects). But they are arts taught as subjects, each with their own unique content. The term “liberal arts” doesn’t fit into a cheer routine very well. But that shouldn’t really matter.
*The term “classical views” here means “standard views” of the subject that were prevalent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Winter 2018 edition