Basically we are talking about the ability to access the relative viability or fallacy of a concept.
"Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness."This is a statement about critical thinking, a concept developed for the last 2,500 years which was presented by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, the summer of 1987. So what is this all about then?
Critical thinking is the ability to think for one's self. To use information reliably and responsibly to make decisions. Most people develop it at least to the degree they need to survive at the basic level...insuring they get the correct change from the cashier, or learning to stop at a red light. But unfortunately far too many develop the skills any further. There are many components to this process. Critical thinking must include critical inquiry. Intellectual curiosity. One must investigate problems, ask questions, pose new possible solutions, question authorities and traditional beliefs (after all if something is so, it remains so when investigated...if not, it was never so to begin with), and challenge any received dogmas and doctrines without prejudice.
What does it say about a culture where practicing scientific and critical thinking is discouraged? It would seem that certain societies will only tolerate a limited number of critical thinkers. Why might that be?
Most people are simply followers of authority:
Most do not question, are not curious, and do not challenge authority figures who claim special knowledge or insight. Most people, therefore, do not think for themselves, but rely on others to think for them. Most of us indulge in wishful, hopeful, and emotional thinking, believing that what they believe is true because they wish it, hope it, or feel it to be true. Most people, therefore, do not think critically. Life, itself can be described as a sequence of problems that each individual must solve for one's self. Critical thinking skills are nothing more than problem solving skills that result in reliable knowledge. Humans constantly process information. Critical thinking is the practice of processing this information in the most skillful, accurate, and rigorous manner possible, in such a way that it leads to the most reliable, logical, and trustworthy conclusions. From these conclusions one can make responsible decisions about one's life, behavior, and actions with full knowledge of assumptions and consequences of those decisions.
The Dumbing Down
So much knowledge has been acquired about the natural world in the last century that the quantity of information in science for example, has become enormous. As the quantity of knowledge mankind acquires increases exponentially, educators are faced with the daunting task of attempting to relay more and more information to students. Science educators and science textbook writers came to believe that they must seek to transmit as much factual information as possible in the time available. Our textbooks grew larger and curriculum became more concentrated; students were expected to memorize and learn increasingly more material.
Acquisition and transmission of scientific facts and information took precedence over learning scientific methods and concepts. Inevitably, the essential accompanying task of transmitting the methods of correct investigation, understanding, and evaluation of all this scientific data ( critical thinking) was thrown under the bus entirely. This situation became especially severe in primary and secondary education, and over the last decades there has been a well-known decline in the math and science ability of students in the U.S. compared to other industrialized countries. Studies have shown that our students abilities in math and science begin on level with students in other countries, but then progressively decrease as they make their way through the educational system. By the end of high school, United States students rank among the lowest in the industrialized world in math and science achievement. The well intended "No Child Left Behind" legislation actually has compounded the problem as funding is tied to testing, forcing teachers to teach to the test (or lose their jobs) which further moves education towards memorization of facts or figures and further abandons learning the skills required to actually participate in any meaningful way in not only the sciences, but every facet of life.
Knowing when the Civil war took place or where the battles were fought is information. But understanding why it took place is wisdom. Insight is a quality of inestimable value. One will continue making the same mistakes over and over again without it. Therein lies the need for critical thought. It is a matter of survival.
Teachers Are Bad?
It matters not who we might blame for this egregious error. But we must first acknowledge that it is an error, and secondly; change the entire approach of education to focus far more on relaying critical thinking skills as the primary goal of education. Teachers like all employees must do what they are told, in good schools their ideas regarding curriculum and agenda are given weight, in most, this is frankly discouraged. It is not teachers who fail us. Anyone with an advanced degree in the sciences or mathematics has needed to master critical thought. It is generally policy that is at fault.
The problem has been growing for generations. I suggest this is one reason it has not been recognized by many or dealt with. Not enough critical thinkers in school policy making to recognize the problem (As a necessity they must focus on whatever programs provide funding), certainly not enough critical thinkers in the national political scene to create new policy, and not enough critical thought from the public to demand the needed effective changes. As a result of the inability of the public to think critically we largely end up with leaders who also lack these skills.
Everyone of us thinks; it is a trait of the human condition to do so. But much of our thinking, if not subjected to criticism in terms of it's intellectual integrity, has a bias, is distorted, is incomplete, uninformed, misinformed, or is out and out prejudiced. The quality of our lives and that of what we produce, depends precisely on the quality of our thought processes.
Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life.
Nowhere is this more evident in The U.S. than in the poor quality of political debate, advertising, and news media in general. This is only effective or even possible for the perpetrators because of the disregard of critical analysis by the populous at large. Our willingness to accept flawed logic.
This is a case where change truly comes from within. Excellence in thought processes, must be systematically cultivated by each of us. The quality of our lives will improve dramatically.
Our survival quite literally depends on it.