Swans Commentary » swans.com September 26, 2011  



The Co-optation Of Critical Thinking
A Saga of Mis-education in California


by Jonah Raskin





(Swans - September 26, 2011)   I teach at Sonoma State University (SSU), one of the 24 campuses in the California State University (CSU) system, which is among the largest universities in the world. In academia, SSU is mostly unknown and unheralded, though it has some status as the birthplace of Project Censored, a media watchdog organization, and also as the seedbed for "Critical Thinking" -- the term and the practice. Both were created by radical teachers disgruntled with academia who wanted to be genuinely subversive. About Project Censored I have many ideas -- but they belong in another essay. This essay is about the lost art of "Critical Thinking," which was created by Richard Paul, a Marxist who taught in the philosophy department at SSU and who was a colleague in the 1980s.

How he managed to persuade the California State legislature to make his brand of "critical thinking" a requirement on all the campuses of the CSU, I don't know. Professor Paul has never said how he succeeded and no one else has either. Almost single-handedly he turned his own critical-thinking class into a statewide industry that led to the publication of hundreds of textbooks that were required reading and were about how to think critically and how to teach critical thinking.

Every campus soon had its own critical-thinking classes that created a demand for instructors who could teach the subject. There were yearly conferences held all over the United States, attended by thousands of high school and college teachers, most of them eager to understand critical thinking and to learn how to be effective critical-thinking teachers -- hopefully in a weekend. Over the past 30 or so years, thousands of California students have taken critical-thinking classes, but as recent surveys and studies show, most students who graduate from college are largely unable to think critically.

I am not in the philosophy department at SSU, but I am supposed to team-teach critical thinking -- along with 10 other faculty members -- in a new program for 200 first-year students. I do not teach "critical thinking." I certainly don't say to any group of students, "Okay class, today, we're gonna do critical thinking." That is a surefire way to get students to stop listening. I have observed hundreds of students over the course of several years and I have found that lecturing, reading about, and discussing "critical thinking" is ineffectual.

I should probably also say at this point that I believe in "critical thinking," by which I mean questioning ideas and beliefs -- orthodox as well as unorthodox -- and being skeptical about the fundamental nature of society itself, whether it's capitalist or communist, Christian, Moslem, or Jewish. Questioning is essential and very difficult to do; most first-year students at SSU are unable to formulate a question after a lecture because in high school for the most part they've told to shut up and listen and not ask questions. There are exceptions, I know, but asking questions is associated with questioning authority, and in high school that's against school policy.

The problem with Richard Paul's brand of critical thinking was there from the beginning. As soon as they took a program that he had designed for his own classes on his own campus, took it to the state legislature and persuaded it to require critical thinking, he gave away whatever critical-thinking skills he might have had. Indeed, how could critical thinking curriculum mandated by the State of California be true to the very ideals of critical thinking? It couldn't and it didn't. It quickly became bureaucratic and institutionalized, as well as a source of jobs and revenues. It enabled universities to boast that their students graduated with necessary real-world skills such as critical thinking -- though the Cs and the Ds that students often received suggested they had not learned the material. The fact that the class was required made it onerous, too. Forced to do critical thinking -- or fail -- students rebelled, as most healthy individuals would do, or else they faked critical thinking by demonstrating that they could define and identify an "adhominem" argument and a "red herring."

The problem with the program was that while Richard Paul was a maverick and a Marxist, most of his followers were trying to get a job and to hold on to it by any means necessary. Critical thinking opened a new field for employment and young teachers -- many of whom had protested in the 1960s and 1970s -- responded. After all, "critical thinking" sounded subversive. It certainly wasn't meant to be conventional thinking. But critical-thinking teachers were usually unwilling to think critically about the ideas and values they held closest to their hearts and firmly in their heads. For the most part, they wanted students to think as they did.

It also always seemed naïve to me to expect that after one semester (16 weeks) of critical thinking, California high school students nurtured on the mass media and popular culture would suddenly become critical thinkers. The whole society -- from advertising to electoral politics and the public school system -- aimed to prevent real critical thinking and to persuade students to conform in their thoughts and their actions.

So, to become a genuine critical-thinking teacher, it seems to me, one has to aim to subvert the very educational system of which one is a part. One has to challenge and encourage students to rebel against conformity -- which many of them at the age of 17 and 18 are willing and even eager to do. The critical-thinking teacher has youthful rebellion on his or her side.

I do believe that students should -- and can -- learn to think in subversive ways and to question the dominant paradigms of the day. I have seen students learn these habits of mind; I won't call them "skills," though that's what universities call them. Universities have to be able to say that in exchange for tuition and fees, student acquire practical skills that will enable them to find employment after graduation.

Sometimes I give undergraduates F. Scott Fitzgerald's comment in which he said that truly great minds are able to hold opposing ideas at the same time. Students get it. They know that to catch a thief a cop needs to think like a thief, and that if the cop only thinks like a thief, he'll never catch a thief. Students also tell me that the only way the United States might be able to defeat terrorists is if American soldiers and generals think like the terrorists without becoming them.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a critical thinker and, like all real critical thinkers, he used his imagination. Without imagination there can be no fundamental critical thinking. Fitzgerald was a subversive artist, too. On the cusp of writing The Great Gatsby -- his double-edged sword of fiction that explores the dualities of the American Dream -- he told a friend that his real heroes were Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Leo Tolstoy.

He admired them, he added, far more than "all the millions of Roosevelts and Rockefellers that strut for 20 years mouthing such phrases as 100% American (which means 99% village idiot) and die with a little pleasing flattery to the silly and cruel old God they've set up in their hearts." Nowadays, it's difficult to find a college teacher on my campus willing to say that he or she admires Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy -- or alternatively Fitzgerald, W. E. B. Dubois, and Paulo Freire, the Brazilian author of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, who understood that when members of the oppressed classes became the oppressors they were often more oppressive than those who had once oppressed them. How's that for critical thinking!

I've also noticed that students will learn to think critical thoughts through activities -- by making things such as murals, by engaging in debate and discussion, and playing roles in which they're lawyers and judges, for example, or members of a school board arguing whether or not to ban a novel such as The Catcher in the Rye. It's only by doing, not simply by looking and listening, that students really understand a subject or a topic, and that's true of critical thinking. Writing an essay or taking an exam to prove one knows how to think critically won't enable students to practice and live by critical thinking, though it might enable the teacher to justify his or her salary and to enable the university to rationalize its very existence.

Richard Paul had a good idea, but he let it get away from him. He was defeated by the very success that he sought. Now, decades after he first created it, it seems to me time to dismantle it and to replace it with something more befitting the needs and the demands of the 21st century. To continue critical thinking at it has been taught will perpetuate a past that no longer exists and that has long outlived its usefulness. The time is ripe for a global intellectual revolution that will keep pace with the technological revolutions taking place from here to Shanghai and beyond.


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About the Author

Jonah Raskin teaches in the communication studies department at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine and The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published September 26, 2011