Among high school students, I’ve seen puzzled looks in response to the mention of Adolf Hitler, segregation, Thomas Jefferson, the Cold War, Aristotle and the Bill of Rights—among other things. This shocking lack of knowledge has a noxious effect on student thought. Take a question I gave during a video assignment: to which country did many Americans move during the Great Depression? Seconds before, I had prompted my students to listen as the narrator explained that many Americans moved to the Soviet Union in search of work. Nevertheless, after we had finished watching, very few students had a response.
What caused this? It wasn’t a matter of apathy. One student revealingly asked, “wait, the Soviet Union is a country?” As freshmen, these students had only learned ancient history and a smattering of US history, and were unaware that Russia was once part of the Soviet Union. The issue was one of background knowledge, a schema of known facts and information into which an individual can fit new ideas.
Education reformers, teachers, politicians, advocates and parents often call for schools not just to teach rote facts—children can look those up on the internet—but to create critical thinkers. Companies say that they are seeking employees with critical thinking skills. As Bryan Caplan puts it, “from kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing?”
How could I have asked my students, however, to think critically about the Cold War, without knowing that Russia was once part of the Soviet Union? Should we prioritize business and technical writing for students who don’t even know who Martin Luther King Jr. is? How could any college student meaningfully support a cause like socialism if she arguably doesn’t even know what it entails?
So is critical thinking undergirded by a teachable set of skills? Where does it fit within the trite facts versus feelings dichotomy often alluded to on Twitter? To begin to find out, we need to probe an even more foundational skill: reading.
Many think of reading as analogous to basketball or art—with discernible skills to practice, like dribbling or shading, which can then be applied to various scenarios. Cris Tovani lists a few such skills in her book, I Read It, but I Don’t Get It: asking questions, drawing inferences, monitoring for comprehension and determining what is important. If she practices these and a few others, a struggling student will soon begin to improve, Tovani argues.
Each of these skills, however, requires background knowledge. Were I to give my students a text on the Cold War, how could they possibly determine what is important? What analytical questions could they ask beyond simple clarification? Any subtlety and nuance that could lead to an inference would be lost amidst their simple ignorance of the facts.
There are skills involved in reading, but they are simpler than those Tovani suggests. Robert Pondiscio of The Fordham Institute succinctly outlines the process of learning to read in his book How the Other Half Learns:
Reading has two distinct parts: the first is your ability to translate written language into sounds, words, and sentences, or “decoding.” The second part is your ability to make meaning, or “comprehension.” Decoding is a skill and a transferable one. Every literate adult will agree on the pronunciation even of invented words like “pliff” or “plizzle,” because we learned and mastered the written code of language. But the soul of reading is not decoding; it’s the ability to understand the words we decode. Reading comprehension is fantastically nuanced, much harder to influence or teach, and not a skill at all.
In other words, there are two parts to reading: decoding and comprehending. Decoding is a teachable skill, but comprehending a book requires a wealth of vocabulary and background knowledge with which to understand the words the student has sounded out. Pondiscio references the baseball study to show the importance of background knowledge. Researchers gave a text about baseball to two different groups of students—one labeled strong readers and the other weak readers—and quizzed the students on their knowledge of the sport. They found that the students’ ability to comprehend the test had less to do with their supposed reading ability and more to do with their prior knowledge of baseball.
Most American scholars probably fancy themselves strong readers, but given a text on cricket I imagine few would be able to comprehend what it said. Their capacity for phonetic pronunciation would be of little use, faced with words like yorker, googly or doosra.
This primacy of background knowledge is how E. D. Hirsch, professor of education at the University of Virginia, explains literacy disparities: “the technical reading skills of disadvantaged children at age six are still on par with those of children from literate families,” but after children learn foundational skills like phonics, background knowledge takes primacy and reading scores diverge. Children with educated parents come to school with a larger share of cultural knowledge and vocabulary, and therefore outperform their peers once the basics have been mastered.
Reading, then, involves a few basic elements that can be taught, but to master the skill you need knowledge of the world. What about critical thinking? Whenever I plan a unit, I outline a list of discernible skills to teach: thesis statements, the structure of argumentation, grammar rules, how to incorporate quotations, etc. In search of similar skills for critical thinking, I sought out educational philosophers and activists John Dewey and bell hooks.
What Critical Thinking Isn’t
In his book How We Think, John Dewey attempts to break critical thinking into its elemental components, defining it as, “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the ground that supports it and the further conclusion to which it tends.” He clarifies the elements necessary to qualify as a critical thinker: a willingness to question one’s own presuppositions; a knowledge base against which to consider, critique and understand new information; and a scientific method of inquiry, to put conclusions to the test. To put it simply, a critical thinker doubts, knows and searches.
His first requirement is a general predilection towards doubt: “if the suggestion that occurs is at once accepted, we have uncritical thinking.” He defines critical thinking, then, not as a skill but as a general mood, a doubting reflex. Such a mood can be engendered, inculcated and influenced, but not taught outright— any more than I can teach my students to be happy. What we can teach are facts and arguments that encourage doubt. For example, to doubt the existence of God one must know the salient religious texts, common arguments for his existence, such as cosmological arguments, and physics. Someone can have a distaste for religion without this information, but it will remain just a distaste, not the product of critical thinking.
In other words, to doubt well takes time and knowledge. Allan Bloom once remarked that, “only Socrates knew, after a lifetime of unceasing labor, that he was ignorant. Now every high-school student knows that. How did it become so easy?”
Dewey affirms the necessity of background knowledge for critical thinking: “even when a child has a problem, to urge him to think when he has no prior experiences involving some of the same conditions, is wholly futile.” Were I ask my students to think critically about, say, Trump’s decision to pull troops from Syria, they would be powerless to create critical thought because they lack the knowledge of relevant international political theory, geography, history, cultural issues and a host of important facts.
Dewey emphasizes that “it is [education’s] business to cultivate deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions.” He recommends the scientific method, the closest he comes to identifying a teachable skill. However, to prove even hypotheses and propositions requires facts and data.
Near the beginning of the book, Dewey asks us to imagine a man noticing a chill in the air, looking up to see dark clouds in the distance and concluding that it is likely to rain within the next hour. To Dewey, this simple chain of reasoning illustrates critical thinking at its most fundamental. The man develops a hypothesis, searches for data and comes to a reasonable conclusion. If this is critical thinking, then, it is the simplest of thought patterns and arguably has evolutionary roots.
True critical thinking involves that kind of intuitive thought pattern, informed by substantial knowledge. In the case of Trump’s Syria policy, for example, critical thinking might involve drawing on the writings of Charles Krauthammer, the idea of the utility of a central global hegemon, Churchill’s criticism of French and English disarmament before WWII, and current US-Turkey relations.
bell hooks’ book, Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom, promises more insight into the topic. However, her title is a play on words, as the book is not about critical thinking but critical theory—a philosophy that seeks to identify, critique and ultimately change the power structures of society.
In his book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, Hirsch emphasizes the need for literate adults to have a passing familiarity with many words and ideas. For example, we need not know the entire life history of Ulysses S. Grant, but we do need to be familiar with his role in the US Civil War and subsequent presidency. Given its ubiquity in modern discourse, critical theory is one idea that any literate adult ought to have some understanding of. One need not have read every book written by an early critical theorist like Herbert Marcuse, but one does need to know what critical theory is.
A passing familiarity with disparate topics, ideas, events and words is the foundation of critical thinking. Thus, to teach only critical theory, as bell hooks suggests, is to rob students of a store of background knowledge and of exposure to other substantial worldviews. Conversely, the emphasis that critical theorists place on personal story is valid. To give narrative the same validity as statistics, as bell hooks suggests we should, is naive, but to come to a conclusion on any issue without understanding the effects it will have on individuals is equally naive. In the facts versus feelings dichotomy, critical thinking requires knowledge of both.
Implications for Public Education and Beyond
What, then, should we teach our children? This question has consumed thinkers since Socrates. The debate has centered on three general theories: we should create skilled students for the economy, we should teach civic values for democracy, or we should teach students to think. These are the skills-based, civics-based and classical approaches, respectively. If critical thinking, the classical choice, is the ideal goal, then many popular approaches in contemporary education actively work against it.
Critical theory advocates culturally relevant pedagogy, arguing that teachers must present their students with material that is both relatable and from within the students’ own culture. There’s some validity to this. If a book explores aspects of a student’s culture, she will naturally have the background knowledge necessary to comprehend it. My students rarely take an interest in Romeo and Juliet until I relate it to the intergroup conflicts at our school or the adolescent love many of them will be experiencing.
Cultural relevance has its place, but to always provide culturally relevant material is to teach our students nothing. As educational advocate and teacher Jasmine Lane argues, “students are already experts in their own lives. Let our class be windows to something new instead of solely a mirror to the familiar.” To teach only culturally relevant material is to rob students of a growing host of background information, which they can use to think critically, read and comprehend. Perhaps worse, it leaves them insular, unaware of the beautiful variety that exists in the world.
Similarly, there is choice reading, wherein students select the books and material that most interests them, spend time reading it during the school day, using a reading journal, and then design their own final projects. On paper, this makes sense, but to focus on student-centered lessons and choice-based reading, which restricts students to their personal interests and existing genre preferences, is to deny them the ability to learn anything new or meaningful. Our role as educators is to show our students the history, culture, philosophy and science that they would not otherwise learn, not to reinforce their existing adolescent interests.
When many students lack the knowledge necessary for critical thinking—or reading—such initiatives work against the inculcation of such skills. They merely reinforce the students’ naturally acquired cultural knowledge, which helps maintain their interest, but teaches them nothing new. There are students in my school who have been labeled struggling readers, who spend upwards of three hours a day on choice reading—often to little effect.
A truly interventionist approach to struggling readers would provide students with diverse texts on history and science and enroll them in arts and music classes, where they can learn about the world—not provide them with culturally relevant, appropriate level basic readers. Unless a student is lacking obvious phonics or basic literacy skills, no amount of basic readers or comprehension strategies will improve their scores. They need to learn about the world if they want to become better thinkers.
There are skills that can be taught. Forming a written argument, creating engaging presentations, playing the trumpet and other tasks all involve teachable skills. In the United States, the Common Core state standards do a decent job of outlining the skills any student should have upon graduation from high school. However, a federally mandated curriculum based on skills—while less controversial—would be less effective than a list of content topics that any literate adult should know, a list which E. D. Hirsch has attempted to compile.
In higher education, a liberal approach that prioritises general credits and canonical works should gain popularity. Otherwise, universities will have to resign themselves to becoming glorified technical colleges, producing workers with exceptionally specialized skills but little capacity for critical thought.
This view of critical thinking presents a challenge to anyone who wants to be an active participant in societal discussions. It’s a challenge to read both extensively and deeply. No one is naturally a critical thinker nor does anyone ever fully acquire critical thinking skills that are applicable to all discussions. We must spend a lot of time increasing our bank of knowledge. Only an ever-growing wealth of facts, anecdotes, and theories can promote critical thinking, so we must read the best that each culture has to offer. We must read books that go beyond the scope of our normal interests and contain worldviews with which we do not already agree. We must spend our lives, as Socrates did, endeavoring to know more, before we can declare ourselves critical thinkers.