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The promise of critical thinking often fails to deliver, as many commentators have shown. But as world leaders continue to sound the clarion for more critical inquiry, it’s worth asking again: Is this really what we need?

Critical thinking instruction nearly always falls short of its purported objectivity. Alan Jacobs has noted the element of self-interest in a lot of what passes as disinterested inquiry: “People in my line of work,” he observes in How to Think, “always say that we want to promote ‘critical thinking’—but really we want our students to think critically only about what they’ve learned at home and in church, not about what they learn from us.” Ouch. That one stings for educators.

The very aims and assumptions of these initiatives are also doubtful. The culture of critical thinking often assumes a hazardous anthropology that divorces our cognitive selves from our affective selves, erecting a Berlin Wall between rationality and feeling. Such is the case, it seems, with one professor’s recent call for “dispassionate” inquiry: “Emotions are, by definition,” Rob Jenkins writes, “not based on reason and, therefore, form a poor, shaky foundation for decision-making.” There you have it: Thinking and feeling are immiscible—like vinegar and oil in a bottle of salad dressing.

It is one thing for educators to draw a distinction between emotion and reason, but as Samuel Taylor Coleridge taught us, we too often mistake distinctions for divisions. Seventy-five years ago, C. S. Lewis observed the negative effects of an education that divorces these two, describing them at length in The Abolition of Man:

They [the students] see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda—they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the young minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity.

Do we really believe that the problem with most students is a superabundance of zeal in the classroom? Lewis didn’t think so. He concluded that “the right defence against false sentiments” demands more than analysis. It requires something deeper: “just sentiments” founded on reason. Real thinking, real learning, flames an ardor for knowledge. The average student needs intellectual fire, but the average classroom is a walk-in freezer.

The culture of critical thinking wants to replace dogma with critical thought, but as David Hicks has argued in his seminal book Norms & Nobility, this mission is a fool’s errand. Without dogma and conviction, he says, students are paralyzed, petrified, even starved. In a purely analytical form of education,

thought and action exist apart from each other, the mind affecting to observe but not to participate in the acting out of ideas, fearful lest its participation should prejudice the learning, yet ignorant that participation is essential in bringing together thought and action for responsible learning. For this reason, the value-free approach of analysis warps education by methodically straining out the normative nutrition in life and letters and by sacrificing the transcendent, life-transforming value of knowledge to a dead set of utilitarian options and objectives. 

Students are hungry for values and norms, but are we feeding them? “What educator among you, if his student asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent?” Maybe the teacher who doesn’t know what true food is—the stuff that will actually feed souls. Critical inquiry alone can’t sustain a student, for in Patrick Deneen’s words, when we swear off all intellectual ties, we “deprive ourselves of the capacity to think truly critically.” A lethargy will pervade the classroom, a sleepy consciousness “that is neither capable of true criticism nor of any real independent thought.” Critical thinking will cease to be thinking.

Let us be clear: Reason is good. Analytical skills are an essential part of a humane education, and what many mean by “critical thinking” is simply the art of logic. The problem with the critical thinking fad, though, isn’t the critical tools themselves. It’s a dangerous ethos: the idea that becoming a good thinker means achieving a cool, detached stance on every issue. For many students, the project of thinking starts to look less like a door to truth and more like an intellectual flyswatter—a handy mind device for mashing “spin” and “fake news,” an implement to ward off the buzzing of pundits.  

But we can do better than this. Faced with the choice between doors and flyswatters, we must choose doors. At least the student with a door is going somewhere.

Josh Mayo is an assistant professor of English at Grove City College.

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