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Do you remember when you toured college campuses and heard admission counselors and deans praise their school for fostering “critical thinking”? Did you ever ask yourself if there was any college that did not claim to do this? But more important—after they repeated it so often, did the university administrators ever make clear to you what they meant by “critical thinking”?

I fear they often use the term as an empty slogan. In some of the better institutions, if you ask the administrators what critical thinking is, they might say that it is about learning to think for yourself. And indeed, the Liberal Arts can truly liberate if they are taught well. But are colleges truly delivering on that promise? Don't get me wrong: I am not against college education, quite the opposite. But I am worried that often educators today no longer want to liberate the mind; rather, they want to “transform” young people and recreate them in their own image.

Peer pressure at colleges is powerful these days. It determines what sneakers one should wear, what music one should listen to—and especially what and how one should think. The conformity waves have changed dramatically over the last few decades, but they still work the same way: You have to fit in, or you are excluded. We feel compelled to conform because of our loneliness. We want to be part of a bigger group because we are “social animals.” An awareness of this can allow one to discern a society’s influences and values. Those unaware, however, can easily lose themselves and submit their minds to whatever authority their teachers or peers introduce them to. Instead of being liberated, they will be ideologically enslaved.

This is why actual critical thinking—the ability to discern—is so important. Rightly understood, critical thinking allows you to filter information and evaluate data according to reasonable criteria. By applying these criteria, a critical thinker will be able to determine which authorities are trustworthy and which are not, and to realize that nobody can know everything. Critical thinking liberates you to make your own decisions and to choose which authorities (whether in the sciences, math, history, and so forth) to follow.

How does one acquire the ability to think critically? Like a habit, it is a way of living. You have to want it, and to make it a priority. Like sports, critical thinking is always an active endeavor that demands a person's full dedication. Its starting point is therefore the desire to know the truth of things. 

One of the best ways to elicit this desire is to find things that inspire awe, for the search for truth begins in wonder, driving us to ask questions. Art, a good book, even sensory experiences such as touching the surface of freshly sanded wood or plaster—pretty much anything can hold the golden key to this deep desire within you. It can be different things for different people: The diversity of our hearts’ desires manifests our true “autonomy and independence,” and allows us to explore the world freely.

Desiring knowledge is different from desiring information. When I drive through Chicago, I have to look at a map to know where I am and where I am going—I need certain pieces of information. But a desire for knowledge is a desire for profound connection, for familiarity, for goodness and beauty. Critical reasoning teaches you about your own desires and values. More important, it teaches you how you see the world and the people around you. It opens your eyes and, if done well, your heart. 

Thus the question every potential student and parent should ask is: Does this college want to inspire awe and knowledge, and thus lead to true critical thinking, to the pursuit of truth in joy and confidence?

Ulrich L. Lehner is the William K. Warren Professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of  Think Better: Unlocking the Power of Reason.

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Image by Mustang Joe and Governor Tom Wolf licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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