Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

What I Have Against Critical Thinking

with 6 comments

First, I’d like to apologize that the comments function was turned off for most of yesterday on yesterday’s post.  If that happens again and you want to comment, e mail me and I’ll fix it.  It’s very easy to fix.

And if I ever don’t want to take comments, I’ll say so in my post.

That said, I had one of those epiphanies I get sometimes when I’m not sleeping a lot. 

It hit me a couple of hours after I’d published the post, and before Robert’s comments about moral training, but the two things are connected.

So, to start–no, I don’t want colleges and universities to provide “moral training,” at least not directly.

I want them to provide intellectual training in the context of an immersion in the Western tradition. 

That does not mean that there should be nothing about other traditions in the curriculum.  One constituent part of the Western tradition is a curiosity about and respect for other tradtions.

But the Western tradition is a particular moral universe.   An immersion in that universe is in itself a kind of moral training. 

But–and this is what struck me–the problem with “scientific management” (which seems to be the actual term for “the bureaucratization of everything”) and with “critical thinking” (which is its most common stated goal in education) is that both things are by their own definitions amoral.

“Scientific management” can be used to manage anything, and the closest it gets to asking whether it should be managing something is its call to consult “the culture” in affirming “values” of the institution or population it is managing.

But “values” can be anything.  Gertrude Himmelfarb was right when she pointed out that “values” and “morals” are not the same thing.

Values are relative.  They can vary from place to place.  Morals are objective.  To say something is “moral” or “immoral” is to say that there is, somewhere, an objective measure of conduct that is true at all times and for all people.

What that means is that “scientific management” will work in the same way when applied to running the Department of Health and Human Services, or the Bank of America, or the University of Michigan, or Auschwitz.

And nothing in “scientific management” can tell us that we shouldn’t be running Auschwitz.

“Critical thinking” has the same problem.

“Critical thinking” is a process–it has no content of its own. 

In spite of the tendency for many people to think that “critical thinking” will automatically drive people to agree with them–after all, what they believe is true, and other points of view are false–the process always follows the logic of the stated and unstated assumptions without which it could not operate at all.

That is why “critical thinking” can be used to support legal abortion and oppose it, to support the death penalty and oppose it–and to support “post birth abortion” as well as to oppose it.

The results of “critical thinking” will differ vastly depending on things like the way the thinker defines the word “human” and the hierarchy of priorities that thinker brings to the discussion.

These are questions that ought to be addressed first, but nothing in “critical thinking” can answer them. 

We can  “think critically” about exterminating the Jews just as easily as we can “think critically” about providing every child in America enough food to never go hungry.

And “critical thinking” will not help us to know that one of those goals is a good thing and the other is unacceptable everywhere and always.

“Critical thinking” is, I think, the perfect goal for a society run increasingly on the lines of “scientific management,” a bureaucratized world where democracy and the claims of a common humanity have been jetisoned for rule by experts whose only claim to expertise is that they know how to manipulate a process that is all mechanics and no conviction.

I don’t mean to say here that I don’t want my students to be able to think logically and coherently and to approach everything they read and hear with a healthy skepticism.

I do.

But those are tools to be applied to content in the context of a moral universe, and the moral universe in which those students live is of more importance, in the long run, than the tools.

If the kid lacks the tool, we can teach it to him.  If he lacks the moral universe, he’s a danger to himself and others.

So, yes.  I don’t want universities to teach morality.  I want universities to teach the Western tradition, which is a moral universe of its own.

And yes, I do know that that tradition has offshoots that go in various directions.

But almost all the offshoots we don’t like–Hitler, Stalin, Peter Singer–require that we first reject parts of that tradition.

It would also help if we studied those rejections, and why they exist and what they mean.

But first–the literature, the art, the music, the history, the hard sciences and the scientific method.

Aside from providing an implicit critique of the offshoots, they will provide a more than implicit critique of “scientific management.”

Written by janeh

October 9th, 2012 at 8:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'What I Have Against Critical Thinking'

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  1. “These are questions that ought to be addressed first, but nothing in “critical thinking” can answer them.”

    Hmm. But by using the process of critical thinking, you arrived at the issues that have to be discussed and resolved prior to any other issues being resolved.

    IOWs, to a first approximation anyway, you just rebutted your own argument.

  2. Sorry Michael, like “scientific management” “critical thinking” is a way of telling you how to do something. It will not tell you whether you ought to be doing it. Early in WWII, there was a pogrom with horrible slaughter in Romania–blood everywhere and the strench of mass graves for months. The Nazis were appalled. They wanted neat, organized sterile mass slaughter–much like their predecessors in the Reign of Terror making sure the blood was cleaned up under the guillotines so you could behead children without stinking up the neighborhood.

    “Critical thinking” without prior MORAL thinking, just gets the trains to deliver the victims efficiently to the crematorium. It will tell you where you need to double-track, but not that you shouldn’t murder.

    Whether the Western tradition is inherently moral or whether teaching it fosters morality is another issue. I thought of reciting a list, but it’s pointless: every mass slaughter from the Reign of Terror onward has had highly educated men steeped in the Western tradition directing it. Would they have been worse men without? Obviously I can’t say. I recently found a web site maintained by a couple travelling across Namibia planting Wilhelm Reich “Cloudbusters” to bring rain to the Kalihari Desert. Would it have received even less rainfall in the past few years without them? I can’t say about that, either–but it still looks pretty dry.

    I think you can derive morality from religion. I think you can derive it from tradition. But the results of thinking morality through from first principles have been mixed, at best. To derive it from Western culture, you’d have to read some people out of Western culture, starting with Plato, and at that point it starts looking very much like tradition.

    I’m not beyod persuasion,but I’d have to see a plausible mechanism.


    9 Oct 12 at 4:49 pm

  3. Nah, I haven’t refuted my own argument. I didn’t derive anything from critical thinking, I derived it from the Western tradtion. Critical thinking has no content. If I knew nothing about that tradition but was brought up in a triumphant Nazi reich, critical thinking would be very useful providing rational support for genocide.


    9 Oct 12 at 7:19 pm

  4. much of the Western Tradition and moral universe is based on Judeo-Christian teachings. Given that the
    “new atheists” are actively claiming that religion is evil, I have my doubts about a program of education based on the Western tradition succeeding.

    And would someone please explain the “scientific method” to me. I spent 9 years studying Physics to the PhD level and never encountered the term. It seems more popular with non-scientists than with scientists.


    10 Oct 12 at 5:55 pm

  5. It’s certainly unknown to many climate “scientists”.


    10 Oct 12 at 6:19 pm

  6. ” I didn’t derive anything from critical thinking, I derived it from the Western tradition.”

    IOWs, to describe your claimed thought process, you decided, based on synthesizing and evaluating information you have gathered from education, experience and reflection, including moral/philosophical reflection (and including that Western Tradition) you examined the implications and consequences of what you identified as “critical thinking”.

    But if you check any number of sites — that’s the very definition of critical thinking.

    So what you’re really complaining about is that either it’s not taught well, or at best those claiming to practice it aren’t in fact practicing critical thinking. That they are not engaged in the process of reflection and questioning of presuppositions required for critical thinking but are instead simply applying sterile rules of logic to un-examined assumptions about what is true and not questioning where that analysis ends up – and then calling it/justifying their conclusions by calling their process “critical thinking”.

    And indeed, logic being the mother of mathematics is an austere master and lacking in any values of its just as it offspring mathematics can’t tell you if the problem you’re applying your equations to should be solved in the first place.

    So I’ll stand by my original observation. What you are doing, BY calling upon “the Western Tradition”, including, yes, logic, but also including history and philosophy and introspection IS critical thinking. Thus it’s not critical thinking you object to – it may be the way it is taught. It may be that what people CLAIM to be “critical thinking” obviously does not measure up to actually critically thinking about what they claimed to have analysed.

    Oh, and Mique, when the Greenland ice sheet starts to recover and the permafrost starts advancing south south instead of retreating north (and revealing ever more Mammoth remains) I’ll worry about any lack of rigor by climate scientists.

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