Column: Thinking critically about the art of critical thinking

By Andrew Mason

Throughout this semester, I’ve had the opportunity to share my thoughts and criticisms about life with you. Yes, you.

Next semester, this space will be filled by another writer who undoubtedly has his own opinions to express. I will be moving up to the recently (in)famous job of Opinions Editor and trying to fill the large shoes of many other great editors, including my current editor Jenette, who puts up with more shenanigans than she’s paid for.

I will try to fulfill the unique task of critiquing the new critics and help sustain the current rise in quality discourse on this page. It’s time for me to start thinking critically about critical thinking. But you should too. Look up at your professor and ask yourself if you know what the term “critical thinking” means. I’ll wait.

It’s pretty hard to come up with a concrete definition. You would think since the term has been drilled into us since we were able to read that we would be able to recite the definition by heart. You would assume that as students attending one of the great universities of the world, we would have mastered it by now. But the more I reflect on it, we probably haven’t.

As it turns out, “critical thinking” is actually an umbrella term that refers to many different mental processes; analysis, evaluation, synthesis, logic and reasoning to name a few. The common thread among these is that of skepticism or doubt. The root word of the term is after all, “critique”, meaning to find fault. But are we trained in our elementary and secondary education to find fault with things? Nope.

For all the publicity “critical thinking” skills get by administrators and politicians in pursuit of higher standardized test scores, the concrete processes involved in critical thinking are too often mistaken for mere reading comprehension, memorization and regurgitation, which as we all know, is usually the most lit path on the way to “A-ville.”

True critique is often discouraged in education, especially in the early stages. This is not done with malice or teachers having an irrational thirst for power. It is discouraged because doubt is the seed of rebellion. In order for useful information to be disseminated, it is necessary for a structured environment to exist. Rebellion by students in any form is a threat to the educational process that is supposed to be teaching kids to be critical thinkers. Pretty darn ironic, isn’t it?

Remember those questions at the end of reading assignments labeled “critical thinking”? How many of them just wanted you to restate the main idea? As I remember, too many. One of the biggest complaints students have is doing busy work like this. In my experience, I learn more by arguing about something. My incentive to be correct is directionally proportional to the embarrassment I will suffer if I am proven wrong. Of course, those who can overcome that embarrassment find lucrative careers in the punditry and weather forecasting industry.

For too long, we have pushed this misunderstood term merely for it’s connotation of importance instead of its true meaning or application. The damage is starting to show in our media, which is supposed to be our bastion of doubt. It shows in classrooms where discussions break down into mushy conversations about our feelings rather than the facts. And it’s certainly starting to show in our culture where intellectually demanding shows like “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” have smaller audiences than drivel like “The Bachelor.”

Forums like this page will rise above the fray. It is our responsibility as columnists to spark debate and to plant the seeds of doubt in our readers’ minds. As you might’ve deduced, we are not infallible. But we truly fail at our jobs not when we get something wrong, but when our readers don’t know the difference or worse, don’t care.

You’ll hear from me again but for now, I leave you with important advice: Question everything.