Is Critical Thinking Un-American?

Islamic scholars in Bokhara, 1919I am – notoriously – a critical thinker. My immediate reaction when solemnly presented with an allegedly true piece of information or self-proclaimed informed and authoritative opinion is to look for internal clues that all is not what it seems and to consult my own experience, and independent sources, for corroboration or dissent. This is not something I learned in school. Higher education, especially graduate school, taught me to be much more adept at locating and evaluating independent sources, but it did not encourage skepticism when that skepticism challenged the educator.

I’ve always been something of a gadfly when it comes to challenging authorities. I recall a couple of incidents that occurred in a 7th grade social studies class back in 1961. It was a demanding, high-powered honors class requiring a mind-boggling amount of reading, writing, and memorization, considering the grade level. A few years after Sputnik and the publication of “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” the American education system was hell-bent on proving that our kids could out-study the Russians. I think I dimly realized at the time that this involved becoming as proficient at parroting back a fictitious view of the world that proved that democracy, capitalism and manifest destiny were the acme of human attainment, as Russian schoolchildren were at parroting a fictitious narrative culminating in the triumph of socialism.

The first incident was ludicrous. Another student in the class was giving an oral report on some aspect of Asian geography and made the statement that there were forty people per square foot in Singapore. When I pointed out that this was a physical impossibility, the teacher said, “You know, Martha, some of these places are awfully crowded.” I suspect what the student read was that in some parts of Singapore there was only forty square feet of housing space per person. At least some of the other students in the class recognized that the statistic could not be true after I pointed out the physical impossibility, but I was the only one who did the math.

The second incident was a photograph (included above) printed in our geography text as proof that conditions in parts of the Soviet Union were extremely primitive. I recognized the photograph as having come from a 1919 National Geographic, one of a beautiful set of early color photographs of Central Asia taken before the Bolsheviks came into power in the area. Seeing this definitely raised doubts in my mind that the information I was being fed in this textbook was as timely and accurate as its recent copyright and flashy format suggested.

At least at the K-12 level, an educator will give lip service to teaching critical thinking by presenting carefully scripted scenarios and inviting students to uncover the flaws in an argument or set of facts that the educational system wishes to discredit, but will carefully avoid opportunities for students to subject the system’s own sacred cows to critical scrutiny, and may react punitively if someone’s sharp eyes discover the chink in the armor. In some ways such incomplete, distorted critical thinking is worse than pure rote learning without a pretense of evaluation. A person is more likely to notice the complete absence of something than he is to be aware that a counterfeit has been substituted.

How did my habit of critical thinking arise, if I didn’t get it from the American educational system? Several things contributed. I was a precocious child, reading at an adult level by the time I was seven years old, and I grew up in a house full of books. My parents were both English professors. They were also, for reasons that need not concern us here, not very diligent in the guidance and nurturing department, so I was on my own to a much greater extent than was normal in a middle-class household in the 1950’s. I learned to observe the world around me with a keen and critical eye, to trust my own experience when it seemed at variance with what someone in authority was telling me, and to read.

Much of my parents’ library was old, and by 1950’s standards obsolete. I absorbed a worldview and a version of facts dating, on the average, from before the First World War, and it was only gradually that I acquired a sense that this worldview was anachronistic. In the meantime, I had gotten into the habit of evaluating new information, demands, and recommendations for behavior from three perspectives: my own observations and experience, what I was being taught in school according to the canon of 1961, and the 11th (1911) edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I knew I was on firm ground when they all agreed, and I could be pretty sure that when there was no agreement, I would be well advised to get more information before accepting any of the three as the sole basis for action.

These habits have not left me, and they have served me well. I am still often the first person to spot red flags, and to delve into those complex situations whose solution absolutely requires thinking outside the box. I am convinced that expecting our present educational system to effectively teach critical thinking is futile. Possibly the best way in which school can foster habits of mental independence is to get out of the way, instilling a spirit of inquiry and giving pupils the tools, such as reading and math, that promote effective inquiry, but allowing more time for independence outside of the carefully scripted environment of the classroom.


Image Name

Scanned from the November 1919 issue of The National Geographic (c) National Geographic



Recent Martha Sherwood Articles:

  • The Year of the Jackpot
  • The Novel of My Mother’s Past – And Mine
  • Has America Lost the Cold War?
  • The Grief of Downsizing
  • Immunological Paralysis: A Reason for Concern?

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