Patrick Deneen on “Critical Thinking”


In spite of the praise for and embrace of “diversity” on nearly every campus in the nation, there is one orthodoxy upon which all campuses now largely and uniformly agree: the aim of a university education is to inculcate among students the skill of “critical thinking.” As various requirements in humanities, social sciences and the natural sciences are eliminated, reduced, or replaced by a set of “distribution requirements,” colleges and universities increasingly signal that it is less any particular content or specific knowledge that matters than the ability to think critically about any and all issues. The skills that one learns in any given course – whether geology, philosophy, literature, sociology, physics, theology or political science, and so on – are fungible and transportable, a set of tools that can be used to analyze any topic or idea that falls within the general family of inquiry that is learned in a given course. “Critical thinking” is now effectively the core curriculum, or its functional equivalent, at most of our colleges and universities.

This is a striking fact given that there is almost no discussion about what “critical thinking” is. There is a general low-level and largely underarticulated agreement that it is a good and desirable thing, and a shared sense that both “criticism” and “thinking” are praiseworthy, by themselves and especially in combination. In contrast to the curricular “culture wars” of the 1980s – during which debates over the content of curriculum were vehement and heated, stoked in part by protests against “Western Civ” and Allan Bloom’s broadside The Closing of the American Mind – there is today almost no discussion – whether national or local – about what is meant by “critical thinking.” This absence of discussion gives rise to the suspicion that what mattered for many participants in the “culture wars” was not so much the content of the curriculum per se than its ultimate evisceration.

The article certainly raises the question, is “critical thinking” a (content neutral) method of reasoning or is there specific content to thinking well? It would be interesting (with more time) to tease out an answer to this question, or even if the question is meaningfully put. My recent reading in Charles Taylor and G.K. Chesterton makes this article particularly interesting to me.

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