A Critique of Critical Thinking

By many accounts, the American educational system aims towards the goal of teaching kids how to "think critically." We're supposed to analyze and conclude -- not just memorize and restate. Even in elementary school, my fourth and fifth grade teachers routinely insisted that we had to "think critically" about this or that. By the time students apply to college, it's one of the virtues that sets great applicants apart.

Of course, none of us in elementary school had any idea what they were talking about. Many high school seniors don't either.

Simply telling a kid to thinking critically is like telling him to be cool. You can't quite teach it. Fortunately, engaging in critical thinking doesn't have to be mysterious. Critical thinking is what people outside the field of education call "having a discussion." It relies on an exchange of ideas in which the ideas evolve from one volley to the next.

Many high school students are great at absorbing information but not accustomed to the assertiveness, improvisation, and individuality that critical thinking entails. In many cases, they might not know what critical thinking looks or feels like. Here's an extended example...

The Truth About Polonius
Everyone has been advised, at some point in their lives, "to thine own self be true," courtesy of Shakespeare. It inhabits the borderland between cliche and axiom. Of course you must be true to "thine own self." Who could imagine a more inspiring affirmation? The trouble is, most people who quote this line imagine it as just that.

The words belong, of course, to Polonius, father of Ophelia and Laertes. Polonius issues them, along with other bits of wisdom, when Laertes departs for France.

Critical thinking requires us to tear apart this nicety. It requires us not to accept the plain meaning of the words and reach beyond what seems reasonable.

Imagine, then, that Polonius's advice is stripped of its greeting card sentimentality. What's the first thing you'd want to know to decide if a statement is reasonable or not? You'd want to know who this speaker really is. We all know people who are serious and reliable, and we know people who are flighty and delusional. A disembodied reading of Polonius might lull you into thinking that he is the former.

A full account of Hamlet reveals that Polonius is, for all his good intentions, a buffoon. He is sincere, but he is hardly wise. Hamlet himself refers to Polonius as a "tedious old fool." Polonius's platitudes sound nice, but, when attached properly to their speaker, they signify little. No wonder Laertes wants to leave home.

The best rejoinder to Polonius' sagacity comes from Chris Eigmann's character Des in Whit Stillman's Last Days of Disco. Des, who is self-consciously flawed to the point of annoyance, is about to set off for Barcelona. Recalling Polonius' travel advice, Des sputters, "What if 'thine own self' is not so good? What if it's pretty bad? Wouldn't it be better, in that case, not to be true to 'thine own self'?"

Confession, Candor, and Criticism
For college applicants especially these questions are important for two reasons.

First, the best students -- the ones who get straight A's, take scads of AP classes, and get astronomical SAT scores -- often struggle mightily with critical thinking. They see the greeting card version of Polonius and memorize it verbatim. They can tell you the scene and the context and analyze the language. But, being obedient, they don't roll their eyes as they should. Time and again, though, it's the students who see through the platitudes who are the most attractive college applicants.

Second, Polonius' is, arguably, the patron saint of college applications. Applicants would be hard-pressed to attend an info session, a college night, or an application workshop where they aren't encouraged to "be themselves." Colleges' rhetoric echo Polonius' because, of course, they don't want applicants to fabricate personal histories or contort themselves into something that colleges "want" to see. That's a recipe for disaster. Even so, students shouldn't be "true" indiscriminately.

College applicants are better off heeding Des than Polonius. Students shouldn't treat their college applications as confessions. Rather, applications give students the chance to present the best sides of themselves. They get to recount their lives thus far, tell stories they find meaningful, and analyze them in ways that are, ideally, smart, ethical, and flattering. Students who think deeply about themselves -- their experiences, talents, goals, ideas, etc. -- and who even criticize elements of themselves may find that they genuinely emerge from the process "better" than they were when they started it.

Argument By Another Name
Finally, Polonius is worth mentioning once more because parents have a crucial role to play in the development of their kids' intellects.

The process by which kids develop critical thinking skills can be mistaken for argumentativeness or needling. They denounce the "critical" rather than encourage "thinking."

Rather than reject or ignore kids' questions and arguments, parents should encourage them. Kids might start an argument out of emotion, but if an argument can turn into to a discussion -- in which kids have the chance to construct arguments that bring their intellects and emotions in line. They'll learn to reject Polonius's advice while developing real convictions and preferences rather than just adhering to some thin image of how they think they ought to act.

Whether they study in France, Denmark, or anywhere else in the world, students who embrace critical thinking, in all its ambiguity, will be even more proud of their "true" selves and be vastly better prepared for college.

A version of this blog originally appeared on Scary Mommy's 'Club Mid."

For other insights into the subjective side of college admissions, here are a few past blogs:

Some Recommendations About Recommendation Letters
The Passion of the Applicant
The College Applicant's Best Asset: Self-Motivation
How College Applicants Can Go Beyond 'Show Don't Tell'

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