In the 3rd Century BC, a man stepping into his bathtub noticed the water level rising. The deeper he went into the tub, the higher the water rose.
“Eureka!” he shouted, for he had been pondering this very concept, that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the object displacing it. Now, he had his answer.
Nearly 2,000 years later, another man, peering into the night sky using his recent invention, the telescope, came to a startling realization — the Sun did not orbit Earth; Earth orbited the Sun.
While Galileo did not shout “I have found it!” as Archimedes allegedly did, both had been practicing the skill of critical thinking, gathering information, reflecting on it, and reaching a conclusion, even if it meant challenging long-standing beliefs.
To think critically means being willing to think outside the box. It is what separates innovators from followers. It is being willing to ask “why.”
Are we turning away from critical thinking? Have we stopped asking why? In recent years I’ve noticed a troubling trend. If I ask students to tell me what a story is about, they respond with alacrity. But if I ask them to tell me what a story means, they respond with a blank stare. They have been taught how to summarize, but they have not been taught how to analyze.
Analytical thinking, it appears, is not being encouraged in our public schools, or in our public discourse either.
In 2012, an exhaustive study titled, “Academically Adrift,” found that many students “graduate without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event.”
Marc Garcia-Martinez, an associate professor of English at Allan Hancock College, believes students nowadays are living in one-way modes of receiving information that do not require them “to ponder beyond facts or emotions.”
Gary Bierly, chair of Hancock’s Social Science Department, concurs, noting that students live “in virtual worlds which insulate them from the real world.”
The decline in critical thinking is “one of the most important issues in higher education,” according to Hancock College Vice President Luis Sanchez. “Television talk shows and radio shows promote sloganeering and jingoism in place of thoughtful dialogue.”
A student writer agrees, saying, “Time and again, I tried to stimulate thought-provoking conversations among my fellow students. In all but a few instances, I failed.”
Most often that student’s peers were struck with an “uncontrollable urge to distract themselves by toying around with their cell phones” when he tried to initiate a class discussion.
How can this be happening? We are innovators that produced Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison. Innovators do not come from people who refuse to think critically. Some believe it is the result of more than a decade of over-reliance on standardized tests. But the answer may be deeper. We are living in an age of anti-intellectualism, and in some places critical thinking is being met with open hostility.
The Texas Republican Party last year made opposition to critical thinking part of its official position, because it challenges “the student’s fixed beliefs,” and could undermine parental authority. A conservative website urges its readers to move “beyond critical thinking” and practice “acceptance.” Another castigates colleges that use “reason and logic” to lure people away from their faith.
A country that values acceptance over independent thinking is a country in decline. A nation that feels threatened by a healthy skepticism is a nation that has lost its way.
We can reverse this, but it will require that we continue to ask why.
Mark James Miller is president of the
Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan
Hancock College. He can be reached at