Does anyone use critical thinking skills anymore? Generally, you see news reports on students who are coming to America to college and the chief complaint of American educators about students from communist countries is that the students do not have critical thinking skills.
I teach predominantly lower to middle class Americans, raised in America and I have to say that I do not see much use of critical thinking skills for the majority of my students just entering the college atmosphere. Fortunately, my university has begun to include it within the curriculum and has designed courses and assignments around having to use them to be able to succeed in the course.
A friend of mine taught in China for a year at a private college there. As a communist country, the educational system is not set up to encourage students to challenge the concepts being taught or even to ask questions about them. Things are taken at face value—what the instructor says is the gospel and students are taught there to memorize it.
While some educational systems here in the US do provide some critical thinking skills training, I am not sure it is not also the norm here for the student to believe everything the instructor teaches, memorize it and then take a test to show they can memorize.
I see this as a broader issue. We all grow up believing what we are told by our parents and because we trust them, we do not question much of what we learn from them. Perhaps as adolescents, we go through a rebellious stage where we refuse to accept what our parents say, but often we return back to those very beliefs as young adults and maintain those as adults.
I guess the broader issue I see is that this lack of questioning or searching on our own for what is true for us (something that requires basic critical thinking skills), either by researching or exploring other ideas, leads us to conformity.
We conform to our family norms, cultural norms, school systems, our corporations, our community leaders, government, etc. It seems that there is very little room for independent thought, which leaves very little room for creative problem-solving. Often people cannot tell me how they came to believe something they profess to be true for them. They often have never even thought about why or how they even learned the information contained within the belief.
We have beliefs about everything—what is ok, what is not ok. What is right or wrong to do in just about every social situation and what is right or wrong in public versus private. We learn these growing up from our parents, siblings, teachers, preachers, neighbors, role models, etc. Often we learn by observation and often we learn how to be by whether we are reinforced or punished for our behavior. We learn how to feel this way too.
I do not expect a 9 year old to question whether or not the punishment they receive is fair, but I do expect a 19 year old, a 29 year old and a 59 year old to at least evaluate if what they have been taught is true for them at their respective point in life.
In many areas of our country, here in the US, children grow up with very limited perceptions of reality and unless they get out of the hometown, question what they believe to be true about themselves, other people, the world, etc.; they will continue to hold those limited perceptions as their reality and their truth. These are held whether or not this truth and these perceptions help them to grow in this life or not.
The Chinese students coming to America to study in graduate programs are quickly realizing that what they hold to be true does not work for them here in the American educational system. Sometimes when American students go to college, they also arrive at this conclusion and adapt. Without some guidance and some assistance developing these critical thinking skills, it is often not enough to realize that what you have held as your truth no longer serves you.
Openness to other ideas also has to be involved here. In my personality psychology course, we talk about traits and “openness to experience” is a trait measure we discuss as relevant to the college experience. It serves a college student to be high on this trait scale, as they are exposed to new information, new research, new ideas that may appear to challenge what they have always believed to be true.
If a student is open, has critical thinking skills and is motivated to grow, they will find information within each of the ideas presented during college that will resonate with them as their truth. They can then slowly adapt or adopt beliefs that work for them and are consistent with what they hope to achieve here in their lifetime.I actually think that today’s college student has more of a chance of evolving and growing as a result of critically thinking and being open to current research findings and such.
I worry more about the college graduate who doesn’t use these skills, cannot adapt to changing times or refuses to think outside of the box to solve a problem.
I worry about the high level of conformity within businesses, professions, political affiliations, religions and other groups because many of these use fear to perpetuate the conforming behavior.
We will probably not question our treatment from a company when we are afraid we will lose our job and we will not likely question our religious leaders because we do not want to spend eternity being damned. We are not even likely to challenge our family’s beliefs about what to do next in life because we need their love and approval.
I am sure I could go on and on with examples of this. Conformity can certainly rob us of being able to assert our basic needs in many situations, but without the basic critical thinking skills, we cannot even begin to know why our basic needs aren’t getting met.
Do you question new ideas when they are presented or do you dismiss them because they are inconsistent with your old ideas?
Do you question your old ideas when you find that they are no longer working for you in your life? What is the worst that could happen if you did?