On Sterile Progressive Teaching Strategies: Second Thoughts About ‘Critical Thinking’

November 11, 2021 Updated: November 15, 2021


Today, regardless of partisanship, the idea that schools should teach “critical thinking” or how to think over what to think, wins general approval.

The theory that “critical thinking” enables students to pursue dispassionate studies and arrive at rational independent conclusions is something that most people find naturally appealing.

Progressive educators have touted the value of critical thinking for decades. John Dewey, the American father of activist learning, contended that a school curriculum aimed at developing critical thinking skills benefits the entire society.

In the early 1960s, philosopher of education Robert H. Ennis published a paper in the Harvard Educational Review titled “The Concept of Critical Thinking.” He defined critical thinking to include “the correct assessing of statements” and, in later work, as “reasonable, reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do.”

Over the past 60 years, legions of educational theorists have praised the merits of criticism and celebrated its capacity to help teachers, students, and the public at large.

Citizens have been led to believe that studies in the humanities will develop skills in reading, analysis, literary appreciation, expression, and writing that will be useful over the course of a lifetime. We expect to find all of these competencies in the intellectual repertoire of a critical thinker.

Criticism Isn’t Always a Mark of Sophistication

A little more than a decade ago, some interesting second thoughts were raised about the obsessive focus on critical thinking.

Writing in a January 2010 edition of the Chronicles of Higher Education, Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth pointed out that so-called critical thinking doesn’t always amount to a mark of intellectual sophistication.

Roth suggested that educators are leading students to believe that being smart always means being critical.

“A common way to show that one has sharpened one’s critical thinking,” Roth wrote, “is to display an ability to see through or undermine statements made by (or beliefs held by) others.”

Those who are most critical are seen to be our best and brightest. But, Roth wrote, “being entirely negative, is not only seriously unsatisfying; it is ultimately counterproductive.”

Skepticism isn’t without merit, but one can’t help noticing that decades of progressive education dedicated to the false God of Marxist critical theory has produced a self-satisfied elite class of half-educated debunkers and compulsive intellectual troublemakers.

To allege that several of America’s founders were slave owners, or Canada’s founding prime minister sought to assimilate indigenous peoples, or industrial capitalism contributes to climate change, or “white” people need to account for their inherent “privilege” is now regarded as a sign of high intelligence.

Teaching Teachers to Be Critical Deconstructionists

Since the late 1960s, North American faculties of education have thoroughly immersed prospective school teachers in the neo-Marxist, deconstructionist, critical theory tradition.

By the time I attended McGill University’s Faculty of Education in the early 1970s, it was becoming evident that education schools across the continent had become notorious for two things: weak academic standards and progressive ideological orthodoxy. In this regard, nothing has changed.

Educators came to believe that no one outside their own “expert” circles could be trusted to manage the learning process, and they have played a decisive role in pushing a once-classical-liberal North American culture in the direction of socialist ideological fundamentalism.

As a result, young people are losing the capacity to believe in anything outside the “Woke” conventional wisdom. They end up contributing to a climate that has zero tolerance for traditional culture, national history, religious faiths, great books, civic institutions, and laws. Graduates of top prep schools and universities spend the rest of their lives displaying the critical disposition toward their nation that they were rewarded for in school.

Middle-class parents, who make considerable sacrifices to send their children to universities, are shocked when graduates return home with a thoroughgoing contempt for their country and, in some cases, their own family.

‘Critical Thinking’ Can Be a Sterile Learning Strategy

In the wake of the 2021 education controversies that flipped the Commonwealth of Virginia to red from blue, it’s more important than ever for parents and citizens to carefully consider the implications of the socially corrosive “critical thinking” curriculum that passes for education in North American schools.

“Critical theory” is academic code for the Marxist analysis developed by the Frankfurt School founded in the early 20th century. European intellectuals such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse became popular because they were avant-garde “critical Marxists” rather than the sans-culottes class-warfare types who had limited appeal among U.S. workers.

The prodigies of the Frankfurt School employed a seductive version of Marxism focused on alleged oppression and racism in democratic capitalist societies. But training in critical theory produced students who were more inclined to reject open discourse and less likely to think outside the box.

Calling for entrenched educational ideologues to begin teaching children “how to think” is a noble idea, but it’s unlikely to alter the mission of the progressive movement.

For “progressive” educators, “critical thinking” has really amounted to adopting the tenets of the left. While there’s much deceptive talk about teaching students how to think, teachers ultimately control what they’re thinking about, and progressives seldom recognize the difference between a school curriculum and a catechism.

Without exposing students to classical knowledge and the opportunity to stretch their minds, “critical thinking” becomes a sterile learning strategy.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

William Brooks is a Canadian writer who contributes to The Epoch Times from Halifax, Nova Scotia. He currently serves as editor of “The Civil Conversation” for Canada’s Civitas Society.