Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking: The ability to skillfully conceptualize, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and apply information. Involves identifying the validity of facts and sources presented and reading critically.

– One of 16 Habits of the Mind Providence School seeks to develop in our graduates

A student once asked me whether I peppered my wife with scores of probing questions at home. No doubt, he was feeling sympathy for anyone else who had to endure my skewering train of inquiry. Perhaps he imagined this dinner table conversation:

WIFE: “So, honey…how was your teaching today?”

ME: “Well, dear,” I answer in this imaginary conversation, pointing my fork at my wife, “it depends on how you define ‘teaching.’ What exactly are you asking me? Why do you bring it up?”

I assured my student that my wife and I never—well, seldom—have such conversations. Just because students frequently give me squinty-eyed gazes, or complain their heads hurt after enduring my series of probing questions, does not mean asking questions is all I do. But it is an important part of my work as a teacher. A bit like running laps or doing push ups, being pushed through the hoops of this mental exercise can be painful, but the results are worth it.

Thinking well about important things

We need to enrich the definition of critical thinking, particularly in a distinctly Christian school, such as Providence. Many schools do a good job, overall, of teaching and modeling how to think clearly, deeply, and well. Beyond that, though, it’s important we help students recognize the importance of what topics and questions they are thinking about. While gossipy pop-culture sound bites may be appetizing, what we’d really like students to encounter is what is good, true, and excellent.

Thinking virtuously

Besides nudging students to think about important things, we also mustn’t assume all deep thoughts are equally virtuous. It’s quite possible that a well argued, logically constructed, articulate argument for infanticide is more dangerous than a sloppy argument for that abhorrent practice. Again, it’s not just how we think but what we think about that is important. We teachers strive to cultivate virtue: we prepare the soil, plant seeds, water, fertilize, and—ouch!—prune. The goal of practicing critical thinking is not to deconstruct students’ views on the big issues of the day and leave those views chaotically disassembled in a heap on the floor; it is to create something beautiful—that is, well ordered, well oriented, and God-honoring.

In our era, ever-shorter attention spans combined with political and social polarization leave us trapped in a cultural war where sound bites are weaponized and thinking is itself aborted as soon as we encounter a view we don’t like. The wonderful thing about a distinctly Christian education is that it provides the antidote to this cultural poison. Christian thinkers don’t ignore the big issues; with Scriptural truths in one hand, and a newspaper (or a mobile device) in the other, we clarify definitions, examine assumptions, and explore consequences for all sorts of questions.

For example, what exactly is “justice?” Or “social justice?” Is there a difference? And how did esteemed thinkers of the past (Plato, Aristotle, Old Testament prophets, Augustine, Locke) view justice? One of my favorite economists, Frederic Bastiat, said justice is the “absence of injustice,” and the sole function of laws is to create the absence of injustice. What does that mean, and is that true?

Bringing this train of thinking closer to the students’ own world, what does justice have to do with the student debt crisis? With earning a higher minimum wage for a summer job?

(Is your head hurting now? My long suffering wife does listen to me practice this sort of musing—a lot.)

Creating mental muscle

Plowing through a cascade of questions creates a sort of mental muscle, tempered and shaped by Scriptural truths. I never tire of reminding students that in the first few chapters of Genesis, two central truths stand out:

1) As image bearers of God, humans deserve dignity.

2) As sinners, humans are ever prone to selfishness.

So, how do those two truths enlighten our understanding of justice? Equality? Politics? Theology? Cinema? Music? Art?

Critical thinking nourishes civil debate while developing spiritual virtues, and therefore is an essential part of a distinctly Christian education. Regrettably, such a form of critical thinking is a rare experience in today’s educational landscape. 

In I Thessalonians 5:21, the Apostle Paul admonishes us to “test everything” and our Christian school classrooms are excellent places to do just that. Grounding excellent reasoning with Scriptural truths is an exercise—a habit of the mind—that shapes students’ minds and hearts. I hope and pray such habits will help students transcend our superficial and polarizing culture.

Bruce Rottman
Bruce Rottman

Upper School Humanities Teacher

Bruce Rottman teaches humanities, economics, and American government and directs the Libertas Scholars Program at Providence School. He loves helping students develop their critical thinking skills by posing provocative questions that will lead them to a greater understanding of human flourishing.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: