Tuesday, December 16, 2008

'Critical Thinking' is making us stupid

Back in September, Creighton University’s Prof. R.R. Reno lectured at the University of Colorado at Boulder, discussing how “critical thinking” can actually corrupt intellectual life.

Of course, this is counterintuitive on its face. What intelligent person doesn’t want to be a critic in some area of expertise?

But Reno, with depth and insight, subjected critical thinking itself to criticism.

He began his lecture by asking whether relativism is truly an affliction of academic life. Obviously not all standards are rejected. Excellence in sports and a modicum of ethical standards are widely acknowledged among all. The faculty judge and rank both students and peers by the standards of their specialty.

Yet these standards are not shared between disciplines. In part, this is because few generalists are capable of truly inter-disciplinary work. Further, the standards of one field of inquiry by nature cannot be the same in another.

This lack of communication helps to fracture intellectual life. This sometimes results in relativism, and other times in scientism.

In Reno’s telling, scientism is the order of the day. While the methods of science are fantastically powerful within its own domain, mistaken efforts at duplicating its success in other fields results in the decline of wisdom and any other integrating intellectual force.

One specialty of scientific reasoning is analysis—which we should remember literally means “breaking-up.” In applied science, nature is analyzed in order to be manipulated for the advancement of both research and economic profit.

“Critical thinking,” in Reno’s understanding, treats societies, persons and artistic works also as something to be analyzed and understood in terms of cultural, psychological, economic, and even biological processes. This places the student in a position of being a critical “master” of all cultures, rather than a participant in and beneficiary of a culture.

This position dovetails with globalist or careerist goals of emancipating people from economic poverty and common social restrictions by displacing indigenous cultures, including our own.

As Reno wrote in an earlier essay on the First Things web site:
"The basic existential thrust of postmodern cultural study is to relax the power of any particular culture over the minds of students. The goal is obvious. A Harvard man or woman is not to be a member of a culture. He or she navigates cultures. With a critical grasp of the factory of meaning, he or she sets about to oversee production...

“Will a person in a position of power who ‘reads’ his fellow man, rather than listening to what he actually says, end up manipulating rather than serving?"

(Worrisomely, this sounds like descriptions of President-elect Obama and many another politician: while appearing considerate towards an interlocutor’s objections, he will size her up and make conciliatory comments meant to please but also to silence, after which he will proceed to do what he already had planned.)

In his remarks at CU-Boulder, Reno said the poor state of critical thinking is a result of rejecting or twisting the virtue of docility, that is, the virtue of being easily taught.

If Reno’s critique is accurate, our system of education actually hinders people from being touched and enlightened by people, cultures, and works they wrongly presume already to understand.

While Churchill and Lincoln, to take two examples, are overly revered, too many students arrogantly act like the great men’s intellectual and political superiors simply because they can tell a story in which both figures are products of processes and biases beyond their own control.

This presumption extends to whole fields of academic study.

Under a malign form of critical thinking, ethics is re-envisioned as merely an evolutionary survival strategy, religion is discarded as a psychological eruption, and great art is sidelined as a product of oppressive, pre-critical societies.

For “critical thinking,” reverence is an obstacle to thinking. (Note the renaming of theology departments as departments of religious studies.)

Students of such a method, which is better called a style, find themselves sealed off from wisdom.

“Nearly two centuries ago, John Henry Newman saw that it was a conceit of the modern age that truth may be approached without homage,” Reno writes at First Things. “The mechanisms of critique destroy piety and in so doing diminish our capacity to love and obey truth once found. Moreover, as John Paul II pointed out again and again, responsible human freedom is not possible outside a more basic loyalty to the commands that can come to us only in and through culture.”

Can critical thinking be saved from itself? Perhaps not.

But the best form of inquiry begins with taking reality as a given, that is, as a gift. And as Hans Urs von Balthasar reminds us, one never receives a gift in a critical spirit.

Such an intellectual life is perhaps not an exercise in critical thinking, but so much the worse for critical thinking.

Docility in studies is far more compatible with thanksgiving, a word which some Christians will recognize in its Greek form: Eucharist.

In this confluence, we see how religion does not oppose but assists intellectual inquiry. Rightly practiced, the worshiper’s docile openness to God can reveal self, man and the world to him.

Recall Jesus’ words in John 8: “You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free.”


While Reno’s advocacy for reviving the virtue of docility is certainly necessary, there are a few curricular changes which may better instill and nourish rational capabilities in students than our present system does.

First, students should be educated in grammar and language to increase their ability to express themselves and to understand others. Second, they ought to be educated both in recognizing logical fallacies and in correcting or rejecting bad logic. Third, they should be schooled in making and analyzing arguments, instead of learning how to dissect societies which they cannot yet understand.

Students must abdicate any presumptive position as a “master of culture” and become students of an actual tradition, rather than devotees of a cultural analysis of that tradition.

By an unintended coincidence, these curricular recommendations mirror the Trivium of the early European university. But this allows us happy clarity about in which actual tradition students ought to receive their education.


Reno’s CU-Boulder lecture was followed by some memorable interactions with the audience, a largely Catholic one which had gathered under the auspices of the Thomas Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought.

One young co-ed, self-professedly ill-equipped to wrestle with the content of his speech, asked Reno a general question about how students might bring passion to their indifferent campus.

“I think there is far too much passion as it is,” was the wry gist of Reno’s reply. “Aren’t you sick of people being in your face about everything?”

Another student question depicted the local Catholic parish as being a welcome outpost of certitude in the wilderness of college confusion. With gentle and sympathetic mockery, Reno rebuked this sentiment for its pretense.

Ridiculing the image of The Lone Torchbearer of Truth in a Cave of Darkness (while also confessing his desire to be such a torchbearer himself) Reno reminded the student questioner that he should acknowledge his own inner doubts and be wary of false certitude.

Reno brought students and others in the audience to recognize some flaws in the modern university while also guiding the youngest to shed their more naïve opinions. For an inaugural lecture, it is hard to ask more.


William Luse said...

students should be educated in grammar and language to increase their ability to express themselves and to understand others. Second, they ought to be educated both in recognizing logical fallacies and in correcting or rejecting bad logic. Third, they should be schooled in making and analyzing arguments, instead of learning how to dissect societies which they cannot yet understand.

Words of wisdom, Kevin. A really fine post.

Anonymous said...

By Guillermo Bustamante

After the election and the utterly contemptible ‘lawyerly’ position from the USCCB not to excommunicate the intellectual-formal “Catholic” lawmakers of abortion (scandalously, because the surgical minions automatically are), and some “gay-sick-degenerate rights lawmakers”, we lay orthodox Catholics MUST FIGHT PUBLICLY, BLAMING THE HYPOCRITICAL USCCB!!!!! for what they are: servants of mammon.

St. Luke: 11: 52 "Woe to you lawyers! for you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.

53 As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard, and to provoke him to speak of many things, 54 lying in wait for him, to catch at something he might say.

16: 13 No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon."