Critical Thinking And Education Philosophy Essay

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After providing a conceptual foundation of pragmatism, rationality, objectivity, and the goals of education, a discussion of critical thinking is made to present a concept of critical thinking which is 1) normative; 2) comprising of skill, ability, and habits of mind; and 3) acquiring intellectual resources. To address the vagueness of the concept itself, this review lends itself to the work of Israel Scheffler and Harvey Siegel, in order to provide a defensible proposal on how critical thinking can be infused within the educational curriculum.

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Critical thinking as an educational aim

The current interest placed on critical thinking in the education context is well-founded. Citing Scheffler, Combs (2009) stated that “education should be centrally concerned with developing rationality, reasonableness, and critical thought” (p. 175). Moreover, Siegel (1988) provided the underlying principles on why critical thinking must be emphasized in youth education. First, because the youth make up the crop of tomorrow’s leaders, the education system must enable them to develop critical thinking as a tool towards a productive and rewarding life. Second, the development of critical thinking is viewed as a moral obligation of administrators and teachers to instill in students the ability to treat diverse views with respect and foster a climate of open-mindedness. Siegel thought that preventing students to critically think was a form of oppression. Third, the thrust of critical thinking is consistent with the belief that rationality is key towards a productive life for all. Fourth, in line with Dewey’s thoughts on pragmatism, critical thinking is a crucial element of democratic citizenship.

Scheffler further describes critical thinking as an educational ideal which would allow children to assess their beliefs, desires, actions, and their cognitive and non-cognitive emotions based on appropriate criteria or standards and good reason, and engaged them “in the critical dialogues that relate to every area of civilization” (Scheffler, 1991, p. 64). Education should not only be aimed at the development of critical abilities, but also at the development of the cognitive emotions and virtues, the critical attitude (Scheffler, 1991). Every educator must endeavor to ensure that all children blossom into critical thinkers. Critical thinking is significant to the ethics, epistemology, content, and manner of education (Siegel, 1988). Its ramifications are broad in scope and pose serious implications to society at large, not only to persons being educated. The key aspects of critical thinking include rational virtues (skills and dispositions to judge in an impartial manner) and to deliberate with objectivity, even disregarding self-interest in the process. These elements are indispensable to moral education (Scheffler, 1973). In science education, critical thinking ability helps students evaluate the strength of reasons and the defensibility of arguments in order to evaluate which among competing paradigms or theories is best. Critical thinking is also an indispensable aspect of the practical component of education. The skills and know-how of students which figure prominently into the curriculum require critical thinking. Reading, spelling, and mathematics do not only require processual skills but the ability to apply criteria or good reasoning to specific domains of inquiry. While operative principles may be taught, students need critical thought to practice these skills effectively. Furthermore, in the context of teaching, critical thinking is reinforced by a teacher’s critical spirit – considered a principal obligation (Scheffler, 1973). In the context of teaching, “good teaching” requires educators to develop in students the skills and attitudes as described in the two-component theory of critical thinking which will be discussed later (Siegel, 1988).

Critical thinking: a normative concept

That critical thinking is a normative concept means that it is an educational ideal – a goal that educators and administrators must strive to aim. It also means that critical thinking is considered generally relevant in the educational realm. As an educational ideal, critical thinking is helpful in organizing the educational enterprise as well as set objectives of educational efforts. Mainly, critical thinking as a normative concept addresses the questions of 1) the purpose of education, and 2) the manner of education.

Our basic concept of critical thinking is essentially a normative notion, i.e. that critical thinking is in some sense good thinking. It is the quality of the thinking, not the processes of thinking, which distinguishes critical from uncritical thinking. In addition to deciding how to describe critical thinking activities and standards, we need to decide the boundaries of critical thinking, i.e. what sorts of tasks we see critical thinking as encompassing. Critical thinking is sometimes contrasted with problem solving, decision making, issue analysis and inquiry. Terms such as `problem solving’ and `decision making’ designate rather general kinds of thinking tasks. But, carrying out these tasks typically requires one to make a number of judgments, and the thinking that leads to these judgments can either fulfill relevant standards of good thinking. One may solve a problem in a critical or an uncritical manner. So, problem solving, decision making, etc., are best seen as arenas in which critical thinking should take place rather than as other kinds of thinking to be contrasted with critical thinking.

Critical thinking draws from rationality and reasonableness as fundamental concepts (Scheffler, 1982). However, critical thinking is considered not only an element of rationality but an aspect which co-exists with it (Siegel, 1997). As such, critical thinking may be considered an “educational cognate” of rationality since it emphasizes both on beliefs and actions (p. 2). By this definition alone, we can consider the critical thinker as an individual who is motivated by reasons both in thought and action. Siegel’s reasons conception consists of two components: “reason assessment” and “critical spirit”; the former deals with the epistemic realm of reasons while the latter focuses on the motivational realm. This theory merits additional discussion.

The two-component theory of critical thinking

1. The reason assessment component

Siegel considers the critical thinker as an individual possessing the skill and ability to evaluate reasons and arguments using logical or epistemic standards. Siegel (Reason and Education, 1997) quoted Scheffler’s view that the critical thinker “is not just being moved by reasons… by by appropriate reasons” (p. 20). What this means is that a critical thinker takes it within himself or herself the epistemic responsibility for this thoughts. To be “appropriately moved by good reasons” is to consciously accept and appreciate the importance of having evidential force to justify thought and actions. In determining what standards are considered meritous, Scheffler (as cited in Siegel, Reason and Education, 1997) said:

However, what reasons are appropriate is not fixed once and for ever. It depends on principles which themselves are the result of evolving traditions and may be different for various domains. There are no fixed foundations. The most fundamental presupposition underlying Scheffler’s epistemology and philosophy of education is the possibility of rational evaluation of principles of rationality. (p. 21)

While the acceptability of reasons is not fixed, Scheffler’s (1973) epistemology of rationality warrant reasons to be consistent, impartial, and non-arbitrary. Critical thinking acknowledges that universal and objective principles have a binding force, but subject to evaluation. The principle-based character of critical thinking is what gives it its normative character. Critical thinking is not merely a cognitive mental process but a mental process that meets epistemic criteria, separated by good and bad reasons. An individual who thinks critically is one who is able to evaluate reasons and ascertain whether prospective reasons are “good” or “bad” based on their evidential force and in light of standards or criteria.

Siegel (1988, 1997) and other theorists who support critical thinking categorized the principle of reasons of assessment into 1) general (subject-neutral), 2) principles (context-bound) and 3) subject-specific. There are debates on whether reasons assessment should be based on the generalist or the specifist view and to what extent reasons can be considered “general” or “specific”. As far as Siegel is concerned, the subject-specific criteria overlook the blurring of boundaries between genres and must be debunked. Siegel proposes that while there may be different criteria, the epistemologies operating are more or less similar. The more significant consideration for Siegel is how beliefs are justified: based on good reasons and supported by universal but fallible standards. This could be interpreted as “generalist” or a form of “contextualism” because Siegel supports the identification of good reasons across a range of contexts. Siegel (1997) elaborates:

We are entitled to regard these various criteria as appropriate criteria of reason assessment, and to appeal to them in order to establish or determine the goodness of putative reasons, only because they are sanctioned by a common epistemology: a theoretical understanding of the nature of reasons, according to which putative criteria are recognizable as appropriate criteria of reason assessment. (p. 32)

The point Siegel tries to make is that although various groups may have their own standards to judge whether reasons are good or bad, they are still governed by common epistemology for justification across different contexts.

Furthermore, one question is if emotions are relevant to reasons assessment. Scheffler (2010) described the role of emotions in reasoning, showing how the “rational passions” contribute to critical thinking. Inquiry is not a dispassionate activity, disassociated from emotion. Rather, people can be very emotionally committed to the search for truth and care passionately that the outcome of an inquiry be the best justified. Such ‘rational passions’ as love of truth, repugnance of distortion and evasion, and respect for the arguments of others as well as emotions such as curiosity, surprise and the joy of verification (Scheffler 1991) all play a significant role in inquiry, and educational efforts should be directed to their development.

In addition, emotions play an important role in rational assessment in several ways. One way is by constraining and directing attention and rendering salient certain aspects of our experience. This likely has to do with connections established in the past between certain emotions and rational assessments. Such emotions can provide useful cues for future assessments, but their adequacy must be assessed through rational criteria.

2. The critical spirit component

Because critical thinking is, in our view, thinking in such a way as to fulfill relevant standards, it is the standards of good thinking that provide the criteria for determining what attributes are important for critical thinkers. If an attribute is required by persons in order to fulfill a standard of good thinking, or if it will significantly increase the chances that their thinking will fulfill such standards, it can legitimately be regarded as an attribute that should be fostered in a critical thinker.

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Having the intellectual resources necessary for critical thinking does not, by itself, make one a critical thinker. One must also have certain commitments, attitudes or habits of mind that dispose himor her to use these resources to fulfill relevant standards and principles of good thinking. Moreover, as Siegel (1988: 9) points out, the critical thinker’s tendency to ful® l the standards and principles of good thinking cannot be mindless or simply the result of habituation. Rather, it must be based on a recognition of the value of critical thinking, i.e. its importance in fostering true belief and responsible action.

Siegel recognizes that while reason assessment is a necessary condition for critical thinking, it is not a sufficient one. For example, a critical thinker may be equipped with the skill to evaluate reasons but not be predisposed to use it. Moreover, it is not enough that a critical thinker is capable of assessing the probative force of reasons; the critical thinker should also be inclined to seek out good reasons and disposed to question whether or not candidate reasons fit epistemological criteria. Hence, for a person to become a critical thinker, he or she must be able to habitually engage in reason assessment. In addition, a person must also have a complexity of attitudes, dispositions, character traits, and “habits of mind” or what Siegel refers to as the “critical spirit.”

Siegel’s conception of the critical spirit means that critical thought is not a product merely of skill but also of character and motivation. The critical thinker then not only values the use of good reasons and evidentiary power in judgment or deliberation, he or she must also be willing and motivated to evaluate those reasons based on consistent, impartial and non-arbitrary criteria. In other words, the “critical spirit” is the life force of reasons. The critical spirit motivates and guides a critical thinker in action and belief-formation. Siegel (1997) considers that having reason assessment ability as well as the critical spirit are significant are individually and jointly sufficient requirements for a person to become a critical thinker.

 In defense of the critical spirit component, Siegel (1997) enumerates some of the traits that may figure into “a complex of dispositions, attitudes, habits of mind, and character traits” (p. 35) found in the critical thinker:

dispositions to seek reasons and evidence in making judgments…; respect for the importance of reasoned judgment and for truth…; a rejection of partiality, arbitrariness, special pleading, wishful thinking, and other obstacles to the proper exercise of reason assessment and reason judgment; …habits of reason seeking and evaluating…, engaging in the fairminded and non-self-interested consideration of such reasons.  (pp. 35-36)

On the other hand, Scheffler (2010) also describes the critical thinker as disposed to the following traits: objectivity, consistency, intense aversion to contradiction, repugnance of error, disgust at evasion, love of reason, love of truth, and admiration of theoretical achievement.

That character is indispensable in the formation of the critical thinker has been criticized (Missimer, 1990). The so-called “character view” espoused by Siegel is said to run in contradiction to the contributions of the world’s greatest thinkers. The intellectual greats such as Marx, Rousseau, Bacon, Freud, Russell, Newton, and Feynmann lacked many of the traits which the “character view” holds to be necessary for critical thinking. Marx was considered anti-Semitic; Newton was averse to criticism of his work; Rousseau and Fenymann were “venal” and rude to people who espoused incorrect ideas; Freud was a “hothead”; and Russell lied about his support for the U.S. nuclear program (Missimer, 1990, pp. 146-147). Accordingly, Siegel’s definition would not make the greatest intellectuals history has ever known “critical thinkers.”

Critical thinking as identity constitution and autonomy

Because critical thinking is fundamental educational ideal, Siegel (1997) considers it crucial in identity constitution. Critical thinking develops not only out of honing reasoning ability but also cultivating a motivational complex to create character disposed to the “critical spirit.” Character traits are fostered which constitute the “critical spirit” component, making up the traits of a particular type of person or identity. Thus, developing critical thinking entails no less than the formation of a certain identity. In the context of education, young people must be taught not only how “to” think critically, but more importantly, how “to be” critical thinkers. Therefore, making critical thinking a constitutive ideal is to propose for educational programs which focus on character-formation in support of critical thinking.

Equally important to the concept of critical thinking is autonomy. Aside from critical thinking being coexisting with rationality, autonomy also figures into the same educational ideal. Siegel (1988) considered the importance of autonomy:

If we accept critical thinking as a fundamental educational ideal, we explicitly acknowledge the desirability of the attainment by students of self-sufficiency and autonomy . . . The critical thinker must be autonomous-that is, free to act and judge independently of external constraint, on the basis of her own reasoned appraisal of the matter at hand. (p. 54)

Autonomy is a state characterized by self-government. Similar to critical thinking, autonomy is also identity-constitutive in the sense that it makes up a certain type of person. Educators should strive in order to develop students who are autonomous agents. Autonomy is necessarily aligned with rationality:

This aspect of the educational ideal of rationality aligns it with the complementary ideal of autonomy , since a rational person will also be an autonomous one, capable of judging for herself the justifiedness of candidate beliefs and the legitimacy of candidate values. (p. 56)

An autonomous person is one who makes his or her own choices by evaluating them rationally and critically. Siegel (1988) expresses that choosing is not enough for autonomy to surface. A student must be a competent chooser and not subservient to conditions or standards he or she accepts uncritically. Also, a person can be a proto critical thinker because he or becomes slave to reason without having the necessary motivation to propel critical thought.

Autonomy, then, requires not only independence in the execution of the action but also with respect to the motivation behind the action. For autonomy to be present, there must also be autonomy in the feelings, emotions, evaluation, or restructuring of principles. Autonomy must exist not only in relation to the reason assessment component of critical thinking but also on the critical spirit component.


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