For many of my colleagues, teaching is a rather straightforward affair. In my case, it has never been so. After years of teaching, I am still asking, "What should I teach?" "How is this work of teaching to be done?"
I suspect that those of us who question teaching, as I do, are potential allies of those who would make critical thinking the focus of teaching.
The scholarly discourse on "critical thinking" is flourishing: in workshops, conferences, institutes, councils, foundations, an international center, and hundreds of web-sites. There are courses on critical thinking across the curriculum and a widely-read body of literature on "critical pedagogy" associated with the now deceased South American educator, Paulo Freire, and his followers. Finally, there is an extensive collection of scholarly works on critical theory, albeit, directed most often at matters other than teaching and education.
As a teacher who has always advocated an understanding of the philosophy embedded in the way we teach, I assume there is something to be learned in ferment over critical thinking.
Some of us do, of course, get caught up in the scholarly fashions of our times, but I think these fashions (if you must give them such a crude label) serve a purpose. Without new scholarly currents to stir the settled waters of conventional thinking (and conventional teaching), we would simply become prisoners of today's conventions. We would, I'm afraid, ignore the failures we discover in our teaching and our curriculums. You scoff at scholarly fashions, but new scholarly concerns such as those expressed in the critical thinking movement push us, generally, in the right direction. Critical thinking invites us to rethink the intrinsic goods we associate with learning.
I'm not sure there's any real disagreement about the basic goal: to teach our students to think well. The proponents of critical thinking seek to advance this goal as do "focus-on-the-basics" teachers. The real difference is that the critical thinking oriented teacher tries to focus on what it means to think well, to think in the most productive, careful, disciplined, and reflective way possible. They argue that careful articulation of the attributes of critical thinking is important because these attributes of critical thinking provide a kind of cognitive map that allows us to better frame and refine our pedagogical goals.
In my survey of the critical thinking literature, I found frequent references to the following attributes of critical thinking:
The critical thinking focused teacher says: We are more likely to accomplish even the most basic of tasks by careful attention to these attributes of critical thinking; we are more likely to engage our students in meaningful work, in learning that has long-term impact rather than energy absorbing pseudo-learning.
I wouldn't say critical thinking is a theory about thinking. More accurately, the critical thinking movement pushes us to be clear about the ways in which thinking results in more productive use of the time we ask students to devote to the practice of higher levels of thinking.
You mention Grudin, but he also talks about being attentive to the "inner necessities" of activities like learning, reading, and writing. Careful, analytical work on the attributes of good thinking is certainly the first step in understanding what how these "inner necessities" work.
The basic problem with so many "focus-on-the basics" teachers is that they assume that they can simply ignore the perplexities we confront as teachers and learners. You consider teaching a straightforward, uncomplicated matter, but in doing so you try to ignore failures and accept as settled what we all know needs to be changed.
Critical thinking proponents say, look, by not addressing the perplexity, we simply fail to get the job done. Our students jump through our learning hoops but we know well enough that this can be done without much in the way of learning. The failure to recognize the ways we now fail in our teaching, leaves us at an impasse in trying to change things.
Your appeal to the everyday sensibilities (and knowings) we associate with learning, writing, and reading has a surface attraction, but is still troubling. If we indeed know activities like thinking, reading, and writing well, we know them too well. Learning, reading, and writing are so fully shaped and burdened by old meanings, old habits (many of them quite bad), and with an accretion of false assurance, that we really do need the new language of critical thinking (and other new rhetorics and languages) to help us see the poverty among the richness of "local knowledge."
What I hear in your skepticism about critical thinking is an old and familiar opposition to change. It's a resistance to the new, to theory, indeed, a resistance to the idea that theory matters, that theory might be the engine of change in education.
Your resistance to change is encoded in the proposition that proponents of change must prove their ideas work. This is an old conservative tactic.
When we foreclose new perspectives and ignore new movements like critical thinking, we privilege old ways of doing things and cut ourselves off from change. The critical thinking movement in education is simply another way to reconfigure the disciplinary landscape to keep complacent conservatives on alert.
I don't see how we can keep politics out of a discussion about critical thinking. Education, by its nature, is political. And certainly, critical thinking is political. When we take up critical thinking, learn the strategies of critical reading, and engage in critical writing, we become political actors. Critical thinking is a form of politics.
Or, put somewhat differently, critical thinking is a way of doing politics. It's an attempt to awaken the dormant political concerns of our students. We see the politics of critical thinking clearly in Paulo Freire's work on "critical pedagogy" and indeed, in critical theory itself. Critical thinking draws attention not so much to the politics of left and right, but to politics as hope versus politics as complacency.
Ben Agger, in an essay published in the mid-1970s, in a book on critical theory, emphasizes the hopeful, expectant quality of critical theory. This is the way he puts it:
(i) "The rhetoric of critical theory emerges from the theorist's sense of the possibility of social change. . . ."
(ii) "[C]ritical theory . . . talks about the world as it assesses the social potential for freedom."
(iii) "One-dimensional society swallows up deviance but leaves the traces of idealism in theory, art, and music through which opposition can find its voice."
(iv) "[E]ach society needs critics and artists to idealize a higher order of freedom than that which has been actually attained."
(v) "Critical theory employs a vocabulary of hope and defeat." It is the spirit of Ben Agger's 1970s essay that we saw manifested in the Critical Legal Studies movement in the late 1970s and the 1980s. [Ben Agger, "On Happiness and the Damaged Life," in John O'Neill (ed.), On Critical Theory 12-33 (New York: Seabury Press, 1976)]
You have a point about critical theory. It's not easy going and not at all inviting to the theory shy. Maybe that's why the proponents of critical thinking in education pay the critical theorists so little attention. Even those generally sympathetic to critical theory acknowledge the problem you present. For example, Thomas McLaughlin, in his book, Street Smarts and Critical Theory 5 (1996), makes reference to the "arcane references," "insider language," and "strategies of professional abuse and self-preservation" found in the writings of critical theorists.
There is plenty that goes badly in legal education, and I'm confident that we do as much harm in teaching our students to "think like lawyers" as in anything else we do. The real problem is that when we teach them to "think like lawyers" we are asking them not to think as whole persons, or as members of communities, or as neighbors. The more critical thinking and reflection we engage in the more problematic is this idea of "thinking like a lawyer."
Of course, we must teach the discipline and certainly cannot ignore "local knowledge." But all this talk about "local knowledge" begins to sound all too celebratory to me.
I'm stealing the word celebratory from Howard Lesnick, one of our law colleagues, who talks about the contrast between celebratory and troubled stances in regards to professionalism. [Howard Lesnick, Being a Lawyer: Individual Choice and Responsibility in the Practice of Law (1992)] I suspect, using Lesnick's terms, you're a celebrant. Those of us who turn to the critical thinking movement are more likely to have a troubled view of the discipline and the law school curriculum that shapes it. We are troubled by the crude versions of legal education in which "thinking like a lawyer" takes on an unruly life of its own.
What we most need is a critical, historical, sociological perspective on the disciplines you would have us celebrate.
As a first step in the direction of charting such a perspective, I would begin by outlining two scenarios, one in which discipline insiders celebrate their good fortunes, the second in which the troubled are recognized and honored as doing discipline worthy work.
Scenario #1: A discipline arrives on the scene with great promise. It sets itself up as a powerful lens through which some crucial part of human experience can be understood and systematically studied. Each of the social sciences -- sociology, anthropology, psychology -- begin in just such a fashion. It is the power, language, and methodology of a discipline that captures our imagination and calls for the devotion of a life's work. When we celebrate a discipline we honor the work we have chosen and the "local knowledge" it allows us to understand. Indeed, our social science disciplines, and professions like law, have become so embedded in society that they too create pools of "local knowledge." With the success of a discipline, and the life it makes possible, we become ever more oblivious to the disciplines' limits, failures, and pathologies.
Scenario #2: In this view of discipline life, a discipline is not just a powerful lens we use to study some limited aspect of human behavior more clearly, but a haven for those who seek social legitimation for their cultural diagnostic work.
Disciplines, if we follow the sociologist C. Wright Mills, honor the impulse not only to know but to complain. They allow us but to register our complains in the language of a trained community of observers. It was something of this sort that Mills had in mind for what he called "sociological imagination"--an imagination that makes it possible to translate personal "troubles" into public "issues." [C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination 1-24 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959)]
In this 2nd scenario, a discipline not only organizes and provides access to knowledge by systematically indexing facts, data, and information, it provides a safe haven for those bearing the world bad news.
In this second view of discipline life, the most honored and highly desirable of discipline skills, is found in just such acts of cultural diagnosis. Our progress will be faltering, and our hope an illusion, unless we have and support the critics who can diagnose culture (in much the same fashion as we now routinely diagnosis and address our bodily ailments).
Basically, we devotees of disciplines must reflect, in some fashion or other, one or the other of these two scenarios. We either celebrate our shared consensus and limited view of the world (with the conformity and confinement it invites), or we accept our disciplines as tribal longhouses of the critics who use disciplines as portals or openings by which the future is plotted based on our abilities to translate complaints into public problems.
I can see that you've actually read more critical theory than you've tried to lead me to believe. It's most obvious that you too are under the influence of theorists -- but then how could it be otherwise.
Your phenomenological perspective is interesting and your concern for bottom-up teaching is notable. But let me see if its not possible to turn your phenomenology into a critique.
I assume you would agree that the "vernacular" and the "everyday" which you see as a source of valuable "local knowledge" are the very problem we're trying to address. Ordinary life and everyday reality provide an endless stream of needs, doings, thoughts, feelings, memories, and projects. The problem is that we let all this everyday reality and "local knowledge" overly dominate our lives.
The everyday and ordinary life of getting-by, getting-on-with-it, doing as others do, provides, or so it might appear, a perfectly good meaning scheme but a meaning scheme that keeps us quiet as critics. Wendell Berry, a writer with an affinity for your folk perspective, and who has studiously and steadfastly refrained from indulgence in the jargons of critical theory (even though he is very much the social critic) makes the point this way: "It is possible to speak a language so commonized by generality or jargon or slang that one's own mind and life virtually disappear into it." [Wendell Berry, Standing By Words 207 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983)]
Philosophers, since Socrates, have found occasion to admonish of the dangers of an unexamined life. Even conservative scholars like Michael Novak, in his previous reincarnation as a progressive scholar, noted in his 1970s masterpiece, Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove 47 (rev. ed., 1978) that "[t]here are people whose metaphysics are, in effect, the comfortable feeling they have just after a heavy lunch; they see no need to raise ontological questions. They live and they die; and they think persons who torment themselves about ultimate questions both waste their time and overlook the pleasantness of the present."
If the philosophical project (and its various strategies) to awaken us to what Novak calls "ultimate questions" had been more successful, we would not have need for critical theory. (What else can philosophy be but a history of critical thinking? But philosophy having failed us--or we having failed philosophy--we must continue to reinvent the philosophical project, the critical project, in which the arguments and strategies we present as teachers are made the constant subject of revision and critique.
[James R. Elkins|Professor of Law|West Virginia University|This commentary grew out of a presentation at the session on Reading, Thinking, Writing, at a Workshop on Reading Critically, at the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), New Orleans (January 7, 1999][Comments to Professor Elkins]