In Defense of Critical Thinking

David Jensen shared his thoughts on the development and uses of critical thinking during the Philosophy Lecture Series.

PROVO, Utah (Apr. 6, 2017)—David Jensen, professor of philosophy at BYU, began his lecture by asking, “Why get a college education? It costs a lot of money, time, effort, stress, and then you still have living expenses and books and food.” During his presentation as part of the Philosophy Lecture Series, Jensen explored the definitions and perceptions of critical thinking, why it’s necessary, obstacles to good critical thinking, and its relationship with religious belief.

For some, he said, the primary reason to receive higher education is to get a job, a career, or make money. And while he thinks those reasons are important, he said, “I don’t think it should be the whole of education. But there’s this [reason] – to improve your mind or your intellect. To become a smarter person ­– a critical thinker. I worry that not enough students have this as one of their goals in coming to school.”

According to Jensen, critical thinking “involves an objective stance, analysis, comparison, understanding, evaluation [and] self-awareness. It’s very thoughtful.” For example, Jensen said he goes to movies to be entertained, but “when I’m not, I like to think about why.”

Jensen commented on the fact that many people are coming up with new terms for critical thinking, because “‘critic’ has a negative connotation, like mean, negative, down-putting.” In truth, he said, critical thinking is, “critical in the sense of being evaluative, thoughtful, objective, self-aware.”

He also pointed out that critical thinking comes in degrees, and two common worries are that people are not doing it to a high enough degree, and that students in particular are being taught critical thinking poorly. Jensen shares this worry, saying that, “some students just don’t know how to learn critical thinking.”

He cited an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which a professor wrote, “The desire to cleanse the campus of dissident voices has become something of a mission. Shaming, scapegoating and periodic ritual exorcisms are a prime feature of campus life.” This fear of political incorrectness, along with some research Jensen did into how the Common Core curriculum is teaching children to distinguish a fact from an opinion, led him to conclude, “There are attempts to teach critical thinking, but it’s not taught well and it may be made worse.”

In an article written by a public school teacher, she wrote, “I teach students that a fact is any statement that can be proven.” Jensen said, “That’s just wrong. Proven by who? Fifty years ago we couldn’t prove that certain blood belonged to someone. But now we can. So it went from not being a fact, to being a fact.” 

He added, “This is the need for philosophy.” Jensen suggested that teachers be trained more thoroughly in critical thinking and philosophy so they can better help their students.

Jensen explained that he was recently contacted by a principal at an Orem elementary school who asked his advice for starting a logic club. “I would teach assertions and arguments,” Jensen said. He explained that the difference between the two is reason for assertion – if there is evidence for the assertion, it is an argument. 

He continued, “[This] would let us focus on the claim, the reason for the claim, the strength of those reasons, and thus the likelihood of the truth of the claim.”

The acquisition of critical thinking is what the philosopher Emmanuel Kant called enlightenment. Kant said, “Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority,” minority being the “inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another. This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in the lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another.”

Jensen agreed, “When I think of obstacles to learning critical thinking, one is apathy. Just a lack of interest.” John Rosenberg, former dean of the College of Humanities, called this apathy “an entitlement to ease.” Jensen added, “Learning critical thinking is hard. Being enlightened is a matter of will. You make the decision, ‘I’m going to think for myself and not rely on someone else to tell me what to think.’”

Jensen said that critical thinking can just as easily apply to forming religious convictions. He said, “Here’s a worry I hear from time to time: ‘Critical thinking weakens religious belief. If you teach kids critical thinking, they’ll turn against the gospel, overthink things, lose their testimonies, go inactive.’ On the surface, the worry is well placed.”

Jensen explained that he too was concerned for his children’s spiritual development, but said that with growth, there is always risk. He told a story of a woman whose son went inactive because of the negative influence of some of his soccer teammates. Jensen said, “No more soccer? That’s hopefully not the lesson.”

“The ‘critical’ of critical thinking is not negative or essentially aimed at destruction,” Jensen continued. “It’s as much about establishing firm beliefs – a firm testimony – as avoiding erroneous beliefs. Like it or not, forming beliefs involves critical thinking. The act of believing something carries with it [the fact that] you have to think about it, you have to engage in reasoning.”

In addition, Jensen said that critical thinking “is critical of itself.” It regulates itself and is able to recognize over-thinking. Jensen explained that after a subject has been thought through and a belief has been formed, it’s necessary to go into “maintenance mode” to avoid crippling over-thinking.
“You [are] rigorous and thoughtful and you develop your relationship with God, and then you go into maintenance mode.” This is what Jensen called a trusting mode, which can give way to rigorous critical thinking if and when it is necessary.

Jensen concluded, “Critical thinking recognizes its limits, it recognizes that not all relationships or activities are meant to be under constant, hyper-scrutiny. Other things probably are. There’s nothing inherently negative about critical thinking, despite what the name suggests.”

Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’18)

Olivia covers events for the Philosophy Department of the College of Humanities She is pursuing a degree in French with a minor in international development.

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