For as long as I’ve been in education, I’ve tried to figure out if there is a more vague phrase than “critical thinking.” I am, I suppose, critical of critical thinking.
By many accounts, that of the College Board and other organizations involved with the new Common Core, the entire American educational system aims toward the grand goal of teaching kids how to think critically. As far back as my own elementary school days, I remember my fourth and fifth grade teachers insisting that we had to “think critically” about this or that. Of course, none of us had any idea what they were talking about.
If my elementary school teachers had merely wanted us to learn facts about, say, nuclear engineering, she could have told us, “Okay, children, for the next 15 years we’re going to learn about nuclear engineering.” We’d know that there’s some body of knowledge out there and that, little by little, we’d gain information while knowing that there would always be a whole pile of it yet to be discovered.
But simply telling a kid to think critically is like telling them to be cool. Go ahead and hire Fonzie if you want, but there are still no lessons in being cool. Teachers must teach critical thinking on the sly by asking provocative questions, not settling for cursory answers and embracing individual points of view. This is what people outside the field of education call “having a discussion.”
There are, however, an infinite number of great examples of critical thinking out there. They’re everywhere. You just have to look for them. For example, a lot of us have been advised, at some point in our lives, “to thine own self be true,” courtesy of Shakespeare. It’s common to the point of being a cliché, because it seems undeniable: Of course you must be “thine own self.” Who could imagine a more inspiring affirmation? The trouble is, most people who quote this line imagine it as nothing more than that.
Critical thinking—again, I hate the term, but I’m going to go with it—requires us to tear this kind of nicety apart. It requires us not to accept the plain meaning of the words, but instead to reach beyond what seems reasonable. The words belong to the character of Polonius, father of Ophelia and Laertes in Hamlet. Polonius issues this advice, along with other bits of wisdom, when Laertes departs for a trip to France.
Imagine that these words are stripped of their history and that they have no more or less power than anything else you’d hear on a regular basis. What’s the first thing you’d want to know to decide if a statement is reasonable or not? You’d want to know who’s speaking, right? For better or worse, we all know people who are serious and reliable, and we know people who, bless their hearts, are flighty and delusional. A disembodied reading of Polonius’s advice might lull you into thinking that he is the latter. He is nothing of the sort.
A full reading or viewing of Hamlet reveals that Polonius is, for all his good intentions, actually a buffoon. He is sincere, but he is not wise. Hamlet himself refers to Polonius as a “tedious old fool.” Polonius’s platitudes sound nice, but when attached properly to their speaker, they signify little. It’s not unreasonable for a director to instruct Laertes to roll his eyes. Shakespeare uses Polonius to make a mockery of sage advice and, more powerfully, to undermine the whole notion of identity.
For college applicants, especially, questioning this “sage” advice is important for two reasons. First, the best students—the ones who get straight As, take scads of AP classes and get astronomical SAT scores—often struggle with critical thinking. They see the greeting card version of Polonius. They can tell you the scene and the context and analyze the language, but they don’t roll their eyes as they probably should. Time and again, though, it’s the students who see through the platitudes who are the most attractive college applicants.
Second, I highlighted Polonius’s advice because he is, arguably, the patron saint of college applications. Applicants would be hard-pressed to attend an information session, a college night or an application workshop where they aren’t encouraged to “be themselves.” Colleges invoke Polonius because, of course, they don’t want applicants to fabricate personal histories or contort themselves into something that colleges want to see. That’s a recipe for disaster. But at the same time, telling applicants to be themselves does not necessarily mean that students should reveal all.
Students shouldn’t treat their college applications as confessions. Rather, applications give students the chance to present the best sides of themselves. They get to recount their lives thus far, tell stories they find meaningful and analyze them in ways that are, ideally, smart, ethical and flattering. Students who think deeply about themselves—their experiences, talents, goals, ideas—may find that they genuinely emerge from the process better than they were when they started it.
Polonius is worth mentioning once more because parents have a crucial role to play in the development of their kids’ intellects. The process by which kids develop critical thinking skills can be mistaken for argumentativeness or needling. They focus on the “critical” rather than the “thinking.” Rather than reject or ignore kids’ questions and arguments, parents should encourage them. Kids might start an argument out of emotion, but if an argument can turn into a discussion in which kids have the chance to construct arguments and try to bring their intellects and emotions in line, then kids and parents alike can arrive at resolutions that are both copacetic and instructive.
Students who do the same, not by being “true” to themselves, but by summoning their intellects to create better versions of themselves, are the ones who will ultimately have much to truly be proud of.