Education and a Civil Society: Teaching Evidence-Based Decision Making

Chapter 3: Is Critical Thinking a General Talent?

Back to table of contents
Eamonn Callan, Tina Grotzer, Jerome Kagan, Richard E. Nisbett, David N. Perkins, and Lee S. Shulman
Teaching Evidence-Based Decision Making in K-16 Education

Jerome Kagan

Human beings demand that any activity that exacts a cost in money, effort, and energy must have a purpose that is ethically praiseworthy. Formal education is expensive, demands continued perseverance by teachers and pupils, and expends psychic and biological energy. Thus, to inquire into its purposes is appropriate.

The ancient Athenians had no difficulty providing an answer to this query. The assignment given to Athenian educators was to produce the next generation of responsible citizens. This category had moral connotations because its critical features—which applied only to male citizens, not to females or slaves—were respect for the gods, loyalty to the polis, and perfecting one’s talents. The clergy who administered the church schools of Medieval Europe, like those in charge of the Islamic classes in Islamabad today, understood that their goal was to inculcate an unquestioning religious faith and commitment.

Late-nineteenth-century Americans, sensing their country was on the cusp of expanded wealth and power, recognized that their recent European immigrants had to learn to read, write, do sums, and adopt an ethic of self-reliance in order to hasten their identification with their new national category. And, remarkably, this curriculum worked well for about four generations until history’s muse, bored with the lack of excitement, rearranged the actors, scenery, and plot line. Contemporary Americans and Europeans, confronting an extraordinary diversity in mores, religion, and country of origin within their populations appreciate that these social facts demand an unusual level of tolerance for all ethical views and a willingness to suppress the natural temptation to rely on one’s ethnicity, religion, or family pedigree for reassurance of self’s virtue when this stabilizing belief is momentarily threatened. As a result, wealth and the enhanced status associated with a professional vocation have become primary signs of a person’s dignity. But the combination of a technological economy and the failure of public schools serving economically compromised urban neighborhoods to prepare their youth for the intellectual demands of contemporary society have made it more difficult for marginalized youth to become upwardly mobile. Schools have an important responsibility in helping to solve this problem.

One would think that educators would have responded by teaching the linguistic, mathematical, and scientific competences the new economy required. But their inability to motivate many disadvantaged youth to master these domains in order to choose technical vocations was embarrassing.

Although the schools bear some of the blame, the families of these children also share responsibility for the failure. But because blaming victims for their errors has become politically incorrect, the schools took the brunt of the criticism and sought a goal that seemed to be more attainable, socially relevant, and ethically neutral enough to avoid offending the public.

An enthusiasm for promoting “critical thinking” appeals to some as an answer to this social need. Students should be able to evaluate evidence so that, as adults, they can arrive at more correct judgments of the truth or falsity of popular claims. But Poincare understood that facts do not speak. The remote sections of Widener Library contain volumes full of facts, but the passageways are remarkably quiet because a mind confronting a corpus of facts must have some a priori premises and a body of relevant knowledge in order to begin the task of evaluating their truth or falsity. Imagine a person unfamiliar with the physics of light who sees a pencil resting in a tall glass half-full of water. The evidence this scene presents is perceptually compelling. The pencil appears to bend at the point where it penetrates the surface of the water. Lacking the principles of physics, the person might conclude that water can bend pencils.

The assumption that an abstract psychological competence called “critical thinking” can transcend the body of information being analyzed is as flawed as the belief that honesty, empathy, and civility are traits that most individuals display across varied settings. Unfortunately, the idea of “critical thinking,” independent of the context in which this function is applied, resembles Newton’s concept of the ether or Wechsler’s concept of IQ. Neither is a phenomenon in nature; not a flamingo but a unicorn.

Consider some examples of highly intelligent adults who enjoyed excellent educations and community respect because of their ability to evaluate the evidence in their restricted domain of talent. Francis Collins, a biologist respected by colleagues and the head of the Human Genome Project, confessed that his evaluation of the scientific data led him to the conclusion that God intended the forms and mechanisms that represent the facts of modern evolutionary biology; Richard Dawkins, brooding on exactly the same evidence, came to the opposite conclusion. The icon of critical reasoning, Albert Einstein, rejected the new ideas in quantum mechanics because they denied determinism; Niels Bohr found the new theories perfectly reasonable. Kurt Gödel, author of the incompleteness theorem and a scholar Einstein regarded as a better logician and mathematician than he, had his wife taste his meals first because he believed that his food might be poisoned. A distinguished panel of American intellectuals appointed by the National Academy of Sciences published a report, which made newspaper headlines in 2006, declaring that their critical evaluation of all the evidence led them to conclude that there were no biological differences between the sexes with implications for human behavior or cognitive abilities. The majority of biologists, neuroscientists, and psychologists who were familiar with the same corpus of evidence were surprised by this judgment. In their opinion, the panel’s conclusion was dramatically inconsistent with the facts. These few examples should be sufficient support for the claim that one can teach critical thinking within a specific domain of knowledge but cannot teach critical thinking as an abstract talent that transcends domains. Could one teach “athletic skill” outside of a particular sport or “aesthetic appreciation” independent of the form the artistic product assumed?

Teachers can train children, in the first eight or twelve grades, to evaluate the correctness of answers to a set of long-division problems, to decide on the amount of food and water a cage of gerbils requires in order to survive, or to estimate the amount of raw sewage that if emitted from a factory into a river that would kill lifeforms. Americans should be able to evaluate newspaper reports claiming that vitamin E prolongs life or that the nursing of infants has a benevolent effect on their future health. But the correctness of these evaluations depends on possession of specific knowledge. If citizens do not know the premises held by the scientists making these claims, their sources of evidence, and a relevant corpus of valid facts, they cannot evaluate the correctness of the declarations. Twelve-year-olds who can detect errors in solutions to long-division problems because they have been taught the rules of arithmetic are not able to transfer that skill to decide how much food and water the gerbils need. Put plainly, reasoning, like emotion and morality, is contextualized.

Hence, schools must first teach children the facts and principles of specific domains—biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, sociology, mathematics, history, linguistics—so that they might become better analysts of the evidence in each of these disciplines. The specificity of the principles within each domain makes it difficult to generalize from one to the other. A knowledge of physics, for example, would lead most adults to assume that altering the sequence of the elementary components of a derived product should change the product. Geneticists, however, have learned that a few amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins, can be the product of different sequences of the three nucleotides that comprise their foundation, as if the sequence “ran” retained its meaning when it was “anr,” “rna,” or “nar.”

A knowledge of history and sociology would lead most youth to conclude that because human welfare depends on the integrity and health of the society in which persons live, most private or public decisions should be guided by that principle. However, a large number of evolutionary biologists are convinced that the primary urge behind most behaviors and decisions, whether animals or human beings, is to maximize the inclusive fitness of self and self’s genetic relatives and to award less priority to the health and integrity of strangers or the larger community. Evaluating the truth of any empirical claim requires knowledge of the facts in that domain.

The decision to celebrate critical thinking separate from a particular corpus of evidence required the coming together of a number of historical changes in our society. The most significant was the demand to honor an egalitarian ethic. No person is entitled to a smug feeling of superiority or to special privilege because of his or her occupation, education, or family pedigree. This rebellion against any elite status began several centuries earlier but was accelerated after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I applaud the rationale and consequences of this ethic, which has enhanced the dignity and privileges of minorities and women. But there are no free lunches; a price must be paid for striving to meet this ideal.

One of the costs is a reluctance to acknowledge the presence of a value judgment in all educational reforms. The emphasis on critical thinking rests on the assumption that facts and skills have an automatic priority over feelings and sentiments. This bias characterizes the economists and political scientists who advocate Rational Choice Theory. John Rawls was celebrated by philosophers and political scientists because he returned the ethical notions of fairness and justice to theories in these disciplines. The problem with this premise should be obvious. Loyalty to a rationality based on facts and deductions from those facts chases to the periphery serious consideration of the morality of a decision or action. Societies that either ignore the moral implications of their actions or cannot find a consensual ethic that the majority applauds generate a feeling of confusion, uncertainty, or spiritual emptiness in their members. Thomas Jefferson noted that if a moral dilemma were stated to a farmer and a professor, the former would more often arrive at the right answer. I suspect that the average plumber or truck driver would be as capable of judging the morality of a Congressional or Supreme Court decision as the average lawyer, physician, professor, scientist, or chief executive officer.

Most decisions by a legislature, board of directors, or school committee are based on the selection of a primary beneficiary from four possible candidates: the individual, their family, the society in which they live, or the world community. Rarely does any decision benefit all four. Furthermore, on some occasions, the criterion for the decision is an intuitive judgment of its moral worth, for example preserving the Arctic Refuge in Alaska. “The appeal to cool, rational analysis” Thomas Nagel wrote “is too often an excuse for refusing to listen to the clear warnings of conscience or common sense” (Nagel 1972, 770). When Congress allocates funds to NASA to explore Mars, we understand that although few Americans will benefit from that expenditure the advanced understanding of our universe is a moral good. Most Supreme Court decisions cannot be defended by listing their concordance with objective evidence on human biology or psychology but only by understanding the ethical beliefs of a majority in the society.

Many contemporary educators resist the suggestion that an important reason for twelve to twenty years of formal schooling is that this procedure is a just, fair way to select the 15–20 percent of the youth who will be given the responsibility of flying 200 travelers to a destination, operating on bodies and brains, defending the rights of victims in court, designing new buildings, investing pension funds, inventing new medicines, or filling cavities. The fact that only a small proportion of the members of a society are needed to fill these technical positions implies the politically incorrect idea of an elite. Because this concept is tainted, this truth, which older societies celebrated, has become ragged.

Each individual requires, at a minimum, a body and mind healthy enough to reproduce and care for the next generation, reasonable predictability of the future, protection from danger, social harmony, a belief that some acts and personal properties are always more virtuous than others, and assurance that others in the community share the same ethos. Preparation of the next generation of needed technical personnel and fulfilling the six more-general requirements mandates that we train each generation in the intellectual skills their historical era demands and prepare as many as possible to act with responsibility, honesty, and empathy in case the vicissitudes of life happen to select them from the very large number who could fill one of the needed roles. Most adults born with an intact brain and who enjoyed an adequate education are potentially ready to be chosen. The sad fact that not all can be plucked from the larger group is inconsistent with our egalitarian ethos, as well as the idealistic wish for a classless society. Hence, educators are tempted to posit ethically neutral abstractions, like critical thinking, as primary goals because these beautiful ideas temporarily mute our unhappiness over the inevitability of social differentiation. The concept of critical thinking has the additional advantage of supporting our love affair with rationality as the primary basis for personal and public decisions. We are more likely to solve our current problem, however, if teachers accept the responsibility of guaranteeing that all adolescents, regardless of class or ethnicity, can read and comprehend the science section of newspapers, solve basic mathematical problems, detect the logical coherence in nontechnical verbal arguments or narratives, and insist that all acts of maliciousness, deception, and unregulated self-aggrandizement are morally unacceptable.


Nagel, T. 1972. Reason and national goals. Science 177:766–770.