Is critical thinking overrated?

Maybe we need more training in thinking and reflecting, and less in being critical.

Devin Foley | October 1, 2015

Maybe we need more training in thinking and reflecting, and less in being critical.
Is critical thinking overrated?

How often do you see people clamoring for more ‘critical thinking’? Quite often, I suspect. But do we really want more critical thinking or do we simply mean we want more thinking and reflecting?

The emphasis in modernity on ‘critical’ is quite noticeable in social media. If one point of fault can be found (or assumed to be found) in a discussion or thought or creation, then everything else is dismissed. Indeed, there is even a smugness displayed by the one who finds something to critique, as if finding fault elevates one above the person(s) who actually created something.

The fact that this often takes place shouldn’t surprise us when we examine the meaning of ‘critical’. Consider Dictionary.com’s definition below:

critical

adjective

  1. inclined to find fault or to judge with severity, often too readily.
  2. occupied with or skilled in criticism.
  3. involving skillful judgment as to truth, merit, etc.; judicial: a critical analysis.
  4. of or relating to critics or criticism: critical essays.
  5. providing textual variants, proposed emendations, etc.: a critical edition of Chaucer.
  6. pertaining to or of the nature of a crisis: a critical shortage of food.
  7. of decisive importance with respect to the outcome; crucial: a critical moment.

The common element for most of those definitions is judgment. Have we raised a generation to believe that the most important thinking is to sit back and judge what others do or create in order to find fault? Quite possibly. 

It is as if we are educating individuals to look upon a beautiful, centuries-old, stained-glass window in order to find and judge the faults in it. And upon finding the faults, the judges throw rocks through it, leaving it in ruins. Is the window perfect? Of course not. But rather than dismissing it upon finding the faults, could we educate individuals to look upon the centuries-old window and acknowledge those faults while also admiring what the creator was attempting within the limits of his era? Would it be better to train our youth to look upon something and to ask themselves, “How can this be improved?” rather than to judge it as imperfect and to discard it?

Just look at the stained glass window to the right, which is at the Chartres Cathedral in France. It is hardly perfect, but it was also made 800 years ago. How many today could match that artistry using 800-years-old technology?

Now, there are certainly times for judgment and criticism. But one is not great simply because he can find the imperfections in everything. In an imperfect world, that is actually quite easy. Furthermore, it is the road to creating nothing and descending into a state of perpetual cynicism. Man is not perfect and, as such, what he creates and does will never be perfect. Nonetheless, there are many an imperfect creation that is worthy of admiration.

It requires a different kind of thinking to accept the imperfections while still finding the good in things and striving to build upon the good. And that’s what we need, more training in thinking and reflecting, and less in learning to judge and to be critical.

 


A note on the stained-glass window analogy: In 1903, Mark Twain wrote the following to Helen Keller, “For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them…” And so it is with that analogy above. I must admit that I read a far more eloquent description of the difference in thinking some time ago and cannot find the reference despite my best efforts. To the original author, my apologies.