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Critical Thinking

by David Barnhill last modified Aug 14, 2010 01:16 PM

Critical thinking is essential to the liberal arts. It doesn't matter what your major is, critical thinking enables you to understand a subject matter deeply and evaluate it intelligently. It is an empowerment for you, and fundamental to a healthy.

Critical thinking is different from the passive learning of information. When you engage a text (a text you are reading or writing) with critical thinking, certain things are emphasized:
1. Issues

1. Issues !!
Reading : Know the issues an author is responding to.
Writing : Animate and organize your paper around issues.

2. Complexity !!
Reading : assume
* that there is more to an idea than is immediately obvious;
* that a key term can be used in various ways;
* that there are different possible interpretations of a text; * that there are various implications of ideals;
* that there are divergent tendencies within a single tradition, etc.
Writing : Examine ideas, values, and traditions in their complexity:
* multiple aspects of the ideas,
* different possible interpretations of a text,
* various implications of ideals,
* different meanings of terms,
* divergent tendencies within a single tradition, etc.

3. Support !!
Reading : Highlight the kind and degree of support:
* evidence
* argument
* authority
Writing : Support your views with evidence, argument, and/or authority.

4. Basis !!
Reading : Any thinker bases her ideas on
* other key ideas
* definitions
* categories
* assumptions
Writing : Be aware of the ideas that give rise to your interpretation; be conscious of the definitions you are using for key terms; recognize the categories you are applying; critically examine your own assumptions.

5. Criteria !!
Reading : If the author is making judgments, analyze what criteria those judgments are made of.
Writing : If you are evaluating an idea or tradition, be clear about the criteria you are applying and think critically about their validity and appropriateness.


Critical thinking isn’t limited to things you do but depends on particular qualities of mind that dispose you toward critical thinking and enable you to do it.

1. Seriousness and inquisitiveness.

Critical thinking depends on being serious about ideas, values, and the conditions of the world around you (taking yourself seriously gets in the way). And true seriousness leads to a deep inquisitiveness.

2. Respect and criticalness.

To inquire deeply one needs to have an openness and respect for divergent and unusual ideas and worldviews, recognizing their significance, and at the same time a tendency to wrestle with problematics. You need both to get beyond the surface.

3. Imagination and precision.

In order to engage the ideas and problems, one needs both creative imagination and precise logic. The former is a mental suppleness that allows you to enter another’s worldview while the latter enables penetrating rational analysis – both are necessary.

4. Openness and thoroughness.

Critical thinking requires an openness to ambiguity – an ability to consider conflicting but compelling options as well as inconclusive arguments. It also requires at the same time a determined drive toward some type of resolution, even if it is complex and open-ended.

> Highlight the ISSUES the writer is responding to and the issues that are raised by her ideas.
> Look for COMPLEXITY and tensions in ideas and values.
> Go beyond a summary of the ideas or values presented in the reading to their BASIS.
> Be attentive to the SUPPORT a writer gives: evidence, argument, and authority.
> Consider the IMPLICATIONS.

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by David Barnhill last modified Aug 14, 2010 01:16 PM