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Critical Thinking Is Essential in Every College Class

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All of the classes I teach at the two community colleges where I am employed are writing classes. I am often saddled with the dreaded Freshman Composition course, the infamous English 101 that all of you college grads had to take whether you liked it or not. You probably didn't; neither did I when I was an 18-year-old frosh. So I can sympathize with the elephantine ambivalence that my students carry, at least initially, into my classroom.

So I try to make my courses more than just a series of how-to sessions about comma placement, subordinate clauses, and present participial phrases. I inject the concept of critical thinking: the idea that any claim we are presented with, whether it be the whitening capability of a certain toothpaste or the existence of God, should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. How strong is the evidence supporting the claim? Perhaps the claim has no evidence at all to support it. If that's the case, why is it believed?

An equally important and related critical ability is being able to put information into a coherent context. I am constantly shocked by how many college students cannot do this on even a basic level. As one teacher (no, not I) once wrote on a student's paper, "You have a six-pack of soda cans in your head, but you are missing the plastic thingy that holds them together." The metaphor is appropriate. My son once overheard a young lady answering a friend's question about what had started World War II. She said, "The Jews bombed Pearl Harbor."

The giver of this erroneous information obviously lacked the ability to put what she had heard in her History class into any kind of reasonable context. In the lessons on WWII, she had heard something about Jews and about Pearl Harbor. Also, bombing and other forms of military tactics had been mentioned. But look at how carelessly and foolishly she put it all together: "The Jews bombed Pearl Harbor." Stories like this make me want to cry. And lest you think this is an isolated incident, just the other day, I saw something similar in a short essay turned in by one of my current students.

I had shown in class a movie called Prisoner of Her Past, a documentary about a Chicago Tribune writer, Howard Reich, who wanted to learn more about his elderly Jewish mother who is suffering from late onset post-traumatic stress disorder due to her experiences as a young girl in Eastern Europe. She had spent several of her formative years in the 1940s running and hiding from the Nazis. Most of the time she was hungry and covered with lice, isolated from her family, alone in an "outer world" where people died violently or disappeared without a trace.

Some parts of the movie indeed complicated our perceived understanding of the Holocaust. For instance, an old Ukranian woman (not Jewish) told the filmmakers that, as a little girl, she had witnessed many Jews rounded up and shot and thrown into mass graves. When asked to describe the Germans who had done this, she said, "They weren't Germans. They were Ukranian police. They were my own people." Jolting as that was to us viewers, it was clear -- to most of us at least -- that those Ukranian policemen were puppets of the Nazis.

Such unavoidable ambiguities, though, should in no way lead to what the aforementioned current student of mine wrote in her paper. She said that Reich's mother, in her PTSD induced paranoid state, is constantly afraid that the Jews will come and put a bullet in her head, or that the Jews are going to invade her country. Yes, you read that correctly: My student, after watching this film that ran for about an hour, did not pick up on the fact that Mrs. Reich, who lives in a nursing home in Illinois, is a Jew. My student also confused Jews with Nazis!

How is that possible? How is that even conceivable? The answer that I propose is that she has never been taught to think critically: to process, analyze, and contextualize what she is seeing or listening to. Her mind must be a storehouse of random facts and images with nothing binding them together where they need to be bound or separating them where they need to be separated. Add to that a toxic mixture of uninformed opinions and ideological nonsense, and the thoughts in her head must be blowing around willy nilly as the books in a library with all the windows open might be hurled about by a hurricane.

This young lady's essay should serve as a warning to all of us that we must improve education in this country at all levels, from kindergarten all the way up the ladder. Let's hope that it's not too late to combat the ideological indoctrination, ignorance, and stupidity that lead to such gross misunderstanding as that illustrated above.