Can Critical Thinking Be Too Critical?

By Ellen Wexler — May 30, 2014 2 min read
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According to Wesleyan University President Michael Roth, the first thing inquisitive students do when they read a new text is point out exactly what’s wrong with it.

The reason for this, Roth argues in a New York Times commentary, is that in a classroom setting, intelligence is becoming equated with debunking, unmasking, and exposing. If you’re a good student, you can argue why the authors you read are wrong—but that isn’t necessarily the best way to learn.

Roth says that when students feel the need to find flaws in every text they study, they lose the ability to use those texts to create meaning and find inspiration. Students are rewarded for their cynicism in classrooms, but that cynicism will harm their ability to engage with compelling ideas throughout their lives.

“As debunkers,” Roth writes, “they contribute to a cultural climate that has little tolerance for finding or making meaning—a culture whose intellectuals and cultural commentators get ‘liked’ by showing that somebody else just can’t be believed.”

Throughout the piece, Roth labels this focus on poking holes in arguments as “critical thinking"—a term that is being increasingly emphasized in K-12 education. If teachers place too much emphasis on critical thinking, Roth argues, students will become immune to texts that might otherwise challenge their beliefs about the world:

Hard-nosed critical thinking is a useful tool, but it also may become a defense against the risky insight that absorption can offer. As students and as teachers we sometimes crave that protection; without it we risk changing who we are. We risk seeing a different way of living not as something alien, but as a possibility we might be able to explore, and even embrace.

About a week after Roth’s piece ran in The New York Times, Noah Berlatsky, a correspondent for The Atlantic, published a response critiquing Roth’s position on criticism.

“So here I am doing that thing that Roth doesn’t want me to do,” Berlatsky writes. “I am not taking his writing as an opportunity for inspiration. Instead I am finding in it material to object to. Mea culpa.”

According to Berlatsky, it’s impossible to decide which texts are beyond critique. For instance, it makes little sense to examine political writings without examining their flaws, too: “Should we open ourselves and be absorbed and inspired by Birth of a Nation? By Mein Kampf?” he asks. What about the speeches of George W. Bush or Bill Clinton?

Berlatsky argues that there is no difference between ordinary thinking and what Roth defines as critical thinking. When you form an opinion about a piece of art, how can that opinion be unrelated to your critical evaluation of that art?

“If I love Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,” Berlatsky writes, “how is that love separable from my evaluation of his use of language, his subtlety of characterization, or his criticism of the protagonists’ families?”

According to Roth, overly-critical students will devalue the arguments of the authors that they study. Berlatsky counters students study those authors for a reason—their arguments are the best of the best. They can withstand student criticism.

“The truth is, Emerson doesn’t need help,” Berlatsky writes. “James Baldwin doesn’t need protection from students. Away with this trembling art. Give me art that gets stronger when you fight it, not weaker. Give me the art that’s left after the hammer comes down.”

What’s your view as a K-12 educator? Is criticism an essential component of critical thinking? Can it go too far—or become too much of a impulse—and detract from deeper learning? Both Roth and Berlatsky were primarily talking about college students—and even in the comments sections on both of these pieces, we found very few posts from K-12 teachers. We’d like to hear what you’re seeing in your classrooms.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.