What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is one of those things that most people are in favor of – especially in colleges and universities. But people in different fields and traditions have varying definitions, and it is not obvious that all are in favor of the same thing. How should we decide on a definition?

The American Association of Colleges and Universities came up with a definition of critical thinking that we will use as a starting place.

“Critical Thinking is a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas and artifacts before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion” (AAC&U, 2017).

Here are a few things to notice about this definition as we begin exploring this topic:

  • Critical thinking is characterized as a habit of mind. One college class is not enough to develop a habit, so one college class is not going to create “critical thinkers.” Instead, this class will introduce you to some component skills of the habit. Your routine and daily decisions will determine whether you develop (or deepen) the habit — or leave what you learn as you go on about your life.
  • We assume that the people reading this book will vary with respect to critical thinking habits. Some people will come in already practiced and quite skilled. For them, our discussion about critical thinking will offer ways to think about and double-check their current habits. Others will enter the read believing they are already critical thinkers — already skilled in the habits of thoughtfulness — but will be exposed to vocabulary and ideas that challenge that pre-existing belief.
  • The basic value judgment involved in critical thinking, as this field has grown out of the European philosophical tradition, is this: when issues are important, reflective opinions are more valuable than opinions of the moment. It follows from this that when an issue is important, it is worthwhile to have the skills available to think deeply and well. Those are the skills we will be focusing on in this book.
  • The definition of critical thinking doesn’t state it, but there is a value judgment implicit in the attention within colleges and universities to critical thinking. The assumption is that it is good to be reasonable and bad to be unreasonable. As a critical thinker, one issue you will be asked to confront over and over in this class: IS CRITICAL THINKING SO IMPORTANT AS TO WARRANT ALL THIS ATTENTION AND ENTHUSIASM? As you get increasingly clear about what critical thinking looks like (in academia), you will be able to think more clearly about the value assumption. Is it worth all the work?


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Critical Thinking in Academic Research Copyright © 2022 by Cindy Gruwell and Robin Ewing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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