Literary Criticism & Political Commentary
Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Reading and Thinking Critically in the Age of Disputation, Part III

Part III of “Reading and Thinking Critically in the Age of Disputation”.  This essay on critical thinking will be serialized in three parts.  It is available in an edited collection Critical Thinking and Higher Order Thinking: A Current Perspective edited by Michael F. Shaughnessy and published in 2012 by Nova Science Publishers.  A “read only” version of this essay, provided it is intended for noncommercial purposes, may be accessed from my Literary Gulag website,  All copyright permissions must be obtained from the publisher.

Diana Sheets

English and History Departments,

University of Illinois

Dedicated to Max Weismann, Chairman of the Great Books Academy and Will Fitzhugh, Editor and Publisher of The Concord Review.



Let us accept the premise that critical thinking is a methodological approach to which all scholars and thinkers aspire. Nonetheless, by the late 1980s critical thinking on campuses was on the wane as “progressive” groupthink rejected the Western Canon and academic scholarship based on truth and excellence in favor of identity politics and social justice. It is important to acknowledge that worldview will determine the values that will frame perceptions as to what constitutes a good or bad argument. For this reason critical thinking is much more difficult to engage in than we might think. Let us also concede that someone trained in critical thinking appears more capable of undertaking a research project and presenting the basis of a good argument than an individual who has not been taught these stratagems. However, the mastering of a technique absent substantive knowledge of a discipline unmasks the facile nature of the enterprise. The result is someone who potentially looks smarter and presents a better argument by means of methodological rigor without ever immersing him or herself in the intellectual concepts under consideration (Caleb Nelson, “Harvard’s Hollow ‘Core’” A Widely copied Core Curriculum Illustrates the Futility of Trying to Teach Students to Think Like Scientists”, The Atlantic, September,1990, Vol. 266, Issue No. 3, pp. 70-80).

Where once scholars might have grappled with ideas for years simultaneously weighing contradictory beliefs and arguments while suspending personal judgment, today’s academics are much more apt to rely on critical thinking techniques to deflate oppositional perspectives, thereby short circuiting this meaningful endeavor. Thus, the challenging and at times painful journey of discovery to confront and, if need be, reject one’s deepest, most cherished beliefs is sabotaged at the outset.

Let us also acknowledge that critical thinking provides us with resources with which to tackle a problem although, strictly speaking, it is not a discipline. To use critical thinking effectively one must have expertise in at least one subject area and then apply the methodological techniques of critical thinking to that discipline. Otherwise, one quickly becomes a gadfly deconstructing arguments absent an interpretative perspective with which to engage intellectual concepts.

Finally, let us dare to question whether having jettisoned our cultural and historical foundations in favor of short-sighted political agendas whether our students today possess even the ability to read anything but the simplest thoughts on a page, let alone the potential to engage in critical thinking. Without being steeped in a world of words, without understanding the ideas and writings of our greatest intellectuals, critical thinking is divested of all meaning: Its techniques achieve a pyrrhic victory in the classroom or the university at the expense of centuries of accumulated wisdom.


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- Diana Sheets