The Quest for Critical Thinking – Essays on one of education’s greatest challenges

critical_thinking

It isn’t enough that we train students to put widget A into slot B so they can fulfill the old-fashioned notion of the manufacturing jobs of the past. Employers nowadays are asking for highly skilled graduates to fill their growing number of positions in the post-recession job market. And among the most commonly-stated job skills are really soft skills that revolve around critical thinking.

What IS critical thinking? It is the notion that we can make reasoned decisions, judgements that are based on analysis of a particular situation, that we can synthesize information, context, and experience and reflect upon it in order to guide our actions.

The authors of the essays in a recent publication – The Quest for Critical Thinking – released by Inside Higher Ed, are flexing the very same intellectual muscles in order to examine how to build that capacity into student learning in higher education. For community colleges, we generally have two-year programs that are designed with two outcomes in mind – occupational preparation for entry-level work in a field upon completion of an Associates degree program, or transfer into a four-year program at a university. Many vocational faculty may bristle at the idea that they must include “general education” – liberal arts courses – into their programs while trying to cram in all of the latest greatest training for in-demand skill-sets. Yet liberal arts faculty have difficulty articulating how their courses can help build those critical thinking skills that can expand the longterm employability of graduates.

Author Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University and one of the compilation contributors, wrote in his essay “A World Without Liberal Learning,” about the history of American liberal education beginning with Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia. Describing Jefferson’s intentions for having students study a broad range of subjects, Roth said that this built a culture of “free inquiry” that would “help build a citizenry of independent thinkers who took responsibility for their actions in the context of their communities and the new Republic.” Roth argues that we must move beyond the concept of “utilitarian training” warning that if we did not, we would be creating graduates who would be unprepared for a fast-changing world and whose skill-sets would become obsolete before too long.

Asking what America would look like if we were to give up on liberal education in favor of purely vocational training, Roth claims  we would be disempowering students, removing stimulation of lifelong learning and inquiry.

We would become a cultural and economic backwater, competing with various regions for the privilege of operationalizing somebody else’s new ideas. (Michael Roth)

In another essay, Patricia Okker, professor of English and interim deputy provost at the University of Missouri at Columbia, argues that the faculty have an important role to play in making the liberal arts relevant. Titled “It’s the Faculty’s Job, too”, Okker describes how she created a course on career exploration that challenges students to start tying their studies together. Students from many disciplines are asked to do much self-reflection on the transferability of skills gained in their liberal arts courses. Elements of constructive criticism, for instance, provides a skill that builds the ability to provide valuable feedback to employees.

Students still need to identify skills specific to their individual experiences and affinities, and they need lots of practice articulating these strengths to potential employers. (Patricia Okker)

Okker argues that faculty in particular disciplines must become willing partners in the career counseling for students in order to help them recognize and understand the transferability of their skills to the workplace.

Other essays in the compilation address the issue of critical thinking from a wide range of perspectives. Gloria Cordes Larson, president of Bentley University, for instance, argues that that this is “A False Choice” in her essay. Her institution conducted a survey of stakeholders that found that employers were “sending mixed messages” that a blend of hard and soft skills were still the most highly desirable from business. The confusion lies in that business leaders would often put soft skills at the top of the list while their actions showed that industry-specific skills helped candidates get the job.

Larson encourages the development of courses that “fuse liberal arts and professional skills” combined with experiential learning opportunities that help reinforce the value of these skills. By way of example, she describes a course called “Ethics of Entrepreneurship” which combines critical thinking, writing, and a semester-long project. Another example of fusion is a management course on Interpersonal relations that she says is combined with an English course on women in film that explores how “women are perceived in film and how this can affect management styles.” She indicates that all of this must be combined with an experiential learning opportunity in order to effectively connect the esoteric to hard-skills and that business and industry should be encouraged to play a part in this active-learning.

In yet another essay by Lee Burdette Williams, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, the argument is made that personal maturity plays an important role in education. He breaks this down into four overall equations that exemplify his thinking:

1) A marketable (STEM or other professional focused) major + good interpersonal skills = very likely professional success

2) A liberal arts major +  good interpersonal skills = possible professional success

3) A marketable major without interpersonal skills = possible professional success (some skills, he says, are valuable enough to overlook the lack of interpersonal skills)

4) A liberal arts major without interpersonal skills = not much chance of professional success

His advice to many undecided students:

Major in something you enjoy and do it well. (Lee Burdette Williams)

In everything one does as a student, one should do it well. The campus can be “real world” complete with hassles, disappointments, deadlines, consequences, etc. Williams argues that the discussion needs to shift from an “obsession with the obvious value of a liberal arts education and instead focus on the values of personal maturity, accountability, a sense of proportion and perspective.”

There are many more essays in this publication, all of which are worth the read and tackle the topic of critical thinking from a variety of perspectives. Be sure to download and read the entire compilation here.

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