Critical Thinking and Character

Critical Thinking and Character

Dana Delibovi
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8411-9.ch002
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This chapter advances the view that critical thinking and character must be redefined as mutually reinforcing capabilities, and taught in the light of this redefinition. After an analysis of how critical thought and character came to be separated into independent skill sets, the chapter surveys the limited efficacy of skills-based, character-neutral education in critical thinking. Next, the chapter presents rationales and methods for uniting critical thinking and character in higher education, drawing upon philosophical, sociological, and pedagogical evidence in support of this unification. Educational recommendations and directions for future research round out the chapter. Included among these recommendations is an emphasis on relationship-building as an instructional model to integrate education in character and critical thinking. Ultimately, the chapter makes the case that critical thinking cannot be taught effectively to students who have not developed the character necessary to face the consequences of critical thought.
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Discussions of critical thinking often begin by invoking the philosopher Socrates (Bloom, 1987; Emerson, 2013; Lai, 2011; LaPoint-O’Brien, 2013; Vaughn, 2013). This chapter will be no exception, since Socrates embodies the relentless questioning, consideration of evidence, and logical search for truth that defines critical thought (Vaughn, 2013). It is worth pointing out, however, that Athens executed Socrates in 399 BC, in large measure because his critical thought exposed the defects of some powerful people (Plato, 1989a). Death, imprisonment, or ostracism awaited others who thought critically, from Sir Thomas More to Aleksander Solzhenitsyn. The willingness to think critically is always a risky business, even when lethal only to our own cherished prejudices and myths. Critical thinking thus demands courage, honesty, resolve, and restraint —a catalog of virtues summed up since ancient times as character (Aristotle, 1941). To learn to think critically, young adults must have, or must develop, the character required to take the risks imposed by critical thought. Critical thinking, in turn, allows students to reason morally, furthering character development. Thus, critical thought and character work together in an ascending spiral that reinforces both.

Educators, government leaders, and business executives currently support initiatives to boost critical thinking at every educational level (Arum & Roksa, 2011; Kanter, 2010; Lai, 2011; Moore, 2010; Taylor, 2010; Vaughn, 2013). Experts have called for improved critical thinking among college students since the 1980s (Bloom, 1987; Kurfiss, 1988), a time when, interestingly enough, other commentators began to champion character education (Lickona, 1991; Morrill, 1980). Despite these efforts, those of us concerned with young learners have observed a dual, generational decline in both critical thinking and character. What we have missed is that we cannot teach one without the other. In approaching the problem, educators—the author of this chapter included—have treated critical thinking as a unified, tactical skill set that can be taught in eponymous courses or integrated into the curricula of various disciplines. However, ample evidence suggests that critical thinking cannot be taught effectively to students who have not developed the character necessary to face the consequences of critical thought.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Character: The human faculty composed of those traits we call virtues, such as courage, honesty, patients, and kindness.

Skills: Technical or mechanical abilities in which students can be trained; in contrast to skills, faculties are broad human capabilities mediated through social relationships.

Critical Thinking: Systematic, rational evaluation of beliefs, theories, events and behaviors ( Vaughn, 2013 ); redefined in this chapter as the faculty of systematic, rational evaluation that we practice in social relationships, and which is allied with the faculty of character (i.e., virtues) that we practice in social relationships.

Community: Network of relationships within various social groups, including the college or university, through which consensus and tradition develop ( MacIntyre, 1981 ). Questions and conflicts between community tradition and an emerging new consensus may arise; these questions and conflicts are fertile ground for the practices of good character and critical thinking.

Virtues: The catalog of specific traits that make up character; Aristotle (1941) identified virtues through his Doctrine of the Mean, in which the virtue is the mean or middle between two related extremes. Examples: courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness; honesty is the mean between dishonesty and rudeness/bluntness.

Constructivism: An educational philosophy that views learning as constructed by students through experience, practice, and interaction ( Duckworth, 1987 ).

Problem-Solving: Ability to clarify, organize, resolve, or redirect the approach to a life situation or challenge in reasoning; an essential part of critical thinking.

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